'Elektra' a bloody good show, electrifying opener for Lyric

OPERA REVIEW: 'Elektra' 3-1/2 stars; through Oct. 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.

Opening nights at Lyric Opera are more typically given over to popular operas filled with sing-along arias and comfy plots, not the modernist shocker that launched Lyric's 58th season Saturday night at the Civic Opera House: an opera of regicide, patricide and matricide, among other old-fashioned family values.

If nothing else, Lyric's gripping new production of Richard Strauss' "Elektra" goes to show that general director Anthony Freud doesn't mind shaking up audience expectations a bit, while obliging their craving for great singing.

We've had to wait 20 years for the German composer's masterpiece to return to the company repertory, but this one was worth waiting for. Heading up Scottish director David McVicar's new production is the remarkable American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, who gives a fearless and vocally resplendent performance in the grueling title role. This marks her eagerly awaited company debut, and she powers Elektra's music to the farthest reaches of the cavernous Ardis Krainik Theatre.

But everybody else sharing the stage is just as accomplished, and so, too, is the Lyric Opera Orchestra, pouring out the score's gnashing dissonances and surges of shimmering lyricism under the baton of its resident Strauss authority, music director Andrew Davis.

The first-nighters — including Lyric creative consultant Renee Fleming, who interrupted rehearsals for "Otello" at the Met in New York to fly in for the Saturday opening, accompanied by her husband and daughter — rewarded the artistic team with a storm of applause before the dressy swells headed off to dine at the annual Opera Ball.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto distills Sophocles' classic tragedy to its dark, stark essence, focusing on the princess Elektra's avenging fury in the face of the murder of her father, King Agamemnon, at the hands of her conniving mother, Klytemnestra, and her feckless lover, Aegist. Strauss' score, the most radical he ever wrote, carries the drama to its bloody conclusion like a musical lava flow.

I only wish McVicar's staging had done so with rather more theatrical punch and originality to match the musical and vocal intensity of the performers. To the director's credit, he offers telling glimpses into the twisted psychology of a once-close family riven by unspeakable deeds. And John Macfarlane's set and costume designs, with their mixture of styles drawn from periods ancient to modern, infuse the gory goings-on with mythic resonance. So far, so good.

McVicar himself hints as to what's missing in his director's note, in which he observes that "Elektra" is "kind of like an opera written by Quentin Tarantino in the way it notches up the tension." This production could stand a bit more of that notching-up as the gallons of stage blood stand ready to flow.

Goerke sang her first Elektra last year in Madrid, after years of portraying Chrysothemis, the heroine's fretful younger sister. She's one of the few Elektras around who doesn't sacrifice warm tonal beauty to the knife-edged, gallon-jug singing demanded of every singer who runs this nearly two-hour vocal marathon.

Disheveled and distraught when we first see her wandering over the rubble of Macfarlane's grim unit set, Goerke had no trouble whatsoever cutting through the huge orchestra with her big, gleaming sound on Saturday. Such was her heroic stamina that by the end of the performance she sounded energized and ready to do it all over again.

In time, no doubt, she will probe more deeply into the text, bringing out more of the bitter irony, say, in Elektra's tense confrontation with the hateful Klytemnestra, whose guilt over her monstrous crime gives her terrifying nightmares that only blood sacrifice — her own — can banish, Elektra tells her.

I wasn't convinced by McVicar's having mother and daughter sharing a tender embrace before Elektra sends in her brother, Orest (the Illinois bass-baritone Alan Held, in strong, stalwart voice), to slaughter Klytemnestra and her cross-dressing boyfriend, Aegist (a fine Roger Honeywell). Would Elektra's all-consuming hatred really soften at the very moment she's leading her mother on? But let that be. For now, Goerke's force-of-nature Elektra is a performance to treasure.

Taking on the role of the mother from hell is American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, doing splendidly by music she actually sings rather than screams in the time-dishonored Klytemnestra tradition. Macfarlane has made her up as a bald-pated battle ax in a ludicrously oversized bustle who must support her bloated frame on a staff. Grove attacks her music and stage business with cackling gusto. Attending her is a menagerie of decadent freaks who could have stepped out of "Fellini Satyricon."

So fearful of, yet so dependent on, her older sister, Chrysothemis yearns to escape the poisonous palace atmosphere, find a husband and bear children. American soprano Emily Magee, a star alumna of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center who sings all over Europe these days, brought a wealth of gleaming, womanly tone to the role, adding to the thrills of the Elektra-Chrysothemis duet.

As the five serving maids who jabber on about Elektra's bizarre behavior, Victoria Livengood and Rebecca Nash make a trusty ensemble alongside Ryan Center members J'nai Bridges, Cecelia Hall and Tracy Cantin. Other center apprentices rounding out the supporting cast include Kiri Deonarine, Emily Birsan and Bernard Holcomb.

Davis encourages his accomplished musicians to let go in this frenzied score while keeping everything under exacting control. Even the most thickly scored passages carry a lucid finish. This is a high-water mark in Sir Andrew's odyssey through the Strauss operas at Lyric.

A gray, claustrophobic atmosphere is evoked by ruined palace walls and columns that recall images from bombed-out Kosovo. A lurid, reddish glow emanates from the smoky antechamber beyond. Crooked stone stairs flanked by piles of rubble lead to a large subterranean cistern, placed at center stage where it threatens to swallow the singers and extras (which might be the point). Serving women with shaved heads, others wearing burqas, mingle in a courtyard that has seen much better days. A beautiful ugliness prevails. Just like in Strauss' miraculous score.


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