Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017

The San Francisco Opera mounted a magnificently sung performance of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”, with an augmented 95-member San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Hungarian Maestro Henrik Nánási.

British Director Keith Warner’s accessible and eye-catching production – a San Francisco Opera co-production with the Prague National Opera (where it debuted last year) – set the opera in a modern antiquities museum, emphasizing the inherent horror of the opera’s storyline.

Christine Goerke’s Elektra

New York’s Christine Goerke was a formidable Elektra, her powerful, healthy, dramatic soprano voice unwaveringly secure over the one-act opera’s hour and three quarters duration. One of the most vocally challenging roles in the soprano repertory, Goerke’s Elektra is the stuff of legends, the best Elektra I have heard at the War Memorial Opera House in the half-century I have seen the opera performed here.

[Below: Christine Goerke as Elektra; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Goerke has only appeared at the War Memorial once before, that in Johann Strauss’ great operetta [see “Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006]. Since her 2006 Rosalinde, Goerke has emerged as one of the world’s most impressive and sought after Wagnerian sopranos, although I have had to travel far from San Francisco to experience her performances of Wagner, Verdi and other Richard Strauss roles (see my reviews of Goerke performances in other cities below).

Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis

If Goerke “owned” the part of Elektra, so too does Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka own the part of Elektra’s rather more gentle younger sister Chrysothemis. Pieczonka’s vibrant soprano voice fit beautifully with the Strauss’ intensely lyrical passages assigned her character.

[Below: Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco  Opera.]

Pieczonka, who was Elsa to Goerke’s Ortrud in a memorable Houston Grand Opera production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” [Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009],  like Goerke, has reached astonishing new levels of vocal power and artistry.

Her return to San Francisco Opera where she had triumphed as Tosca eight seasons ago [House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009], is like Goerke’s, most welcome and long overdue.

Michaela Martens’ Klytemnestra

The object of Elektra’s revenge is her mother Klytemnestra. New York mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens sang well and was dramatically persuasive in the role.

[Below: Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In Warner’s production, in which Klytemnestra is beheaded in a kitchen sink, the role is physically challenging, requiring the artist singing the role to lean into the sink, back to the audience, as a headless corpse, for an extended period of time.

Alfred Walker’s Orest and other cast members

Louisiana baritone Alfred Walker, in his San Francisco Opera debut, was vocally solid and a chillingly impressive actor, whose stage business includes a double murder (beheading Martens’ Klytemnestra, stuffing her severed head into a plastic bag; then stabbing Robert Brubaker’s terrified Aegisth.)

[Below: Alfred Walker as Orest; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Pennsylvania tenor Robert Brubaker is impressive in Strauss’ character tenor roles [see Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015] and performed brilliantly as Klytemnestra’s rattled paramour, Aegisth.

In his debut month at the San Francisco Opera (his debut as Emperor Altuom in Puccini’s “Turandot” occurred the night before), Brubaker has committed to six performances of “Turandot” and six performances of “Elektra” at the San Francisco Opera in a three week period.

[Below: Robert Brubaker as Aegisth; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Minnesota bass Anthony Reed was Orest’s tutor. Elektra’s maidservants were Texas mezzo-soprano as Jill Grove, Iowa mezzo-sopranos Laura Krumm and Nicole Birkland and Canadian sopranos Sarah Cambridge and Rhoslyn Jones. Pennsylvania soprano Alexandra Loutsion was the overseer. New Zealand soprano Amina Edris was Klytemnesta’s trainbearer.

New York tenor Kyle Van Schoonhoven was a Young Servant. Two San Francisco Opera choristers sang individual roles: Serbian Bojan Knezevic was an Old Servant, California mezzo-soprano Erin Neff was Klytemnestra’s Confidante.

Maestro Henrik Nánási and the Orchestral Performance

Conducting one’s first “Elektra” and making one’s San Francisco Opera debut are both career milestones for a young conductor. Hungarian Maestro Henrik Nánási chose this evening to do both, conducting an orchestra augmented to contain the largest number of instrumentalists in San Francisco Opera’s 95 year history.

[Below: Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Henrik Nanasi.]

Scottish director Ian Robertson was chorus director, the chorus having an important role in the last few moments of the opera.

Keith Warner’s Production and Boris Kudlicka’s Sets

British director Keith Warner conceptualized the opera as an introspective exploration of the symbolic contents of one’s mind (Elektra’s) that relate to a traumatic event (the murder of her father by her mother and her mother’s paramour). Because Elektra’s story takes place in ancient times in the Mycenae, he decided to set the opera in an antiquities museum.

The order of events that cause the emotional trauma would appear to an outsider, Warner suggests, like the plot of horror movie. The result of his thinking is that the events of “Elektra” should take place at night after the museum’s closing, emphasizing the horrific elements of the plot.

[Below: British Director Keith Warner; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As is my custom I have not read nor heard the reactions (other than the ovations at opera’s end) of others who attended the opening night performance, but would not be surprised if Warner’s “Elektra” production sparked some controversy in San Francisco, as it appears to have in Prague.

I found the execution of the production to be absorbing and praiseworthy. The sets, by Slovakian designer Boris Kudlicka, were imposing, by far the most interesting “Elektra” sets ever mounted in the War Memorial Opera House.

As the audience was seated the antiquities museum was alive with activity, with patrons, including Christine Goerke’s Elektra, wandering past exhibits on the two visible museum floors, studying the artifacts on display.

[Below: Elektra (Christine Goerke) alongside a case displaying the crown and gown of Queen Klytemnestra, contemplates the idea of revenge for her complicity of her mother in her father’s murder; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As curtain time approached, the museum guards went through the procedures to close the the museum and to clear the visitors out, although when Conductor Nánási was ready to begin the opera, Goerke’s Elektra has hidden from the guards’ sight and is closed in the museum for the night.

As the night wears on, the plot of Elektra is surreally acted out. All the characters of the opera come to life within the museum walls.

[Below: Elektra (Christine Goerke, seated) contemplates the death of Agamemnon, which is acted out as a pantomime beyond the open doors behind her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[Below: a scene of the Antiquities Museum after closing with Elektra (Christine Goerke, bottom, left) in conversation with Klytemnestra (Michaela Martens, bottom right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Those walls themselves occasionally give way as domestic rooms (Chrysothemis’ bedroom and a cozy kitchen area.)

It’s a bloody affair, the execution of Klytemnestra by Orest being memorably gory, yet Warner adds nothing to the plot that isn’t there already.

[Below: a scene of the Antiquities Museum onto which has been superimposed the Chrystothemis’ bedroom (upper left) and the kitchen in which Klytemnestra (below right) will be murdered; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

One of the Prague critics felt the beheading of Klytemnestra was too brutal to have been staged, an argument that didn’t impress me for this opera by the composer of “Salome” in which a character’s beheading is the central point of the story.

Swiss designer Kaspar Glarner created the costumes, Polish designer Bartek Macias the video design.

[Below: Kaspar Glarner’s costumes for Klytemnestra’s maidservants and overseer; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

German director Anja Kuhnhold directed the production’s revival.

Recommendation: I strongly recommend this cast, musical performance and visual presentation of the opera for those operagoers who love Richard Strauss and are open to unconventional stagings of his works. I also recommend it for persons interested in becoming acquainted with “Elektra”.

The Elektra of Christine Goerke (especially with Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis supporting her) is, in itself, sufficient reason to secure tickets to one of the remaining performances.

[Below: Elektra (Christine Goerke, right) chats with her mother Klytemnestra (Michaela Martens, left) in their kitchen a few minutes before Elektra’s brother beheads their mother in the kitchen sink; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

My previous reviews of performances with Christine Goerke:

For Christine Goerke’s Ariadne, see [Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011 and Review: Zambello’s Dazzling New “Ariadne in Naxos” Enchants Glimmerglass Festival Audiences – July 19, 2014], and of her Princess Eboli [Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012 ], her Cassandra [Review: A World Class Cast for Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 13, 2016] and her three Brunnhildes [Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015 and Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016 and Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017].