When Richard Strauss’ 1909 opera Elektra begins, everything is already in ruins. The Greek myth’s sensational backstabbing, usurping, and betrayal in hindsight, only one woman’s retribution remains.
It’s an unusual but thrilling place to start a story, and Houston Grand Opera (presenting a production by Lyric Opera of Chicago) went all in. When the curtain dropped, piles of rubble flanked the entrance to Agamemnon’s palace, creating a stark juxtaposition of fortune and collapse that played on more levels than just the stage.
The fourth opera in HGO’s season, Elektra is by far the hardest to parse from the unavoidable limitations of the Resilience Theater, which the company valiantly constructed after Hurricane Harvey. This is partly because a lot was riding on it. Rare and darkly sublime, Elektra was always going to be the star of HGO’s season. Not many companies have the heft to perform Strauss’ one-act magnum opus (in its renowned history, HGO has only performed the opera twice). The score demands a massive and talented orchestra, but most of all, it needs one hell of a soprano, and the sensational Christine Goerke was poised to deliver.
And Goerke, divine as ever, certainly astounded as Elektra, but having been stunned many times by her voice in the Wortham (I can still feel the weight of her Brünnhilde overcoming me), I can’t escape the acoustic contrast. A turn of her head, a step down into the rubble, and her glorious instrument dimmed. It’s a tragedy unto itself. In the case of mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, debuting at HGO as Klytaemnestra, this contrast made it hard to definitively map her voice, but given what she was working with, she held court powerfully.
Soprano Tamara Wilson, in the role of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, expertly navigated Strauss’ thorny vocal line with keen emotion. The men, who arrive just long enough to kill and be killed, followed suit. As Orest, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was bitter and indomitable in his loyalty to Elektra and mission to murder. Chad Shelton, who lushly gave voice to Nixon in China’s Mao Tse-tung last season, reliably charmed for the moments he was alive.
While it is difficult to fairly assess this production all-around (in any other space, would blinding mis-angled spotlights spawn migraines for the center mezzanine?), the costumes are one of the few staid elements. Set and costume designer John MacFarlane paints a bleak and limited world for Elektra in cold stone grey rags, hints of gold winking from behind the black gauze of her enemies’ skirts, and of course, an increasing amount of (blood) red. Equipping the servants with whips, big Tim Burton-esque wigs, and one thong-backed red leather bondage ensemble, sometimes the aesthetic strayed a little too far from Elektra’s psychological crisis.
With artistic and music director Patrick Summers conducting, the orchestra spun a spine-chilling web with Strauss’ most atonally adventurous score. I imagine it was too large to seat anywhere else than slightly behind stage right, but the placement cost the orchestra some of the music’s beautiful density. Even so, while the brass struggled in some places with intonation, the overall sound was undeniably bewitching.
Hours before opening night, I saw HGO’s line-up for next season (Wagner, Bizet, and Mozart delights await!) and remembered the sheer joy I felt last year seeing Elektra slotted with Goerke’s name to it. From Goerke’s first low utterance of “Alone!”—so deeply anguished and filled with exquisite despair—I knew this performance was not what I had been waiting a year to hear. But it was, without a doubt, still Elektra.
Thru Feb. 2. Tickets from $25. Resilience Theatre at the GRB, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.