By Bryson David Hoff
Performers are a superstitious lot. How many theatre-related superstitions are out there? How stringent are many performers with their pre-show rituals?
So, when a limited-engagement production rolls into town on the heels of a record cold snap that closes down much of the city, cancelling the only dress rehearsal and on top of that, the leading lady sustains a knee injury, at what point does it seem like there’s some kind of curse hanging over said production?
Well, despite both issues having befallen the Lyric Opera in its production of Elektra, no black magic seems to be at work, as the production is just as visceral, intense and beautiful as it should be. The adaptation of the Greek myth centers on the psychological torment and vengeful machinations of Elektra (soprano Nina Stemme), the daughter of a king who had been murdered by his wife Klytämnestra (mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens) upon his return from the Trojan War. Alongside her siblings Chrysothemis (soprano Elza van den Heever) and Orest (bass-baritone Iain Paterson), she plots the murder of their mother and her lover Aegisth (tenor Robert Brubaker).
Richard Strauss’s taut, single-act opera is textbook expressionism, both in the musical and theatrical sense of the term. That is to say, the plot and action are not so much the focus as the psychological state of the central character. Perhaps this production’s greatest success is in John Macfarlane’s production design, intentionally off-kilter, apocalyptic and unhistorical. He presents the world as it must appear to Elektra: a crumbling palace courtyard where the angles don’t quite make sense and the reflection pool stands empty and wrecked, peopled by androgynous, pale figures clothed in strange fabrics and fashions. It is a world out of phase, where the concept of “home” seems foreign.
As to the performances, all focus must, by necessity go to Stemme, who commands the stage from her entrance until the climax. Though her aforementioned knee injury prevented her from executing the famous frenetic dance that traditionally closes the opera, at many other points in the evening, her slight limp actually proved an asset to the performance, providing a visual parallel to the character’s sense of physical limitation in the face of overwhelming emotional tumult.
There is also the fact that Stemme’s vocal work was ultimately unaffected by her injury and there is a reason that she has established such a reputation as one of the foremost modern interpreters of Elektra. Her voice pierces through the notoriously dense and loud orchestrations with potent artistry. This particular Elektra represents her Lyric Opera debut and there can be no doubt that any future engagements will be welcome returns.
According to Lyric representatives, this production represents the first time in decades that an opera has opened at the venue without a dress rehearsal. Though it is obviously foolish to say that the abbreviated rehearsal process is a good thing, the fact that such a polished and powerful final product can still be put on stage despite the circumstances is a testament to the level of talent that the company attracts.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Elektra” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through February 22. More information and tickets are available here.