After hearing one of his military bands play an arrangement of music from Richard Strauss' opera Elektra, England's George V reportedly said, "His majesty does not know what the band has just played, but it is never to be played again."
Even now, 99 years after the premiere of Elektra, it is bound to strike some listeners as a little scary. Poor George is just lucky he never heard the singing that goes with it, or confronted its bloody plot. But, as Washington National Opera's production reaffirms, Elektra remains a stunner in the best sense of the word, capable of delivering a mighty musical and theatrical punch.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, based on the Sophocles tragedy, shines a penetrating light on one of antiquity's most dysfunctional families. Fear and loathing rule here, with vengeance ever around the corner, all of it underlined by Strauss' deliciously extravagant, roughly 110-minute score.
Like Salome, its immediate predecessor, Elektra revels in the unpleasantness of the subject matter, daring you to take your eyes or ears off of it. The Washington staging, which transports the action from an ancient Grecian to a modern time and place, generates most of that gripping power, even without a vocal powerhouse in the title role.
At the second performance in the run, Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, Susan Bullock offered a persuasive portrayal of Elektra, the woman obsessed with avenging the death of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, Klytemnestra, and her mother's lover, Aegisth.
Reduced to sucking her thumb in a fetal position on the floor early on as she wallowed in memories of him, this Elektra was one deeply troubled woman (other tellingly girlish actions cropped up later), but there was no mistaking the intense fire fueling her very adult mission.
Bullock's soprano revealed primarily one tonal color and proved rather modest in orchestra-cutting strength. Still, her singing was accurate, clear and certainly charged with expressive fire.
Christine Goerke, as Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis, produced enough tone for two sopranos. The richness of her grandly scaled sound, which remained warm and appealing even at full throttle, was matched by deeply communicative phrasing and assured acting. Her ecstatic performance in the final moments, delivering the news to Elektra that their brother had slain the guilty pair, was spine-tingling.
Looking like a paranoid Norma Desmond, Irina Mishura brought a deeply burnished mezzo to the role of Klytemnestra and caught the woman's vicious streak effectively.
Daniel Sumegi cut a tall, beefy figure as Orest, Elektra's brother and the agent of primitive justice, and he had a big, solid sound to match. Alan Woodrow commanded attention as Aegisth with his sizable, bright tenor. Robert Cantrell's few lines as the Tutor registered firmly. There was fine work from the rest of supporting cast, many of them members of the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Aundi Marie Moore (Fifth Maidservant) and Yingxi Zhang (Young Servant) sounded especially vibrant.
Washington National music director Heize Fricke did not bring extra dabs of individuality to the performance. But he knows this music as well as anyone, and he demonstrated how to heat it up and make it grab as he drew from the orchestra passionate, admirably cohesive playing.
Robert Wilson's set, subtly lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin, features oddly angled walls, mirrors and doorways, with splashes of unexpectedly, not to mention deceptively, soothing or festive colors. Wilson's costumes include present-day business suits for the courtiers and bodyguards.
The net effect of the stylistic fancy suggest the fashion/imagery mix associated with sci-fi TV shows - not an inappropriate image for an opera about such strange and unsettling characters.