S.F. Opera ‘Elektra’ Shocks, Provokes, And Overwhelms

Having a heart-to-heart by the kitchen sink: Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra and Christine Goerke in the title role of Strauss’ ‘Elektra,’ in a production designed by Boris Kudlička. (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO — At its maximum intensity, Elektra is no longer “just an opera.” Suspense and extreme passions sweep over the footlights and hold the listener in thrall. More than a century ago, Richard Strauss created a work that to this day grips, assaults, amazes, and eventually stuns the audience.

And so it was Sept. 9 in San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House, when, after 100 minutes of breathtaking intensity and brilliance, the audience exploded in a standing ovation, a mix of relief and admiration.

Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka, right) with sister Elektra.

The story, with its source in Greek mythology, tells of grief, revenge, and bloodshed, and critics of the music have gone as far as calling it  “unbearable cacophony.” Elektra, princess of Argos, was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and when her mother and the man who became her stepfather, Aegisth, murdered Agamemnon, she became consumed with the determination to kill the murderers of her father. Her story is similar to Hamlet’s, but there is no hesitation or indecision about Elektra.

The music reflects and underscores the drama, with only a few instances of relief from Elektra’s pain and murderous passion for revenge. It is an overwhelming musical-emotional experience, but rewarding only with ample preparation.

While the company announcement emphasized that this was the U.S. premiere of a new production, the power and the wonder of Elektra came from the right places — the music, the singers, the orchestra, and the conductor. Looming above the vast musical forces — including a 95-piece orchestra — without a weak link were Christine Goerke in the title role and conductor Henrik Nánási making his West Coast debut.

Christine Goerke brought to life the wronged princess.

Goerke brought to life the wronged princess consumed by anger and revenge — all with the voice. Though physically static, Goerke was superbly motile yet appropriately disciplined vocally and dramatically. When she called out to Agamemnon, it was not a shriek, as some singers choose to present it, but a moving combination of sorrow and determination. Goerke’s huge, powerful, effortlessly projected voice also conquered with exhilarating beauty.

Finding the exact middle ground in this opera of excess is also what’s remarkable about Nánási’s conducting. After a slow and curiously understated beginning, with the usually heaven-storming Agamemnon theme (D-A-F-D) sounding almost tentative, the rest of Nánási’s direction was rock-solid, allowing orchestral storms, passages of oceanic enchantment (in the Recognition Scene, for example), and the singers to be heard consistently in equal measure.

Without letting any personality quirks into the music, Nánási made the score come alive — faithfully, vibrantly. Enabling his work, the musicians of the S.F. Opera Orchestra played both on fire and sensitively, palpably listening to the singers and to each other. Would that such musicians’ names were included in reviews!

Alfred Walker made his San Francisco Opera debut as Orest.

The Hungarian-born conductor, 42, who recently concluded a five-year term as general music director of Komische Oper Berlin, is following in the footsteps of his compatriots here. San Francisco’s first Elektra in 1938 was led by Fritz Reiner, with Rose Pauly in the title role; the second production in 1953 was conducted by Georg Solti in his U.S. opera debut.

While Elektra herself is on stage throughout the opera, her mother Klytemnestra (Michaela Martens) and sister Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka) have demanding scenes of their own. Both performed with appealing vocal and stage presence — Martens commandingly dramatic, Pieczonka floating a gorgeous tone. Alfred Walker’s Orest is a welcome San Francisco debut, with a warm, appealing voice, a timbre equally lyrical and heroic.

Maidservants included Rhoslyn Jones (as the one sympathetic to Elektra), Jill Grove (used to bigger roles), Laura Krumm, Nicole Birkland, and Sarah Cambidge. Alexandra Loutsion was the Overseer. In the virtually invisible role of a Young Servant, Kyle van Schoonhoven made his mainstage debut; the young Adler Fellow is sure to be seen prominently in the future.

Robert Brubaker as Aegisth.

This U.S. premiere came from co-producers Prague National Theater and Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe. Keith Warner’s ambitious and inconsistent concept, staged in San Francisco by Anja Kühnhold, places the ancient Greeks in a museum. A visitor — who becomes Elektra — is obsessed with the ancient Greek myth on display. Where to go from there? To the story, with a few reminders of being in the museum.

This potentially distracting setting (designed by Boris Kudlička) — which does not illuminate the work — turned out to be fairly easy to ignore except, ironically, at the one turn that does make a contribution. As Aegisth (Robert Brubaker) approaches Chrysothemis’  bed, he gets the surprise of his life. The audience says “Aha!” and briefly disconnects, pondering what might have been going on between those two.

But again, the added layer to what is already among the most complex of works doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s a kind of directorial failure that’s to be celebrated.

Janos Gereben has written for the New York Herald-Tribune, Time-Life, UPI, Detroit Free Press, and for San Francisco Classical Voice since its founding in 1998.

Wondering about Elektra’s whereabouts are Nicole Birkland (Third Maidservant), Sarah Cambidge (Fourth Maidservant), Alexandra Loutsion (The Overseer), Rhoslyn Jones (Fifth Maidservant), and Jill Grove (First Maidservant).