By John Quinn
‘Tis the season for houses of horror to appear all over Metro Detroit, but who would have expected that one of the goriest would be the Detroit Opera House? Given the venue, however, we are once again reminded that horror implied is more visceral than horror depicted.
Michigan Opera Theatre opens its 44th season with Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” a little monster of an opera so fearsome that it can eat music directors and sopranos alive. The beast has been gloriously tamed by MOT conductor Steven Mercurio at the podium and an opera superstar, Christine Goerke, in the title role.
It is apparent that the ancient Greeks liked a good horror story as much as we do. Strauss loosely based “Elektra” on 5th century BCE plays, particularly those by Sophocles and Euripides, concerning the Curse of the House of Atreus. The gods had cursed Atreus to teach him that, when you invite your brother to dinner, it’s improper to serve nephew as the main course. But that’s another story. It does, though, give a backdrop to a clan with real family value issues.
Agamemnon, son of Atreus and king of Mycenae, was prepared to sail off to avenge the abduction of his sister-in-law, Helen. The fleet was becalmed, so the king sacrificed his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in exchange for fair sailing. That horrifies his wife, Klytemnestra, who turns to Aegisth, the king’s cousin, for comfort.
Agamemnon returns from the Trojan Wars and is promptly murdered by the lovers. By all the cultural norms, it is the duty of Orest, Agamemnon’s son, to avenge his father’s death, but that means violating a fundamental taboo, matricide. Rather than risk retribution, the assassins exile the boy.
But again, that’s background. “Elektra” is the story of Agamemnon’s remaining daughters, Chrysothemis, who has come to terms with the status quo and lives in the palace, and Elektra, who prowls outdoors, living for the vengeance that only the exiled Orest can mete out.
“Elektra” recounts the fateful day of Orest’s return – in disguise, lest his mother and uncle murder him as well. His return frees Elektra from committing unspeakable crimes, taking revenge in her brother’s place and killing her mother. But only her indomitable drive convinces Orest to undertake the murders.
With “Elektra,” Strauss created a densely woven study in contrasts. Written in 1909 and incorporating a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera represents the composer’s most advanced experimentation with chromaticism, and yet retains the lush, romantic lyricism that mark his “lieder.” The orchestral score is considered one of the most challenging in the dramatic repertoire due to its wealth of emotional content. The MOT Orchestra has been beefed up to accommodate the complexities, and Steven Mercurio elicits a textured, layered wall of sound. There is a roiling sea of emotion underlying the melodies, with harmony and dissonance complementing the main themes.
Vocally, “Elektra” is dazzling. Christine Goerke, in what constitutes a breath-taking performance in more ways than one, appears to effortlessly handle the wide range and violent passions of this most difficult of roles. Her Elektra has not been driven mad, but driven wild – and her stage presence has all the menace of a tiger at bay. Contrary to convention, Goerke will sing all performances.
Jennifer Check debuts in the role of Chrysothemis, a study in light compared to Elektra’s darkness. She easily takes on the soaring full-voiced leaps to the top of the range, and the duets between the sisters are some of the most beautifully articulated music of an otherwise grim opus.
Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove explores the tortured Klytemnestra, her low, dark tones expressing both the fear of retribution and the terrors in which her guilt binds her.
“Elektra” is generous to its female cast, less so with the men. Tenor Richard Margison makes his MOT debut in the role of Aegisth, but no sooner does he establish character as a petulant pretender to the throne than he’s slaughtered by Orest’s companions. Bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli, who sang the title role in last season’s “The Flying Dutchman,” returns as Orest, a role that demands agonized emotions portrayed in a deep resonant lower register. Gazheli doesn’t disappoint.
“Elektra” is directed by Nicholas Muni, based on a production he originally conceived for the Cincinnati Opera. He also designed the lights – which, while wonderfully atmospheric, frequently turns the male cast as pale as the walking dead. To enhance the creepiness of the production, it is very effective, but I’m still working through how it advances the story.
Sets and costumes, designed by Dany Lyne, are suitably somber and reserved, reflecting German, rather than Grecian, inspiration. The fortress-like building that dominates center stage becomes part of the drama, alternately revealing and concealing the horrors inside.
The Greeks knew that a good drama, like good house of horrors, can have a positive psychological effect. Experiencing the emotions evoked by either allows the audience to work through and purge the negative and emerge refreshed. Aristotle called it “catharsis.” This close to Halloween, we’d call it “scaring your pants off.” “Elektra” lets you have it both ways.
Michigan Opera Theatre
at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26
1 hour, 45 minutes; no intermission