The new production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra is the most exciting work Washington Opera has done in quite a while. And that’s a good thing, considering the 1997-98 season the company just announced.

Heart-sinkingly conventional, next season is obviously designed to start siphoning off bucks from the conservative subscribership for Teatro Woodie. The big plus touted in the press release is an eighth production added to the roster as a season opener, starring Plácido. But when that comes in the form of the 65-minute Pagliacci—seen here only a couple of seasons ago, but now shorn of a second opera on the bill—directed by Franco Zeffirelli (whose thoughts on the piece, complete with Domingo, have been sitting on your local video-store shelf for 10 years), it sounds as if repertoire-development has found its natural niche in the company’s development office.

Filling out the season, after the tenor’s hour onstage, are revivals of two underwhelming Mozart productions (The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni), a bit of bel canto fluff (L’Elisir d’Amore), more Spanish light opera (Dona Francisquita), some French-fried Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), minor Puccini (La Rondine), and a recent work so reactionary in style it might as well have been written a hundred years ago (The Dangerous Liaisons). Is this to be the true face of Domingo’s Washington Opera, or is it just a temporary fit of narcolepsy? Sure, get asses in the seats today and the jackhammers can start tomorrow. But c’mon—while nothing’s wrong with any of these operas on their own, together they make for one big yawn of a season.

The guy vigorously booing director Elijah Moshinsky and designer Robert Israel at Elektra’s opening-night curtain call certainly won’t mind next year’s return to traditional values. But the tidal wave of bravos he was battling indicated a market out there for repertoire that strays north of the Mediterranean and for interpretive approaches that push people’s buttons. The set Israel has concocted—part photo collage, part oversize white model, part hall of mirrors—provides a clever, expressionistic container for the production’s bizarre doings. Its up-to-the-minute materials ape ancient Greek forms, and its tipsy configuration suggests all sorts of imbalance. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s fluorescent tubes and lurid blotches of Day-Glo color crank up the weirdometer a few more notches, lighting the stage like some glaring waking nightmare.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal tells the same story in his psychologically rich libretto as Sophocles, Euripides, Pound, and O’Neill. Before the curtain rises, Klytemnestra has murdered her husband Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War, and has married her co-conspiratorial lover Aegisth. Her son Orest has been banished, her daughter Chrysothemis is keeping her mouth shut, and her other daughter, Elektra, now haunts the palace like an angel of death, awaiting the day Orest will return to kill the murderers. That matricide (and, ahem, step-patricide) is the opera’s climax, but for most of the evening we join Elektra’s vigil, enduring along with her the less-than-functional ravings of her family.

Moshinsky’s impressive track record in classical theater with the RSC and BBC, not to mention dozens of fine opera productions (his Queen of Spades at the Met last season was breathtaking), make him a good choice to direct this kind of material, and in general he succeeds admirably. For him, these characters are as self-deluded as they are self-absorbed, not so much carrying on conversations with each other as letting their obsessive inner monologues be overheard. When a shard of truth penetrates their armor, they become panicky and remote, eyes darting and staring, and torrents of words pour out as balm for their wounds. Moshinsky has a canny way of delineating dysfunction, each character’s unique vocabulary of physical and behavioral quirks telling us as much about his or her personal demons as Israel’s outrageous costumes do. Luckily, he has a cast of solid singing-actors who take up his vision like true believers.

Karen Huffstodt’s Chrysothemis is, here, a daffy and petulant debutante, lurching about the stage, wringing her hands like some roadshow Ophelia. Klytemnestra (Ruthild Engert) is played, in ludicrous Marilyn Monroe wig and too much eyeliner, as a society matron clinging as desperately to her far-flown youth as to the highball she carries everywhere. She’s well-matched by James King’s bloated, humorless drunk of an Aegisth, looking all the more dissolute in his naval dress whites. And providing aptly sinister counterpoint as Orest, Richard Paul Fink is every inch the dangerous loner, shreds of a former dignity evident through the soiled street clothes, but with a deadness in the eyes from too much solitude and neglect.

The director and his Elektra, Eva Marton, have found intriguing new wrinkles in the title character as well. It’s the kind of role that lends itself to big-face acting—Elektra as snarling beast, as Sphinx, as candidate for a nice, snug straitjacket—and I’m hard-pressed to remember a more subtly human Elektra than Marton’s. This princess is stoic, but she’s also self-doubting, wistful, wry, and just plain confused. She listens to what people say to her, and we see how others’ words affect her. She reacts to Klytemnestra’s ravings with a mixture of amusement and pitying embarrassment. Her sister’s lines about their spinsterish lives cut deep, but Elektra’s empathy with her is clear; later, Chrysothemis’ paralyzing fear at the suggestion that she kill her mother draws a resigned affection from Elektra I’ve never seen played before.

It must be said that Marton’s best acting moments come when she’s not worried about the mechanics of singing or looking for the conductor’s beat, which means her generally compelling performance is dotted with blank spots. The only damaging one involves the famous recognition scene, when Elektra catches on that the stranger in the courtyard is Orest, back to avenge Agamemnon’s death. Elektra’s cry of “Orest!” is followed by a blood-freezing outcry from the orchestra and, in most productions, some psychotic—or orgasmic—episode from the soprano. Here, Moshinsky daringly pulls the emotion inward, leaving Elektra standing dead still, seriously disoriented. A more focused and consistent actress could have made this the evening’s coup de théâtre. Marton, on opening night at least, seemed merely to be taking a breather.

There were a few other directorial choices that don’t quite come off. Clever as it was to turn Klytemnestra’s serving women into uptight bureaucrats in tailored suits and security tags, their paper-shredding business at the opera’s opening is so intrusively loud and goes on so long that it pretty much cancels out any musical enjoyment in that first scene. Likewise, Moshinsky takes a good idea about three steps too far in turning Klytemnestra’s reality-avoidance during her encounter with Elektra into a cartoonish jumble of silent-screen vamping and drag-show shtick. It’s certainly entertaining, but there’s too little going on behind the fright mask to suggest the guilt and malevolence driving her delusions. But here and elsewhere, the director’s more extreme ideas seem grounded in character and text rather than cheap effect-seeking. So when the ensemble appears in a crazy quilt of leopard-skin cocktail dresses, Secret Service Ray-Bans, and uniforms of the Nazi high command, while the visual skirts perilously close to some Eurotrash parody of postmodernism, the effect works in suggesting the paranoid world of the story—not to mention tapping into the depravity and often-ignored sardonic wit present in the music.

The music. What a bear of a score this is to play. It brays and stamps the ground and hammers at the boundaries of tonality, then takes off on flights of cloying sentiment. It’s as if one of Strauss’ sugary pastries such as Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos had been left on the Viennese table overnight to molder and grow poisonous, its sickly sweetness interleaved with rot. To make things even tougher, Strauss asked that this score of massive size and schizophrenic extremes be played with the airy lightness of Mendelssohn. Washington Opera’s decision to do such a fiendishly difficult piece seems like the upright-walking-dog situation: It’s not a matter of how well it’s done, but that it’s done at all. That the musicians got through it without a hitch reflects wonderfully on the newly revitalized Opera House Orchestra. That it cushioned the singers without overwhelming them, kept textures clear even in huge moments, and found a good deal of nuance along the way was due to Heinz Fricke’s fine work in the pit. Fricke may not find quite the cataclysm or poetry Strauss ideally calls for, but his sane, middle-ground approach hits all the important points and, on opening night, he made his players sound damn good.

The singers were even better. The happiest news is that Marton’s Wagnerian pipes were sounding better at the opening than they have in years. The squally tone and paint-peeling high notes remembered from her Turandot gig here a few years back were nowhere in evidence, and she seemed in stronger technical and expressive control of the voice. Some vocal edge did find its way into Huffstodt’s Chrysothemis in her early scene with Elektra, where the character read as far gutsier than is usually the case, but her voice later opened out to a soaring luster in time for her big finale. Engert’s firm, penetrating mezzo was just right for Klytemnestra, her delivery far less caricatured than her physical antics. Fink’s dark and tightly wound baritone gave inklings of a very promising Wotan-of-the-future, and from the other end of the telescope, King, that fine Siegmund-of-the-past, showed how vivid an impression Aegisth can make in his five minutes of allotted stage time, when sung by a heldentenor. The supporting cast could not have been better, particularly the top-flight crew of serving women.

Catch this last gasp of risk-taking programming before Radio Domingo switches its format to easy listening.CP