‘Elektra’ opens MOT 44th season
Hurricane Christine unleashed her fury Saturday night and nearly tore the roof of the Detroit Opera House.
In the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” American soprano Christine Goerke proved to be a force of nature, driven by bloodthirsty vengeance for her father’s murder and endowed with a stentorian voice that’s smoky in the lower register and like a clarion call of trumpets at the top.
“Elektra“ is one of the most grueling roles in the operatic repertoire, calling for a fusillade of high B-flats, B naturals and C’s at full throttle against a huge orchestra. And there’s hardly a moment when she gets to rest, from her taxing Monologue at the outset until her dance of death at the end.
In the premiere of Michigan Opera Theatre’s 44th season, Goerke’s voice was resplendent, but hers was also an interpretation shaded by dramatic subtlety. Too often, the title role is played as if she’s a madwoman, and Goerke looked the part, barefoot and bedraggled. But Elektra isn’t entirely loopy; she has to rely on her wits when dealing with other characters. She may be on a murderous quest, but she’s also crafty.
In case you’re a little rusty on your classics, the story is this: King Agamemnon returns heroically from war, only to be axed to death in his bath by his wife, Klytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisth. Cultural tradition dictates that only a male can avenge a murder, so Klytemnestra banishes her son Oreste from the palace. His sister Elektra pins her hope on his return. Their sister, the weak-willed but pleasant Chrysothemis, wants nothing of killing; she just wants to get married and have children. When there’s a report (which is just a ruse) that Oreste is dead, Elektra takes it upon herself to chop up Mommy and Stepdaddy herself.
Soprano Jennifer Check as Chrysothemis, clad in innocent white, was a fine foil to Goerke’s snarly Elektra. Elektra’s music is brutal, but Chrysothemis’ is no walk in the park. Check, who made her MOT debut, sailed up to several effortless B-flats.
Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, also making her MOT debut, delivered a Klytemnestra with chilling impact. Her rich, dark voice was fraught with fear. She’s tormented by horrific dreams that Oreste will return and is mistrustful of Elektra. In many ways she’s more emotionally fragile than Elektra. Grove played her part as a woman on the brink of a psychological breakdown, and her duet with Goerke was strung with edgy tension.
Strauss’ score to this 1909 opera is often cited for its progressive dissonance, but its lyricism is frequently overlooked. The Recognition Scene, in which Elektra and Oreste are reunited, is a tranquil moment in an otherwise stormy score.
As Oreste, bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli projected a decisive presence, vocally and dramatically. He knows he’s on a bloody mission, and stabs Klytemnestra with dispatch.
Then it’s Aegisth’s turn. Tenor Richard Margison, who sang robustly, portrayed him as a paranoid, nervous wreck, even though his stage time is limited. He suspects something is amiss, and it isn’t long before Oreste’s attendants rub him out.
Director Nicholas Muni invests this production not just with horror, but with a tense, menacing fear. The restless spirit of Agamemnon is almost like another character, and Muni doesn’t lose sight of that.
Muni was also responsible for the lighting, which was by and large effective. But there were moments when it was too bright, which didn’t mirror the somber and baleful mood.
Dany Lyne’s sets were appropriately spartan, with the strewn boulders on the stage evidently representing the crumbling House of Atreus. However, they did make it perilous for Goerke to find her footing early on.
Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, knew what they were doing when they created their opera as one long act without an intermission. Any pause would have irredeemably severed the taut drama and relentless intensity.
This admirable production says much about how MOT has grown and matured, not just in the caliber of singers, but in the quality of the orchestra. Years ago, the MOT orchestra often sounded frayed and thin. No longer. The playing has improved tremendously, and conductors like Steven Mercurio have made it so.
Mercurio was in the pit for “Elektra,” which has a difficult, demanding score written for a large orchestra. Yes, there were additional musicians hired to beef up the ranks, but the performance that Mercurio (who was making his 20th MOT appearance) coaxed from them was inspired — and inspiring.
Repeated Oct. 22 and 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 26 at 2:30 p.m. Christine Goerke will sing in all performances. Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit. Tickets: $25-$128. 313-237-SING, michiganopera.org.