OPERA WITH A TASTE FOR BLOOD
The word “opera” normally elicits memories of sound—an orchestra roiling, an aria peaking—but in an effort to innovate the public’s preconceived notions of the art form, Lyric presents both a musically entrancing and visually stunning production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Images of blood, destruction—and androgyny—will haunt your vision for days.
Strauss’s Elektra focuses on the mother-daughter relationship in the Elektra myth. The opera opens in the courtyard where Elektra lurks in the shadows while maids describe her decaying psychological state. Elektra grieves for her father Agamemnon and promises revenge against his killers: Her mother, Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover, Aegisth. The rest of the show explores the complexity of family relationships through love, betrayal, and more than a hint of incest.
Slaughtering opera’s stuffy reputation, Christine Goerke’s Elektra rushes around the stage, erratic yet fluid, and quite the opposite of restrained. And despite this constant movement, her voice never suffers. Goerke masterfully navigates the dark seas of her character’s psyche. One minute she is vulnerable and the next, feral. She switches seamlessly from frenzied, abandoned child to resolute avenger. You root for her, you fear her, and you constantly question her sanity. The enigmatic nature of her character may just be the most compelling aspect of the story.
When Jill Grove appears as the armored and bare-chested behemoth Klytemnestra, Elektra’s mother, the sense of danger skyrockets. The heat of her desperation assures the audience that all rationality has gone out the window. Grove and Goerke do well in depicting the intricacy of the mother-daughter relationship—despite their differences, they are inextricably linked by blood and by their desire for blood. Ultimately their actions lead them to similar fates.
Emily Magee plays Chrysothemis, Elektra’s loving and conflicted sister, the only character who yearns for life; she attempts to shield Elektra from danger, she dreams of motherhood, and she won’t commit to any murderous plots. It’s easy to sympathize with her and at the same time be disappointed by her cowardice.
Director Sir David McVicar has constructed a detailed and unsettling world (at one point, a man in blood-red bondage scurries on all fours up the palace steps, submissive and inhuman). McVicar proves the timelessness of this ancient Greek tale as he fast-forwards his production to what feels like a dystopian future. John Macfarlane’s costumes are reminiscent of Star Wars, Queen Elizabeth and a zombie apocalypse all rolled into one. Wigmaster and make-up designer Sarah Hatten has given everyone an extraterrestrial quality, cheeks a chilling white, eyes a magnetic black, and hair that could be a weapon.
The set design (also by Macfarlane) uses dark, drab colors for the palace and most of the costuming so that the bright red blood pops as it stains the stage and singers. The palace stands tipped forward, as if it might fall over at any moment, symbolizing the precarious states of the characters’ minds, the façade’s dilapidation echoing the downfall of the family.
Elektra’s music conjures not just sounds, but images as well—a beating heart, stomping feet, looming shadows. The rich score is haunting and exhilarating. Under conductor Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra acts as a humble and reliable workhorse, enriching the scenes but never overtaking them.
Elektra, with its thrilling taste for blood, starts Lyric’s season off right.
photos by Robert Kusel and Dan Rest
Lyric Opera of Chicago
scheduled to end on October 30, 2012
for tickets, call phone or visit Lyric Opera