11th Dec2012

“Elektra” Electrifies the Lyric Opera

by rockchicago


Long before cinematic spectaculars, special effects, long before the wonders of animation, computer and otherwise, long before electric lights even, there was opera.

And at its best, it delivered, big time. Famously. On the grand stage. I can recall a 1963 Das Rheingold at La Scala where, when the gold first appeared, it was very special, and very effective. All accomplished with nineteenth century technology. Magical things occur on the opera stage. When Herbert von Karajan conducted Mirella Freni’s Mimi in la bohéme the same season, it proved a star vehicle. An Aïda staged by Franco Zeffirelli earlier that year was so spectacular it was dubbed “Aïda all’americana.” When Renée Fleming sang Rusalka’s Song to the Moon in San Francisco in 1989 it was a show stopper. It brought the house down – almost literally. Next month the S. F. Opera House was closed for two years for retrofitting after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

To be sure, cinematic magic can do things now that were not even imagined two hundred years ago. Onstage duels and battles are rare in opera. Mostly we’re treated to a character reacting in horror to an offstage scream. But when they occur, crowd scenes, armies marching, and peasants parading can be timelessly spectacular.

Before Cecil B. DeMille, there was Verdi. Before Indiana Jones, there was Wagner. Before Mel Brooks there was Rossini. And before them all was Greek tragedy. Couple that with post-Wagnerian, almost Expressionist, music, and you have Elektra. The music is dense, intricate, and intense from beginning to end. A bit edgy in places, as was the world the first decade of the twentieth century. Arnold Schönberg was already making waves in Vienna by 1909, the year Elektra appeared, and Igor Stravinsky was hatching plans for audiences in Paris. Remember that Richard Strauß outlived Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Elektra is one of the more demanding rôles in all of opera. No other opera comes to mind where the title character is onstage for so much time. Christine Goerke is to be saluted even for attempting the rôle, because it is a task you either do amazingly well, or not at all. The 1991 Elektra I saw in San Francisco featured Dame Gwyneth Jones. With Sir Andrew Davis conducting in Chicago, you can see that this is exalted territory. OBEs abound. An echo of the noble, occasionally royal patronage that fostered the art form at its height, and sometimes overflowed onto the stage.

The stage at the Lyric Opera production was cannily designed to allow for minimal changes, maximal results. More detailed, even nineteenth century in design, compared to the stark austerity of the San Francisco production. A chiaroscuro crucible for the intense action. Never mind walking out of the theater humming tunes. After this two and a half hour roller coaster ride, you’re glad to be alive.

Reviewed by Tom Constanten on 10/30/12

(Tom Constanten is a former member of The Grateful Dead and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

28th Nov2012

“Werther” Lights Up the Lyric Stage

by rockchicago


The story of the young Werther is the classic Goethe tale of true love, unfulfillable desire, social tension, and middle class repression. When it was first received in 1774, the novel broke all conventions, creating a frenzy among the younger generation, inspiring many to sport the very garb the protagonist wears. It remains a cornerstone in Romantic era Literature, not only for its compelling narrative, but for the themes which have become Romantic era archetypes.

Massanet’s adaptation of Werther was born as much out of political interests as artistic ones. During the latter part of the 19th century there had been a great deal of interest in Goethe’s works, having had an enormous influence on 19th century cultural philosophy. The completion of the opera required a considerable amount of time, two years, an unusually long period for the fluent composer Massenet, whose skill and knowledge of theatrical drama is evident from the opening overture to the tragic concluding bars. Above all, the strength of the opera is the variety of vocal writing and the mellifluous nature of the music. The lush harmonic writing is shear ear-candy. For one’s well versed in the genre of Opera, the score alone is worth the expense of a ticket. However, the traditional nature of the work, and abundance of conventional operatic idioms may be daunting for opera neophytes.

Lyric Opera’s production includes an impressive array of singers, including Mathew Polenzani (Werther) and Sophie Koch (Charlotte) who carried the burden of their characters’ emotional complexity while delivering vocal lines of great polish and precision. Both stars received immediate cheers and thunderous applause in response to each of their climactic arias, and deservedly so.

Though the singing was of the high quality that one has come to expect from Lyric Opera productions, the production itself, the staging and the set, was problematic, confusing, and overwrought with cheap symbolism.

At the onslaught, the curtain is drawn and we are confronted with a complex set: there is a living quarters set up at the base of the stage, there is an elevated platform where the majority of characters are occupying. There is a large stack of luggage on the far left of the stage that acts simultaneously as a staircase. There is a metal bar that surrounds the set that shifts between the colors red and blue periodically. There are also metallic trees in the middle of the set. We see two elegant farm houses, as if in the distance.

The abundance of material has achieved the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than clarifying the surroundings and creating a world in which the characters may exist and thrive, the set has made it difficult to discern where one section of reality begins and the other ends. The impression is that there is forest within the house, which is filled with knickknacks, on top of which people must climb in order to gain access to the next floor. Meanwhile a man lives alone in the basement, peering occasionally out from a window seeing it all happen.

It seems the faith has been misplaced in the set of the production, rather than in the singers, who carried the dramatic impetus and communicated sensibilities of repression and inner bedlam in their performance.

Reviewed by Edo Frenkel on 11/23/12