In Austin Lyric Opera's production of 'Elektra,' conductor Richard Buckley succeeds in conveying the complexity, richness, cruelty, and humanity of this work

Arts Review


Bass Concert Hall, through Jan. 16

Running time: 1 hr, 40 min

Two grown sisters talking about their mother – not an uncommon scene, but in this instance the siblings' conversation is spattered with so much talk of wounds and slaughter and steaming blood that you might think they were trapped in an abattoir or on a battlefield. And in a sense, they are. For these are the daughters of Agamemnon, the great warrior who has been savagely murdered by his rival Aegisthus and the woman he loves, Klytämnestra, their own mother. This vicious act has set these sisters at war with the parent who bore them and with her lover, and one of them, Elektra, will not rest until she sees the pair pay for their crime with their lives.

From this ancient Greek drama of bloody murder and retribution, Richard Strauss composed one of the 20th century's first great operas, and Richard Buckley has chosen it as one of the first great challenges for Austin Lyric Opera in his tenure as artistic director. By operatic standards, Elektra is relatively brief (roughly an hour and a half), but compacted into its single act is enough roiling emotion – rage, regret, ridicule, despair, elation, sorrow, fear, and loathing – to fill a cycle of operas. Expressing this range of passions, at the level of intensity penned by Strauss, is indeed a challenge for both singers and orchestra. That sense of being at war, in a place of butchery, is not something we should know by reading the supertitles; we should feel it in our bones from what we hear.

Here, the sounds are drenched with feeling. Early on, Elektra is left alone at the base of the stairs leading up to the great doors of the Mycenaean palace, a hunched and tattered figure, an outcast in her own home, mocked by the maidservants, and her cry of desolation, as voiced by Susan Marie Pierson, is that of a soul in the wilderness, lost and inconsolable. Elektra's sister Chrysothemis is eager to let go of this tragedy, all this death, so she can live, and Brenda Harris fills her yearning for fulfillment as a woman with an ache that floods our hearts. But Elektra will not, cannot, turn loose of her desire for vengeance; it's as if a kind of rigor mortis has set in her spirit, leaving it clenched around the need to execute her stepfather and mother.

Emily Golden's Klytämnestra makes for an alternately imposing and haunted figure. She descends the stairs before the palace, proudly trailing her long red and pink train like a bloody bedsheet. But as she's taunted by Elektra with the promise of ending her guilt-ridden nightmares, Golden's queen becomes as one possessed, a wide-eyed soul in torment, grasping desperately for relief. In her terror, we grasp the brutality of her actions and of this dark society, where blood will out.

As staged by Ken Cazan and especially as illuminated by designer David Nancarrow, this is a twilight world. Light has become a stranger here, and it only draws farther away as the promise of blood justice nears fulfillment. That comes with the arrival of Orestes, Elektra's brother, who was falsely reported dead and who has returned in disguise to serve as executioner. When he greets his sister with the phrase "I must wait here," the words come from Tom Fox's Orestes so slowly and deliberately, in a voice so low and grim, as to be from a messenger of Death himself. But while he may be the agent of revenge, here it is ever Pierson's Elektra who is the true spirit of it. When she calls down a curse upon her sister for abandoning their mission of retribution, it has the force of nature in it, a commanding, chilling call that would be heard by gods – and heeded.

Even so, if there's a real fury in this production, it's in the orchestra pit. Richard Buckley conducts the proceedings with a vengeance, his arms sweeping out and in like the wings of a demon, his baton slicing the air. All the passions that are in Strauss' score surge through his body and, by the sound of it, flash out to his orchestra, electrifying it. His high regard for Strauss' composition can be heard throughout, in the expansive colors of the music and in their constant shifting, one minute brooding and ominous, the next impossibly tender, then perhaps both at once. Buckley succeeds in conveying the complexity, the richness, the darkness, the cruelty, and the humanity of this work and, for at least one Elektra neophyte, opened his eyes and ears to its wonders.

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Elektra, Austin Lyric Opera, Richard Strauss, Richard Buckley, Susan Marie Pierson, Brenda Harris, Emily Golden, Ken Cazan, David Nancarrow, Tom Fox

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