Elektra-fying

There’s a moment in Richard Strauss’s adaptation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Elektra that tells you everything you need to know.  This is the same family constellation we know from the aftermath of the Trojan War. Agamemmnon is dead, Elektra mourns him in defiance of her mother Klytemnestra: who lives alongside Aegisthus with whom she murdered Agamemnon.

But at the telling moment the chorus have been singing “Orest” in the distance, ever more insistently & clearly. And when Elektra says “Hörst du nicht, so hörst du denn nicht?” (or “Don’t you hear? Don’t you hear it?”) She answers her own question saying “Ob ich nicht höre? ob ich die/Musik nicht höre? sie kommt doch aus mir.” Or in other words “How should I not hear? How should I Not hear the music? It comes  from me.

The Canadian Opera Company opened their revival of Elektra tonight at the Four Seasons Centre, and NO this is not exactly Sophocles.    The music comes from her, as surely as the sounds of the huge COC Orchestra led by Johannes Debus comes from the orchestra pit.  This is expressionism, which means that we are watching something hyper-symbolic, Wagner on steroids.  The larger than life emotions of this mad family horror story are immediately registered by the 100+ players, via Strauss’s edgy score.  Debus and that orchestra paint the pictures of the wild visceral responses of a bunch of crazy people in luscious colour.

It’s scary beautiful.

I am glad I read James Robinson’s director note, as it helps me understand my feelings tonight after the show.  The opera is a tour de force, an endurance test for the soprano undertaking the lead role, Christine Goerke, who has been arguably the biggest star for the COC in three previous winters as she undertook each of the Brunnhildes successively in January 2015, ’16 and ’17, in three of the finest productions ever seen from the COC.  She’ll be going on to sing Brunnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera this spring.

I wish this had been as magical for me as her previous three portrayals. I had watched Birgit Nilsson on DVD a few nights ago, and have to say that whereas Nilsson was frequently imprecise, when Goerke sings “Allein” to begin her marathon, it’s chilling, very moving.  When she utters her father’s name, in a motif we hear regularly throughout the evening, I was gradually brought to tears watching her sing the opening lament for her dead father.  And yet there’s a problem.  I’ve been seeing her Facebook jokes.  I adore this woman. But the thing is, she’s not larger than life in this show, she’s become my friend in the superficial Facebook sense to me and thousands of other people. So I was watching her, worried that she’d get her high notes (which she mostly did), worried about her big dance at the end (which she executed well).  Social media is problematic, because it takes away the mystique.

I can’t help wondering, too, if her weight-loss has hurt her vocal production.   She looks amazing. But I am reminded of Deborah Voigt, another Brunnhilde, another singer who lost weight and in the process perhaps has lost some of the vocal heft.

The main thing though is what I saw in Robinson’s directorial note. He explained that this time around –a revival from a season when the COC also did the Egoyan Salome—they were less interested in edginess and angularity and more interested in exploring the family relationships. All well and good. But as a result, we have a very sympathetic Klytemnestra sung & acted with great subtlety by Susan Bullock, a likeable Aegisthus masterfully played to comic effect by Michael Schade (what a voice!), when –pardon my savage language—I want the opera to make me crave their deaths. I need to hate them. Forgive me that I sound like an old-fashioned fool but the way the opera is written, we should be seething with outrage watching what’s being done to Elektra. We should be angry, upset, and when the tide turns and Orest arrives to reverse Elektra’s fortunes, he must be an avenger, a welcome agent of justice.  But because the costumes deconstruct the usual relationships –Elektra usually looks very gross and dirty, whereas Goerke looked quite nice—much of that was missing for me.  I need to hate Klytemnestra, I need to ache for Elektra so that when Orest is reported dead, I want to cry with the sisters. And when the murders happen, they should seem just. Actually, I sat listening to the lovely orchestra, where all the real feeling resides in this production, but not caring terribly much about what’s going on in the staging.

Now of course, this was also my problem with Egoyan’s Salome, that a story of crazy obsessive people was upended.  Please note, I adore Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte, that opens in a few days, a very different sort of production from his Salome.  But I mention this because I didn’t have the usual catharsis. I sat watching Goerke sing and dance, loving Debus and the orchestral magic.

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Erin Wall as Chrysothemis (foreground) and Christine Goerke as Elektra in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019 (photo: Michael Cooper)

There was one character who is not hurt by the deconstruction, for whatever reason. I adored Erin Wall’s take on Chrysothemis, a performance of wonderful depth and authenticity.  I am perhaps prejudiced because Chrysothemis has so much of the pretty music in an opera that is mostly crazy, the one sane person in the room. She wants a family while her sister craves murder and her brother then enacts it: although again I rolled my eyes that the director chose to dramatize this by asking her to hug dolls… some of us actually understand the implications in the text without a dumb-show thanks very much!  Wall was heart-breaking nonetheless, especially as she sings the last notes of the opera, crying to her brother.

Deconstruction is a funny thing. Relationships change.  So some of the subsidiary roles stood out, precisely because things had been juggled and re-framed.  Lauren Eberwein was wonderful –again in one of the few moments when Hofmannsthal shows us a sane person—as the fifth maid, when Strauss stops the torrent of dissonance for a few welcome moments of glorious melody.  Klytemnestra’s sidekicks, played by Simone McIntosh & Lauren Margison, were deliciously odd, emerging from the background.

That aforementioned choral moment was especially magical, as the COC chorus sang their intimations of justice being done from behind us.  It was a highlight.

This is great theatre, a tight evening’s entertainment. Imagine Dysfuntional Family Feud, the Cage Match edition.  The comedy that’s implicit in Hofmannsthal’s libretto emerges in this reading.  The scene where Elektra toys with her mother (about the necessary sacrifice to end her bad dreams) is delicious and hysterically funny. Goerke has a real gift for this, for irony & comedy.

Elektra continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Feb 22nd.

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3 Responses to Elektra-fying

  1. Maria Benedek says:

    Thank you for helping us to understand better the production. I saw the working rehearsal and while listened with interest how the orchestra repeated the same phrases again and again giving their best effort, I had the feeling that Miss Goerke did not give to the whole exercise the seriousness it deserved

  2. barczablog says:

    It’s a funny time for opera. While directors routinely over-write the instructions or inscribe a revisionist understanding of the drama, we’re in a relatively fundamentalist time for music. So while the presentation is one that visually can seem to defy what’s written in the score, the singers and musicians are expected to proceed with exactly what was written. Christine Goerke for example is asked to reconcile instructions from two bosses, namely the stage director and the conductor. In the classic Wagnerian dramaturgy of the Gesamtkunstwerk all element are supposed to work together to achieve the “total artwork”, but meanwhile directors often undercut or undermine the original objectives of a piece of opera. For an artist that sounds at least like a recipe for cognitive dissonance, if not madness. Is that ironic in an opera with so much craziness, or just the normal outcome? Actors playing crazy nasty people is stressful. Did Strauss & von Hofmannsthal (as they sought to create something expressionistic, emotions larger than life) expect the work to be ironic or even humorous? I think it’s written that way. I think that as the madness is deconstructed, as we’re given space to perhaps find Klytemnestra or Aegisthus likeable, as our modern sophisticated world gives us more and more perspective, perhaps the balances shift, and we find ourselves laughing at lines that in a more traditional staging would leave us gasping silently. At one time –as Zizek said– opera was our substitute for psychotherapy, the way we stayed sane via catharsis. But meanwhile, the singers enacting those emotions in that powerful cauldron of music are in some respects exposed as though they should be wearing hazmat suits. Perhaps modern interpretations are a natural attempt to defuse the hazards, to mitigate the poison in the story.

    Note too that in a rehearsal, especially a role such as Elektra, a singer often has to hold something back, and only gives their all in performance. Elektra is like a marathon, an endurance test.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Pingback: (Re)thinking about the House of Atreus | operaramblings

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