The San Francisco Opera is presenting a very good production of Richard Strauss's shocking 1909 opera, Elektra, propelled by one of the best casts imaginable in the world, headed by Christine Goerke in the title role. The soprano is onstage from the pre-show open curtain to the final notes two hours later, singing the insanely difficult role with lyrical beauty, power, and intelligence. It is one of the greatest operatic performances I have heard at the San Francisco Opera over the last 40-plus years. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
The new production by the British director Keith Warner opened last year in Prague, where it received pretty dismal reviews, partly because it didn't have this astounding cast. The concept seems to be that the entire story is taking place in an unstable woman's mind after she remains behind after closing hours at a sleek, contemporary museum in a room dedicated to artifacts from Agamemnon and the cursed House of Atreus. Some ideas worked better than others, but the production didn't get in the way of the essential story, and the set design by Boris Kudlička and lighting by John Bishop was striking and visually engaging, with dioramas representing different rooms in the palace appearing and disappearing smoothly.
The murdering mom, Klytemnestra, a role that is usually assigned to legendary sopranos on their last vocal legs, was sung beautifully by the comparatively young mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens. Styled like an alcoholic, imperious housewife/queen, she was genuinely pitiful. I only wished there had been a more interesting staging of her terrifying entrance music, usually accompanied by bloody sacrifices to the angry gods who plague her dreams.
The sweet sister, Chrysothemis, who is given the most lyrical music, was sung almost perfectly by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, and though she refused to help Elektra hack her mother to death with an axe, her delight at the murderous deeds during the finale was one of the high musical moments of the production.
Orest, the exiled brother in disguise, was well sung by baritone Alfred Walker and his horror movie rampage near the end of the opera was very satisfying.
The 100-piece orchestra, the largest ever assembled in the pit at the War Memorial Opera House, was conducted by the young Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, and he led the ensemble in an amazingly transparent rendition of the extraordinarily complex score which can easily turn into a muddy mess. The individual musicians should be proud of themselves because they sounded like one of the best operatic orchestras on the globe. There are only three more performances, tonight (September 19th), this Friday (September 22nd), and Wednesday, September 27th. Make sure you get to one of those performances if you can, and if you're feeling poor, standing room at the SF Opera is still an unbelievably inexpensive $10.