However bad you may think your family is, it is not as bad as Elektra's. Her father sacrificed her sister in return for a favorable wind to guide his ship home. Her mother, and her mother's lover, turned on her father, slaying him in his bath. Bent on avenging that murder, Elektra helped her brother kill their mother and her lover and then danced on their graves.
As if the story in Greek mythology weren't shocking enough, Richard Strauss gives German epic voice to all this familial dysfunction in his maniacally Freudian opera "Elektra." And now Long Beach Opera's inventive new production, which opened at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the Cal State Long Beach campus Sunday afternoon, updates Strauss' 1909 opera to a time, place and family with which we can all too easily identify.
Elektra is a teenager with a serious attitude problem. Her sister is a princess. Her horrid mother, drink in hand, might be Joan Crawford. They live in a flawless, modern, split-level late 1950s or early 1960s house. It lies somewhere just west of the Valley of the Dolls.
Long Beach Opera, you might say, has done it again. It has invited back director Roy Rallo and set designer Marsha Ginsberg, who were responsible for the company's gritty, great art-world-relevant production of Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" two years ago. This time the team, helped by Audrey Fisher's costumes and Geoff Korf's lighting, seems to have turned to antique television sitcom as its inspiration, as if there were some really dark secrets in those tidy closets on the "Father Knows Best" set.
Actually, Elektra's closets are not tidy. Wearing patched jeans and a nondescript green top, she is the family rebel (and later, we learn, a lesbian). In her first scene, fuming about her mother, she explodes into a sudden rage, throwing her clothes around and jumping on her bed. (A further bit of messiness in this production is her name. The opera is presented in English, and while the rest of the characters are given Anglicized versions of their Greek names, Long Beach Opera keeps the German spelling of Elektra from the Hugo von Hofmannsthal libretto.)
Elektra's tantrum is the beginning of the unmasking of the frantic psyches that drive the three women who are the main characters of the opera. Underneath the prom-queen exterior and neat blond bun of Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis, is a feral sexuality. And troubling their mother, Clytemnestra (whom we first encounter being dressed by her many maids--five maids and an overseer are rather a lot for a four-bedroom house but, given the hint of kinkiness in this production, they fit right in), is a fragility that must be drowned in drink but rears up in nightmares.
For the most part, the production, which looks fabulous, is a perfectly credible way to approach Strauss' opera. The composer did not go quite so far as Rallo does in revealing repressed sexuality or neediness. But a lot percolates underneath the surface of this opera. From the pit comes a roiling conflagration of musical themes that signify the characters' psychological states, sounding almost as if gray matter could be turned into powerful orchestral sound. And that score does not feel out of place accompanying Elektra's sexual advances toward her sister or her sudden, needy hugging of her mother after a cathartic argument.
Usually, this opera is treated as almost a celebration of neuroses, and we watch with the satisfaction of voyeurs. It's almost fun to see the horror of it all, because we know it couldn't really happen to us. Rallo, however, makes the horror real. There are moments in his production when we realize it doesn't have to all go so horribly wrong, that Elektra can still turn back but doesn't. After seeing this production, the recent murder of Nepal's royal family, apparently by the crown prince, doesn't seem as though it were something that could happen only on the other side of the world.
To confuse matters even more, there is the exalted glory of the female voice that makes this opera's horror so appallingly appealing. Susan Marie Pierson's Elektra is almost conspiratorial in that regard, what with her riveting high notes. The soprano may not ideally inhabit all the pouting teenage business that the production asks of her, but she makes a brave effort and sings with sure intelligence. Deidra Palmour stunningly fleshes out the pert Chrysothemis' sensuality, her voluptuous yet silvery soprano rising to thrilling climax at the opera's end.
Kathryn Day makes an unusually frightening Clytemnestra by seeming, at times, almost normal. A conventional portrayal of the psychically damaged mother commonly approaches caricature, but Day is deeper, revealing a growing self-awareness that makes her death not only inevitable but also her only possible redemption.
Strauss, who rarely had much use for men in his operas, had practically no interest in them in "Elektra." But John Packard is an effectively driven Orestes, the brother who returns home to kill his mother and her lover. And thanks to John Duykers' wonderfully tacky Aegisthus, that lover, we further understand the root of Elektra's hatred.
Andreas Mitisek, the Austrian conductor, has been a company regular the last three seasons and once again leads a tight, commanding performance. Strauss requires a very large orchestra, and Long Beach Opera skimps, particularly reducing the strings. The result, however, is a more modern sound. Wind dissonances and percussion dominate, lean and mean, only further underscoring the production's modernity.
A serious miscalculation, however, is the presentation of the opera in English without titles. Even with a reduced orchestra and what appears to be a fine translation by Brian Gantner, the score requires the singers to project robustly. Because they don't, the vast majority of words are lost.
So read the libretto before you go. But go. With every production, this plucky small company continues to prove itself indispensable to our operatic life.
* "Elektra" repeats Saturday at 8 p.m., Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. $45-$95. (562) 439-2580.