“Elektra” failed to sell out during Seattle Opera’s autumn run, but those who heard the early 20th-century piece were drenched in a tidal wave of post-Romantic music. The 100-minute opera, performed with no intermissions, was composed by Richard Strauss with Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. The story is based on over-the-top tragic Greek mythology. But ultimately, as great art does, it speaks to everyday life. Family strife continues.
Elektra’s determination to see her mother’s and step-father’s deaths carried out to avenge the murder of her father, Agamemnon, fails to free her to celebrate. Instead, she dies, exhausted and thoroughly nuts, shortly after her brother, Oreste, murders Klytemnestra and Aegisth. And so, the curse continues. Just like life.
Jayne Casselman, who sang the silver-cast Elektra (Janice Baird, whose Elektra is among her signature roles, performed in the gold-cast alternating operas), brought an eerie athleticism to the strenuous role.
The dramatic soprano part demands that the distraught Elektra stay onstage the entire opera, with water hidden here and there to lubricate her vocal chords.
Casselman did all that plus more.
She and her A-string cast could sing, and so could they act. Elektra’s celebratory dance at the opera’s end proved as spooky as her singing is haunting. No good director, especially not Chris Alexander, the son of an actor and director of a number of Seattle productions, would interfere with this dance. Elektra’s post-murder dance is the soprano’s interpretation, and she must perform it in the midst of a wrenchingly emotional role that demands an A-sharp toward its tragic end.
Casselman sang with a strong vibrato, which is alienating to some listeners. She balanced it with intensity, matched by Chrysothemis’ light soprano, sung lyrically by Carolyn Betty. Chrysothemis’ role, like Elektra’s, demands total immersion in the text as much as the music.
The sisters, though they share genetics rather than inner worlds, long to communicate their pain. Elektra wants her father’s life avenged. Chrysothemis wants out – she wants children, she wants to live a normal life and she wants to stop the cycle of despair. She implores her sister to give it up, but at the same time, Chrysothemis is scared to act decisively.
Then there’s the evil-spirited yet vulnerable mother Klytamnestra, sung by mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee (the gold cast starred British tour de force Rosalind Plowright). She sings of her bad dreams and the torture they bring her. Strauss’s atonal passages came alive with Bybee’s interpretation, though don’t expect a modern opera. This opera remains a very romantic piece.
Strauss’s “Elektra” pushes the three women characters “beyond where their voice types had gone before. It is not only the most intense 100 minutes ever composed. It challenges all three women to Herculean – or better – Amazonian feats,” Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins explained.
Aside from the three main women’s parts (and the maids sing well in addition to the starring trio), the orchestra provided a big voice. Fortunately, its Seattle Symphony Orchestra members managed gracefully. Conductor Lawrence Renes restrained the full sound from overwhelming the singers; instead, the orchestra rolled with them.
The opera was staged in 1909, a few years after the publication of Sigmund Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” Dreams, Freud said –and these include Klytemnestra’s — were “the royal road to the understanding of unconscious mental processes”.
The educated operagoer in the early 20th century was concerned about the unconscious. Does the orchestra represent the unconscious? Certainly, these characters’ inner worlds are explained with Strauss’s music that continues to speak to us today.