‘Elektra’ opening night shows range of voices

  • By Mike Murray Special to The Herald
  • Wednesday, October 22, 2008 2:35pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

SEATTLE — Seattle Opera’s “Elektra” comes at you like a runaway train with the throttle fully open. There’s no getting off, but it’s an exhilarating ride.

The Richard Strauss opera is beautiful and terrifying, with bloody strokes of violence and heartbreaking humanity, a score of immense complexity that’s frenetic and harsh, lyrical and even sweet. And it’s performed in one long act without intermission.

Seattle Opera, which opened the opera last Saturday, has a cast up to the vocal challenges of “Elektra,” which requires nonstop, full-out singing with voices of power, beauty and plenty of stamina. The crisp, taut staging by house favorite Chris Alexander, and the skilled conducting of Lawrence Renes, in his company debut, are at the service of the lush music and the bloody drama. “Elektra” offers generous servings of both.

Strauss (with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal) based the opera on the Greek myth of Elektra. The daughter of the murdered King Agamemnon, Elektra’s consuming need to revenge his murder drives her to madness and death. Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War to find that his wife, Klytamnestra, has been having an affair. The wife and her lover, Aegisth, murder Agamemnon, an act that pushes Elektra over the edge into madness. Unhinged, she vows to kill her mother in revenge.

Her brother Orest, thought to be dead, is reunited with his sister and does the deed, hacking the mother and the lover to death. Elektra, released from her cycle of hate and revenge, dances to her death in demented frenzy.

Soprano Janice Baird, in her company debut, gave a spectacular vocal performance on opening night (she alternates in the role with Jayne Casselman). She sang throughout the range with beauty and rich tones of many shadings in nearly two hours of singing. She sounded as good at the end as she did at the beginning, with power for the dramatic fireworks and hushed beauty in the opera’s most lyrical moment, the scene in which she recognizes her brother, Orest. Her physical beauty and strength are major assets.

German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier gave a touching performance as Chrysothemis, the fragile sister who, unlike Elektra, is able to put the horror of their shared family life behind. She wants a normal life, with a husband and children. Elektra won’t have it. Their father’s murder will be avenged.

After you have met the mother you can begin to see Elektra’s point. Klytamnestra is a dragon lady of terrifying prospect, bejeweled in gold, hunched and wielding her cane like a weapon. Her menace is chilling and so is her pitiful vulnerability.

Mezzo soprano Rosalind Plowright was a wonder in her scene-stealing portrait of Klytamnestra. Her grand entrance is a spectacle that rivals Cecile B. DeMile for gaudy grandeur as the queen and her garish retinue (brilliantly costumed by Melanie Taylor Burgess) flood Wolfram Skalicki’s charcoal set in a burst of color and chaos.

Klytamnestra removes her gilded, towering headdress and reveals a frail, spidery woman in torment, pleading with Elektra to tell her what she must do to make the gods release her from her nightmares.

Blood must be shed, Elektra says, but the sacrificial blood must be Klytamnestra’s.

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker made an impressive company debut as Orest, singing with warmth and power. Richard Margison, one of the opera world’s most reliable tenors, was impressive as Aegisth and the rest of the cast was up to the standard.

Elektra, with her brother’s hand, has her revenge. The blood flows amid shrieks of murder and the maelstrom of orchestral sound, and Elektra dances to her death.

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