Stage Door Review

Elektra

Monday, January 28, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Richard Strauss, directed by James Robinson

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

January 26-February 22, 2019

Elektra: “Wir sind bei den Göttern, wir Vollbringenden”

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Richard Strauss’s Elektra may be its most powerful yet. This is due in great part to the spectacular performance of the title role by Christine Goerke, whose Brünnhilde thrilled Toronto audiences in Wagner’s Die Walküre in 2015, Siegfried in 2016 and Götterdämmerung in 2017. Goerke is supported by a cast that with one exception is superior to the one when Elektra was last presented here in 2007. Besides that, the COC Orchestra clearly loves this opera and gives a rapturous account of the score.

Elektra from 1909 was the first of one the greatest partnerships in opera, that between Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal adapted his libretto from his own play about Electra, which in turn was based on Sophocles' ancient tragedy of the same name (c. 401 BC). Hofmannsthal’s main alterations are to banish the chorus after its initial discussion of Elektra’s bizarre behaviour and to delay the entrance of Elektra’s bother Orest until nearly three-quarters of the way through the action. 

This turns the subject matter into a study of a mind nearly losing its grip on reality, a favourite subject of the Expressionist period in literature and music. Here the great mythic cycles of the Trojan War and of the House of Atreus combine. In order to raise a wind to allow the Greeks to set sail for Troy, Agamemnon, father of Electra and Orestes, is told he must sacrifice his youngest daughter Iphigenia. He does so and the ships set sail. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Iphigenia’s mother vows revenge on her husband when he returns. When he does return ten years later, she and her lover Aegisthus murder Agamemnon in his bath. Since it is prophesied that Orestes will avenge his father’s death, Electra helps him escape the country.

Meanwhile, she has meditated on her revenge against her mother ever since. This is were Strauss’s opera begins. Klytämnestra (Susan Bullock) has been treating Elektra (Christine Goerke) worse than a servant while Elektra’s single obsession has destroyed her youth and is close to destroying her mind. This is in complete contrast to Elektra’s other sister, Chrysothemis (Erin Wall), who wants to have an ordinary life – to live, fall in love and give life through having children. Elektra’s world is shattered when news arrives that Orest is dead. Then Elektra rouses herself to plan how she and Chrysothemis will murder their mother and her lover Aegisth (Michael Schade). Elektra even plans to use the very axe that Klytämnestra used to kill Agamemnon. Before they can put any plan into action, two messengers arrive to deliver the news about Orest in person. In fact, they are Orest (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) himself and his tutor (Michael Druiett) in disguise. 

Goerke gives a performance of unrelenting intensity. Her powerful voice, like a light blazing out of the shadows, is ideal for a woman who has neglected life because of her obsession with revenge. Her portrayal of Elektra’s unbelieving recognition of Orest is overwhelming and her depiction of Elektra’s delirium after her mother and Aegisth are murdered is disturbing in realism. As in Wagner, Goerke sings as if the enormous leaps and long-held high notes Strauss requires pose not the slightest difficulty. The naturalness of her singing, the drama of her shading and the detail of her acting make her the finest Elektra Toronto has ever seen.

Susan Bullock is best known to Toronto audiences as the Brünnhilde of Toronto’s first-ever Ring Cycle in 2006. Bullock sang the role of Elektra herself in 2007 opposite the Klytämnestra of Ewa Podleś. At the time I wrote of Podleś that one felt “there could perhaps be no finer performance of this role”. As it happens that prediction turns out to be true. Bullock, while a fierce Elektra in 2007, proves to be a rather fragile Klytämnestra in 2019. Bullock concentrates on the beauty of the more lyrical lines that come her way and on her nuanced acting to carry her role, but it is clear that she cannot match the lung-power of any of her other cast mates. Under James Robinson’s direction her Klytämnestra is more a frail old woman in Victorian garb almost to be pitied rather than the frightening, but wounded, bird of prey that Podleś portrayed under Thomas de Mallet Burgess’s direction in 2007.

With her bright, gleaming soprano, in contrast to Goerke’s darker tone, Erin Wall, last seen in the title role of Strauss’s Arabella in 2017, makes an ideal Chrysothemis. Quite often, Chrysothemis is portrayed as the weaker of the two sisters, but here Wall's life-oriented world view of a woman who wants to move on from her family’s lurid past seems both appealing and rational in contrast to Elektra’s obsession with death and a life that has stopped with the demise of her father. Wall’s warm-hearted account of “Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren” did not feel like an expression of weakness but rather came as a welcome ray of optimism and hope in the otherwise doom-laden world of the opera.

As Orest, Wilhelm Schwinghammer wielded his rounded, coal-black bass with agility and emotion to make the recognition scene between Orest and Elektra the most moving part of the opera. Michael Schade is luxury casting as Aegisth, who sings only a handful of lines before he goes off to his death. Yet, in those few lines Schade conveyed everything that Elektra hates about both her mother and her lover – their decadence, their crudeness, their selfishness.

In smaller roles Alexandra Loutsion makes a vocally fearsome Overseer, while Lauren Eberwein with her firm, clear voice stands out as the Fifth Maid, the only one of the five who is willing to defend Elektra against the slanders of the rest. 

Derek McLane’s set looks just as modern as it did back in 1997 when the COC debuted this production. The strangely small house that looks more like a garden shed than a palace still surprises with its golden interior and its function as merely the entrance to the underground lair that is home to Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Certain flaws, however, have become more noticeable. The house upstage right and the bonfire downstage left with stairs leading to the playing area downstage right, mean that virtually all the important encounters happen on the downstage right quadrant of the stage.

Especially wonderful in this production is the hugely inventive lighting of Mimi Jordan Sherin that changes constantly in concert with the music. Light roves around the stage illuminating significant people and areas when mentioned in the text, casting enormous shadows on the walls or bathing the stage in a sickly green as befits Elektra’s negative view of life.

Under Johannes Debus the playing of the COC Orchestra expanded to more than 100 players was absolutely magnificent. Its cohesion in playing and its complete understanding of Strauss’s sound-world have an overwhelming impact. While Strauss’s score has numerous passages that seem to relate back to Wagner’s Ring, Debus emphasizes Strauss’s use of dissonance so that the score sounds even more uncompromisingly modern than usual.

No one who loves opera should miss the chance to see Christine Goerke as Elektra. It's the kind of momentous performance against which all others will have to measured. With the COC Orchestra playing at its fiery best, Debus makes you feel you are hearing the score anew. If anyone needed proof, these are performances that demonstrate how tremendous an experience opera can be.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Christine Goerke as Elektra and Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Orest; (foreground) Christine Goerke as Elektra, (background centre) Lauren Margison as the Trainbearer, Simone McIntosh as the Confidante and Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra; Christine Goerke as Elektra. © 2019 Michael Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.coc.ca.