'Elektra': Vocal, Not Visual, Power Surges

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Family rivalries are at the heart of "Elektra," both the Sophocles drama and the Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera. But a new wrinkle in the familiar tale of revenge and matricide was introduced in the revival of the Washington National Opera's 1997 production that returned to the Kennedy Center stage Saturday night.

This "Elektra," as performed by Susan Bullock, was quite possibly motivated not only by rage at her mother for killing her father, but also by sibling rivalry with her sister, Chrysothemis, since Christine Goerke, who sang that role, had a much larger voice than Bullock did.

This whole work, after all, is about family dysfunction writ large. "Elektra" is not a pretty opera. It dates from Strauss's enfant-terrible years, and hides his intoxication with orchestral sound deep within a score that can hit the ear with the force of a fire hose. Shocking in its time (it had its premiere in 1909), it has not grown a whole lot tamer in the years since. When it does wrest its powerful orchestral forces into what might in other circumstances be called a catchy tune, it does so with all the aching power of humanity's longing. (The one moment of unequivocal orchestral beauty in her first scene sent this Elektra to the stage floor, curled into a fetal position.) Unfortunately, little of the opera's power is reflected in the visual aspects of this undistinguished production. Robert Israel's sets have dated: A three-dimensional collage of planes and beams leaning up against one another in a kind of obligatory abstract style, they look as if they were meant to be seen on the scale of a maquette, and are somewhat uncomfortable at this larger size. The color palette is a pop-art, sticky-candy spectrum of pinks and blues and chartreuses, enhanced by floods of colored light (by Mimi Jordan Sherin) that sometimes flickered off and on. One of the set walls sports a Warhol-like blowup, in purple, of photographic images of a nude woman, dating from around the time "Elektra" was written. "You see," the set appears to be saying, "we are taking Strauss's idea of what was shocking and translating it into the present"; but it is saying it a little too patly, and to no dramatic effect.

And the characters in this space, as directed by David Kneuss (Elijah Moshinsky was the original director), are adrift. They are, of course, rudderless after the death of their king, subjected to the corrupt rule of Klytemnaestra and her new husband, Aegisth, so unanchored that even their vaguely modern-dress costumes don't tether them to any particular period.

The five maids, first encountered in the act of energetically trying to destroy file boxes full of papers, and respectably cast with a bevy of singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, are in shiny business skirt-suit attire. Elektra wears men's clothing. Klytemnaestra has a kind of dowager movie star get-up, signaling that this character is supposed to chew the scenery. The most effective part of the staging was the entrance of the doomed Aegisth at the very end of the opera, and even then the lighting was set up so that it was difficult to see him.

Musically, the job was managed somewhat more effectively. Conductor Heinz Fricke brought a good solid sound out of the orchestra, if not much more than that. And the singers were cast with reasonable accuracy -- most of them making company debuts, like Alan Woodrow, who was strong and sturdy in Aegisth's brief but telling appearance. Irina Mishura had the dark lower register and slightly querulous top for a respectable Klytemnaestra, though not all of the dominating stage presence. As the long-lost Orest, who returns late in the opera to exact vengeance for his murdered father, Daniel Sumegi had a strikingly big voice delivered with a woofy echo, as if he were singing around a mouthful of dental cotton.

Goerke stole the show as Chrysothemis, her voice round, full, dark and easy, sounding more powerful and assertive than anyone else onstage, with the lyrical line of a singer who varies her vocal diet and does not attempt to sing the biggest, loudest roles of which she is physically capable. By contrast, Bullock at her first entrance appeared to be in a part that was a couple of sizes too big for her.

To Bullock's credit, she has not pushed her voice out of its natural line, so that when she was called on to sing more subtly -- in Elektra's duet with her sister, and especially in the bittersweet reunion with Orest -- she delivered some fine vocalism. Although the mere fact that she is willing to tackle the big roles of the repertory probably dooms her to repeat them as long as she is able, I would be interested to hear her in something else.

Still, the singing got the point across more than the production did. "Elektra" is an opera that begs to be provocative. But by wrapping it in empty signifiers of modernity, this production blunted its force and gave it a taste not of challenge, but of bewilderment.

Elektra, by Richard Strauss; libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Directed by David Kneuss; . Opera House Orchestra conducted by Heinze Fricke. In German with surtitles. At the Kennedy Center Opera House; remaining performances are on May 13, 18, 21, 24 and 27. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org.

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