The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey forced the Houston Grand Opera out of its regular space in the Wortham Theater Center and into a temporary one, dubbed HGO Resilience Theater inside the cavernous George Brown Convention Center in downtown.
Experiencing a performance in such an unusual setting wasn’t a unique experience for me after seeing a production of “Tannhauser” inside a similar space in Cologne last fall with an immense hall inside a convention center as the backdrop. The ominous black curtains and temporary seating brought back memories of that night, as did the makeshift lounges and adjacent areas inside the Houston convention center. There were signs that noted “that the show must go on” and it was just reported that the Wortham will be back in use for the 2018-19 season.
The occasion for this visit was to experience the great Christine Goerke in one of her signature roles as “Elektra” this past Friday night. This also wasn’t unique because I had seen her in this exact production by David McVicar with sets designed by John Macfarlane in its debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago. What was different with this setup was that part of the setting in Macfarlane’s dark and doom-filled original design included a pair of stone walls – one on the right side and one to the back right of a sunken pool and staircase where most of the action took place. These were now absent because the limitations of the space forced the location of the sizable orchestra needed for Richard Strauss’ one-act drama to be placed behind the setting and performers.
It seemed that there was no way to fit in Patrick Summers’ orchestra except to restrict it to where it was visually an afterthought. Unfortunately, this blunted most of the sound from Summers’ charges; it was clear that this would be an atypical night at the opera.
Revenge for a Slain Father
The impetus for Elektra’s behavior in this work based on Greek mythology is her desire to avenge the murder of father Agamemnon by mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Elektra is open and enthusiastic in her thirst for revenge. Her troubled sister Chrysothemis is wounded in a different way and more timid by nature. Brother Orestes has been banished by Clytemnestra.
This collaboration of Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal takes these themes to extreme lengths yet the idea of how family affects us so deeply is a familiar one. The vast majority of us do not want to murder a parent or a spouse or a child (one hopes!) although these are the people who resonate in our lives like no one else can. The emotional impact of a strained relationship between Strauss’ parents was clearly a focal point for his music. It’s probably why this work features some of the most haunting, dissonant and unnerving music ever created.
Returning to the viewing experience, it took some time to get used to the odd conditions during the final performance of this run of “Elektra,” although I believe it was a resounding success given the circumstances. The Houston audiences were robbed of seeing Goerke at her absolute best of cutting through the massive orchestra with her instrument but they weren’t deprived of seeing one of opera’s biggest stars performing a role she continues to take to new levels of excellence.
Elektra requires an absolute commitment by the title character and there may not be a better interpreter in the world than Goerke, who somehow has yet to sing this role at the Metropolitan Opera – a fact that will change next month. The soprano embodies the nuances of a woman who is bent on revenge while also possessing a tender and nurturing spirit.
When I saw Goerke in this role previously, I felt her interpretation was more about the character’s descent into mania that culminates in her exhortation at the end of “Schweig und tanze (be silent and dance)” in her blood-soaked gown. This time, I felt it was less the experience of a crazed woman and more of one also tinged with humane qualities.
It’s seen in her sisterly relationship with Tamara Wilson’s Chrysothemis when the latter speaks of wanting a woman’s lot in life. Goerke’s Elektra may want the aid of Chrysothemis in murdering Clytemnestra yet she also has empathy with her sister as well.
This quality is also evident when Elektra realizes that the stranger visiting is none other than Orestes, the brother who she believes is dead. There was an odd beauty to the way Goerke came across when she describes to her long-lost brother how dirty and pitiful she looks in a scene that was as captivating and entrancing as anything on the night.
Don’t Overlook the Others Though…
A tremendous cast was more than just along for the ride although it was hard to take one’s eyes off Goerke. The soprano Tamara Wilson as Chrysothemis contrasted Elektra well as a woman who was perhaps the most “normal” of these characters. Wilson’s Chrysothemis has endured a difficult life and longs for an elusive peace while being squeamish about taking revenge into her own hands.
Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens made her role debut as Clytemnestra this season in San Francisco and presents a mania that differs from Elektra while she fears the consequences of killing Agamemnon. Martens was a success in her Houston debut in displaying the uneasiness of a woman who realizes the gravity of her actions and understands that there is no way of escaping her destiny as a result. Her condition worsens with every taunt by Elektra.
Orestes was sung by veteran bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, whose commanding voice needs no introduction to opera fans. Grimsley always excels in playing characters who wear the black hat and this was no exception as he accepts the burden of carrying out the killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Fair to Judge Sound in Strange Conditions?
This Elektra was a much-anticipated event in Houston on the heels of a successful Ring cycle over the previous four seasons. Houston Grand Opera has a tradition of excellence of drawing quality productions and top performers that are the equal of any opera company in the country; the last time I visited, I saw star soprano Nina Stemme perform a stunning Isolde at the Wortham.
It thus feels unfair to have to comment on Summers and the orchestra given how unfavorable the conditions that they faced. Even Goerke’s magnificent voice was affected by the convention center setting, showing how difficult a situation this was for all the performers and certainly one that can’t be adequately prepared for.
What was heartening was that a crowd of excited opera lovers was present to fill the makeshift theater and prove that Houston Grand Opera is indeed resilient. It’s doubtful that anyone who attended this run of Elektra could have left too dissatisfied in an admirable effort by all.