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Lyric Opera of Chicago
Family ties: Goerke and Held as Elektra and Orest at Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Dan Rest 2012
Elektra remains among the most challenging pieces in the opera repertory. Lyric Opera swept all obstacles aside, however, in a superb new production by David McVicar that rendered Strauss's 1909 masterpiece with an edge-of-your-seat theatricality that proved almost unbearable in its intensity.
The Elektra was Christine Goerke, in her Lyric debut. Goerke sang the unhinged Greek princess to great acclaim in Madrid last season; she had quite a night in Chicago on October 6. Goerke's "Allein, weh ganz allein" revealed a colossal dramatic soprano of an incisive, intensely feminine quality that remained gleaming and voluptuous despite the force required to crest the monumental orchestral waves Strauss sets against his protagonist. She consistently won the audience's empathy, even when her obsessive vengefulness became more than a little frightening. Her formidable stamina was the more impressive given her clever employment of dynamics — particularly the fining away of tone in a recognition scene that tore one's heart out. Goerke was rewarded in her solo call by a rapturous standing ovation that emerged viscerally from the house as an organic reaction to her tour de force performance.
Director McVicar, with set and costume designer John Macfarlane, surrounded Goerke with a production that played upon the decadence of the royal court and the indistinct psychological boundaries between its members. The environment was dominated by a crumbling edifice of grey-blue stone set on an angle at stage right; an oversized staircase bridged the gated doorway with a sunken pool below — presumably the bath in which Agamemnon met his grisly fate. Costuming reflected influences of antiquity, North Africa and nods to modernity. Exaggerated hairdos, bald caps and pendulous breasts contributed to a grotesquely fascinating ambience that recalled Fellini's Satyricon. Jennifer Tipton's lighting intermittently bathed the proceedings in a prescient red glow. The mounting fielded a marvelous coup de théâtre in the opera's final moments, as a pool of blood encroached upon the palace entryway and dripped down the stairs, allowing Elektra to anoint herself with it in her final dance.
As Chrysothemis, Emily Magee applied just enough timbral pressure to convey the requisite hysteria while maintaining a rounded, creamy quality in the tone that aurally limned the gentler sister most attractively. She occasionally seemed a trifle underpowered against the huge orchestration, but her dramatic commitment ultimately carried the day. Jill Grove found a most congenial vehicle in the tortured Klytämnestra and very notably held her own in the legit contralto writing below the staff. Alan Held has sung Orest all over the world, and the burly beauty of his high-testosterone bass-baritone demonstrated why from his initial phrases. His conspiratorial chemistry with Goerke was palpable, as was a disturbing suggestion of latent sexuality between the two. Roger Honeywell made a welcome company return with his powerfully sung, eerily despotic Aegisth.
There was an excellent Overseer from Elizabeth Byrne, a firmly intoned First Maid from Victoria Livengood and a sympathetic Fifth Maid from debutante Tracy Cantin. J'nai Bridges, Cecelia Hall and Rebecca Nash completed the quintet, while Jason Stearns lent his burnt-gold baritone to the Tutor. Emily Birsan, Kiri Deonarine, Bernard Holcomb and Kenneth Nichols rounded out the cast as the Trainbearer, Confidante and Young and Old Servants, respectively.
Goerke's triumph aside, the ultimate star of the evening was the Lyric Opera Orchestra under conductor Andrew Davis. Davis drew a marvelous performance from his players, who rendered the brutal splendor of this most difficult of twentieth-century scores with exceptional power and grace. This was an extraordinary evening, and one of Lyric's strongest openings in several seasons.
MARK THOMAS KETTERSON
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