By: Lucy Nesbitt
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is always a spectacular sight to see on opera nights and it didn’t disappoint on the evening of January 31st as people funneled in to experience Richard Strauss’ psychologically charged, musically riveting Elektra.
The opera opened with a disclaimer that due to illness one of the cast would be replaced by their understudy. Little did we know that this incredibly human circumstance was only the beginning of a the very human experience that would come to follow in the opera itself.
The staging was immediately captivating; a slanted stage decorated with bleak 70s gothic horror-like colours with a perpetually burning pile of chairs set off to one side created the scene for Christine Goerke in the title role. She stayed visible on the stage for essentially the entire opera. The overbearing darkness of the opera was enhanced by this unstable stage and the ability for the audience to see the character’s shadows, which often reflected the heavy atmosphere if not directly referenced by what was being sung. The audience was immediately pulled into the emotion of the plot from the moment Goerke began singing. Her voice was resonant and striking through a massive range which she was required to use with extreme dexterity during the entire opera. She was able to bring absolute clarity to her character despite any technical challenges Strauss’ writing may have posed and dominated the stage for the entire duration of the one act opera.
The plot follows Elektra as she waits for her estranged brother to come and kill their murderous mother and her lover in revenge for killing their father. She is beside herself with grief for the duration of the opera, coping with the loss of her father, the strain between her and her mother due to the murder, and with her sister who prefers to dream of marrying and having children, living what she calls “a woman’s fate”. Through Strauss’ music, the audience was able to grasp an honest interpretation of the complexities involved in both grief and the strained relationships that can occur between these women. Elektra’s earnestness and desperate nature became a window for the other women in the story to perceive themselves through. For example, Goerke would often be singing with one of the other women and would gradually disappear behind a structure onstage as her counterpart would continue on, divulging their deepest desires in a frank and honest manner to the audience. Due to this honesty, concepts such as women’s sexuality and relationships between women could be expressed and treated without it the women having to be seen through a male oriented lens.
The music itself was perfectly suited to this plot. One of the aspects that made Elektra so effective was Strauss’ chameleonic composition style. His origins were in conservative, Romantic style music, which we heard in this opera when more traditional emotions and feelings were being expressed, particularly by Erin Wall’s character, Chrysothemis as she relates to Elektra her desire for a strictly traditional lifestyle. This same musical style returned as Elektra tries to coerce Chrysothemis into killing their mother and her lover. The use of this style in a mocking way shows Strauss’ progress through his career towards the more modern style that the rest of this opera used. Strauss’ score often pushed the boundaries of conventional tonality and frequently mimicked the words being sung.
He also orchestrates the score extremely well, using instruments which better capture a mood with their timbre. A term coined by Richard Wagner is the leitmotif (which Strauss borrowed), refers to a musical theme that is applied to a character or concept. He had a leitmotif for the murdered father, Agamemnon, which was introduced by horns in the low range, as well as the English Horn. The theme returned in various different formats throughout the opera, in different instrumentation, which allowed for the audience to perceive the shifts in feeling towards a certain concept, something which strongly characterizes how people deal with grief. The orchestra itself was massive, with over 100 musicians, which allowed for a very typical density that Strauss employs very well in most of his later tone poems and operas. This creates a massive emotional colour pallet with the sound, stimulating goosebumps on several occasions.
Overall, it was a strong and well-delivered performance. Goerke’s persona and voice overshadowed the others onstage with her at times, however it did feel that everyone brought passion to the stage. The mix of extremely talented vocalists and instrumentalists, Strauss’ writing, the staging and the plot itself is absolutely worth catching before the run is over at the end of February 2019.