Elektrafying Strauss at Lyric Opera

Nina Stemme as Elektra (foreground) and Michaela Martens as Klytämnestra (background, center) in Lyric Opera’s production of “Elektra” by Strauss. (Photo courtesy of Cory Weaver)

What: “Elektra”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Feb. 22
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Greek mythology has been a robust source of material for various artistic endeavors, and in the world of opera one of the great works in the canon that relies on myth is “Elektra” by Richard Strauss with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is based on the Sophocles tragedy and packs a potent punch.

Lyric opened its 2012-13 season with a new and stunning “Elektra” and this fascinating production has now returned with a new cast and it’s more thrilling than ever.

It is the harsh story of family disintegration preceded by murder, revenge, and madness. Klytämnestra murders her husband Agememnon and takes over his kingdom with her lover and new husband Aegisth. Her daughter Elektra cannot bear her mother’s crime and lives in sorrow and confusion as she dreams of taking revenge. Her sister Chrysothemis is prepared to live and flourish as best she can under the new regime. But her brother, who has been banished, also desires vengeance. The result is both a bloodbath and the mental disintegration of Elektra.

The libretto for the opera which debuted in 1909 is based on von Hofmannsthal’s own play, written in 1903. It is a modernist opera deeply inflected with German expressionism. Strauss concentrates on the violence, the horror, and the deep psychological impact of the murder of Agememnon on Elektra.

The bracing score is one of Strauss’s most powerful with brilliant chromaticism and stinging dissonance. The music of bitterness, despair, and a thirst for violence infuses the opera, which portrays Elektra’s emotions as raw, brutal, and nearly unhinged.

The result is a tight 100 minutes of tragic opera, presented without intermission.

Nina Stemme, a Swedish soprano of many gifts, takes on the title role and offers a powerful and deeply considered Elektra. Her emotions spill out, sometimes confused and other times focused, to present a young woman in turmoil. Stemme’s singing adorns this opera at every turn. Her passion is compelling, her psychological state is fragile, often febrile. She sings with power and conveys the aching desires of a tormented soul. This is a role that calls on great depths for a singer and Stemme delivers at every turn.

The South African soprano Elza van den Heever is a stunning Chrysothemis, the sister who merely wants to live a normal life and become a wife and mother. Her singing rings with truth and her top notes have a silvery shine.

American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens is a potent and scary Klytämnestra. Decked out in a massive skirt and with a body suit above the waist that makes her into a huge, nearly bare-breasted beast, Martens is a deady force to be reckoned with.

Orest, the brother who helps Elektra gain her revenge, is played with intensity by Scottish baritone Iain Patterson, who has an engaging sound and offers an earnest portrayal. American tenor Robert Brubanks is the devilish Aegisth. His arms are red up to the elbows, displaying his bloodthirstiness.

The unit set, designed by John MacFarlane, is dramatic — a courtyard where we see just a part of a large home. It is off-kilter, tilting inwards and ready to fall. It is surrounded with rubble, representing the destruction of the family begun with the murder of Agememnon.

The costumes, also by MacFarlane, are over-the-top. Rags for Electra, and scary, bizarre outfits for the Five Maids (well sung by Lauren Decker, Mary Phillips, Krysty Swann, Alexandra LoBianco, and Ann Toomey). A non-singing jester is fit up in a red teddy with thong the color of blood and he prances about the stage with malice.

The music of the opera comes through masterfully, led by Donald Runnicles in the pit making his Lyric Opera debut. From the first note, the orchestra sounded with commanding authority. The heft of the music (scored for over 100 instruments) comes through powerfully and the slow build of pain and fateful decision-making is perfectly underlined by the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The brass was notably brilliant and the strings had luminous moments of sheer terror.

This is a brilliant opera in a brilliant production. Don’t miss it.