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Dance of Death

Washington National Opera
05/10/2008 -  and May 13, 15, 18m, 21, 24, 27
Richard Strauss: Elektra
Yvette Smith (First Maidservant), Claudia Huckle (Second Maidservant), Magdalena Wór (Third Maidservant), Elizabeth Andrews Roberts (Fourth Maidservant), Aundi Marie Moore (Fifth Maidservant), Vivian Tierney (Overseer), Susan Bullock (Elektra), Christine Goerke (Chrysothemis), Irina Mishura (Klytemnästra), Robert Cantrell (Tutor), Daniel Sumegi (Orest), Alan Woodrow (Aegisth), Alia Waheed (Klytemnästra’s Trainbearer), Lisa Eden (Klytemnästra’s Confidante), Yingxi Zhang (Young Servant), David B. Morris (Old Servant)
Washington National Opera Chorus, Washington National Opera Orchestra, Heinz Fricke (Conductor)
Elijah Moshinsky (Original Production), David Kneuss (Director), Robert Israel (Set and Costume Design), Mimi Jordan Sherin (Lighting Design), Elsen Associates (Wigs and Makeup), Sonya Haddad (Supertitles)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Richard Strauss’s one act Modernist opera Elektra is derived from the original Greek tragedy of Sophocles. It is a disturbing libretto, which deals with cruel primal themes of the human condition such as hatred, revenge, lust, patricide, and matricide. It shocked audiences at its premiere in 1909 and it is still potently riveting today.

Much of this cathartic energy is captured in the current production by the Washington National Opera in the Kennedy Center Opera House. And this shocking power is communicated in the largest part by the masterful conducting of WNO’s music director Maestro Heinz Fricke. The electricity he elicited from the pit was at times almost overpowering. The WNO Orchestra was simply magnificent. I do not believe I have ever heard them play as well or as impressively. Of course they were considerably augmented to accommodate the demands of Strauss’s enormous orchestration. The sound was lush, terrifying, and at times…bombastic. The playing was thrilling from the first opening chords to the jabbing throbs that conclude the work some 105 minutes later. As a young conductor, Maestro Fricke worked closely with Richard Strauss. He even played cards with him and Strauss loved to play cards! These early, first hand experiences with the composer surely influenced him, as Maestro Fricke had a lot to say stylistically in his performance of this work. To say that his control of the orchestra and singers was impressive is an understatement as most of the drama that emanated from the stage was driven solely from the energy in the pit.

I say this because the power of the drama and the music was clearly delivered to the audience, but with absolutely no help from the director, set designer, or costumer. From that perspective it was as bad as its gets in today’s opera. At times it was so distracting I had to close my eyes to follow the action. The color scheme of lavender, pink, chartreuse, and yellow was enough to make you sick. When Klytemnästra says to Elektra that she feels ill and cannot sleep well at night I could understand why. Although the time frame was updated to the 21st century we were asked to believe there was no electricity. When the King Aegisth called for light, minions arrived bearing torches. Go figure? The supertitles were also poorly done and often so silly as to draw laughter from the audience. When the divas are physically quite large (as was the case in this production) it is perhaps best to not refer to them in the supertitles as “dove-like.” The less said about this “concept” production the better and I will leave it at that. Whatever the concept was…it escaped me!

Soprano Susan Bullock is an imposing Elektra. She sang with great expression and musicality, her voice riding the waves of the large orchestra without any forcing or tiring. She was thrilling in her delivery of the famous monologue “Allein, ganz allein,” and she still had plenty of oomph at the end of the opera where Strauss again demands Elektra to trumpet high and loud over the entire brass section. Her final dance, swinging the axe that murdered her father Agamemnon until she herself collapses in a deadly swoon was powerfully effective.

Ironically, Christine Goerke, as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, bested Ms. Bullock. Ms. Goerke displayed a voice even larger and more imposing in volume, power, and thrust. This did not work against Susan Bullock but was curious nonetheless. The two sopranos worked well in their scenes together and they were titillating in their pseudo-lesbian moments. Unfortunately Ms. Goerke was deplorably costumed by Robert Israel. She wore a hideous, long sleeved, full-length dress that resembled one of those ridiculous gowns, sans feather boa, that Beverly Sills sported for the last twenty years hosting televised affairs for PBS. In spite of that she took the top vocal honors of the evening and was well rewarded with many bravos from the audience.

The feather boa was given to Irina Mishura who, as Elektra’s Queen Mother Klytemnästra, resembled an aging dowager on holiday in Las Vegas. Ms. Mishura was on the light side vocally for portraying Klytemnästra, considering the standards set by Regina Resnik, Jean Madiera, or Ernestine Schumann-Heink (who created the role). Her acting, coupled with a great cackle, and the sheer force of her personality carried her.

As her son Orest, who had fled in exile after his father, the King Agamemnon, had been murdered, and who has now returned to help Elektra in the revenge murders of both Klytemnästra and her husband Aegisth, baritone Daniel Sumegi gave a commanding portrayal. He also has a huge voice and he paired well with Susan Bullock. They were memorable in the famous “Recognition Scene.” His presence created a real sense of foreboding and impending horror in spite of David Kneuss’s poor direction.

Tenor Alan Woodrow made a strong showing as the doomed King Aegisth, Elektra’s stepfather. He made the most of a most ungrateful role with an excellent characterization, and vivid offstage cries as he met his murderous death. In one of the most haunting moments of the opera Aegisth cries out in agony, “Can no one hear me?” “Agamemnon hears you,” replies Elektra.

Despite the many problems inherent in this production, Richard Strauss’s magnificent score triumphed in the end, leaving the Kennedy Center audience breathless from the accumulated tension and shock, and from the magnitude of the singing and orchestral playing. The standing ovation it gave the cast and conductor was well deserved. Performances continue through May 27.

Micaele Sparacino



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