A night at the Opera #1 Elektrifying Strauss

End of January.

Snow. And much more snow on the horizon.

In the middle of the winter, it is time to restart the nights at the opera. The opera is allegedly the most European commodity ever imported over the Atlantic pond. My first time in a theatre to see “Les contes d’Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach took place many moons ago, but this is the topic for another post.

In Toronto, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, we can enjoy the productions staged by the Canadian Opera Company, briefly known as the COC.

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The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen and University. Picture courtesy of http://www.coc.ca

Last Saturday night, the second half of the season recommenced with Richard Strauss’ Elektra, a piece composed in 1909 that premiered in Dresden, Germany, four years after Salome (in Toronto for the COC in April-May 2013).

The great tradition of classical theatre, Greek and Latin, is the deepest root of Western theatre: tragedies, comedies and mixed genres.
Until an eccentric idea came about, at the dawn of the Renaissance: a group of scholars decided to rise from its ashes the ancient tragic genre and give life to what is known as melodramma (and later on, opera).


From the ancient universe of gods, demigods and heroes come some unforgettable female voices, like those of Medea and Elettra. Voices that for centuries have risen high, often unheard.
Vox clamantis in deserto, if you wish.
Elektra, from Euripides to Sophocles, is the voice of a modern woman who wants to avenge her murdered father.
Also the beginning of the past century is dotted with vigorous female voices: powerful, enchanting, seductive, desired, loved, fearsome and feared.

Wrapped in the golden sparkles of the Belle Époque, from London to Paris and Vienna, in a whirlwind of renowned names embracing Wilde, Klimt and D’Annunzio, Huysmans, Hofmannsthal and Redon and Moreau, few are the artists and writers who did not fall for a femme fatale, be it Judith or Morgana, Salome or Elektra.

Richard Strauss was able to give voice to both the latter at the dawn of the new century, respectively in 1905 and 1909.

The COC reopened its season with an intense production of “Elektra” by the German composer born in Munich. The opera, in nearly two hours in a single act, resumes the Sophoclean tragedy and brings the female protagonist back to life on the edge of the modern era.

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The work by Strauss and Hofmannsthal (who composed the libretto based on his own piece of theatre) vocalizes the revenge of Elektra and her brother Orest at the Mycenaean court, where their mother Klytämnestra reigns with her lover, Aegisthus (after murdering her late husband and king Agamemnon, returned from the Trojan war).

What to expect

Derek McLane’s set, neat but not bare, comprises three walls (mainly grey, green and red), a prominent staircase and a doll’s house to symbolize the palace and the familial love nest denied to Elektra, relegated to her rooms and believed to be mad.

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Christine Goerke as Elektra and Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Orest in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

The production, directed by James Robinson, is intense, rapid, provocative.
The scenography and the lights (by Mimi J. Sherin) underline and enhance the characters’ feelings.
The costumes, without any reminiscence of the classical past, evoke the silhouettes and dark hues of the Hapsburg Vienna at the turn of the century.

Johannes Debus remarkably conducted with his baton the COC orchestra, highlighting the harmonic and melodic details of an unconventional, edgy, galvanizing score which keeps the viewer’s attention quivering, yearning for the next musical piece.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

Last but not least, the voices: Christine Goerke was believable in Elektra’s cutting-edge role, with a warm, well-rounded voice, experiencing and rendering a multifarious sentimental palette. Erin Wall was a great supporting artist in the role of Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister, singing with much more command towards the end of the piece. Valuable also the performance by Susan Bullock (Klytämnestra), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Orest) and Michael Shade (Aegisth).

Christine Goerke as Elektra in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

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Christine Goerke as Elektra in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper

What’s next?

As I missed it the last time it was in town, I am getting pretty excited to see the next opera on the agenda: “Così fan tutte” (roughly translated as ‘this is the fashion all the women behave’), music by Mozart on the libretto of that cheeky rascal of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Stay tuned!

[Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” runs at the Four Seasons Center until February 22, 2019. And if you are not 30 yet, you should check the under-30 opportunities offered by the COC to enjoy the shows. Or the standing room tickets, a pretty European touch to the whole experience – recommendable for shorter shows!]

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