Edmonton Opera’s ‘Elektra’: Mostly Electrifying

by Nicholas Siennicki

If there’s nothing else to be taken away from this review, it’s that if you, dear reader, even have a passing fancy in the arts, go see Elektra. The performance may not be the absolute pinnacle of the form, but it is relentlessly entertaining, investing, short, and intelligible. In other words, a performance that is both pleasing to the connoisseur, and the perfect starting place for the novice.

Among the many other praises about to be heaped onto Elektra is the fact that tickets are moderately priced and very affordable, starting at about $40. Comparing to the Ballet, which can reach into the triple digits, or even movie tickets, which are about the same, the Opera is a very affordable date night.

The most important part of the Opera, the aural experience (e.g., the singing and the orchestra), were the highlights of the evening. While the sound-balance was a touch off at the beginning, with the orchestra playing slightly loud and the singing slightly quiet, this was addressed and fixed remarkably quickly (within 10 minutes). Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, who plays Elektra, has a huge voice that fills the room entirely. Her lows roll along, alternatively menacing, feeble, and deranged, complementing the highs that, while not bright and glistening, do pervade throughout the entire space and truly force the audience to feel the music.

That being said, Tracy Cantin, who played Elektra’s sister, absolutely stole every scene she was in. It was more than just her glistening, bright voice—it was the emotive and descriptive passion that simply exuded from every line that she sang. Coupled with her very convincing and engaged physical performance, Tracy Cantin was the absolute highlight of the entire evening.

Some small touches, as the aforementioned live-volume balancing, and the orchestra dampening their playing when Orest, a smoldering baritone, sings, helps keep the audience engaged throughout.

But! I hear you saying, I don’t have a passable acquaintance with German, or Greek Mythology, how can I enjoy the Opera! Fear not! A large crowd-facing screen stationed above the stage provides English subtitles for everyone. While it would be nice for the speaker to be labelled, as sometimes (during fast dialogue scenes) it becomes unclear, it does do a good job of conveying the beauty of  Strauss’ work. Some technical gaffs, such as slow or fast transitions, do distract from the overall performance, however.

Ultimately, the subtitled projector does a good job of summarizing the Opera: many good ideas and some missed ones come together to recreate a masterwork in an adequate and entertaining fashion. While the tight pacing and quick tempo kept the play feeling lively and fresh, there were some issues that broke immersion.

The stage setting and costumes were poor. It’s unfortunate to be so blunt, but this aspect really missed the mark. The stage was set up in such a way as to mimic a parking lot with a dilapidated modern apartment building serving as backdrop, while the costumes mostly ape a post-apocalyptic, neon-hair Mad Max vibe. But there’s a complete lack of dedication to this aesthetic or any reason to have it outside of it being vogue. Elektra’s costume, a simple red tunic and slate-grey trousers, were particularly boring and underwhelming. That’s not to say a more complex costume would have been better, but the aesthetic choices both did not dedicate themselves strongly enough into their genre or make any coherent sense within the framework of the play.

The physical acting was mostly… sufficient. There were times where it really shone. Other times consisted of clichéd Operatic trope of “pose and sing” that wore a little heavily and provided very little visual stimulation. This, again, made all the worse because of the setting and costumes being so lacking. Elektra’s first big song, especially, was quite awkward, with the actress assuming horse-stance while singing about movements she was making (“I am dancing freely”, no, dear, you’re deeply committed to that horse-stance). Other moments, such as the brilliant “Orest reveal” was superbly handled.

Some gaffs within the physical acting also really broke immersion. At one point, the song is expressing, in detail, how one character is shoving another away. Yet on stage, they are folded gently together in a quiet embrace. The show’s ending was tragically bungled by such a gaff: in Strauss’ play, Elektra dies with only her sister to witness her. Her sister then goes to bang on the doors of the recently massacred villa, and calls out her brother’s name. Nobody answers. Curtains. It’s a dramatic punch-to-the-gut that has audiences wondering whether Orest did the right thing, or whether he would abandon his sister, or whether he was even still alive.

In this reproduction, Orest comes out to watch Elektra die, and then goes inside. Elektra’s sister bangs on the door, wanders away, and screams Orest’s name to the audience. This might seem a minor change, but it fundamentally undermines the entire ending of Strauss’ play. It was a very unfortunate blemish on an otherwise relatively faithful reproduction of a masterpiece.

Of course, none of these things, save the last, are real deal breakers that ruin the experience (and the last only if you already know the Opera itself). Most of them are simple mistakes that may or may not be recreated on future nights, and such gaffs should be expected in most reproductions save the very, very best. Some weird set- and costume-design choices were ostensibly the only questionable actively made decisions, and overall, the most important part, the aural enjoyment, was there in spades. The Edmonton Opera isn’t the best, but they’re not the worst, and they try really hard. If you have any interest in the theatre at all, don’t give it a miss.

Also do keep in mind I’m exceedingly hard to please, so if you are easily absorbed within the magic of the world, then many of my nitpicks may not register!

Two more performances of Elektra will run on March 14 and 16.

Banner photography courtesy of Nanc Price.

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