By Bernard Jacobson
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Lawrence Renes, dir. Chris Alexander, set designer Wolfram Skalicki, costume designer Melanie Taylor Burgess, lighting designer Marcus Doshi, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 18, 19, & 29. 10. 2008 (BJ)
It is too easy, in discussing Strauss’s Elektra, to stress the sheer aggressiveness of the score at the expense of other equally important qualities. From a composer who had already established his modernist and psychologically penetrative credentials in Salome, the drama of Elektra’s obsession with avenging her father Agamemnon’s death naturally drew clamorous orchestral writing and dissonant superimpositions of mutually contradictory chords that grind terrifyingly on the ear.
Yet Hofmannsthal’s and Strauss’s Elektra is not merely a violently inclined madwoman–her madness, and her lust for vengeance, are the twisted results of a love for her lost father and a capacity and longing for family happiness that have been unhinged by the trauma of that father’s murder by his wife Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth. (I give the characters’ names in their German versions for consistency’s sake.) This shattering experience, intensifying the “Elektra complex” posited by Jung as a daughter-father counterpart to Freud’s “Oedipus complex,” is just one psychologically significant element in the plot – Freud’s emphasis on the importance of dreams, too, is evoked by the nightmares that have poisoned Klytämnestra’s sleep and also torture her daughter.
If it had been merely bloodcurdling, Seattle Opera’s new Elektra would have been a less astounding achievement. What this stunning production managed to do, without shortchanging the violence of the action or the uncompromising vehemence of Richard Strauss’ music, was to reveal the humane and lyrical side of both in their full glory. Yes, the composer of Elektra was the composer of Salome; but very soon he would be the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, and you could hear that in the warmth and lyricism that, together with the moments of gruesome discord, emerged from the pit.
On a grandly scaled and appropriately grim set designed by the late Wolfram Skalicki (and seen when the opera was last done here in 1996), director Chris Alexander gave us a drama of rich psychological penetration, worthy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and of its source in the play by Sophocles. Meanwhile, Lawrence Renes achieved the feat of drawing gloriously vital and seemingly unrestrained playing from the large orchestra without ever drowning the voices. The only exception was one moment near the end when Aegisth, being murdered offstage, was barely able to make himself heard.
Such a triumphant result would hardly have been possible without a cast of spectacular musical and dramatic gifts, and such a cast was happily on hand. In her West Coast debut, New York–born Janice Baird played an Elektra whose fundamental nobility was evident from the start, and poured a stream of frequently ravishing tone over what may well be the most taxing role in the soprano repertoire. Elektra’s vocal line is not a million miles distant from that of Ariadne in a later Strauss opera, or for that matter of Wagner’s Brünnhilde. Being largely founded on traditional tonal triads, it has a rooted quality very different from the tortured angularity of much modern music for the voice. It is the orchestra that for much of the time fulminates around her. This conflict justly reflects Elektra’s embattled isolation in a hostile world – and when she is reunited with her long-exiled brother Orest, the vocal and orchestral elements aptly coalesce in a newfound, gleamingly sensuous (and Straussian) unanimity.
The Orest in the opening-night cast, New Orleans–born bass–baritone Alfred Walker, made a sonorously impressive company debut. British mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright’s tormented, vicious, yet pitiable and curiously dignified Klytämnestra was sung with opulent, precisely focused tone, yet also with a taut intensity that was indeed bloodcurdling. This too was an important local debut, as was that of German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier, whose sympathetic Chrysothemis revealed a rich and powerful voice that could presage a career of major proportions if she can rectify a degree of tightness at the top of the range.
A more familiar figure locally, tenor Richard Margison from Victoria, British Columbia, was an excellent Aegisth, and could hardly be blamed for not vocally penetrating the orchestral maelstrom with his offstage cries for help. The five maids and a variety of court hangers–on were all strongly cast. Melanie Taylor Burgess contributed new costumes that admirably blended antiquity with colorful poetic suggestion. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design, effective throughout, offered a truly gooseflesh thrill when Orest’s longed-for arrival was preceded by a looming shadow, succeeded in turn by a sudden liberating illumination of the whole stage.
Seattle’s tightly packed performance schedule necessitates double casting of the bigger roles. The second cast – I don’t like to use the accepted “gold cast/silver cast” terminology, for you can often find gold threads among the silver – had a hard act to follow, given that opening night had offered as compelling and indeed thrilling a performance of this challenging masterpiece as one could hope to witness. The matinee on the following day was excellent too, if not comparably revelatory.
Elektra must be on stage, uninterrupted, from just a few minutes after curtain-up, and singing for much of that time. Jayne Casselman started well. But she could not rival the voluptuous apparent ease with which Janice Baird had sailed over the complex orchestral texture, and as the performance wore on, she tired considerably, sounding vocally exhausted by the end. Luretta Bybee’s Klytämnestra, sung and acted skillfully enough, was an impressive portrayal by ordinary standards, but not by the standard Rosalind Plowright had set in bringing to life before our eyes a creature at once depraved and poignantly regal.
Life is unfair. One reason why this performance worked less well than the first lay in the very strength of its Chrysothemis. Carolyn Betty, acting no less sympathetically than Irmgard Vilsmaier, deployed a voice more confidently and evenly produced across its entire range. And if you have a Chrysothemis who is vocally stronger than her Elektra, the whole vocal balance of power is damaged, and with it inevitably the dramatic balance also. As Aegisth, a part hardly substantial enough to call for double casting, Thomas Harper was at least the equal of his predecessor, while in the more demanding role of Orest Alfred Walker repeated his dignified and richly sung first-night success.
Those who saw this Elektra with the second cast had an enjoyable experience; with Janice Baird and Rosalind Plowright on stage, it was an unforgettable one. So wonderful, indeed, was it all that I returned for a third immersion the following week, when Irmgard Vilsmaier had already made substantial steps in the direction of greater vocal evenness, and Ms. Baird and Ms. Plowright were in even more glorious voice than on the first night. Chris Alexander and Lawrence Renes certainly had much going in their favor. But they must still be warmly congratulated for welding their constituent elements into one of the most comprehensively moving and beautiful opera productions that I can remember experiencing.