Review: ‘Elektra’ at SF Opera (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Christine Goerke in the title role and Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in Strauss’s “Elektra.” Photo Credit:Cory Weaver.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Word has it that the final performance for the short run of Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” presented by SF Opera is very nearly sold out. If you can, consider trying to purchase one of the remaining seats, or wait for a cancellation, or stand in line for standing room tickets. Why?

Because it is thrilling in every aspect as music, as acting, as tragedy, and conceptually.

For many opera goers, “Elektra” may seem relatively inaccessible. The music, for those accustomed to the classic voice driven melodies of Verdi or Mozart or early Puccini, is orchestra driven, complex, often dissonant, and always demanding. The story is not one of simple emotion, but is a complex Greek tragedy demanding close attention and deep involvement. It is likely to be unfamiliar to anybody that did not study classical drama in college, and those that did may have only vague memories of the details. For some, it may seem to be what is called “a museum piece.”

Students of creativity, whether in art or business, often emphasize the importance of asking the right questions. In this case, it is clear that the original director of this revival, Keith Warner (and revival director Anja Kuhnhold) wondered, “How can we make this museum piece accessible to contemporary audiences?” Which led to an even more interesting question: “What if we literally treated it as a ‘museum piece’?

The result is awesome. Instead of setting the opera in some vague vision of an ancient Greek temple or adaptation of a Greek amphitheatre, the creative team has  literally placed this production in a museum. As the introductory music plays, the audience sees a realistic museum setting, peopled by guards and museum visitors, including a group of teenaged schoolchildren. It is closing time at the museum, and everybody heads for the exits. One young woman remains, a “goth” mannered teenager, dressed all in black who is clearly fascinated with what she has seen. The museum is evidently dedicated to Greek mythology. On several TV screens, a performance of a Greek tragedy (“Elektra”) is being shown. In various glass cases are ancient artifacts, including costumes, on display. As the guards and customers leave the museum, the young girl hides to remain behind. Clearly, she has been triggered by what she has seen.

As the lights dim, doors open in the rear of the exhibit hall and a Greek chorus pours in, beginning the story of Elektra. They sing of how Elektra has been angry and miserable and isolated and we see that the teenager is astonished. She seems to feel they are singing about her. This is beautifully communicated in the staging and the body language of the actors.

Gradually, the figure in black is drawn into the action, the costumes in the display cases come to life as they are inhabited by characters, and the story of Elektra begins to unfold.

Staged as straight drama, this would be thrilling. Accompanied by the genius of Strauss’s unrelentingly exciting music, beautifully conducted by Henrik Nánási, it is Greek tragedy on steroids.

Dramatic soprano  Christine Goerke, who will sing Elektra again later this season at the Met, is astonishing. Her powerful voice storms over the orchestra like a hurricane, but with every nuance in the service of the drama. The effect was so powerful, it felt as if the audience were holding its collective breath for the entire uninterrupted 90 minutes.

Michaela Martens makes her role debut as Klytemnestra and it is as distinguished a performance as one might expect from this gifted mezzo who has been scaling the peaks of the repertoire with impressive success since completing her training at the Julliard School.

This “Elektra” is a stunning achievement.

“Elektra”plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 27. For further information,click here.

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Rating:  *****  (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Elektra” by Richard Strauss. Text by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, based on the play by Sophocles. Conductor: Henrik Nánási. Original Director: Keith Warner. Revival Director: Boris Kudlicka. Set Designer: Kasper Glarner. Lighting Designer: John Bishop. Video Designer: Bartek Macias. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Fight Director: Dave Maier.

Cast:

First maidservant: Jill Grove. Secondmaidservant: Laura Krumm. Third maidservant: Nicole Birkland. Fourth maidservant: Sarah Cambridge. Fifth maidservant: Rhoslyn Jones. The Overseer: Alexandra Loutsion. Elektra: Christine Goerke. Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka. Klytemnestra: Michaela Martens. Klytemnestra’s confidante: Erin Neff. Klytemnestra’strainbearer: Amina Edris. Ayoung servant: Kyle van Schoonhoven. An old servant: Bojan Knezevic. Orest: Alfred Walker. Tutor of  Orest: Anthony Reed. Aegisth: Robert Brubaker.

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