Marton energizes rarely heard 'Elektra' Review: Washington production has the soprano who can compete with the biggest orchestra in all opera.

March 03, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Although "Elektra" is ranked alongside "Salome" and "Der Rosenkavalier" as one of the three operas by Richard Strauss most firmly established in the repertory, it does not turn up

frequently. The new production of the opera that opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center is the first "Elektra" in the Washington Opera's history.

The reason for "Elektra's" relatively rare performances outside such huge institutions as New York's Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden is the difficulty of the title role. Along with Turandot, Brunnhilde and Isolde, Elektra is one of opera's supreme soprano killers. Elektra must possess a true dramatic-soprano voice that is capable of carrying across the biggest orchestra -- 115 players -- ever put in an opera pit. Shouting will not do, for the soprano must be able to sing almost continuously with a secure, unforced tone. Add to this the music's demand for delicacy and intimacy, and, to make matters worse, a libretto by Hugo von Hofmansthal that asks for an actress resourceful enough to explore emotions that range from stoic fortitude to unrestrained frenzy.

It was fortunate for the Washington Opera -- in a joint production with the Seattle Opera -- that it had Eva Marton on hand for the title role. This Hungarian soprano now sings Elektra with more vocal heft, voluptuousness, musical intelligence and psychological penetration than any other currently active soprano.

Marton has always had a voice that was powerful and steady, with plenty of exciting high notes and a vocal timbre lovely enough to make memorably touching the recognition scene with her long-lost brother, Orest. What is even more remarkable is that she now creates the role from the inside rather than the outside. From the moment that Marton opened her mouth to the one in which -- sated with the satisfaction of hearing her mother's death agonies as she is hacked to pieces -- she danced herself to death, it was often necessary to remind oneself that this woman was only acting.

The other roles in the opera are far from easy, and -- in this production -- they were sung just as memorably. Elektra's tender-hearted sister, Chrysothemis, is almost as difficult vocally, and Karen Huffstodt solved the challenge of conveying the character's desperation and barely suppressed hysteria without sacrificing vocal beauty or control. Huffstodt is also a true dramatic soprano who has already shown herself to be a worthy Sieglinde. She takes on Isolde in San Francisco next season and will one day undoubtedly be Marton's successor as Elektra.

The German mezzo-soprano Ruthild Engbert sang Klytaemnestra, the mother of Elektra and Chrysothemis, with a somewhat more attractive vocal quality than many of the role's interpreters, but what made her outstanding were her insinuating, conversational exchanges, in which she created a portrayal of a woman who has become a monster without entirely sacrificing her humanity.

In less important male roles, Richard Paul Fink's Orest showed a lovely, youthful baritone voice that meshed beautifully with Marton's, and the veteran heldentenor, James King, sang Aegisth, Klytaemnestra's sordid partner in bed and in murder, without camping it up or subjecting the part to gross exaggeration.

Conductor Heinz Fricke was also one of the stars of this remarkable "Elektra," eliciting the finest, most focused and dynamically varied playing this listener has heard from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

The cramped stage design and contradictory costumes of Robert Israel, the half-baked concept of staging "Elektra" in a modern fascist state of director Elijah Moshinky, and the miss-the-target lighting of Mimi Jordan Sherin proved minor irritants in an unforgettable evening.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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