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Christine Goerke up to demands of Lyric’s wrenching ‘Elektra’ role

ChristinGoerke title role 'Elektra' Lyric Operproduction. | AL PODGORSKI~SUN-TIMES

Christina Goerke in the title role of 'Elektra" in the Lyric Opera production. | AL PODGORSKI~SUN-TIMES

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Updated: November 9, 2012 6:17AM

‘Elektra” is one of those rare evenings in the theater when a bloody mess is just what you want and expect.

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s 1909 streamlined operatic version of the violent tale central to both Greek mythology and tragedy, a seminal work of the 20th century, is too rarely done due to the difficulty of finding a dramatic soprano who can deliver the vocal and emotional goods for almost the entire hour and forty minutes of the intermissionless work.

That’s not a problem here. After a 20-year absence from the Lyric Opera of Chicago schedule, “Elektra” came back with a bang Saturday night with the American soprano Christine Goerke making her own Lyric debut and staking her claim to this career-defining role in only her second outing in the demanding part.

The story of the grieving Greek princess out to avenge the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her scheming mother, Klytemnestra, and her mother’s weak lover, Aegisth (German names are used throughout), moves relentlessly both as a stage work and in the crowded pit — Strauss’ score calls for 110 instruments.

Goerke is in command throughout without ever eclipsing her colleagues and always making it clear that this is the story of one wild family, not only of its heroic but increasingly mad daughter. She handles the wide range, the long lines and the fragile yet still manipulative psyche of her character at all times. She’s not Birgit Nilsson, but she’s in that mold with a voice that never shrieks but that can cut through any accompaniment.

Wildly costumed mezzo Jill Grove more than holds her own as Elektra’s mother, both murderous and doomed. And Ryan Center alumna Emily Magee captures the indecision, weakness and inner convictions of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis. The duet of the two princesses, unique in an opera basically made up of solo lines, was haunting. As was the reunification of Elektra with her presumed dead brother Orest (bass-baritone Alan Held), who will carry out the killings of the regicides. Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell is a long way from the carefree lover in Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” his last role here at Lyric, as a particularly emasculated Aegisth.

Ryan Center singers provide most of the small supporting roles and do so with gusto and delicacy as required. They and 11 very physical actors make up the Rocky Horror feel of Klytemnestra’s perverse court.

Scottish stage director David McVicar has given Chicago some of its best works in recent seasons, and with his countryman John Macfarlane handling sets and costumes and American lighting legend Jennifer Tipton painting in the shadows of Agamemnon’s decaying palace and grounds, we have constant focus on the story and on the essential family dynamics. Big, brooding shapes and harsh angles house the hellish looks of the “bad guys” and the been-through-hell look of the good. Sarah Hatten’s elaborate wigs and makeup almost seem part of the scenic concept. Colin Ure provided excellent new projected titles.

One hopes that music director Andrew Davis, normally one of the best Straussians of the day, will tone down the orchestral volume in this month’s subsequent performances. His “Arabella” in Santa Fe was as delicately calibrated as a very fine Swiss watch. The orchestra is playing very musically for him. The sound was just too loud at times for all but Goerke and Grove.

That said, don’t miss this new production of a great and always disturbing entry in the Modernist canon or these performances. Lyric was brave to launch its season with such a heavy-duty piece. And as she showed in just five minutes of Verdi at Lyric’s outdoor Millennium Park concert last month, Goerke has the goods. Her Elektra literally dances herself to death after her revenge is accomplished. But her voice rings on for the rest of the run here and, one hopes, for many years to come.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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