There was much to admire on the opening night of Seattle Opera's Elektra by Richard Strauss, but nonetheless I have to admit I came away a bit disappointed.
Taking on the title role, soprano Janice Baird -- who became famous earlier this year when she made her Met debut jumping into the middle of an in-progress Tristan und Isolde -- sang the smartest, most secure Elektra I've ever heard. Though it took her a few minutes for the voice to gain full power and lustre, she sang radiantly through her nearly two hours on stage, and finished sounding like she was ready to do it again. Everything was wonderfully aligned, her rich tone shimmered up and down the scale, and her high notes were perfectly in tune and vibrant, whether she was singing full out or sweetly and delicately in the second half of the recognition scene. Unlike many Elektras -- who shriek, wail, scoop, caterwaul and sometimes actually scream to get through the killer role -- Baird was completely in control...which was part of the problem. You see, Elektra is not in control. Elektra is nuts.
Now, I'm not saying a wonderful artist with a long, promising career ahead of her should sabotage her vocal future by adopting all the vulgarities of her colleagues, but Baird just didn't convey much of Elektra's shattered personality. Her vocal restraint was mirrored by her physical performance. This is a woman so obsessed with revenge that it's literally what keeps her alive: at the end of the opera, she simply drops dead from relief. Baird didn't begin to approach the necessary level of fixation and desperation. But damn, she can sing.
As her sister Chrysothemis, German soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier was much more succesful in protraying the fragile, jumpy, shell-shocked survivor of an abusive househould. She looked like she'd shriek if you said "boo." Which is a safe bet, because she did shriek. A lot.
At first she displayed a rich, warm voice, but soon ran out of steam in the high-flying aria "Ich kann nicht sitzen," stumbling badly on the climactic high B-flat. She did the same thing on the high B in the final duet, finding herself unable to sustain the tone for the full duration the score requires, almost causing an orchestral fender-bender in the process. Maybe she was ill or just having an especially bad night? If not...I think she needs to visit mezzo-land, where she might thrive at lower altitudes.
Veteran mezzo Rosalind Plowright as Queen Klytaemnestra was a horror. (In a good way. ) Finally we got some old-fashioned scenery-chewing and a healthy balance of good singing and cheesy vocal histrionics. (Her "und schlachte, schlachte, schlachte Opfer um Opfer" was a particular highlight.)
Alfred Walker sang a beautiful, if not particularly passionate, Orest. Gorgeous voice, but we could have used a little more personality and warmth after he revealed his identity to his long-lost sister. I'm not clear why Richard Margison -- a sturdy and reliable if not especially compelling tenor who has sung all the leading roles in all the great houses of the world -- took on the brief and ungrateful role of Aegisthus, usually reserved for tenors who are on their way out. He sounded fine to me...when you could hear him. I don't know where he was during the murder scene, but he was utterly inaudible. "Help, murder! Doesn't anyone hear me?" read the supertitles.
No, actually, we didn't. I'm sure it wasn't Margison's fault, because we couldn't hear the chorus, either, in the glorious finale. I was in the chorus as an apprentice at Santa Fe, so I know what to listen for, and it just wasn't there. They should fix that.
Among the smaller roles, mezzo Melissa Parks as the Third Servant was a standout, with a powerful, voluptuous tone.
The production, by Chris Alexander, was only so-so. Wolfram Skalicki's set gave no hint of classical Greece and instead looked like it was borrowed from one of those corny episodes of Stargate Atlantis on SciFi, where they visit yet another new planet where everyone seems to be living in medieval England and the climate looks just like British Columbia. Alexander missed that Elektra is a very, very lonely opera. Aside from the opening bit with the five maids and the overseer and Klytaemnestra's entrace, there are never more than two singers on stage at a time. This production was too busy; instead of staging a goofy battle between Orestes' men (where did they come from?) and the palace guards (who looked like they wandered in from Monty Python's Holy Grail), complete with clanking swords and unconvincing grunts from the actors distracting from the gorgeous music, if they felt they needed more people on stage, they should have just trotted out the chorus, so we could hear them.
Under Lawrence Renes the Seattle Opera Orchestra played magnificently. McCaw Hall is my new favorite opera house, not least because of the wonderful acoustics. I'll be back in the early spring for their Erwartung/Bluebeard's Castle double bill.