by Lynn on February 4, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

Christine Goerke
photo by: Michael Cooper


At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Richard Strauss

Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Sophocles

Conducted by Johannes Dubus

Director James Robinson

Set by Derek McLane

Costumes by Anita Stewart

Lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin

Cast: Susan Bullock

Tracy Cantin

Michael Druiett

Lauren Eberwein

Simona Genga

Christine Goerke

Thomas Goerz

Jill Grove

Alexandra Loutsion

Lauren Margison

Owen McCausland

Simone McIntosh

Wilhelm Schwinghammer

Michael Schade

Lauren Segal

Erin Wall

Beautifully sung and very dramatically acted.  But the raked set is so singer-unfriendly my calves were screaming in pain in sympathy with the singers who had to negotiate that incline, and there were some really odd director’s choices.

Note: As music/opera is not my forte, I won’t be commenting on the singing except to say it was stunning, and will focus on the production as theatre.

 The Story. The story is ‘after Sophocles’ (and not Euripides who also found Elektra’s story intriguing). Elektra is in deep mourning for the death of her father Agamemnon the King of Thebes. She is also in a rage at her mother, Klytämnestra (the widow of Agamemnon and the Queen), because Klytämnestra with the help of her lover Aegisth, murdered Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan War. All Elektra wants is revenge. She hopes her brother Orest will come home from exile (where she sent him for his protection) and revenge their father’s death. The servants are sick of Elektra’s mourning. Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis just wants a quiet married life and hopes Elektra can calm herself and just accept matters the way they are. Elektra is having none of it.

 The Production. The curtain rises on Derek McLane’s set and initially the expanse and sense of size is impressive. But then I see the rake (incline) of the upstage part of the set that inclines from stage left to stage right and that stuns me. It looks like a rake of a 45 degree angle.  Are the singers really expected to schlep up and down that rake for the whole of the opera? (ok it’s a short opera, but still). My calves are screaming in sympathetic pain at what the singers are about to experience by walking up and down such an angle and sing. Then of course it dawns on me, as in theatre, often the ‘talent’ is the last thing a designer thinks about. And sometimes even the director joins that kind of thinking about the talent less than about the director’s vision.

There is a bank of stairs that spans the width of the stage leading down from the rake. Stage left are exits into the servants’ quarters. Upstage is what looks like a shed of some sort. Against the stage right wall is a large framed portrait (of Agamemnon), a white toy rocking horse, some other stuff stage left which includes a box with some of Chrysothemis’ toys. This is a kind of ‘dump room’ for discarded stuff. Or perhaps it’s the former ‘kids’ room of Elektra and her sister, hence the rocking horse and the toys.

When Elektra (Christine Goerke) makes her entrance she is ‘crazed’ with grief for her father. Her movements are erratic, like a person who can’t stand still. Ms Goerke’s first sung notes just grab you—it’s such a rich, dramatic voice (that’s the extent of that kind of comment). Besides being such a gifted singer Ms Goerke is a wonderful dramatic actress. It’s a performance of rage, desperation, irritation when her sister begs her to accept what has happened and elation when her brother has returned. It’s a lovely touch that she carries, caresses and even wears her father’s coat to hold on to his memory. But I smile when director James Robinson has Ms Goerke sing on her knees and then on her back. I think that is chutzpah on the part of James Robinson and that Ms Goerke can do it with ease is part of her gift.

At one point in the opera James Robinson directs Ms Goerke to get on the rocking horse and ‘ride’ it arm up in a charge. Interesting. Elektra might be reverting to her childhood, and perhaps happier days, but that charge motion might suggest she is in fact leading a charge against her murderous mother, for revenge.

Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra makes her dramatic entrance from the door of the shed, which occurs to me is really the palace. The entrance is with Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bright light behind them. But it looks like they are climbing up from some basement. Sorry, but it looks silly. Ms Bullock is an arresting presence dressed in black holding a cane for support. The character of Klytämnestra has not been having a good time of it. She suffers from nightmares and sleepless nights—killing your husband will do it to you.

I find it interesting that costume designer Anita Stewart has dressed Elektra in a grey-blue long dress and Klytämnestra all in black. Is Klytämnestra trying to suggest she’s in mourning? But wouldn’t it be more fitting if Elektra wear black too? Hmm.

When Orest (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) does arrive, ‘secretly’ and makes himself known to Elektra they plot to murder Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth in retaliation for their murder of Agamemnon. Orest will sneak into the palace to do the deed. James Robinson directs Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Orest to tip the structure of the ‘shed-palace’ up and back a bit so it’s on a tilt and Orest can tip-toe down the stairs into the palace to kill his mother and her lover. I know that in theatre one must suspend ones disbelief to enter into the production, but this bit of business just knitted my eye-brows.

 Comment. I found it interesting that while this is a German opera, it is based on a Greek play and wondered why librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal didn’t go further into fleshing out the story. The whole idea of the endless cycle of revenge of the gods and then some is left unexplored. Klytämnestra killed Agamemnon when he came home from the war in revenge of him sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods and get calm waters to sail to the war. I thought not including that point in the story left a serious hole in the narrative.

While the design and a lot of the direction left me mystified, the singing and acting of the piece is glorious, which is why you go to the opera anyway.

The Canadian Opera Company presents:

Opened: Jan. 26, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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