On my walk to the Kennedy Center for Washington National Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’s “Elektra,” I encountered skeletons and zombies, a roving crew of drag “Karens” and what I must assume was intended to be a Sexy SpongeBob.
That’s because no house in history is as haunted as the House of Atreus, who, from King Tantalus right on down to Orestes and his messed-up sisters, have held court for millennia as the official family of mythic-scale dysfunction. These people make the Mansons look like the Osmonds.
On Saturday, director Francesca Zambello premiered a sharp-clawed and intensely focused vision of Strauss’s blood-spattered family portrait, one that gave its star soprano, Christine Goerke, enough dirt to dig deep, and one that brought the madness of the music to relentlessly chilling life.
The night is short and full of terrors: “Elektra” is a 100-minute cyclone of an opera, driven by blasts of gnarly brass, strings that seem ever-teetering on the brink of catastrophe and a feral chromaticism that scorches the edges of the score.
When Strauss does lapse into stretches of traditionally beautiful music — say, the gauzy strings that waltz below Elektra’s naive delusions of post-matricidal peace — he makes sure to snatch it away as soon as your hope is hooked. When folks refer to this opera as a “psychological drama,” it has just as much to do with fate messing with Elektra as Strauss screwing with you.
It’s for this reason that the other big star of the show was the Washington National Opera Orchestra under conductor Evan Rogister, who led a performance that managed to sound appropriately untethered and deceptively exacting. I tend to groan about the volume in this hall, but even at this reduced orchestration of “Elektra” (85 musicians as opposed to the 113 called for by Strauss), the sound was vibrant and rich. Rogister’s steering of the music’s violent weather had me loosening my tie, and his finely attuned management of its mess of motivic gestures and granular details was superb.
A slight delay in the supertitles on Saturday had the audience best-guessing their German throughout the opening scene, in which all but one of Elektra’s maids hang around talking trash about their visibly traumatized mistress. (The one who doesn’t gets beaten.) By the time Goerke’s harried Elektra emerged onstage — and once she arrives, she’s there until the bitter end — all was well. So to speak.
One of the challenges of singing Elektra (and one of Goerke’s strongest suits in the role) is regulating her rate of collapse; it needs to be a downward spiral, yes, but it also needs to gain momentum enough for her crash to mean anything. Elektra also needs enough proverbial gas in the tank to convincingly dance herself to death at the end. (Oh, ancient Grecian myth spoiler alert, I guess.)
Point being, once the opera opens with the terrifying three-note slash marking the death of Agamemnon, Elektra’s grief needs to steadily ramp up, even as her grasp on reality breaks down. Strauss builds these opposing tensions right into the architecture of her character: His “Elektra chord” — a dissonant stacking of E major and C-sharp major — is the sound of a woman tearing in two.
It doesn’t feel very nice to call somebody a born Elektra, but Goerke sounded uncannily at home in the house fire of this antiheroine. She has previously sung Elektra in Keith Warner’s sleek 2017 production at San Francisco Opera (set in a modern-day museum), as well as Charles Edwards’s acclaimed 2013 production at the Royal Opera House (set in the Weimar Republic). You could hear that experience in her mastery, but her path into madness never came off like a well-trodden trail.
Goerke opened with a stunning “Allein! Weh, ganz allein,” lending Elektra a composure that felt immediately suspect and a menace that felt imminent, as though a deep fault were coursing through the foundation of her voice. From there, she dominated: Elektra’s fruitlessly obsequious pleas to her sister (“Wie stark du bist”), the emotional maelstrom of her fraternal reunion (“Orest!”) and her climactic collapse (“Schweig, und tanze”) were all vividly realized and sung with force and fire by Goerke.
Soprano Sara Jakubiak was phenomenal as Elektra’s slightly more sensible sister, Chrysothemis, whose pining plea for a life of normalcy (“Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren”) was one of the evening’s highlights. The fact that Chrys believes that contributing to this cursed lineage is a good idea erases any doubt that these two are sisters.
And although mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman played her Klytämnestra a touch more comic and Cruella than I would have preferred — an effect that calls Elektra’s ground-scraping despair into unhelpful contrast — her singing was extraordinary. Ryan Speedo Green’s bass-baritone was well-suited to the swooping-in hero of Orest, and his sibling revelry with Elektra was a showcase of his and Goerke’s estimable dramatic chops. Compelling tenor Štefan Margita made a short-lived appearance onstage as the short-lived Aegisth.
Zambello’s production is an angular distillation of Mycenae framed in fragments of a falling empire: a lone standing column, a fresh ruin marked with Agamemnon’s name, the mound of earth around which the action of the opera seems to circle, as though drawn down the drain of fate.
Set designer Erhard Rom (also behind WNO’s current production of “Il trovatore”), projection designer S. Katy Tucker (ditto) and lighting designer Mark McCullough enhanced Zambello’s sharp focus on performance with restraint that never felt timid. Rom’s set evokes a moment of consequential stillness in an era in active collapse.
Costume designer Bibhu Mohapatra disrupted Rom’s palette of stark grays with robes of gold lamé, teal tunics, purple cloaks and blood-red bodysuits (worn by a troupe of dancers beguilingly choreographed by Eboni Adams). Halloween notwithstanding, the looks sometimes struck me as a touch too fun, but they did provide the contrast required to parse the degree of Elektra’s degradation, her muted mauve gown in filthy tatters.
If there’s one note I can offer about this electric “Elektra,” it’s the ax. You know, the one that was just used to slaughter Agamemnon? The one dug out of the earth by a homicidal Elektra? It looks as if it just came out of the dishwasher. I’ve seen more convincing murder weapons on my walk to the opera.
Elektra, at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 12. kennedy-center.org.