it was above all a matter of sheer athletic endurance; and despite the seasoned cast whose elbow-locked curtain-call spanned the length of the stage---it felt like a one-woman-show. that one woman was christine goerke, and her performance on january 26th inspired the best kind of praise, the kind chirped throughout the post-show lobby scene: disbelief. i, like most of the audience, left the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Art unsure of how she’ll be able to replicate that marathon of delirium for yet another six performances. she has about four days of rest in between each show (not enough!) but her performance on 10th of february is followed immediately by another on the 12th.
the length of goerke’s performance was just shy of two hour---though she didn’t begin singing until ten minutes in---and the rest of which was a busy melange of twitching; shrieks; pacing up, down, through and fro what resembles a staircase borrowed from the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or some other bizarre cabinet of curiosity. with that said, the supporting cast was there in step with goerke’s performance throughout; erin wall’s Chrysothemis was a fiery soprano (“No, I’m am woman and want a woman’s fate!”) in contradistinction to Elektra’s icy obstinacy. and though at times susan bullock’s Klytamnestra hovered just barely above the level of expositional dialogue, her acting performance was believable enough to justify Elektra’s eventual exasperated confession of murderous intentions to her. a host of shuffling maids, clambering guards and a hidden chorus (bellowing from the uppermost lofts of the concert hall) allowed for enough activity to envelope the volume of Elektra’s inumerable fits of rage as well as the swarming horde of the massive orchestra below.
the set was for the most part static, a necessary feature of a long and uninterrupted opera that is the equivalent of a slightly cerebral psychological thriller. it was a surreal juxtaposition of slanted structure which relied on props, layers and intensities of lighting to achieve what would otherwise pass for scene changes. the audience was essentially looking at the inside of an outsized shed inside which Elektra is held hostage, within this scene there is as well a small shed significant of what her dwelling would look like from outside, a sort of ‘establishing shot’ of where all the action is taking place. her secluded quarters appears to be a mess of dilapidation (“Can one decay without being ill?”), broken furniture (the breaking of which is barely believable), a large ill-fitted rocking horse and other such knick knacks that depict the living conditions of extravagance that has been left to frivolous disrepair. it is a broken birdhouse, a playdium of grief, perforated all over with darting pillars of smoke, steam and ominous lighting.
Strauss’ orchestration is the perfect kind for a character like Elektra, scaled to exorbitant proportions and enough to maintain the fever pitches reached by the goerke’s soprano, or perhaps that of strauss’ wife, pauline de ahna (an alleged ‘grand eccentric’ and ‘hyper-diva’). it is undeniable how much conductor johannes debus believes in the mission of this plinth of music---which can be described as a protracted cross between Ride of the Valkyrie and Danse Macabre---enough to demand everything his orchestra was capable of. and enough to earn them a roaring ovation at the end of the performance.
about 300 years before strauss dreamed up this opera, a writer by the name of john harington (who was a part of queen elizabeth I’s court and known as her ‘saucy Godson’) wrote the most profound sentence on treason, one that could be used to capture the moral compass directing strauss’ Elektra: “Treason never succeeds, for if it did, none dare call it treason.” that is the psychological conflict at the core of Elektra’s delirium. the killing of the king is the highest treason but Elektra cannot call it that because it succeeded. and yet, did it? harington’s logic on the subject must have been influenced by the titanic pull of niccolo machiavelli---with whom he shared the sixteenth century--- but it is an impossible one. treason can never succeed for the simple reason that you cannot kill everyone. Aegisth, sure and drunk on the success of his treason, underestimated the little cuckoo bird he stowed away in his birdhouse, until she grew into a gargantuan condor whose rage was fed by her father’s corpse. the intrigue and complexity of the libretto is born of Elektra’s defiance against the treason that took her father and the desperation in regards to the treason she herself must commit to avenge him---the king is dead, long live the king. defiance and desperation are perhaps the most common ingredients for cooking up operatic drama, which is perhaps why Elektra reminded me of something of a female Peter Grimes. in the end, treason didn’t quite succeed, not hers and certainly not Aegisth’s, the only ray of hope is an ex-machina in the form of her brother Orest. as she lays crumpled beneath the weight of her frivolous joy and inconsolable histeria, it is Orest’s name that the curtains fall upon. and as the curtains fall we must wonder what, for example, those shuffling maids must be thinking of their new king...
more than several times throughout the performance the voltages of electricity running up my spine was proof enough of the viscerality of emotional stimulation that goerke’s performance was able to command, not in scarce and isolated crescendos but over and over again. and when in the penultimate moment of the opera our heroine collapses from her dance to the death, snuffed by the flames of her of her own burning spleen---she brings the house down with her. the standing ovation was as protracted and the cheers as spirited as i’ve seen at the Four Seasons, but our gratitude was tinted with lethargy. after an hour and 45 minutes of sizzling intensity, goerke wasn’t the only one exhausted.
as an afterword: i can’t help but feel as if an opportunity was missed to blow us all to pieces. there was a sublime and chilling moment shortly after Elektra realizes that the stranger with whom she has been talking was her brother Orest: the chorus had been placed at a discreet height at the very top of the concert hall, and it was a brilliant element of surprise when they sang “Orest!...Orest!...Orest!” alongside Elektra’s realization. the wall of sound came down upon us as the string section rose up from the orchestra and we were caught in the middle of a levitating intensity. as erin wall’s Chrysothemis sang the last words to end the opera (‘Orest...Orest’) i looked up to the corner from which the chorus had rung earlier, anticipating the throng of their union to come crashing with the curtain. a perfect opportunity! the effect would have indescribable, the kinda stuff to make your ear sweat a little.