Christine Goerke (right) stars as the title character in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "Elektra" with Emily Magee as Chrysothemis. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
◆ Opening Oct. 6 and running to Oct. 30 (live broadcast Oct. 6, starting at 6:15 p.m., WFMT 98.7 FM)
◆ Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker
◆ Tickets, $34-$259
◆ (312) 332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org
Updated: November 7, 2012 6:02AM
The centuries-old stories from Greek mythology have endured for a reason: They reveal essential — and timeless — truths about the best and the worst of humanity.
“It’s about the mystery of being alive, the mystery of being a human being and how little we fully understand ourselves,” said Sir David McVicar. “And myth is a way of articulating that.”
The noted Scottish director is overseeing Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season-opening new production of “Elektra,” Richard Strauss’ 1908 operatic adaptation of a Greek myth recounted by all three of the great Athenian dramatists — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. (Performances begin Oct. 6 and run through Oct. 30.)
The grim yet poignant story centers on Elektra, the daughter of Agamemnon, who is consumed by her desire for vengeance. After the king’s return from the Trojan War, he was killed at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra, and a paramour, Aegisthus.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the opera’s libretto, making only slight changes to his 1903 play on which it is based. His modern take, which strongly implies Elektra was an eyewitness to the murder as a girl, is unsparing in its gory details.
“I’m fascinated by this treatment, because it’s Greek myth seen through the prism of the concerns and stresses of Hofmannsthal’s time and also Freudian and Jungian psychology,” he said. “It’s a drama fest for the singers and what they can do as actors and actresses.”
Although Elektra is severely traumatized and has even become dehumanized in some ways, the director does not believe she is crazy.
“She has an integrity that the other characters do not have,” he said. “She’s the one person in this crumbling, sick society that stands up and says, ‘This is what I believe in. This is what must happen. This is how we put an end to this sickness that is surrounding us.’ ”
Elektra will be sung by internationally acclaimed soprano Christine Goerke, who is making her Lyric Opera debut in the title role — one of the field’s most vocally and dramatically challenging.
The jagged-edged, one-act opera, which runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, is Strauss’ most musically avant-garde and dissonant, with a complex, multilayered score.
McVicar said that many historical settings would suit a production of this tumultuous work, such as the oppressive, dysfunctional world of 1970s Romania under communist ruler Nicolae Ceausecu.
Because “Elektra” has only been mounted twice before at Lyric Opera — most recently in 1992 — many audience members probably will have never seen it before. So McVicar decided it made sense to give his staging a more universal feel: an indistinct setting not tied to any one time or place.
Production designer John Macfarlane’s deliberately claustrophobic, rubble-strewn gray set consists of a ruin of a once-grand building on the left and stark, concrete-looking walls on the right.
Although the two scenic elements can be seen as symbols of a crumbling past and a potential future, he is not concerned if the audience makes such a connection or perceives any of the references he drew on.
“You just use images that you’re excited by to create, hopefully, an arresting stage picture that works for what happens within it,” Macfarlane said. “But, of course, it has to have all these elements of danger, rot and, then, collapse.”
The stark modernity and startling intensity of “Elektra” daunted audiences for decades after its creation, but McVicar believes the distance of time now allows for a deeper, more balanced appraisal.
“It’s 104 years old now,” he said. “We can appreciate it in a more mature way than previous generations were able to, because they were so overcome by the shock and horror of it all.
“I think now we listen to it and appreciate how lush and romantic it is.”
Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.