Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Any traditional staging of the opera will focus on the title character and her obsession with avenging her father Agamemnon's death at the hands of her mother Klytaemnestra and her mother's lover Aegisth. Elektra's brother Orest was years before banished from the kingdom. Her sister Chrysothemis shares Elektra's grief over their father's murder, but wants to escape the violence and mayhem that has infected their family; she wants to marry, bear children and know a decent life. That leaves only Elektra to seek blood justice, intent on using the same axe that was used to kill her father.
For the Minnesota Opera's production, stage director Brian Staufenbiel has devised a way to place the heroine's obsessive rage in a context of melodramatic storytelling, using a technology that was just emerging when Elektra premiered in 1909. Staufenbiel places the opera in a silent film studio where the eminent director Fritz Lang is making a grand-scale movie of Elektra, with its jarring score performed by an in-studio orchestrameaning, on stage, visible to the audience. Performers enter through a gaping mouth cut into a wall of gold filigree, and down an aisle that wends through the orchestra. The pit is filled in to furnish the space from which the director, the cameraman, and other functionaries shoot the film.
During some scenes, as we watch the performers live on stage, the camera shows them on a screen cleverly positioned in front of a mammoth studio set, with their tortured faces in close up, mirroring the hyperbolic emotional images silent movies used to compensate for the absence of the human voice. The effect does not diminish the beauty of the voices that rise up to deliver Strauss's powerful score, but rather adds a visual element that draws parallels between the necessary excess of emotion in both media. It is enriching, enthralling and entertaining.
Making more use of the silent film concept, Staufenbiel opens the production with a screening of a short silent film, The Fall of Agamemnon, that furnishes the backstory behind Klytaemnestra's murder of Agamemnon. This background is found in Sophocles' play but was left out of the opera in order to focus solely upon Elektra's obsession. We learn that Klytaemnestra was driven to kill by her fury against her husband for sacrificing their youngest daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis, who was impeding the Greek army from going to battle in the Trojan War. This does not make Klytaemnestra's murder of Agamemnon any less heinous, but places it in a chain reaction where one violent act triggers another, and another, and in which Elektra's vengeance is just one more.
With the camera showing them in close-up, the principal cast members in Elektra must not only sing Strauss's challenging score with force and clarity, but must also show the intensity of their passions on their faces. Foremost, Elektra must be a tigresscunning, strong, willing to slink through the most debased conditions to satisfy her need for revenge. Sabine Hogrefe, performing on opening night, indeed conveys all of this, not only when singing but while lurking about the corners of the palace courtyard, awaiting a chance to pounce into action. When she does raise her voice in songwhich is a good deal of the timeher gorgeous soprano delivers the heartrending lyrics with the force of a typhoon, modulating tones to convey the depth of her feeling.
As Klytaemnestra, Jill Grove's lush mezzo-soprano provides darker tones as the self-righteous queen who lives in fear of being punished for committing murder, even though she has no remorse for having done it, and shows no sympathy for the trauma it has brought upon her daughters. Marcy Stonikas gives a tender performance as Chrysothemis, terrified by all that has befallen her family and wanting only to avoid any more. She wants to comfort Elektra, but cannot be her comrade. Stonikas' soprano is beautifully rounded, conveying more heart-felt yearning as opposed to Elektra's strident call to action. Craig Irvin, as Orest, has a powerful baritone to match his physically robust bearing, leaving no doubt that he is up to the task Elektra lays at his feet. Irvin achingly shows Orest's pained reaction as Elektra describes the abuses she has been subjected to since their father's death, with every one of her words seeming to strike a blow upon his heart.
Elias Grandy conducts the on-stage Minnesota Opera Orchestra, giving a vigorous, full-throttled presentation of the score, which, along with Salome, is considered Strauss's deepest foray into atonal modernism. There is little here in the way of lilting melody, but this is soaring, emotive music that commands attention while perfectly matching the sorrowful narrative.
Director Staufenbiel also created the production design, in which his sound stage concept meshes with the opulent palace courtyard at ancient Mycenae. David Murakami created the brilliant video and projection designs so thoroughly integrated into the production. Mathew LeFebvre's costumes are inventively elaborate, ranging from the ragged gown worn by Elektra to a homely dress for Chrysothemis to the garish apparel for Queen Klytaemnestra, with a headpiece of bejeweled projectiles surely meant to instill fear in all who lay their eyes upon her. Lighting designer Nicole Pearce provides the appropriate shifts between despair and hope, though the occasion leans more heavily on the former.
As written by Strauss, Elektra is performed in one act of 100 minutes. Arrive early and you will see the cast and crew going through the motions of setting up a silent film sound stage, a twenty-minute long pre-show that embellishes the production's ingenious concept.
Knowing that Elektra is a grisly story that deals with some of the human species' most vile and dangerous instincts, I cannot say I was looking forward to it with joy. However, I found that the inventiveness of the production concept, the stirring grandeur of Strauss's score, the glorious voices of the principals, and the outstanding musicianship of the orchestra combine to make this a stunning production, well worth seeing, and one that will be remembered for a long time to come.
Elektra runs through October 13, 2019, a Minnesota Opera presentation at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $153.0. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Richard Strauss; Libretto: Hugo Von Hofmannsthal; Conductor: Elias Grandy; Stage Director and Production Design: Brian Staufenbiel; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Hair and Make-Up Design: Priscilla Bruce; Intimacy Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Conductor and Chorusmaster: Andrew Whitfield; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Répétiteurs: Mary Box, Allen Perriello and Andrew Sun; English Surtitles: Sonya Friedman.
Cast: Berit Ahlgren (Camera Operator), Mia Athey (Maidservant #2), Danielle Beckvermit (Maidservant #5), Nadia Benavidez (Maidservant #1), Justin Cooke (Fritz Lang), Nicholas Davis (Old Servant ), Andrew Gilstrap (Guardian of Orest), Jill Grove (Klytaemnestra), Michelle Hayes (Confidante), Sabine Hogrefe (Elektra *), Craig Irvin (Orest), Alexandra Loutsion (Elektra *), Sandra Partridge (Trainbearer), Dennis Peterson (Aegisth), Lisa Marie Rogali (Maidservant #4), Christian Sanders (Young Servant), Marcy Stonikas (Chrysothemis), Victoria Vargas (Maidservant #3), Karin Wolverton (Overseer). *Appears in alternate performances