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A daring ‘Elektra’ at Minnesota Opera; Twin Cities Book Festival at the fairgrounds

This is not the Met’s “Elektra” or anyone else’s. It’s a new production, set within the frame of a 1920s German film studio, where famed director Fritz Lang is making a silent movie of “Elektra.”

Sabine Hogrefe
Sabine Hogrefe as Elektra in the Minnesota Opera’s new staging of "Elektra."
Photo by Cory Weaver

It’s hard to believe “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Elektra” were created by the same team of composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. One is a sumptuous, sparkling comic opera, with lilting waltzes and a love story. The other is a bleak and bloody tale of obsession, vengeance and a horrible family.

But enough about “Der Rosenkavalier.” Let’s talk about “Elektra,” Minnesota Opera’s daring season opener.

This is not the Met’s “Elektra” or anyone else’s. It’s a new production, set within the frame of a 1920s German film studio, where famed director Fritz Lang is making a silent movie of “Elektra.”

If you go, arrive early. Around 7:10 p.m., the film crew and actors begin moving around the front of the extended stage as if they’re on set, and “Lang” smokes a cigarette. (The stage is extended because most of it is filled by an 87-piece orchestra, which wouldn’t fit in the pit). The backstory and select events throughout the opera are told in flickering black-and-white film on a drop-down screen. Other elements, like crowd scenes and close-ups, are projected onto the elaborately textured golden backdrop.

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The production was designed by San Francisco-based stage director Brian Staufenbiel, creator of Minnesota Opera’s eye-popping “Das Rheingold” (2016). Although “Rheingold” was more futuristic, “Elektra” seems more polished. Three years is a long time in technology.

The title character – a role that requires the stamina of a runner and lungs of steel – alternates between Sabine Hogrefe and Alexandra Loutsion, both making their Minnesota Opera debuts. We saw Loutsion. She’s a powerful singer with a gorgeous voice. So are Jill Grove, who plays Klytämnestra in all performances, and Marcy Stonikas as Chrysothemis. There are male characters in “Elektra,” but women rule.

One advantage Grove has over the other singers is her magnificent headdress, a bejeweled crown of evil-looking spikes. Mathew Lefebvre, the Minnesota Opera’s go-to costume designer since “Die Zauberflöte” in 1991, had a grand time with the costumes for this production.

The story is von Hofmannsthal’s Freudian-flavored take on Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy. More than anything – more than living a normal life, as her sister Chrysothemis is dying to do – Elektra wants to murder her mother, Klytämnestra, because Klytämnestra murdered her father, Agamemnon, because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter (and Elektra’s other sister) Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, who was mad at him for killing a deer. (In Greek mythology, this makes sense.) In weighing her parents’ crimes, Elektra has decided that Klytämnestra is the worst offender.

Craig Irvin as Orest and Sabine Hogrefe as Elektra in the Minnesota Opera’s new production of "Elektra."
Photo by Cory Weaver
Craig Irvin as Orest and Sabine Hogrefe as Elektra in the Minnesota Opera’s new production of "Elektra."
All day, every day, Elektra mourns her father and seethes about her mother. She waits for her brother Orest (Craig Irvin) to return and kill both Klytämnestra and her lover, Aegisth, preferably with the ax Klytämnestra used on Agamemnon when he was relaxing in his bath after returning from the Trojan War. Then Elektra learns that Orest is dead. Except he isn’t.

“Elektra” is revenge, revenge, revenge all the time. There are no waltzes. The word “love” is barely mentioned. (An example: “Love can kill!”) There isn’t a hint of comic relief. The only laughter we heard was in response to some of the film clips, with their old-fashioned silent film conventions of overdramatic gestures and exaggerated makeup.

So if you want an opera of sweetness and light, romance, mistaken identities, and a happy ending, “Elektra” is not for you. But if your tastes run more toward the macabre, or you long for an evening of big music and tremendous singing, or you’re curious about an opera that’s winning rave reviews, see “Elektra” before it closes. Immediately after the dramatic ending of Tuesday night’s performance, the audience around us erupted in “Wows!”

Three performances remain: tonight (Thursday, Oct. 10), Saturday, and Sunday afternoon. FMI and tickets ($25-200). Here’s the trailer.

A half-dozen reasons to hit the Twin Cities Book Festival

Some 6,000 book lovers are expected to attend the 19th Annual Twin Cities Book Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Saturday (Oct. 12). A project of Rain Taxi, publishers of the Rain Taxi Review and keeper of the Rain Taxi Literary Calendar, it’s a great way to spend the day. There’s a ticketed opening night party on Friday, but the festival is free. It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in the Progress Center and the Fine Arts Building. Why go?

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1) So many authors! Linda Boström Knausgård, Christine Coulson, Leif Enger, Lewis Hyde, Christopher Ingraham (the Washington Post reporter who moved to Red Lake Falls), William Kent Krueger, Michael Brodkorb and Allison Mann, Aarti Namdev Shahani, David Shields, Faith Sullivan, and more, plus YA and picture book authors will give talks or readings. Nearly 50 authors will be there.

A few words about Knausgård: We just finished her second novel, “Welcome to America,” which isn’t about America but is set mostly in an expansive apartment in Sweden. Spare and subtle – in contrast to the sprawling six-volume autobiographical novel by her ex-husband, Karl Ove Knausgaard (“My Struggle”), in which Boström figures as a character – “Welcome to America” won Sweden’s prestigious August Prize.

It’s written in the first person by a young girl named Ellen, who believes she killed her mentally ill father by praying for his death. Living with a violent brother and a narcissistic mother, she retreats into silence. It reads like a stream of consciousness (there are no chapters), but you know that every word is there for a reason. At the festival, Boström will join Sheila O’Connor for “Family Secrets,” a talk moderated by singer, songwriter and novelist Dylan Hicks.

Twin Cities Book Festival
Photo by Jennifer Simonson
Some 6,000 book lovers are expected to attend this year’s Twin Cities Book Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Saturday, Oct. 12.
2) The morning mingle. Start your day by hanging out with authors including Frank Bures, Mark Mallman, Lucy Michell and Chan Poling, Joyce Sutphen, Connie Wanek and Wing Young Huie. Books will be available for purchase and signing. There will be swag.

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3) Signings, specials, discounts and giveaways. Make the Rain Taxi booth your first stop. Say thanks for the festival and enter the Book Festival Raffle. For signings by authors presenting at the festival, head for the Magers & Quinn and Red Balloon Bookshop booths.

4) Nearly 100 exhibitors. To name a few: Books for Africa, Coffee House Press, East Side Freedom Library, the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, Graywolf Press, Green Card voices, Milkweed Editions, Minnesota Historical Society Press, Rain Taxi, the Saint Paul Almanac, the Loft, and the University of Minnesota Press. Also: used and rare book dealers and nearly 50 exhibiting authors.

5) You can bring the kids. There’s a Children’s Pavilion, a Middle Grade Stage, a Teen Stage and plenty of activities.

6) And a movie, too. On Saturday after the festival closes, there will be a private screening of “Lynch: A History,” David Shields’ film about NFL star Marshawn Lynch, who uses silence as a form of resistance. The screening will take place at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre after the book festival closes. Shields, who will speak at the festival at 2 p.m., will introduce the film and stay for a Q&A. The screening is for Rain Taxi and MSP Film Society members only. 5:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($5).