Elektra: An Electric Performance
By Lukas Hoffman
For the first time in years, Richard Strauss’s classic German opera “Elektra” returned to Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. With only six shows in the course of two weeks, the performances were flawless, featuring singers like Nina Stemme (Elektra), who rarely appears in American productions despite her status as one of the best performers in the world. Along with the stunning music, the Lyric’s dark setting and intricate costumes made the production stand out against the rest.
“Elektra” is a one-act opera following the story of the titular princess, whose mother Klytämnestra (Michaela Martens) has murdered her father Agamemnon with the help of Aegisth (Robert Brubaker). Klytämnestra has removed Elektra from the palace, which has been turned into a place of debauchery in the wake of her takeover. Elektra hopes to get revenge on her mother for her father’s death and knows that her brother Orest (Iain Patterson) must return to see this happen.
Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis (Elza van der Heever) arrives and warns her that her mother plans to lock her in a tower, as she is afraid of Elektra’s power. However, as Klytämnestra approaches, Elektra is left alone. Klytämnestra explains that she cannot sleep, as she has been having nightmares about the return of Orest. She begs Elektra to tell her the sacrifice that will end her dreams, but Elektra proclaims that only Klytämnestra’s death can end the suffering. At first, Klytämnestra is angered by this news, but her assistants whisper something else to her, changing her mood completely: Orest has died in battle.
Elektra cannot bear to hear this news, as Orest was her only hope for revenge. When Chrysothemis learns as well, she can no longer bear the exile and joins her mother’s side, entering the palace to take part in the festivities. As Elektra begins to go mad, a herald arrives bringing the news of Orest’s death. However, as Elektra reveals herself to be the princess, the herald takes off his disguise to reveal his true identity: he is Orest. He enters the castle and murders Klytämnestra and the debauchers, and as blood flows down the palace steps, Elektra collapses and dies.
Even with the grim plot, the singing was exquisite. Stemme’s performance was easily the most enrapturing; it was easy to see why she is considered one of the best in the world for this role. Her diction was perfectly clear (as should be expected for a German singer), and she was able to easily project above the orchestra. Even though she was onstage for almost the entire 100 minutes of the opera, she maintained both her breath and presence the entire time. Martens also gave an excellent performance, posing as a wonderful opposite to Stemme. Her commanding presence took control of the stage, making her rendition of the evil queen very believable. Patterson’s Orest also provided a strong baritone voice, with his projection rivaling that of Stemme. Overall, the singing was some of the best this season.
John MacFarlane’s sometimes disturbing costumes also played an important role in establishing the mood of the show. Klytämnestra was dressed in a colorful, skintight white dress with a flowing black bottom, and a completely bald head adorned with jewelry. This modern interpretation made the character especially creepy, seeming almost like the villain of a Disney movie brought to life. Contrasted with Elektra’s tattered gray robes, it seemed even more frightening.
The Lyric’s “Elektra” is an excellent show -- maybe one of the best this season. At only 100 minutes, it is an easy watch for a new opera viewer. The last performance was on Feb. 22, but it may return in a few years. Keep your eyes out for a classic opera that is perfect for beginners and returning viewers alike.