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SF Opera stages Strauss’ shocking, irresistible ‘Elektra’

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Henrik Nánási is making his San Francisco Opera debut conducting Strauss. (Courtesy Gunnar Geller/GM Art & Music)

Even for longtime opera fans and experts, the first listen to Richard Strauss’ raw, intense “Elektra” is jolting.

Case in point: Henrik Nánási, who makes his San Francisco Opera debut this weekend conducting “Elektra,” initially was shocked by it.

“On first hearing, it’s loud, violent, ugly,” he says.

But that changed.

He adds, “When I started studying the score, I was planning to spend a couple of hours with it on the first day, and 10 hours later, I realized you cannot stop. It sucks you in.”

“Elektra” — written 108 years ago, but still boldly modern, at first repulsive, but ultimately magnetic — occupies a special place in the hearts of many opera lovers.

The story, from Greek mythology, is one of grief, revenge and bloodshed, and some of its music has been characterized as “unbearable cacophony.”

Elektra, princess of Argos, was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and when her mother and the man who became her stepfather, Aegisthus, murdered Agamemnon, she became consumed with overwhelming determination to kill her father’s killers. Although the story is similar to Hamlet’s, there is no hesitation or indecision about Elektra.

The music reflects and underscores the drama, with little relief from Elektra’s pain and murderous passion for revenge.

Yet, when there is a sudden change from blood-and-guts to what Nánási calls “a wash of lyrical passages,” the work offers an overwhelming musical-emotional experience. Look for it in Elektra’s aria invoking Agamemnon’s memory and in the Recognition Scene when her brother, Orest, returns from exile.

Nánási, 42, a Hungarian-born Berlin resident (until recently music director of the Komische Oper in Berlin and in demand from Italy to Japan), is appropriately part of this international co-production between San Francisco Opera and companies in Prague and Karlsruhe, Germany.

Leading “Elektra” here is part of a coincidental Strauss spurt for Nánási, who will conduct the tone poems “Macbeth” and “Till Eulenspiegel” in Essen, Germany, “Also sprach Zarathustra” in Tokyo, “Ein Heldenleben” in Atlanta, then “Salome” at the Royal Opera in London.

Dramatic soprano Christine Goerke sings the title role in Keith Warner’s modern-dress production (called “conceptually flawed” in a review of the Prague performance) on Boris Kudlicka’s split-level museum set. The cast includes Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra, Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Alfred Walker as Orest.

Anthony Reed, Rhoslyn Jones, Laura Krumm, Nicole Birkland, Sarah Cambidge, Amina Edris and Kyle van Schoonhoven are among the young singers appearing in supporting roles.

Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9, Sept. 13, Sept. 19, Sept. 22 and Sept. 27, 2 p.m. Sept. 17
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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