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.)