San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” is a powerhouse!
From the minute the curtain rises on the “Museum Elektra,” filled with the artifacts of the Greek age and styled with an array of modern visitors, complete with cell phones and baseball caps, one strange dark-haired woman skulking around from this case to that, defying the Guards who monitor the whole scene until the bell rings for the closing museum, we are on a train speeding through in time. More than time, really, destiny. For Strauss’ “Elektra,” in the hands of master English Director Keith Warner, making his SFO debut with this production, and revived by Anja Kühnhold, making her U.S. debut, and Set Designer, Boris Kudlicka, making his debut, is a masterpiece of time, place, circumstance, aptly turning us on our heads about what counts in life and what doesn’t. When the dark-haired, dark-clothed woman in sneakers stowaway as the museum closes, we know something is up. It is. Our mystery guest is none other than Elektra herself, the heroine of the opera and arbiter of the moral code of the tragedy, at least by ancient standards. Here is Strauss, Hofmannsthal, and Sophocles himself, human nature on the brink.
Conducted by Henrik Nanasi in his SFO debut, with a 95-piece orchestra that is large and voluptuous, the “overflow” musicians play from the “torpedo” room behind the pit. This makes the “Elektra’s” Orchestra the largest of any company production. Nanasi conducts the music with the finesse of someone who is both in and outside the music. As Strauss no doubt wanted, the orchestra is like a major voice in the articulation of story and character, the orchestra driver and driven itself. No need for coaxing or leading, it is as if a variegated thunderbolt was let out of the sky. From the initial “Wo bleibt Elektra,” to the final “Schweig und tanze,” the sound envelopes and complements text mainly without blurring it, certainly without diffusion. Chromaticism and dissonant sounds punctuate the rich musical texture and strengthen the union.
Union, in fact, is the key, both in sound and story. Such a marriage, in fact, emphasizes loyalty and human deed, on every level. You just don’t sacrifice your daughter, war or no war, and fail to exact revenge on those parents who do so. This is the ancient code. Likewise, you don’t revenge one guilty parent without the other. All are implicated. What else are daughters for? A goodly prize for a goodly cause. Elektra stops short of that argument, in the opera, being a daughter herself. But, power to the daughters – she will take charge from that moment on – when she skulks around the closing Museum. Things are about to change.
Christine Goerke is a genius in this role. A strong actress with a voice to match, or vice-versa – was she actually singing? Between the passion and the sound and its meaning, there was little difference. Pain and love and loss and restoration of order was what the action conveys. From “Allein, ganz allein,” Elektra accepts her responsibility for that night and forever. Neither past nor present are any different and the powerful layering production Keith Warner accents. While a Museum stowaway, she is also the antique Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, the sister to Orest and Chrystotemis, and kin to the Antigone-Parsifal-Gawain and the Green Knight archetype of Greek and Medieval legend. Moral order must be restored, and she leads the enterprise. If Orest, charged with this mission to kill Klytemnestra, fails, she will take up the ax. Goerke’s version gives us a presence, power and primality squared. From her opening shouts of “Agamemnon,” with its ominous and majestic downbeat to the final Orest, we are on a train that spells out destiny first and foremost. Her vocal tones at first seem a bit slight for such a heavy assignment, but clearly, she is up to the dark and heavy responsibility, easy variety, punctuating her intention with every single one of her feelings: rage, loss, fear, anguish, belittling humiliation, decision. Strauss’s opera concentrates on Elektra’s psychological pilgrimage through these feelings, and Goerke, never leaving the stage for the entire hour and forty-five minutes, moves from one demon-feeling to another, the plot benefitting from the rapid-fire shifts. Never does Goerke’s Elektra stray from her task; and the plot moves murderously forward to the inevitable conclusion, when Elektra dances herself into final oblivion, the contemporary vision of her father bloodied to death again rising before her only reinforcing her conviction that the completion of her deed has borne order and restitution to her family and its world.
Life Over Death
Chrysothemis played by soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka, is a more than worthy complement. Looking like any handsome and giddy girl of the 1950s, in her pink outfit and blonde curls, in her room of pop stars portraits plastered on the wall, she states her contrary assertion that it’s life she wants, not death. Pieczonka’s voice, full of aching beauty, grows fierce, nevertheless to rival her sister’s, although she doesn’t want to join the bloody war, despite the war paint Elektra paints on her face. Yet, she sings with a dual burden she bears, longing for life and willingly fueling the fires. Her round luxurious tones entice and convince us that she is a member of this family, not alien to it. Her ardent conviction does not exempt from the circle of hate. Elektra says, in fact, if you do this with me – now that Orest has even though falsely declared dead – I will be a better sister to you. Even though neither sister has to act it out, we don’t need more concurrence that these two are kin.
As Orest, Alfred Walker, in his SFO debut, commits to his part in the plot. The ardor and conviction with which he shows this, however long it’s been coming, also links him by blood to his sisters. His ardent and passionate kiss with Elektra seems not only a greeting and vow, but another instance of the broiling intimacy the family lives even as it deals with their burden: destroy any part of us, and we will all descend on you. Nothing surprises us when we enter into their private dialogues.
And what of the mother of the brood? The magnificent Michaela Martens, in her role debut, as Klytemnestra, fits perfectly alongside them. If we thought we couldn’t see another acting singer equal to Elektra and Chrysothemis, we are surprised again, set agog by her skill, the terror of her torment and its horrific unfolding. Martens appears straight out of the museum case dressed as Queen with crown and white robes, but, when Elektra disrobes her to the blue-satin figure of a mother of now and once-upon a time, we find more than costume disclosure: fierce sexual needs, alcohol-driven attempts to sleep, to ward off her bad dreams, doubt and anguish as her guilt rides her hard on the murder of the noble Agamemnon, she tries to endure, but she fails. Thoughts that go too deep for tears all right; never can she escape, and when she begs Elektra to doctor the nightmares, in a voice of deep amplitude, replete with the dynamics of her multiple emotions of self-pity and defiance, self-justification, and disintegration, we can hardly imagine she can survive; and when she caresses Elektra, pressing her body against her daughter’s back, she more than knows her days are numbered; no doubt she knew it from the minute she committed the murder even as she felt justified. When Orest catches her in the “kitch” kitchen, from 1952, with its curtains and tiles, we know the jig’s up. Warner leaves her back to us, leaning over the sink, head chopped off and swung in a plastic bag, and we know compassion can not be. The drunk scene alone guarantees a kind of immortality in this production, what with Martens’s voice never tripping over itself as she sings the deliberate slurring sounds of the drunken mother.
Aegisth, an apt slimy partner in murder and incestuous longing, is played most aptly by Robert Brubaker, as are the court and maid servants.
The production is ingenious. Warner and Anja Kühnhold’s set is not merely the Museum container for the whole, but the sliding 50’s kitchen and teenage bedroom, the staircase and balcony coming from its Elizabethan heritage, vitalizes the action. Handmaids run up and down the stairs, enter and exit various doors, windows open and close as display cases do, again blend old and new and serve with flexibility the deliverance of justice. Lights by John Bishop, Costumes by Kasper Glarner, span ancient handmaiden outfits and makeup, with overtones of the witches in “Macbeth,” the uniformed messengers, the masked Agamemnon standing stock still during Orest and Elektra’s recognition scene, as well as the Video Designs by Bartek Macias, and supported by Chorus Director’s Ian Robertson’s guidance, emphasize that gaps in time and place do not matter; the issues are the same whether it is then or now.
This is no historical opera, but rather a mythic archaeology of the human psyche. We never escape our destiny. From the outset, Elektra knows what she must do and so does everyone else. This is perhaps the main truth of the opera and in SFO’s production: what is is and must be. Our monsters live, as do our moral responsibilities. It is only a matter of time each venture forth and turns deeds to their rightful ordering. Like Frankenstein, like Julien of Norwich, all will be well, all sorts of things will be well. Leaving the War-Memorial Opera house, we are appropriately set right-side up, however, it comes about. From a single performance, we cannot go any further.