Keith Warner’s Elektra Museum isn’t somewhere I’d choose to spend a night alone. There are pretty, flowing dresses and shiny gold masks and headpieces, but there’s also a prominently displayed ax and a video of ritual sacrifice. It’s no wonder the anonymous museum visitor who hides in the exhibit falls prey to nightmares and delusions, imagining herself into Elektra’s place. As a result, Elektra at San Francisco Opera has a dislocating effect, wavering between past and present, illusion and reality. It suits Strauss’ rollercoaster of a score.

Christine Goerke (Elektra) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Christine Goerke (Elektra)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The five maidservants begin off-stage, serving as the audio guide voices accompanying the sacrifice video. This establishes the museum frame but undercuts the singers’ vocal impact. They burst onto the scene only as their squabbling turns violent. Rhoslyn Jones stands out as the compassionate Fifth Maidservant, singing in a shimmering, ringing soprano. Her pity for Elektra gets her collared and killed as the victim in the brutal ritual.

The flow of blood has started, and it won’t stop. Elektra is met by visions of her bloody father (axed in the bathtub, Marat-style) at both the beginning and end of the opera. Orest’s murders mix the graphic with the darkly comedic. He half-suffocates Klytemnestra, and then chops off her head with a hatchet in the kitchen sink. He surprises Aegisth by hiding in Chrysothemis’ bed (the king’s night-time visits to his daughter-in-law’s bedroom are one of the most messed-up aspects of this very messed-up family) and chases him around the stage before catching and killing him back in the bedroom.

In San Francisco Opera’s Elektra, beautiful singing is as ubiquitous as blood. Christine Goerke owns the title role, her huge voice creating endless waves of resonance that fill the opera house. A chesty bottom and rolling top, controlled crescendi, clear German diction, and a persuasive glimmer of madness in her eye make Goerke the perfect soprano for the part. 

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

In spite of the size of her instrument, she never overwhelms her scene partners. Adrianne Pieczonka holds her own as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, here a teddy-bear-gripping princess in sparkly pink. Pieczonka’s satiny voice rings commandingly. As their brother Orest, Alfred Walker delivers his part in a deliberate, croaky bass-baritone. Against the heights of his sister’s soprano madness, his earthy tones provide reassuring calm. Rounding out the family are Michaela Martens’ rich, grainy mezzo as Klytemnestra and Robert Brubaker’s choppy character tenor as Aegisth. 

Under Henrik Nánási’s baton, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra created a booming sound without overwhelming the voices. For Elektra, 95 instrumentalists were crammed into the pit (the most or second-most in the company’s history, depending on how you count), and it showed in the size and textures of the music. The orchestra excelled in the wide variety of the score’s moods, from the screaming excitement of Klytemnestra’s entrance through the melting sweetness of Elektra’s reunion with Orest. The finale was particularly gripping, with imposing crashing and tinkling chimes interrupted by fleeting snatches of dance melodies. 

<i>Elektra</i> at San Francisco Opera © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Elektra at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Warner’s staging delights in the details. Cowboy servants, a well-deployed industrial flashlight, and a silent funeral re-enactment offer much to ponder. Orest’s and Elektra’s obvious sexual attraction to each other induces some squirming. And the ending tears us out of the dream world of the Elektra myth, creating new ambiguities about identity and revenge. The museum onstage is a material representation of Elektra’s disturbed psychology, but it is also an exhibit about the eternal lure of mythology. Set to Strauss’ score and sung by this cast, it’s a call you neither can nor should resist.