Monday, February 11, 2019

Elektra at the COC

We went Sunday afternoon (Feb 10, 2019) to see a performance of the COC’s revival production of Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre.

I first encountered this opera in a 20th Century Analysis class at McGill too many years ago. I didn’t like it very much. The constantly changing key centres made me seasick. It took a peculiar turn of events to change my mind.

I was singing in the chorus of La Belle Hélène in January of 1983 and Elektra, which has no chorus, was the other opera being staged at that time in the cavernous O’Keefe Centre. Incidentally, at least five of my FB friends had roles in that production. Elektra wasn’t selling out and I was offered complementary tickets to four different performances. Each evening, when the lights went down, I scurried forward to much better seats than those to which the tickets entitled me. This was the very first show that featured Surtitles and, given the wordiness of von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, understanding what was being sung added enormously to my enjoyment of the opera as did my growing musical experience.

I was certainly looking forward to hearing and seeing it again, this time from really good seats in a real opera house, which the O’Keefe never was. 

Some of my readers will have heard a performance in the production’s original run twelve years ago in which, surprisingly, this year’s Klytämnestra, Susan Bullock, sang Elektra!

The opera is wild one with a mad eponymous leading lady and fifteen other singers declaiming, frequently loudly, in quasi-Wagnerian fashion. Few people will leave the theatre humming the orchestral melodies which are often built up from brief leitmotifs. The vocal lines are like pitched versions of the rhythms of the text, a kind of extended Straussian accompanied recitative. There’s a huge orchestra (love those Wagner tubas) playing wildly eclectic and very busy music. It’s a testament to Strauss’s genius that he even wrote the piece, so complex and relentless it is. It is also written in one 90 minute long act. That pre-performance coffee might not be a very good idea!

All of the principal singers were wonderful. Christine Goerke, as Elektra, is one of the world’s great Wagnerian sopranos and sang brilliantly. She’s on stage for the entire opera and sings most of it. She never lost her dramatic focus and sang it as if it was written for her.  We heard the more dramatic side of the marvellous Canadian soprano Erin Wall, as Chrysothemis, whom we last saw as Arabella in that very different Strauss opera. Susan Bullock, as their mother Klytämnestra, was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra but was very convincing when the orchestration thinned out. 

Christine Goerke (Elektra) in COC’s Elektra. Photo: Michael Cooper

Wilhelm Schwinghammer played a fine Orest. MIchael Schade took a delightful turn as Aegisth, murderer of Agamemnon and husband to Klytämnestra. His bright lighter sound projected out over the orchestra and the his characterization of the loathesome man was just right. Owen Causland, a young servant, sang his short bit beautifully.

Of the women in supporting roles, some showed promise in this specialized repertoire, others, not so much. Simone McIntosh, as Klytämnestra's confidante and a COC Ensemble member, sang notably well, her voice clear and bright but powerful. 

The production is clearly inspired by German Expressionist art, more symbol than function. I missed the long staircase down which Klytämnestra is supposed to descend (it’s in the score) and which Maureen Forester did, so creepily, in that long ago COC production.

Should you go see this show? I liked it a lot but like Wagner’s Ring operas, this piece appeals to a very specialized taste. I can easily imagine some audience members, fans of Mozart or 19th C. Italian or French opera, wondering what it is they’ve paid to see and bemoaning the fact that one cannot escape until it’s over.

On the other hand, Elektra isn’t produced very often, and the opportunity to hear Christine Goerke is not to be missed. Moreover, it doesn’t require four or five hours of your time as it might in a Wagner show.

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