If there’s one voice you hear this year in Houston, let it be this one: Christine Goerke.
Goerke triumphed in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ magnificent Elektra. To Houston opera-goers this will be no surprise. Goerke stole the show in the HGO’s 2011 production of Strass’ Ariadne auf Naxos. She was a revelation as Ariadne, the title character who really isn’t the focus of the opera. As Brünnhilde in HGO’s recent mounting of Wagner’s Ring cycle, she had a voice equal to the fiery end of the world. Now, in Elektra, her triumph is complete.
Elektra is a one-act opera without intermission, one so compact, so tightly composed, and so unrelentingly focused on its heroine that nothing less than perfection will suffice. And, perfect she was: manic, urgent, wrathful, and resplendent all in succession. That’s the astonishing power of voice. Even if you’ve never been to an opera, you can tell immediately when you’re in the presence of greatness.
It’s no surprise psychological conditions came to be named after Greek characters like Elektra and Oedipus. Whether you’re talking about Greek tragedians or Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, family trauma rushes to the fore.
Imagine your father, Agamemnon, made a blood sacrifice of your sister, Iphigenia, so he could sail off to war, so your mother, Klytaemnestra and her new lover Aegisthus (who is also your cousin) axed him in his bath when he returned from the war.
Naturally, as your other sister plots an escape, you fantasize about revenge, and wait for your brother, Orestes, to return and murder your mother, which he does. By the time blood is literally running down the steps at then, you know you’re in the presence of one of the most dysfunctional families in the history of literature.
Of course, these days that would scarcely buy them a slot on Starz.
To sing Goerke’s praises so is not to belittle her supporting singers. Without Elektra, there’s no opera: she is a pure diva. But she’s a generous one, who enhances everyone around her in a series of potent duets. HGO favorite Tamara Wilson makes for a poignant Chrysothemis, the other surviving sister who is tired of wars and coups and only wants to live and love and have children. In her Houston debut, Michaela Martens masters the outrageously difficult part of Klytaemnestra, who is an aging lover seduced by a bad man and thus at turns cynical, enraged, vulnerable, vicious, and exhausted by the sycophants surrounding her.
One of the marvels of Elektra is that it really feels like a play by, for, and about women struggling to survive the burden of living in a world defined by absent men. But when Greer Grimsley finally arrives as Orest to bring the justice Elektra craves, his magnificent bass-baritone adds the deep, grounding notes we’d been listening for from the beginning.
The elegant brutality of John Macfarlane’s costumes and were perfectly outrageous but not distractingly ostentatious. Elektra wears a bare gray dress while the vicious courtiers of her mother’s regime wear an array of terrifying Gothic splendors. The imposing stairs to the palace lead down to rubble and ruined spaces. This is a world where trauma follows trauma and Elektra lives only just long enough to see the queasy triumph of justice over a broken kingdom.
Here in Houston we have felt more than a little of what it’s like to be in a broken place. But as I walked out of thus invigorating non-stop performance, I thought to myself, HGO is back. The Wortham Theater Center may not be just yet, but the company has managed make a less than ideal venue more comfortable and convenient than it was for those first performances of the season. Maybe we were all in shock then, understandably. We’re so accustomed to excellent, comfortable venues. But this Elektra is so pure that somehow it just didn’t matter.
And yes, it was largely that voice: the one voice you shouldn’t miss this year.
Houston Grand Opera’s production of Elektra runs through February 2 at the Resilience Theater at the George R. Brown Convention Center.