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REVIEW: Powerful, Bloody Elektra (Minnesota Opera)

A scene from Minnesota Opera’s new production of Elektra, which opened Saturday in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Before there was Kill Bill, there was Elektra: a drama from Classical Greece whose culmination is a well-telegraphed murder. Did your father kill your sister and your mother kill your father? Family Feud has nothing on this ancient drama’s family feud, and while there’s little doubt about the outcome, the psychodrama leading up to the murderous finale is where this Richard Strauss opera’s action is.

There are two main stars of Minnesota Opera’s production of Elektra: the massive orchestra, led by Elias Grandy, and the titular character, played by Sabine Hogrefe on opening night and Alexandra Loutsion in the alternate cast. The orchestra is so large that it sprawls across the stage, the pit filled-in to provide extra staging for the action. A massive Art Deco set by Brian Staufenbiel (both stage director and production designer) fills three dimensions, framing the action like a set from Metropolis. When combined with the costumes by Mathew LeFebvre, this production is anything but boring to look at.

The Art Deco sets evoke the angular world of the silent film era. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Similarly, this production is anything but boring to listen to. The sheer stage and singing time given to Hogrefe’s Elektra is impressive, and the music is both melodically and harmonically complex in ways that startlingly capture the character’s psychological distress. Hogrefe navigates these difficult waters masterfully in a performance that is riveting and rich. Klytaemnestra (Jill Grove) and Chrysothemis (Marcy Stonikas) may have less stage time, but paint vividly torn characters with their expressive performances.

The special conceit of this production design is that Elektra is a silent film shoot, with attendant pre-opera recorded scenes and periodic juxtapositions of footage (some live, some pre-recorded) within the main opera. This device does enliven a few scenes, but suffers from overuse. The opening video scenes could also have been trimmed more judiciously; outside of Urinetown, nothing drags a show down like too much exposition. Some of the film shoot characters’ entrances and exits similarly smack of nothing but busywork – when someone enters and doesn’t do anything except block your view, it adds nothing but distraction. The “offstage” scene prep moments are far more rewarding, suggesting that this is an idea simply carried too far.

Sabine Hogrefe as Elektra and Dennis Petersen as Aegisth. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Richard Strauss’ Elektra does not get performed very often, but the opera – with or without the added trappings – certainly rewards a viewing.

Elektra runs through October 13 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine