The Avengers

Bleakness and glitz make for a complex Elektra.

To create Elektra, which premiered in 1909, Richard Strauss stirred two ingredients into a rich Wagnerian stock: unprecedentedly bitter, grinding dissonance, and opulent, syrupy prettiness. Given the starkness of the Greek myth on which it's based—a young woman hungers for revenge on her mother for killing her father—the latter seems even creepier. Anyone can write ugly music for ugly events; it takes a genius to write luscious music that becomes disturbing through sheer tastelessness. (The score's constantly breaking into three-quarter time; Elektra's nearly as waltzy as Strauss' next opera, Der Rosenkavalier.)Seattle Opera, in its production that opened Saturday night, found an exact visual analogue for this bitter/sweet contrast. About a half-hour into the work, into the looming black stone pit of the set (designed by Wolfram Skalicki) comes Elektra's murderous mother Klytämnestra and her retinue, wearing the most insane costumes (by Melanie Taylor Burgess) seen in McCaw Hall since the hot-pink hallucinations worn by the Flower Maidens in 2003's Parsifal. It was an emblematic moment in a staging that (mostly) realized the opera's luridness and impact.Much of the audience, no doubt, was evaluating soprano Janice Baird's SO debut on two fronts: on her performance in the title role, and on what they imagined she'll be like as the Brünnhilde bearing next summer's Ring on her shoulders. As Elektra, Baird's long opening monologue seemed underpowered, though she was likely husbanding her strength for this notoriously grueling role (in the 100-minute opera, she's barely ever offstage), and her sonorous high notes sounded a shade unfocused, vibrato-wise. By the end she sounded notably more solid in both regards, though even a little more oomph from her at climaxes would've been welcome, to better balance the beefy-sounding Seattle Symphony, led by Lawrence Renes. And I definitely wanted more edge, more madness in her portrayal of this woman so hate-poisoned that when vengeance is finally achieved, she drops dead, having no further reason to live.Then again, veteran mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright makes Klytämnestra nutty enough for the whole cast: tottering around in her Vegas-showgirl headdress, dripping with bling, dream-haunted, physically and spiritually diseased, cackling maniacally. I can't recall ever seeing an opera diva push a performance so far out on the limb of camp without it breaking underneath her, tribute to Plowright's commitment and commanding presence. Completing the trio of sopranos—a twisted foreshadowing of Rosenkavalier's celestial ensemble of three female leads—Irmgard Vilsmaier, as Elektra's sister Chrysothemis, displays a voice of beautiful carrying power and expressive directness.As Elektra's brother Orest (Alfred Walker) returns to avenge the murder and finish off Klytämnestra's lover Aegisth (Richard Margison) as well, effective and miscalculated moments follow in accelerating succession. In a half-assed take on the Greek-drama convention that everything gory happens offstage, Klytämnestra's murder is seen in slow-motion shadowplay, less vivid than the scene would have been left to our imaginations. Nor does her lover Aegisth's death-by-ketchup-stain raise a chill. Director Chris Alexander, though, stages Chrysothemis' final triumphant aria with a visceral dramatic irony, surrounding her with swordfights between her mother's guards and her brother's accomplices as the stage fills with corpses and fanfares peal from the

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