I will never sing the role again. It was frightful. We were a set of mad women. There is nothing beyond ‘Elektra’.

Contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was deeply distressed. The 73-year old veteran of the German music stage had been thoroughly shaken by her appearance as the venal queen, Klytämnestra, during the inaugural run of Richard Strauss’ searing psychodrama in Dresden. Traditionalist-minded critics were equally unnerved.

Tendering a fundamentally redacted version of the ancient Greek tale of regicide and bloodlust, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal found in the classic theatrical telling a primal context for the violence and psychosis of the modern age. Originally staged as a one-act play produced and directed by Max Reinhardt, Elektra sent shock waves through the Berlin theatre community, more Sigmund Freud than Sophocles. It would not be until 1906, however, three years after Hofmannstahl’s chilling adaptation premiered, that Richard Strauss was finally persuaded to set the piece. Why he demurred, intervening work on Salome notwithstanding, remains a subject of considerable speculation as does his virtual abandonment of tragedy as an operatic form following Elektra’s 1909 premiere.

It is almost as if the shredding of the human psyche so savagely depicted in Elektra, his tortured protagonist’s excruciating descent into irredeemable madness so unsettled the perennially genial composer that he never allowed himself to penetrate so deeply into the darkest corners of the human mind again.

Dramatically raw, musically voracious, Elektra both disturbs and mesmerizes, Hofmannsthal id to Strauss ego.

Reprising director Thomas de Mallet Burgess’ expressionist-tinged 2007 Elektra currently helmed by James Robinson, the Canadian Opera Company launches its 2019 Winter Season on a nightmarish note. The darkness is as profound as it is sharply illuminated. Score and text are vividly spotlighted.

Seen from a purely textual perspective, Elektra, the opera, is markedly dissimilar to its 2400-year old prototype in at least one fundamental respect. The murder of the proud Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, at the hands of his wife, Klytämnestra, as related by middle daughter Elektra allows for little in the way of mythical backstory. Nowhere is mention made of her father’s divinely ordained sacrifice of his eldest offspring, Iphigenia, to secure Greek success in the Trojan War.

Elektra’s visceral hatred of her mother, in Hofmannsthal’s spare account, is positively pathological, untempered by any notion of sympathy or sibling grief. Klytämnestra has rid herself of a husband simply to make way for a new bedmate. Driven by horror and rage, a frenzied Elektra is drawn deeper and deeper into a cesspool of hate churning with self-loathing. Her thirst for redemption sustains her yet she cannot strike. Cannot kill her mother. Cannot slay her mother’s lover, the odious Aegisth. Her brother Orest must perform the deed. With the identical axe Klytämnestra used to slay Agamemnon. On the very day of his assassination. Ritual is everything. Rites must be observed however tortuous.

Elektra agonizes, squeezed between terror and compulsion. Only Orest can release her. But Orest has fled the kingdom. The healing power of unspoilt love, symbolized by sister Chrysothemis, is beyond her reach. Her father haunts the obsessed anti-heroine from beyond the grave. Filial devotion is raised to toxic levels, psychology witnessed on a catastrophic human scale. Vengeance is a tomb or, in the case of the COC’s durable production, a grubby palace courtyard piled with smoky burning trash.

As gripping as the narrative experience of Elektra may be, it is the supercharged pulse of  Strauss’ driving score that gives the story cosmic traction. Vital and panoramic, more than occasionally chromatic and dissonant edging towards atonality, Strauss’ music virtually defines early 20th century modernism. Wagner is remodelled, his style expanded beyond the constructs of German Romanticism. Leitmotifs are nonetheless still very much in evidence, few more distinctive than Elektra’s epic cry of pain, the towering AGA-MEM-NON triad that essentially opens and closes the grisly proceedings. Singers and orchestra participate in the story as equal partners as Strauss intended.

Leading a monumental 110 plus-player Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, conductor Johannes Debus commands a prodigious sonic force with great authority and attention to detail, splashing the vast Four Seasons Centre with a seemingly limitless spectrum of instrumental colour. Finessing rhythm and harmony, fluidly reacting to Strauss’ mercurial shifts in texture and dynamic, maestro and musicians soar, transporting us to a realm of churning emotion. Orchestral interludes are particularly arresting.

Appearing in the title role, dramatic soprano Christine Goerke contributes a performance of staggering proportions, Gesamtkuntswerk (total art) pressed to the limits of definition.

Though populated by multiple characters, Elektra is primarily a monodrama. A single persona dominates on stage from lights up to blackout. For the most part, action is internal. To his credit, director Robinson amply exploits what few overt opportunities for physical animation exist in Hofmannsthal’s stark scenario. But responsibility for delivering the majority of the evening’s theatricality is Goerke’s domain. Her rendering of the psychotic princess — skittish, hyperactive, fitful — is nothing less than a master class on movement and mannerisms.

Allein! Weh, ganz allein (“Alone! Alas, completely alone!“), Goerke sings in her first aria, propelling her character on a momentous 1¾-hour arc, heartbreaking, achingly affecting. A towering achievement. An Elektra for our time.

Refocusing her own considerable star power from Elektra — a role she has sung previously in both Toronto and London — to Klytämnestra, dramatic soprano Susan Bullock endows the odious queen with something of a new lease on life. Haunted by a recurring nightmare, tormented by conscience in the wake of her hideous crime, Klytämnestra prowls the eternal darkness of her ghastly palace. Ich habe keine guten Nächte (“I have no good nights”), she whimpers. Pathos is not a quality widely associated with one of opera’s most manic villains, yet somehow Bullock triggers it. Her single appearance, a piercing, prolonged scene with Goerke is utterly shattering. Soul shredded, Klytämnestra slips back into the shadows. Bullock owns the moment.

By way of sharp contrast, Erin Wall sings an intensely humane Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sole source of enduring goodness. Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren (“I cannot sit and stare into the darkness”), the locally-based singer actor bravely declares, her bright, shimmering soprano radiant and glowing. Gifted with some of Elektra’s most lyrical music — precious few pages of manuscript occupy Strauss’ otherwise ferocious score — Wall captivates, innocent and childlike. And battered as a girlhood doll.

Bavarian bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer sings a brooding, wary Orest. Displaying typically keen dramatic instincts, tenor Michael Schade is a memorable debauched Aegisth.

Jill Grove, Simona Genga, Lauren Segal, Tracy Cantin and Lauren Eberwein are a clawing, catty chorus of disgruntled maids. Simone McIntosh, Lauren Margison and Owen McCausland provide principals with fine comprimari support.

Hofmannsthal and Strauss collaborated on 12 operas after Elektra. Few, if any of them, achieved anything resembling its notoriety. The limitless depth of the work, its dramatic incisiveness, its unearthing of the human condition transfixed Strauss’ generation. 110 years later, on the very month of its first performance, we are still devastated by the piece.

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Above: Christine Goerke as Elektra, Canadian Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper