Opera review: "Elektra" offers gooseflesh thrills
Seattle Opera's stunning production of "Elektra" highlights both action and the strength of Strauss's score.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Elektra"Seattle Opera, with Lawrence Renes conducting and staging by Chris Alexander, continues through Nov. 1, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $25-$172 (206-389-7676, 800-426-1619 or www.seattleopera.org).
Opera Review |
If it had been merely bloodcurdling, Seattle Opera's "Elektra," which opened at McCaw Hall on Saturday night, would be a less astounding achievement. What this stunning production manages to do, without shortchanging the violence of the action or the uncompromising vehemence of Richard Strauss' music, is to reveal the humane and lyrical side of both in their full glory.
On a grandly scaled and appropriately grim set designed by the late Wolfram Skalicki (and seen when the opera was last done here in 1996), director Chris Alexander gives us a drama of rich psychological penetration, worthy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto and of its source in the play by Sophocles. Meanwhile, in the pit, Lawrence Renes achieves the feat of drawing gloriously vital and seemingly unrestrained playing from the large orchestra without ever drowning the voices. The only exception was one moment near the end when Aegisth, being murdered offstage, was barely able to make himself heard. (I give the characters' names in their German versions for consistency's sake.)
Such a triumphant result would hardly be possible without a cast of spectacular musical and dramatic gifts, and such a cast was happily on hand. In her West Coast debut, New York-born Janice Baird played an Elektra whose fundamental nobility was evident from the start, and poured a stream of frequently ravishing tone over what may well be the most taxing role in the soprano repertoire. The astringent aspect of Strauss' score, with its frequent grinding dissonances, is too often regarded as the only thing the listener can expect to take from a performance. But Elektra's vocal line is not a million miles distant from that of Ariadne in a later Strauss opera, or for that matter of Wagner's Brünnhilde. Being largely founded on traditional tonal triads, it has a rooted quality very different from the tortured angularity of much modern music for the voice.
It is the orchestra that for much of the time fulminates around her. This conflict justly reflects Elektra's embattled isolation in a hostile world — and when she is reunited with her long-exiled brother Orest, the vocal and orchestral elements aptly coalesce in a newfound, gleamingly sensuous (and Straussian) unanimity. The Orest in Saturday's cast, bass-baritone Alfred Walker from New Orleans, made a sonorously impressive company debut. Two other major local debuts were British mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright's tormented, vicious, yet pitiable and curiously dignified Klytämnestra, sung with an intensity that was indeed bloodcurdling, and German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier's sympathetic Chrysothemis, also well sung though with a touch of strain at the top of the voice. A more familiar figure locally, Victoria-born tenor Richard Margison, was an excellent Aegisth, and could hardly be blamed for not vocally penetrating the orchestral maelstrom with his offstage cries for help.
The five maids and a variety of court hangers-on were all strongly cast. Melanie Taylor Burgess contributed new costumes that admirably blended antiquity with colorful poetic suggestion. Marcus Doshi's lighting design, effective throughout, offered a truly gooseflesh thrill when Orest's longed-for arrival was preceded by a looming shadow, succeeded in turn by a sudden liberating illumination of the whole stage.
Chris Alexander and Lawrence Renes, then, had much going in their favor. But they must still be warmly congratulated for welding their constituent elements into one of the most comprehensively moving and beautiful opera productions that I can remember experiencing.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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