The Fabulous Wife on Elektra, A Blessedly Short Opera in One Act

Despite the Labor Day holiday, it was a lo-ong week at work. I even had to go in yesterday, for the first home football game of the season. So I haven’t had time to write a blog post.

The Fabulous Wife has come to the rescue! When I first started Element of Uncertainty, we talked about her occasionally guest-blogging, especially after she’s seen an opera, because she writes great reviews. (Despite having a mom and wife who adore opera, I’ve remained immune to whatever charms it might have.) So here is her review of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, which she saw last night at the San Francisco Opera:

You know, you’d think an opera with three really bloody murders (one off-stage, two on-), a budding psychopath, plus imprisonment and torture wouldn’t be boring.

You’d be wrong.

The imprisonment and torture are both implied rather than acted out, the budding psychopath turns unexpectedly timorous, and the on-stage murders don’t happen until the last fifteen minutes.

The singing was lovely, the orchestra played beautifully, the staging was weird, and the acting was dreadful.

The San Francisco Opera production is set in a museum (I guess it has to be set somewhere) displaying Greek-ish weapons and clothing while scenes from a movie about Elektra loop on several TV screens. The woman who becomes Elektra hides in the museum after it closes to watch the movie and have a psychotic break.

Christine Goerke plays Elektra. She can neither dance nor act, but wow, can she sing! Strauss’s Elektra requires a huge orchestra (95 players are shoe-horned into the pit) and Christine Goerke’s beautiful voice soars above them. Were she a better actress, one wouldn’t chuckle so when someone who looks like a pudgy, goth Peppermint Patty laments how gaunt and hollow-cheeked she’s become.

The plot: Some time before the opera begins, Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty’s mother (Clytemnestra) and her mother’s lover (Aegisthus) murdered Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty’s father (Agamemnon). In retaliation, Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty wants them dead. She tries to get her sister, Chrysanthemum (or something like that), to murder them, but Chrysanthemum doesn’t want to.

Why can’t Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty do it herself? I’m not really sure. I think she’s just chicken.

Their long-lost brother Orestes returns home. After sharing quite a kiss (I never kissed any of my brothers like that!), Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty gets Orestes to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. He covers Clytemnestra’s head with a plastic bag, then chops it off in the kitchen sink. Your questions are probably the same as mine: Why is there a kitchen sink? Where’d he get the plastic bag?

Then Orestes hides in Chrysanthemum’s bed, literally lying in wait for the lecherous Aegisthus. Orestes chops up Aegisthus with his mom-killin’ cleaver.

That’s right: In an opera called Elektra, where Elektra is onstage the entire hour and forty-five minutes, the only character who actually does anything is Orestes, who shows up about fifteen minutes before the end.

That’s the problem with Strauss’s Elektra: It’s all exposition until the last fifteen minutes. It’s an oratorio dressed up as an opera, and how do you stage that?

(Oh — they all live happily ever after, except the dead people. And of course Orestes. But that’s another story.)

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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