Nearly a century has passed since Elektra first thrilled and horrified audiences at its Dresden premiere in January 1909. Yet no matter how unshockable we've become as a consequence of incessant depictions of violence across the media, Richard Strauss's fourth opera still has the power — rare among works of the past, let alone of our own era — to do just that.
The current production by Seattle Opera (featuring the company's most compelling work in recent memory) taps directly into this power with searing results, thanks to some superb casting and a breathtakingly high level of music making from the pit. Strauss seizes on the volatile, elemental drama of familial revenge with a score that is shattering and relentless in its intensity. G.B. Shaw's original verdict — that Elektra, with its portrayal of "cancerous evil," is "a tragedy unsurpassed for sheer hideousness in the whole of operatic literature" — hardly seems dated. If this were truly a matter of cheap sensationalism (the musico-dramatic equivalent of cinematic special effects), the opera could not have withstood the test of time; it would be a mere historical curiosity.
This Elektra is anything but. In the extraordinarily challenging title role, American soprano Janice Baird etches a company debut that bodes magnificently for her turn as the new BrÃ¼nnhilde in Seattle Opera's upcoming Ring. Her ample voice, with its variety of colors and thrilling, solid low range, never lags in meeting Strauss's punishing demands. Most crucially, however, Baird uses her full arsenal to characterize the wildly ranging facets of Elektra's character.
Far from giving us just a bloodthirsty lunatic — although she's spine-chilling on that front — Baird adds depth and edge to Elektra's monomania by underlining the other emotional extremities of which she is capable and which are so richly depicted by Strauss. Her sense of utter dejection at the (false) news of brother Orest's death is crushing, while she sings with the lush, feverish elation of a lover in the Recognition Scene marking his clandestine return. There are even moments when she lets slip a hint of compassion during her mother Klytemnestra's narration of her horrific nightmares — not enough, of course, to sway her from her murderous, revenge-killing path. This Elektra knows from soul-sucking dreams, after all, as Baird makes abundantly clear.
She has a first-rate partner in the work being done by conductor Lawrence Renes (also making his Seattle Opera debut). Renes is similarly responsive to the cross-currents of this complex score (Strauss uses the largest orchestral configuration of his entire operatic career, including a massive battery of percussion and brass). I especially admire his capacity to maintain dramatic momentum while coaxing out the rich details of the orchestral commentary — from the snarling scorn of the woodwinds accompanying the Maids' gossip to the tinkling that makes us hear how freighted Klytemnestra is by her ropes of jewels and amulets.
Most of the other principals are also making their Seattle Opera debuts. As the sister with a very different point of view, Irmgard Vilsmaier's Chrysothemis not only has a vocal size to match her sister but a command of expressive phrasing. The weary, terrorized Klytemnestra is given vivid shape by Rosalind Plowright, who somehow maintains her twisted pride even while groveling from fear. Alfred Walker is an imposing Orest, one who seems even more hell-bent on his vengeance than Elektra and never really warms to her exalted welcome. Richard Margison (a wonderful Florestan several seasons back) contributes a much-needed pinch of black humor in his brief scene as the usurping king Aegisth, guided straight to the dagger's point by Elektra.
Wolfram Skalicki's set design dates back to 1996 (the last time Elektra was performed here). He seems to have anticipated the claustrophobic, sepulchral look for Greek antiquity that also characterized Seattle Opera's IphigÃ©nie en Tauride. Massive, leaden walls with an imposing and tightly locked portal characterize this Mycenaean palace, while Melanie Taylor Burgess's costumes present an intriguing blend of regality and decadence (featuring a headdress that is equally effective when Klytmenestra wears it and when she doffs it to reveal her bald head). The lighting design by Marcus Doshi is especially brilliant — in the metaphorical sense, that is, since he finds continually fascinating blends of threatening colors to vary the dominant darkness. Someone has been rereading E.R. Dodds (if not Nietzsche) on The Greeks and the Irrational.
Chris Alexander's staging continues with some of the frustrating directions I've observed in his recent productions. There's an unquestionable sensitivity to the Strauss score and the nuances of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's very nuanced libretto. Alexander convincingly builds the impending sense of doom, from the establishing visual where we see the Maids furiously scrubbing in the palace courtyard, like a bevy of Lady Macbeths (with an especially feisty turn by Cynthia Jansen's First Maid). It's hard to square that with his tendency to overplay other scenes. Strauss and Hofmannsthal provide more than enough to make Klytemnestra's entrance a luridly foreboding stage picture, one which doesn't require a nearly enacted scene of human sacrifice to be added as extra padding (Alexander also leaves the high priest to stand freeze frame, with knife poised to strike against the body-stockinged victim, for several minutes). Similarly, the palace coup, complete with stage combat, that is enacted after the murders at the end distracts considerably from the moment when we should be experiencing Elektra's ultimate triumph.