Outside of "The Jerry Springer Show," there is probably no greater procession of thoroughly dysfunctional, off-putting people than can be found in Richard Strauss' "Elektra." But unlike the assorted, and sordid, misfits on constant televisual parade these days, the characters in "Elektra" enjoy two fabulously redeeming qualities -- Strauss' music and Sophocles' drama, as filtered by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
When those qualities are displayed as compellingly as they were Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House in the Baltimore Opera Company's first-ever production of the work, it's impossible to take your eyes or ears off of the familial smash-up.
"Elektra" has lost none of its sensation-causing power since it was new in 1909. It can still strike listeners as modern, both in terms of sound and text.
Musical romanticism is heated to the boiling point here. Even the venerable Viennese waltz turns up, trying to insinuate itself into what one critic described as the "hate-drunken ravings of Elektra," and later whirling her to a strange death at her moment of highest exaltation. But if the music has a foot in the past, it has another in the future, pointing the way toward Schoenberg, Berg and other 20th century operatic masters.
Theatrically, "Elektra" likewise straddles two worlds -- the antique and a post-industrial, angst-ridden, Freudian-flavored age. Director and scenic designer Roberto Oswald has emphasized the duality by placing the action of the opera at "an asylum in Europe, 1920s," an asylum that happens to have a giant Greek statue looming over the main ward. The figures from the Sophocles tragedy are now inmates; stern attendants clothed in long white gowns, capes and headgear periodically check on, or discipline, them.
This intriguing concept works best at the start of the opera, when various patients (originally the maids) discuss the strange Elektra who moans about her father, hates people looking at her and says such weird things as "I'm nurturing a vulture in my body." And when Elektra's sister Chrysothemis tells her, "If it weren't for your hate, they would let us go," their confinement takes on an added, chilling irony.
But by the time the action progresses to its denouement -- the return of Elektra's brother, Orest, who quickly kills his mother and the man who has taken his father's place -- it's harder to be sure what Oswald is up to and where, or if, reality replaces mad fantasy.
Although the idea of putting the opera in a conceptual straitjacket is debatable, the director certainly persuaded his cast, coaxing vivid performances all around. His theatrical touch started before the opening notes; as the audience began arriving, the curtain was already up, and several inmates could be seen mindlessly scrubbing the asylum floor.
In the title role, Marilyn Zschau avoided heavy-handed gestures to reveal the character's frantic state. Her sizable soprano cut through the orchestral thicket cleanly, decisively. Her singing was a double-edged sword; in addition to all the fire (she spat out the words, "What do you want, daughter of my mother?" to her sister with particular venom), she was capable of sufficient tenderness for the Recognition Scene, when Elektra practically melts at the sight of Orest.
Renata Scotto, among the last of the true divas, gave a brilliant, multi-faceted performance as Klytamnestra, her first attempt at the role. She didn't always succeed in summoning enough tone or smoothing over shifts from one vocal register to another, but that didn't matter a bit. As usual with this artist, the force of both personality and musicality proved formidable, irresistible, indelible.(Costume designer Anibal Lapiz capped Klytamnestra's robes with an endless red cloth. It became a near-noose when Elektra grabbed it during their scene together; after Klytamnestra's murder, Elektra wrapped herself in it for what became the dance of the one big veil.)
As Chrysothemis, Renate Behle revealed a bright soprano with a lot of bite, complemented by finely nuanced acting that brought out the woman's fragile sanity. Tom Fox, who made Oreste a physically commanding presence (especially after Elektra freed him from a straitjacket), produced a firm, penetrating tone and vibrant phrases. Many a tenor in the brief role of Aegisth barks out the music; Randolph Locke sang it surely and tellingly. The rest of the cast hit the mark as well.
Conductor Christian Badea tore into the throat-grabbing opening notes and kept the pressure up all night. He didn't slight lyrical interludes in between all the outbursts of vitriol; these were exquisitely shaped and shaded. But Badea's taut control and drive, not to mention the richly detailed, dynamic response he coaxed from the orchestra, helped make this a very hot night at the opera.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8:15 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. Sunday.