Between acts, and between shows, the stage at Chicago’s Civic Opera House is usually blocked from view by a solid mural painted with baroque figures in gold – perhaps the gaudiest feature of an already fussily ornate hall. The gilt-painted screen was up, however, for Elektra, the first show of the Lyric Opera’s new season (along with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which runs concurrently). Instead, we were confronted with a jagged curtain, stained and blue, which covered most of the stage; it slanted down the left side of the proscenium, as if a giant piece had been torn from it. With the fortissimo blast that opens the opera, the soiled curtain was yanked up, revealing a world of waste: heaps of crumbled stone, iron bars whose shadows scissored the stage, bald women in opulent dress, fat jesters, filth. Elektra is a decadent opera, no doubt about it, and the Lyric’s new production from the Scottish director David McVicar finds ways to indulge in grotesque imagery while still building a larger, cohesive visual arc.

Elektra © Robert Kusel
Elektra
© Robert Kusel

The production is not shy before its Midwest-American audience. There are moments – I am thinking in particular of a cackling, fat man in a red thong and body suit – that would hardly be shocking for a stage in Berlin, but are nonetheless something of a surprise when encountered on a usually conservative American one. I believe it was with the second appearance of the man in the red thong that walk-outs began in earnest (the first was apparently not sufficiently upsetting). Add to this some fantastically creepy outfits, bouts of dancing reminiscent of a rainmaker’s contortions, and a gushing river of fake blood (flown in, as the program proclaims, from Cardiff, Wales!), and what you have is one of the freshest – and most European – stagings at the Lyric in recent memory.

And the singing. The opera opens with five women gossiping about Elektra; they are all played by fine singers, but when Christine Goerke steps out of the shadows, her voice seems to have the power and amplitude of all five combined. It is a voice like the curtain: full of dark and shifting colors, ragged at times, heavy as velvet. Her Elektra has a physicality that is astonishing for its contradictions. When she first shambles on stage, it is with the gait and hunch of a great bear, but Goerke also knows how to find a girlishness in her figure, sometimes paddling around as if in her pajamas, plunking herself down next to Chrysothemis and fiddling with her hair. She commands the space as much with her body as her voice, and when Elektra’s brother Orest – played by the bass-baritone Alan Held, tall and spectral – appears near the end of the opera, disguised in dark cloaks, the two are such a contrast on stage together that it occurs to you that they must be siblings.

There is such care taken for visual consistency and coherence in this production, from the giant door (more of a prison gate) that looms above a deep pit to the way that singers’ bodies are used as dramatic motifs – tumbling downstairs to break up a scene, or arranged to create shape and direction. The unbroken arc of the story (Elektra is in a single act, which runs for about an hour and 45 minutes) is structured by a simple, yet wholly effective, device: the arrival of natural light at the end that washes out the shadows and lurid colors of the nightmare under Klytämnestra’s reign.

When the lights went out after the last orchestral shriek, a standing ovation warmer and more genuine than any I have experienced in Chicago broke out in the crowd. This, too, felt European, this outpouring of enthusiasm for a challenging (anyway, by American standards) production of a tough, dense opera. Elektra is of course mainstream, but the night nevertheless felt like an affirmation that difficulty is not at odds with selling tickets, and that Richard Strauss at his most nightmarish can open a new season at the Lyric with as much gusto as Verdi.

****1