Angst, Misery, Murder, And Loud Orchestra In ‘Elektra’ To Remember

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Marjorie Owens is Elektra and Alfred Walker portrays Orest in the Dallas Opera production of Strauss’ ‘Elektra.’ (Photos courtesy of Dallas Opera)

DALLAS — The music is riveting. The voices are rich. The costumes are…original.

This Elektra was memorable, no doubt about it.

The Dallas Opera premiered its production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra on Feb. 9. The production, which originated at Lyric Opera of Chicago, features an appropriately gigantic set. A staircase stage right leads to the entrance of Queen Klytämnestra’s disintegrating palace in ancient Mycenae. Masses of broken stones emphasize the emotional and political disarray of the opera’s setting.

Angela Meade, left, as Chrysothemis could be heard over the orchestra, though others, including Marjorie Owens, right, as Elektra, weren’t always so fortunate.

The one-act opera, which premiered in Dresden in 1909, opens without overture and runs around 100 minutes. Hugo von Hofmannsthal derived the libretto from his play on the subject, which in turn was based on Sophocles’ Elektra. The opera features one of the largest orchestras in the repertoire. The Dallas Opera ensemble for Elektra employs 97 members and includes Strauss’ required heckelphone (essentially a low-register oboe) and two basset horns (an early alto clarinet).

When the opera opens, Elektra is exceedingly angry at her mother, Klytämnestra, and her rage is carrying her deep into insanity. Elektra has reason to be angry. Klytämnestra and her lover, Aegisth, murdered Elektra’s father, Agamemnon, when he returned from the Trojan War, and they took power of Mycenae. In addition, Klytämnestra has a more personal motive for murdering her husband: During the war, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphegenia to Artemis, Greek goddess of wildlife and the hunt, whom Agamemnon offended by shooting a stag without permission and then sacrificed Iphegenia to try to pay Artemis back.

Iphegenia’s sacrifice does not deter Elektra from plotting bloody revenge against Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Elektra is willing to murder both of them herself, but she would like for her sister Chrysothemis to participate in the crime. She also hopes that her missing brother Orest will make a surprise appearance and help the sisters with the murder.

A view of the orchestra and stage for Dallas Opera’s ‘Elektra’ at a rehearsal

A good yarn. The production, however, was hampered by two large problems. First, the orchestra was too loud — not for the patrons, but for the singers. Of the three featured women, Angela Meade’s Chrysothemis was the only one whose singing was consistently in balance with the orchestra. Almost everyone else was, at least part of the time, inaudible.

Although the problem might originate with some of the singers, conductor Emmanuel Villaume is the man to do the repairs. Villaume has been the company’s music director since 2013; he knows the (excellent) acoustics of the house, and the singers in Elektra have enough to do without having to worry about orchestral balance. Certainly this issue should have been addressed before opening night.

Second problem: the production’s costumes and makeup. From the opening lines to Elektra’s last dance step, John Macfarlane’s costumes and David Zimmerman’s makeup baffle the observer. As the opera begins, the maidservants are in white face — chalky white face — with white bald pates to match.

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove’s eerie portrayal of the queen’s haunting dreams and all-encompassing fear is so convincing that the viewer almost feels sorry for her.

What on earth is going on? Is the audience learning that the handmaidens have been working around the palace for so long that they are permanently coated with stone dust? Is the white supposed to resemble ancient Greek masks? Then again, perhaps the white makeup and bald heads indicate members of the lower class. Perhaps not, however: Many women in Klytämnestra’s retinue have hair, but they still wear the chalky makeup. Klytämnestra herself is bald and chalky, with lots of jewelry.

Then there are the sideways petticoats. Elektra doesn’t seem to be wearing a petticoat under her rags, but the rest of the upper-class women do. And only Elektra and Chrysothemis avoid the white face.

As for the men, Elektra has only two notable male roles. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sang the part of Orest with vigor. He wore a tunic and didn’t have the chalky makeup. Clifton Forbis, playing Aegisth, wasn’t so lucky. Indeed, after viewing Forbis’ white makeup and seemingly blood-soaked lower arms, one might be forgiven for not remembering the rest of his costume.

Orest (Alfred Walker) kills Aegisth (Clifton Forbis) as Elektra (Owens) seeks revenge.

The reason to emphasize the orchestral and costume issues is that they consistently distract the audience from the performances. How unfair.

As Elektra, soprano Marjorie Owens has a strong voice, and she seems to be equal to the musical and dramatic demands of the part, although the audience could not always hear her. She swings her ax with joy and awaits the day she can use it to dispatch Klytämnestra and Aegisth.

Klytämnestra, of course, would prefer to live. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove’s eerie portrayal of the queen’s haunting dreams and all-encompassing fear is so convincing that the viewer almost feels sorry for her. She is, of course, doomed.

The superstar in the strong cast was soprano Meade as Chrysothemis, Elektra’s less-violent, essentially well-adjusted sister. Meade sang with pitch-perfect gusto, and her voice consistently rang out over the orchestra. The audience heard every gorgeous note.

Lighting director Jennifer Tipton uses techniques from German Expressionistic cinema to heighten the opera’s emotional power. Particularly noteworthy were the enlarged shadow of Orest, which entered before the character did, and the spotlight on a red background for Orest’s murder of Aegisth.

After the double murder, the fog machine revs up, followed by a copious river of blood flooding the stairs. Elektra dances to her death, and the opera concludes.

An ax to grind: Elektra dances with joy after her brother kills their mother and her mother’s lover.

What remains, of course, is the music. Strauss’ expressionistic score supplies chromaticism, what he called “psychological polyphony,” dizzying registers, extreme dissonance, a smidgen of atonality, extensive leitmotifs, and parlando. Strauss has done the emotional and musical labor. Does the audience need a visually busy production?

And, in the end, one question persists: With rich source material like Elektra, why overlay the music with superfluous folderol?

Dallas Opera’s Elektra continues through Feb. 17. For information and tickets, go here.