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OPERA REVIEW : A Quirky and Troubled ‘Elektra’ Returns

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Mixed feelings greeted “Elektra” when the Music Center Opera first ventured Richard Strauss’ taut little masterpiece of mythological shock and psychological resolution in 1991.

David Pountney’s fussy yet undeniably thoughtful staging relied heavily on potentially risible gimmicks, reinforced by John Bury’s expressionist designs. The plot unraveled not in the recognizable Mycenae of antiquity but in a strange blood-pink pueblo strategically adorned with huge pieces of a broken statue of Agamemnon (helmet, hand and, we fear, phallus). The characters moved in mysterious ways, and the semi-symbolic costumes played loose with both time and logic.

It was weird, but, for a while at least, it was fascinating. Fortunately, the music-making was strong enough to make sight overpower sound.

Saturday, on the second night of our sporadic opera season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, “Elektra” was back--not a moment too late and, alas, quite a bit the worse for wear. The dramatic elements, now overseen by Clare West, are beginning to flirt with caricature, and the musical elements--part old, part new--are problematic.

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Randall Behr, the management’s longtime favorite maestro, has inherited the baton from Lawrence Foster. He conducts carefully, conscientiously and often very slowly. He does little in the process to sustain tension, to propel the cataclysmic drama, to define subtle details or to imprint his own interpretive personality on the massive score. This is generic Strauss, safe and soupy.

Marilyn Zschau was something of a revelation when she first braved the superhuman title role three years ago. In the interim, she has repeated this and similarly strenuous challenges, even adding a few Brunnhildes. The strain shows, and the voice--never intrinsically heroic--now seems to be a thing of shreds and patches.

Although she paced herself wisely on Saturday, she still had to resort to more cries and whispers than the composer sanctioned. Her tone spread and wobbled under pressure, and the melting pianissimo phrases of the great Recognition Scene had to be taken on faith. One admired her vocal daring, not to mention her expressive intensity. One also lamented the price she seems to be paying for forcing her repertory beyond its natural boundaries.

Also returning from the class of ’91 was Ealynn Voss, a Chrysothemis larger in voice and body than her presumably dominating sister. She sang with the plangent force we fondly remember, but her lustrous tone now seems to be taking on a dangerous metallic edge.

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The most important newcomer to the cast was Leonie Rysanek. Having spent most of her long career as a much-applauded Chrysothemis, she has turned on the eve of her retirement to the maternal agonies of Klytamnestra.

Strauss intended the rewarding, complex role of the guilt-ridden queen--half heroic, half pathetic--for a full-blooded contralto. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was 47 when she sang the premiere in 1909.

Over the decades, the vehicle has become a favored property for low-voiced divas at twilight, some of whom make the mistake of playing the troubled antagonist as an evil witch. Rysanek isn’t like that. Even at 67, her soprano is brighter, lighter and higher than any tradition dictates, and, thank goodness, she consistently stresses vulnerability over grotesquerie. Cast against type, she achieves success on her own terms.

She makes Klytamnestra a still-formidable woman desperately fighting the shadows of decay. She sings with fine verbal point, floats some exquisite pianissimo lines, fakes the low notes with imposing gusto, and consistently sustains sympathy against the odds.

On Rysanek’s best days, she was an ideally impassioned Senta in “Der Fliegende Hollander,” a magnetic Lady Macbeth and a gloriously radiant Kaiserin in “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” On her worst days, she was an artist prone to self-serving exaggeration and distortion, both histrionic and musical. Her valedictory Klytamnestra in Los Angeles found her at her disciplined best.

The choice of the male principals suggested economic compromise. Richard Bernstein’s handsome lyric basso isn’t exactly ideal for the Heldenbariton utterances of Orest, and he could do little to enliven a figure reduced by the director to a robot in a silly red wig. Jonathan Mack tried valiantly to make his light tenor sound heavy as an Aegisth in oddly sporty modern dress.

Outstanding in bit parts were Lesley Leighton as the burly whip-snapping Overseer, Louis Lebherz as Orest’s Tutor, and Michael Gallup as the Old Servant (too bad the director, who may not understand the niceties of German, implied that he was one of the dogs in the courtyard). The others faded into the adobe.

* Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” presented by the Music Center Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Remaining performances Tuesday and Sept. 20 and 23 at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2. Tickets $21-$115. Information: (213) 972-7211.

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