CHICAGO — "There will be blood!" insist the ads for Lyric Opera's production of "Elektra," – and indeed there is, cascading down the steps of Agamemnon's palace near the end of Richard Strauss' one-act opera.
Enough blood, in David McVicar's new production that opened the season Saturday night, for soprano Christine Goerke to cap her heroic performance in the title role by smearing it over her hands and face in exultation: Her brother, Orest, has just avenged their father's murder by killing their mother, Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisth.
Goerke is making her Lyric debut in a part that has few equals for difficulty in the dramatic soprano repertory. Elektra is onstage virtually throughout the hour-and-45-minute work, and much of the time Strauss requires her to sing out at full volume over almost impossibly dense orchestration.
She meets the challenge fearlessly. Unlike many Elektras, Goerke has a voice that's warm and rich in vibrato rather than diamond-bright. Her low notes in particular have a lovely, velvety texture. As she rises through the scale, she occasionally wavers slightly in pitch, but her high notes ring out true and confident.
More than when she first performed the role in Madrid a year ago, Goerke inhabits the different aspects of the character persuasively: part wounded creature, slapping her own head repeatedly in despair; part conniving schemer, cozying up to her mother only to unleash her scorn and fury; part loving sister, tenderly cradling her long-lost brother's head in her lap.
But despite its virtuosic demands, "Elektra" is far from a one-woman show. Lyric has assembled a fine supporting cast, led by the chilling Klytaemnestra of mezzo-soprano Jill Grove. Bald-headed and costumed grotesquely with heavily bejeweled bosom and pleated gold skirt, Grove makes her character seem to reek of moral decay as she recounts her unrelenting nightmares. She brings prodigious power to her disconnected utterances – set to some of Strauss' most daringly dissonant music – and her very lowest notes in particular are crushing in their brutal force.
As Elektra's well-meaning but weak-willed sister Chrysothemis, soprano Emily Magee sings with appealing luster. Her duet of rejoicing with her sister – one of the few times Strauss joins two voices in harmony in the opera – is a musical high point. Baritone Alan Held makes an unusually haunted figure as Orest, and tenor Roger Honeywell is an effective Aegisth, staggering drunkenly through his brief scene.
Much of the musical strength of the evening comes from the orchestra, which plays with tremendous precision and power. Andrew Davis, the Lyric's music director, shapes a finely nuanced reading of the fierce score that highlights its more introspective passages to an unusual extent.
As for McVicar's production, call it serviceable, faithful to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto in most respects if not particularly imaginative. The set by John Macfarlane, who also designed the costumes, places the palace entrance at the far left, with steps running up to a sliding gate. The whole building leans forward perilously, as if about to topple over, and crumbled stones are scattered at the foot of the walls. In the middle is a large pit, where Elektra has hidden the ax used to murder her father. At far right stand two upright concrete walls, suggesting a gateway to an outside world less decadent than the one in front of us.
The costumes for Elektra and the other sympathetic characters are drab gray and yellow, in contrast to the garish outfits for Klytaemnestra and her retinue. McVicar has included among her followers a kind of court jester in a non-singing role who mocks Elektra and bounces around with maniacal glee.
Other than the river of blood, it makes for a visually subdued evening. But perhaps that's as it should be: The fireworks are in the music.