Elektra at the Met

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The late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra is surely the highlight of this season at the Met. We’ve known that it was going to be for a while. It arrives a known quantity; acclaimed from its European performances, the fame of its director and cast, and its DVD. There’s something off about a “new production” which has already been available on video for a year and a half and whose director died in 2013.

Yet I suspect this is how the Met prefers it. As Peter Gelb stated repeatedly in a brief interview during the Manon Lescaut HD broadcast, the Met is in the masterpiece business (he even used this descriptor when discussing new opera, which is a whole different problem). When we roll theater and production into the operatic experience, as Gelb has tried to do, this makes new productions tricky to sell: though new, they also have to embody some of that timeless masterpiece solidity. And importing a brand-name, already-acclaimed Masterpiece from somewhere else (this Elektra is from Aix-en-Provence), is simpler than forging your own from scratch. Lest you think I’m spending too much time thinking about what is essentially marketing copy, let me remind you that this discourse shapes the way much of the Met’s audience thinks and talks about opera (I hear it from students all the time).

It’s not that Chéreau, surely one of the most important and influential directors of opera of the past 50 years, doesn’t deserve honorifics or a respectful tribute. It’s that “masterpiece” is a blunt instrument primarily used to confer status. When you’re discussing Elektra, a shabby little shocker with lurid orchestral colors and bodies that are rotting from the inside, that sacred cultural capital becomes even stranger.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Elektra. Metropolitan Opera, 4/14/2016. “New production” premiere, directed by Patrice Chéreau/Vincent Huguet and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, sets by Richard Peduzzi, lights by Dominique Bruguière costumes by Caroline de Vivaise. With Nina Stemme (Elektra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meiser (Klytämnestra), Eric Owens (Orest), Burkhard Ulrich (Aegisth)

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Yet Chéreau’s Elektra internalizes all the opera’s customary camp spectacle. It more or less erases this opera’s well-established performance practice of cackling, screaming, etc–traditions that I just wrote about last fall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Elektra with Christine Goerke. It has none of the usual Met flash and sequins, either; the production it most resembles is Chéreau’s From the House of the Dead. (I don’t think it will read very well from the more distant parts of the Met–I was sitting in row T and felt that I could see well; I wouldn’t like to be up in the Family Circle for this one. It was designed for a much smaller theater.) The looming tan walls  and arches of Richard Peduzzi’s set are a plainer version of the same designer’s work on the Met’s Tosca, here they provide a surface for projected titles. Those walls, some doors, and a small platform are all we get for set, and the costumes (designed by Caroline de Vivaise) are Eileen Fisher wrinkly plainness.

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Chéreau treats all the characters like real people, which is revelatory. Even the servants all have separate personalities (one is sung by senior soprano Roberta Alexander). That’s not to say that everyone is sympathetic, exactly, but this is a quasi-naturalistic style in which they all act in recognizably human ways. The character on whom this has the most dramatic effect is Klytämnestra, usually the most growling and yelping of villainesses. Here, she is still power figure—everyone bows at her first entrance, and she holds a striking pose— and the most glamorous-looking character in the production, but her internalized guilt manifests itself in strange superstition. Her conversation with Elektra is remarkable: Elektra actually listens to her and seems, at times, almost sympathetic, until she isn’t.

Waltraud Meier has been with this production since the beginning and she sings the role with her characteristic attention to musical detail and language but without the big, deep mezzo sound spat-out declamation. The lower range isn’t quite there, though I think her subtlety and work with the words makes up for that. Her voice is smaller than when I heard it last, but well-suited to this role in this intimate production. Klytämnestra almost becomes the central character of the drama, even though Elektra spends almost the entire opera onstage.

In contrast to Meier, Nina Stemme is new to this production, meaning that she did not have the chance to work with Chéreau. While her multifaceted portrayal would probably be the most subtle thing in most productions, she’s not as consistent as either Meier or Adrianne Pieczonka’s desperate Chrysothemis. Stemme portrays Elektra as legitimately mentally ill, sometimes coherent and sometimes not. Like everyone in this production, she is very serious. While Christine Goerke’s campy Elektra comment on her sister’s story registers as a snarky, sarcastic aside (“Armes Geshöpf!”–“poor creature!”), Stemme’s take on the same line is a cynical, tired reaction to a story she appears to have heard many times before.

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Stemme’s Recognition Scene is masterly, beginning with a headlong run across the stage on her first cry of “Orest!” and moving into a kind of almost catatonic peace. She also has endurance, not running out of gas despite rarely leaving the stage. Yet her interpretation has some flat points, notably in the middle of the opening monologue, and she isn’t as physically free as her costars. I wonder if this is because she is relatively new to the role and totally new to the production—I might prefer the vocally wayward Evelyn Herlitzius on the DVD. Vocally, I’m not sure if this is Stemme’s ideal role either. Her voice is thick and heavy, particularly in the middle, and while it has enormous weight it doesn’t project correspondingly except at the top. Pieczonka’s voice is not nearly as large but has noticably more presence in the house because it is richer and brighter. Stemme seems comparatively distant. Her high notes ar huge, but as always broken off from the main musical line (though this was not as pronounced as I have heard in the past).

Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis is minutely observed, as usual the most normal character in the drama. Her Chrysothemis is not, however, the most assertive, and ended up as something of a foil for Elektra. Pieczonka’s voice has a bright, easy projection and she sings very musically, though the sound turns a little sour at the loudest moments, particularly at the top. In the other roles, Eric Owens seemed to lack a degree of presence as Orest, though he sounded good, and Burkhard Ulrich was an underwhelming Aegesith, sounding more like a Monostatos.

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Chéreau’s interpretation has a restraint and respectability to it that makes the action all the more chilling. Yet there is one point where this doesn’t quite work: the dialogue between Elektra and Chrysothemis near the end (“wir sind bei den Göttern, wir Vollbringenden”). These moments of Hofmannsthalian transformation are hard to pull off in any production, but in one so earthy it seems exceptionally out of place. The ending does have a unexpected twist, though: after dispatching his assistant to do some of the retribution for him, Orest silently exits without looking at anyone: he hasn’t come home to stay.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has been with this production since the beginning too, and according to this Times article the whole thing was his idea. He’s a Strauss conductor utterly unlike brilliant, loud Andris Nelsons. Salonen’s is the most noble, restrained rendition of the score I’ve ever heard. He is selective with his details, giving some laser focus (the barking dogs) while others recede. He isn’t ever flashy, nor does he linger on or luxuriate in the more lush moments. He builds up to the forceful moments, but more often he holds back. Sometimes he’s on the slow side but his balances are sensitive. It’s a wonderfully original, clear account of the score and inseparable from Chéreau’s interpretation. The orchestra, save a fishy horn entrance at one exposed moment, sounded excellent.

I wondered if the Met would ever be able to create such a production themselves. The closest I came up with is also Strauss, and actually from the tail end of the Volpe era: Herbert Wernicke’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is one of the Met’s best productions. From everything I’ve heard, the house’s planning and logistics largely preclude the kind of long rehearsal process afforded to a festival production like this one. And while the Met has often given productions to relatively untested directors–as Chéreau was when he started his Bayreuth Ring–most of the efforts haven’t turned out so well. I doubt there’s a formula for this and obviously I don’t run an opera house. But it seems unfair that the Met relies so nearly exclusively on the work of others’ to provide the occasional burst of much-vaunted arty prestige.

Elektra runs through the end of the season and the inevitable HD broadcast is on April 30. Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

Previously in Elektra: Elektra at the BSO (Fall 2015), Elektra at the Wiener Staatsoper (March 2011)

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you for a typically informative (and critical!) review. Believe it or not, I’ve stayed away from watching this production on DVD, in the hope that I’d see it live, or live-ish, first. I’ll be doing the latter soon, watching the Met relay, and am hoping to see it in Berlin in the autumn under Barenboim. Now looking forward even more than I was before.

  2. This was such a revelatory production and I don’t know if any Klytemnestra is even comparable to what Meier achieved in this role. Her interpretive brilliance, musicality, textual specificity, and acting abilities (along with Mattila, I consider her to be the most extraordinary actress in opera) make up for her problematic vocalism (is Zerbinetta a fan?). And I don’t know of any opera director who has managed to craft as extraordinarily detailed and human personen-regie than Chereau in EVERY one of operatic productions. I don’t usually share your high opinion of Stemme, and I did miss Herlitzius, but Stemme really did some amazing work considering she never worked with Chereau and considering the role lays a bit high for her. All in all a great night.

    In addition to the question about Meier I was wondering if you really think Chrysothemis is usually depicted as the most normal? Before Chereau, every production I’d seen had depicted the character as a hysterical lunatic. Also, had you seen much Chereau prior to this?

  3. Peter, I’ve seen several Chéreaus: I saw the Così in Vienna, From the House of the Dead at the Met, and on DVD the Ring and Wozzeck. Do you think I’m really off base in some respect?

    As for Chrysothemis, well, “most sane” in this world doesn’t take much, but I do think she’s the closest. She is hysteric in the sense that she really, really wants to make babies, but still she’s the only one who more or less wants to conform to a conventional social role, right? And Strauss definitely gives her the most rapturous music in the score.

    1. Nope you are not off base in the slightest. I had just never seen any of his work live prior to this and was just curious. I’ve seen each DVD and have been blown away each time. As usual your review is detailed and well written.

  4. I saw it last evening. Enjoyed it very much.
    My critism was that I had difficulty hearing the singers-especially Stemme and Meier over the gigantic orchestra playing Strauss’ Wagnarian like score. The music seemed to drown them out. I was sitting on orchestra right -center and 12 rows back. Not bad seats although maybe not acousticly ideal.
    Did anyone else feel this way? I heard Stemme a few years ago singing Salome in concert at Carnegie and she seemed to have the same problem. Is her voice simply not big enough? Or is this the fault of the conductor? The Met orchestra was splendid; Stemme gave a great performance overall and “acting wise”. But, still….

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