Gregory Sullivan Isaacs | 12 FEB 2024
Currently on stage at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, the opera Elektra is the product of a series of adaptations. First, it is based on ancient Greek mythology. Sophocles turned it into play around 420 BC. In 1903, the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal turned a concentrated version of the plot into another play, which he later turned into a libretto for composer Richard Strauss to set in 1909.
This opera is a massive bite for any company to produce. First of all, it makes unusual demands on the stamina of all involved—including the audience. It takes somewhere around 100 minutes to perform without a single intermission.
It requires an abnormally huge orchestra (about 98 players, more or less) and includes some rarely used instruments, some conceived by Richard Wagner to fill what he perceived as sonic gaps in his already bloated scores. Two examples are the set of four Wagner tubas (designed to fill the gap between the horns and the trombones) and the hecklephone (a honky bass-pitched oboe). The opera also requires a cast of singers (principally females) with vocal cords of steel, able to incessantly soar above such swollen orchestral forces for almost two solid hours. In addition, it requires significant acting ability to pull off a constant state of madness at the same time.
The Dallas Opera heroically meets all these requirements with a roster of outstanding singers, an exceptionally fine orchestra, and a gothic, blood-soaked, and expressionist production, borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The bulk of this endeavor falls on the character of Elektra, driven mad by the murder of her sister and father, and a seething for murderous revenge. Accomplishing this gruesome task depends on the long-anticipated return of Orest, her banished brother.
The singer assigned to Elektra, a Herculean role, rarely gets a break from the challenging vocal fireworks and never leaves the stage. Soprano Marjorie Owens meets and exceeds these awesome requirements, delivering an amazing performance. She commands the stage for every second—singing or not.
Owens is matched by Angela Meade’s portrayal of her emotionally crippled sister, Chrysothemis, even though this role is usually sung by a somewhat lighter voice. (The original creator of the role, Margarethe Siems, was considered a “dramatic coloratura soprano”). A little more sonic separation between the two might have helped differentiate them in the ensemble singing. However, her nightmarish portrayal combined with her superlative vocal abilities makes her an ideal contrast to Owen’s more concentrated madness.
But the other cast members can barely match Jill Grove’s guilt-plagued, physically impaired, and “Mommy Dearest” portrayal of the truly insane Klytämnestra. She uses her voice to its fullest ability, from a contralto’s raucous chest voice to a sweet mezzo when textually required. Occasionally, she even employed the effect of sprechstimme (musically spoken), for evil barking as well as confidential whispering.
Orest finally arrives, who was earlier declared dead, but he is in disguise. At first, neither he nor Elektra know each other, a plot twist that sets up a glorious musical moment of recognition. As Orest, Alfred Walker is the picture of controlled dignity and single-minded purpose. He realizes that revenge falls to him. To make things right, he must murder their evil mother and her foppish lover, Aegisthus. Clifton Forbis adds a dimension to that role by appearing in an evening gown.
The equally excellent secondary characters fill out this sick and depraved world that brings to mind “The Scream,” an 1893 horrifying painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.
The set, by John Macfarlane, also conveys its occupants’ crumbling physical and mental state, with piles of rubble and a dangerously tilted exterior. (On a cautionary note, a set of stairs leading from the main entrance to an open pit presents navigation problems for the sometimes tottering females, whom Macfarlane dresses in excessively large and long-in-the-front gowns.) The original staging, by Sir David McVicar, is recreated here by Nick Sandys. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting manages to keep it all visible to the audience while keeping it mostly dank and dark.
Finally, music director Emmanuel Villaume rules over all this with a velveted iron hand. Tempi were carefully planned and executed. Balance was always somewhat under control, but the plethora of leitmotivs always rose up from Strauss’ complex and dissonant musical stew. Yes, the orchestra was noticeably too loud most of the way (at least from my seat), but the fault here lies more with the composer’s immense instrumentation than the conductor’s exuberance. ■
The final two performances of The Dallas Opera’s production of “Elektra” take place at the Winspear Opera House this Wednesday and Saturday, February 14 & 17, at 7:30 p.m.; the final performance on Saturday will also be livestreamed.
- The Dallas Opera: dallasopera.org