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Article updated: 10/8/2012 1:57 PM

Lyric's 'Elektra' opens season in rip-roaring fashion

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2012-13 season in rip-roaring fashion with a new production of "Elektra." What's more, American soprano Christine Goerke made a towering vocal and dramatic house debut in the title role, which should garner her plenty of plaudits to claim the mantle of this generation's essential Elektra.

Working together in stunning alignment, the Lyric's musical and dramatic forces combined so that its "Elektra" delivers a sucker punch of dramatic sound and fury -- exactly what composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal demanded for their still-unsettling 1909 opera based upon Sophocles' bloody Greek tragedy.

Recently knighted Scottish director Sir David McVicar insightfully makes this "Elektra" feel both ancient and modern, while also applying some visual cues and staging ideas that are sure to be controversial, if disturbingly and dramatically appropriate.

For example, one of the leading ladies dons practically bare prosthetic breasts while her bloodthirsty attendants wear historically infused sadomasochistic gear. McVicar also bestows messianic powers to one character, which I've never encountered before in my studies of the dysfunctional House of Atreus.

Working closely with Scottish production designer John Macfarlane, McVicar depicts the setting of "Elektra" as a bombed-out palace teetering on the verge of collapse into the courtyard remnants of a ceremonial pool. It's most likely the basin where cuckolded Trojan War hero Agamemnon was brutally murdered by his wife, Klytamnestra (a wonderfully paranoid and powerfully sung performance by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove), and her lover, Agisth (tenor and Ryan Opera Center alum Roger Honeywell, appearing with dried bloodstained arms and a decidedly decadent outfit).

Goerke is more than up to the challenges of the disheveled Elektra, which requires expert acting and singing stamina since the character nearly never leaves the stage. Goerke was able to vocally cut through Strauss' massive wall-of-sound orchestrations, coloring Elektra's outward shows of mental instability as she longs for the day that her father's death will be avenged.

Goerke also gets to show other complex aspects of Elektra's character, ranging from the annoyed calculation while hearing the pleas of her more compliant sister, Chrysothemis (a securely sung turn by soprano and Ryan Opera Center alumna Emily Magee), or her calm elation at being reunited with her long-lost brother, Orest (a dignified and stentorian portrayal by baritone Alan Held).

"Elektra" calls for one of the largest orchestras in the operatic repertoire, and Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis conducted the forces of the Lyric Opera Orchestra with commanding drive and stirring intensity. Davis and debuting chorus master Martin Wright also corral a sturdy contingent of smaller supporting roles and the offstage choral bursts of dread and fear.

By the time Lyric's "Elektra" churns toward its blood-soaked conclusion, don't be surprised if you find yourself simultaneously exhausted and elated by everything that has been put before you. "Elektra" is an operatic masterwork and the Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production more than does right by it.

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