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OPERA REVIEW : A Bold and Bizarre ‘Elektra’ : The Music Center Opera looks at Richard Strauss’ tragic shocker through modernist eyes.

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

When Los Angeles last saw Richard Strauss’ taut, massive and ultimately shattering “Elektra,” so-called grand opera was still an exotic product imported to Shrine Auditorium from San Francisco. That was 32 years ago.

In those innocent days of canvas realism, a courtyard in the royal palace of ancient Mycenae looked like a courtyard. A door looked like a door.

Trusting the composer, librettist and tradition, the singers struck predictable poses. If the cast was good and the music-making reasonable, it worked.

In some enlightened houses, attitudes have changed in the interim. Opera can be taken seriously now as modern theater. For better or worse, stage directors and designers don’t just re-create the drama. They interpret it.

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And so it was with “Elektra” as presented Saturday night by the enterprising Music Center Opera. David Pountney, the British director, and John Bury, his designing accomplice, took some fascinating but risky liberties. Devout believers in the gospel of conceptual revisionism, they toyed with Expressionist symbols and psychological emblems. Subtlety, it turned out, was not their primary concern.

The once-Greek tragedy unfolded on a stage full of contradictory images and picturesque props. For reasons unexplained, the palace became a modest blood-red adobe hacienda in the advanced stage of decay. The tacky staircase was decorated with human skulls.

Purple granite towers crumbled amid the rot at stage right. Strategically placed in the foreground were three huge pieces of a shattered statue, presumably representing the murdered Agamemnon: a helmet, an upturned hand and--I think--a significantly broken phallus.

The terminally obsessed Elektra, the ever-agitated Chrysothemis, the guilt-ridden Klytamnestra and the Adonis-like Orest were all dressed in somber black. All happened to sport carrot red wigs that matched the hacienda. So much for family ties.

The traffic patterns followed convention most of the time. Each of the three children had to spend at least one meaningful moment, however, lying in Agamemnon’s severed palm.

Elektra began the evening dabbling in Greek graffiti; compulsively, she scribbled her beloved father’s name in chalk on the floor. She ended the evening swinging on convenient ropes while executing her terrible dance of vengeance.

Those were the highlights. In between, one could savor some striking minor inventions. A sadistic, whip-snapping, cross-dressing mezzo-soprano oversaw the maidservants. A parade of masked spooks stalked the castle.

This “Elektra” certainly wasn’t boring. It reflected a distinct visual style. It had a point of view. It presented original ideas. One must be grateful.

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The innovations did no serious harm to the dynamics of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant libretto. But they didn’t do any illuminating good either. They functioned primarily as trendy gimmicks.

Luckily, Strauss’ overwhelming score remained unscathed. It was appreciatively conducted by Lawrence Foster, who managed to sustain clarity and tension throughout the searing hour-and-40-minute crescendo. He kept the hysteria in check and the pathos in perspective.

The super-heroic gestures, chaotic interludes, moments of lyrical repose, introspective exchanges and cataclysmic cadences all made their wonted impact. Still, Foster did his best to allow the singers to survive the orchestral onslaught with relative ease.

That orchestral onslaught was executed by a much-expanded Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. More than 90 virtuosic players crowded the pit--probably a record for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--and they made a mighty, marvelous noise whenever necessary. They also played with fine expressive point wherever possible.

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The title role, one of the most daunting in the entire repertory, was ventured for the first time in her career by Marilyn Zschau. She has come a long, long way since she sang Suzuki on the same stage in 1966.

She now commands the range, the power and the stamina to meet Strauss’ demands with rare distinction. Even at 50, she brings youthful vitality and tragic intensity to the challenge, not to mention acrobatic daring. Although her tone tends to lose steadiness under pressure, she rises valiantly to the superhuman climaxes, paces herself wisely and floats phrases of aching tenderness in the recognition scene.

Contrary to company claims, Ealynn Voss had undertaken Chrysothemis once before--in Oxnard, of all places. On this stellar occasion, she sang the arching music of Elektra’s innocent sister with amazing security and generosity, with gleaming warmth and expressive fervor. Her extraordinary success as Turandot with Opera Pacific was no fluke. This is a talent to cherish.

Unlike some famous colleagues, Helga Dernesch did not play Klytamnestra as a grotesque witch. She made the aging queen a proud, intelligent, beautiful woman haunted by her own weaknesses. After decades of use (and misuse) in at least three vocal categories, her mezzo-soprano shows some signs of wear, and she might consider rethinking the Resnikisms of her cackling exit. Nevertheless, she offered object lessons in poignant nuance and focused projection of character.

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Rodney Gilfry, last seen here as Curly in “Oklahoma!,” tried earnestly, sometimes successfully, to darken and deepen his lyric baritone as a surprisingly youthful Orest. Gary Bachlund mustered a nice helden -sputter as Aegisth.

Dominating the strong supporting cast, Marvellee Cariaga made a gutsy cameo of the bully overseer. Jennifer Trost sounded radiant as the sympathetic fifth maid.

Scenic weirdness notwithstanding, this was a stimulating night at the opera.


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