Elektric!

Christine Goerke, Andris Nelsons, Gun-Brit Barkmin

Does a concert Elektra dance? Does she stash her axe under the podium?


Elektra is performed in concert relatively frequently, and for good reason. (So is Salome, for the same reasons.) Strauss’s scores showcase a major orchestra and conductor to thrilling and very loud effect. It also has a drama whose decadent horrors—particularly the constant invocations of bodily decay and disease in Hofmannsthal’s libretto—can effectively be left to the imagination of the listener, an approach sometimes superior to the inevitable disappointment of ratty costumes and a dim unit set of suspiciously styrofoam rocks.

Productions of Elektra almost end up as screaming, over-the-top camp extravaganzas. And despite its comparatively minimalist visuals, this concert presentation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was actually no exception! I mean that, however, in the best possible way. Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke made the kind of epic, high octane, extremely loud, occasionally touching opera that you don’t see nearly often enough. It’s the kind of excess that works because it’s done with utter conviction.

Even though there was no set, this was not an Elektra that left everything to the imagination. None of the singers used scores and it would be more accurate to call it semi-semi-staged. In the first scene, when Elektra glowers at the maids without saying anything, there’s no musical reason for her to appear onstage—and yet there she was, loitering between the first and second violins. Most of the stage directions were present in so much as to make the text intelligible—Chrysothemis raises her hands before Elektra asks her why she is doing so, and, yes, the performance ended with a fine stomping Elektra dance. There was, however, no axe, and the Fifth Maid escaped Maids #1-4 unscathed.

The floorplan was smartly devised: two clear areas on either side of the podium. (This put Nelsons further from the orchestra and he seemed to be relying on his baton rather his usual frequently hands-only style.) The amount of space was limited but allowed for Elektra and Chrystothemis to start their scene on either side of the podium, and then Elektra and Klytemnästra, and eventually Elektra and Orest, and well, for the most part Elektra doesn’t like being near anyone, really, and this was a good way of doing that. It also probably assisted in the performance’s exceptionally flattering balance. The singers were nearly always audible, even without the pit. (It is a far preferable setup to the platforms behind the orchestra that you sometimes get at Carnegie Hall.)

The center of the performance was Christine Goerke’s formidable Elektra. Wearing a tomato-red dress, she made Elektra crazed from the very beginning. Fortunately she has the vocal goods to back this up, singing with a huge, rich middle and lower voice. She doesn’t just sing this score tirelessly but also musically! The ending of the Recognition Scene, the moment of some of the role’s most lyrical writing, was both expressive and sung with a beautiful legato line. Her top notes are not as large as the rest of the voice but nonetheless have a piercing intensity.

It’s a performance that embraces the tradition of demented excess. When you start the opera at 11 you arguably don’t have anywhere to go but Goerke has the resources to sustain and vary that intensity for the whole opera. Her moments of sanity tended to be snarky: her asides to lovelorn Chrysothemis, some of her comments to her mother. At times, however, I wondered what a more internalized portrayal would look like, probably because I watched the Chéreau production on DVD (the one that is soon coming to the Met) before this performance. Without going into detail about that, it made Goerke’s approach seem a little Ryan Murphy, a little gothic. But commenting that Elektra is too much probably means that Elektra is not your thing.

As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin had a vibrant way with the text and the clearest diction in the cast. I could understand all the words and they sounded unusually spontaneous. Her voice is lean, focused, and pretty big, but I would have preferred more warmth and plushness in the sound in this particular role. Her top notes sound squeezed rather than open, and the end of her opening monologue didn’t really quite come off as it should. She is a striking performer (and her 1920s outfit was fabulous) but I don’t think it’s a beautiful voice.

As Klytämnestra, Jane Henschel was powerful, but sometimes her singing seemed more a collection of special effects–growls, whispers, sudden breaks into the upper register–than an organically coherent performance. Her Klytämnestra was a relatively by the books madwoman, effective but not as convincingly original. On the male side, Gerhard Siegel made a vivid cameo as Aegisth, establishing an oily character in no time and then vanishing almost as quickly. (Longtime comprimario all star Mark Schowalter did something similar in the even shorter role of the Young Servant.) In the longer role of Orest, James Rutherford got off to a nice, deep, Wagnerian sort of start but failed to build through the Recognition Scene as Goerke ran off with it. The gaggle of maids was solid and I was impressed by Mary Phillips as #3 (I don’t know the score that well but they were helpfully lined up in numerical order) and I happy to see and hear Nadine Secunde as the Overseer.

But the other major star of the performance was, of course, Nelsons and the orchestra. He is a major conductor and this was very exciting, tense conducting, perfectly milked at the climaxes and not afraid of the crunchier moments. He can get real texture in the intimate moments, notably the fluttering winds in Klytämnestra’s monologue. The brass sounded terrific, but I do think there’s a missing ingredient from Nelsons and the orchestra’s Straussian recipe: something about the strings. They were there and they were doing their thing, but Nelsons’ Strauss is almost all glower and no glow. That radiance has to peek out occasionally, and it’s usually in the violins. Perhaps this is because I still have the sound of the Wiener Staatsoper faintly in my ears, but I wish he had found more of those moments that gives some light to this violent score.

Nelsons and co. repeat this Elektra tonight in Boston and in New York next week and you absolutely need to see if it you can. The Met’s Elektra this spring is going to be very different. And did anyone else notice this YNS Elektra later this fall? Hmm.


Strauss,
Elektra. Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston, 10/15/15. Conducted by Andris Nelsons with Christine Goerke

photos copyright Boston Symphony Orchestra/Liza Voll

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Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

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The Met’s new season by the numbers

As I was putting together my Met preview post, I thought to myself, “so much Donizetti!” So I fired up Excel and made some charts. The above pie chart shows numbers of productions by composers.

There is a lot of Donizetti. He and Puccini are tied for first by number of productions. I like Donizetti just fine an d the Three Queens Not-a-Trilogy (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) is a one-off special occasion. But I’m not sure if he merits more than twice the number of productions than Richard Strauss and Wagner put together.

Donizetti operas must sell, though I suspect this is not based on the composer’s name recognition. These operas are either star singer vehicles (the Not-a-Trilogy) or frothy comedies (the other two, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore). Also, they’re far cheaper to produce than Strauss and Wagner.

You know what else sells? Puccini. If you count performances rather than productions, you will find that Puccini is occupying the Met for many more performances than Donizetti.

Bohème, Turandot, Tosca, and Butterfly all get runs of over a dozen performances each, while the Donizettis average around seven each. (Verdi also gets some longer series.)

Both Puccini and Donizetti—along with Verdi, who is next in line after these two—represent a mainstream American idea of what opera is. Not the most interesting idea, in my opinion, and one that would benefit from including more music from other time periods and traditions.

Here is a chart showing things by language. I love Italian opera but this is ridiculous.

 

The Pearl Fishers is the only French opera onstage this season! And neither of the English-sung operas were written in English; they’re an Italian opera and an Austrian operetta given in translation (Barber, for families, and Fledermaus, for
Jeremy Sams superfans).

Just to reiterate some absences I’ve already noted: there’s nothing composed after 1935 (all due respect to Friedrich Cerha, the completer of Lulu) and no Slavic repertoire.

If you look at dates of composition, you get this. Only Mozart, Turandot, and Lulu fall outside the “long nineteenth century”:

Notes for the pedantic: Simon Boccanegra is accounted as the second version, Tannhäuser is the Paris version, Cav/Pag dates are averaged to 1891, and Lulu is dated at 1935 because that’s when Berg stopped writing it and putting its date off until the three-act premiere in the 70’s seemed excessive. Turandot, however, is given by its premiere date of 1926 like the rest. If you find this grossly unfair, make your own chart.
How can you build a diverse audience with such a skewed repertoire? The Met, probably more than any other major opera house, proclaims itself to represent opera in toto. But, even given their limitations of space and structure, opera is a far wider and more varied art form than what they’re giving us.”Productions by Composer” is corrected because my first version unintentionally excluded Rossini. Data from metopera.org 
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Met Opera, 2015-16

“So glad I got this newsprint instead of the Olivier Py Lulu.

Hello, Met-goers! The Met put its tickets on sale in June this year, several months before their recent custom, and I missed writing my usual preview because I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out how to use the Met’s new website otherwise occupied. But we still have a week before things start and it doesn’t look like much has sold out yet (though the Saturday matinees are, as always, the hottest tickets) so I believe this is still timely.

Programming note: As I mentioned earlier, I’m now based in western Massachusetts, where I’m a postdoc at Smith College. (Ask me about my spring semester opera history class!) I’m still only a bus ride away from New York but it’s become a somewhat longer bus ride. I’m closer to Boston and should be there periodically as well.

This year has a few exceptionally interesting operas among the new productions while most of the revivals are on the routine side. But perhaps some fortuitous casting will revive a previously moribund production (as happened to multiple operas last season). The season skews nineteenth century, with no Baroque and Lulu (1935, third act completed 1979) the most recent composition (second place: Turandot, premiere 1926). Also, this is a year without any Slavic operas at all—no Janacek, no Tchaikovsky, no Musorgsky, no nothing. When will we get the production of The Excursions of Mr. Broucek that we’re clamoring for?

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Written on Skin in NYC

Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.

And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)

Written on Skin
is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.

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Bayreuth from Wieland to crocodiles

Audience members headed to the Bayreuth Festival weren’t happy. The train route from Nuremberg, the principal way to reach this small town in northern Bavaria, was suspended because of construction. They would have to take a bus instead. It would be slow. It would be uncomfortable. Yet much of the renown of the festival, which runs through Aug. 28, has been rooted in its inaccessibility, in its steadfast resistance to speed and comfort.

I wrote about the Bayreuth Festival for this Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section. For the record, I took the bus out of Bayreuth and its seats were more comfortable than those of the Festspielhaus.

I do plan on writing about the rest of the Ring here, but I have been busy with this and other deadlines, as well as moving into a new apartment in a new state (hi, everyone in Northampton, MA!). I am also going to Written on Skin this weekend. More later.

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There Will Be Wälsungs (Castorf Ring, 2)

After an animated Das Rheingold, Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Die Walküre is a rather flat affair. There are rumblings of a larger plan, but as expected they’re more like suggestions of themes than anything systematic. For one thing, the narrative isn’t linear. We’ve gone from an indeterminate trashy American motel in Rheingold back to the 1880s. The 1880s in–you guessed it!–Baku, Azerbaijan. (Sorry if you did not, in fact, guess it. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Castorf is from East Berlin.) There’s an oil drilling boom and once again people/gods/dwarfs/singers are destroying everything. The Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, however, don’t have any real place in this ecosystem, and this turns out to be a problem. Musically, though, this was a very strong installment, making the cleft between sound and stage ever wider.

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Real Housewives of Valhalla (Castorf Ring, 1)

Many of Bayreuth’s audience members can tell you about Ring cycles going back decades. They know the Ring very well. Not only that, but when we–and now I mean all of us–go to Bayreuth we engage with Wagner in a certain way: immersed, initiated, as part of a thread of history.  We are here to contemplate, to chew over things. We see the Ring as a work whose meaning and presentation has changed through the decades, as works with life cycles and symbolic significance. And of course the works themselves construct their own, internal networks of meaning.

The challenge of Frank Castorf’s Ring, now in its third year, is that it cannot be read in those terms. It rejects those premises. The more you ask what it “means,” the less you will see what it is.

Here are a few thoughts on Rheingold.

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The Bregenz Festival: tips and tricks

The Seebühne

Thinking of going to the Bregenz Festival? Located in the province of Vorarlberg, at the far western tip of Austria and on the edge of Lake Constance (the Bodensee in German), it’s somewhat off the beaten path. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this festival is not very popular among the English-speaking set, so I thought I would provide some information for those who may be interested.

The Area


Lower right: Austria. Lower left: Switzerland. Top: Germany.

The Festival
There are two venues. First, the Seebühne (lake stage), the huge open-air amphitheater with the stage anchored in the lake. This stage only hosts one opera and it’s the same one for two years, given a very large number of performances from late July to the end of August. 2015 is Turandot’s first year so it will be performed in 2016 too. The productions here have a somewhat upscale popular aesthetic–pitched at roughly the same level as the Met, actually–and are performed without an intermission. Here is my review of Turandot.

Turando or Turandon’t?

Since it is outside, weather is a major variable. If it’s raining a bit, everything goes ahead. You aren’t allowed to use an umbrella but you can buy a plastic poncho from the kiosks for 1 Euro, a wise investment if there are any clouds at all. If the weather is truly bad, the performance is moved into the Festspielhaus and performed in concert. However, the Festspielhaus is much smaller and only the most expensive tickets include inside privileges.

The seats are plastic. The festival sells cushions, but I thought they were OK.

There is no consensus dress code for the Seebühne. Some people looked like they were going hiking and others looked like they were going to an opening night in Salzburg. When it started raining, I was glad I wasn’t wearing an evening gown. (There were also plenty of dirndls.)

The casts for the big production rotate and who is singing which performance isn’t announced ahead of time. (This is not a star-focused enterprise.) If you are intent on seeing any particular singer, I would advise contacting the box office or the singer in question.

such creativity with the “Chinese” imagery!

The other venue is the Festspielhaus, a modern theater seating around 1,600. This venue hosts a few short-run productions of more obscure or adventurous opera, this year including Stefan Herheim’s staging of The Tales of Hoffmann and the local premiere of Peter Eötvös’s The Golden Dragon. There are also a few orchestral concerts with the Wiener Symphoniker. The dress code for the Festspielhaus is more consistent and formal–think suits and nice dresses, including many full-length ones. Fewer dirndls at Hoffmann than Turandot. Here is my Hoffmann review.

Subtitles are in German only, and found in both spaces found at the sides of the stage rather than above it. (I found the Hoffmann ones difficult to see from my seat in the center of the theater and used my mediocre French skills instead.)

There is also a young artists production of Così fan tutte in the Vorarlberger Landestheater.

If you are staying in Lindau (see “hotels,” below), you can arrive by boat. This seemed charming but I wasn’t staying in Lindau. The festival is also a very short walk from the Bregenz train station.

Tickets for this festival go on sale very early–in autumn, well before all the casting details are announced. You simply buy them directly off the website, no complicated pre-orders like Munich or Salzburg, and they do not sell out nearly as fast as those places. You can safely wait until well into the spring to make your plans and some tickets are even available now that the festival has already begun. (Weekends and cheap seats are pretty sold out, though.) It is also a relatively affordable festival, particularly compared to its neighbors in Salzburg and Luzerne. What would have put me somewhere in the darkest back rows of Salzburg’s Großes Festspielhaus got me the second row at Hoffmann. The normal tickets for Turandot are also quite reasonably priced, though the champagne-and-boat-trip type packages are considerably more.

The festival is amply equipped with food and drink from restaurants and bars, and there are many pretty places to sit around the lake.

It’s gonna raaaaaain.

Here is the festival’s website.

The Setting
This is the festival’s Achilles heel. Bregenz is boring. The lakeside landscape is pretty and if you’re into hiking or biking or sailing there is plenty of that. If you aren’t up to sailing, you can also rent a paddleboat right near the Seebühne. But otherwise there isn’t much to do and the town itself is strangely charmless. It’s also in the part of Austria where the grocery stores close at 6:00 p.m. (This part of Austria includes most of Austria.)

There are some nice day trips to be had, however.  Lindau, just across the German border, is picturesque. St. Gallen, home of a fantastic Baroque library, is under an hour away. Konstanz is also within reach, though I didn’t make it there during this trip. You can buy a regional rail day pass which is valid on all local Austrian, Swiss, and German trains.

One other challenge is hotels. I booked relatively late but found few affordable options in Bregenz itself. If you have or rent a car you will have a much easier time. I ended up staying in nearby Dornbirn and taking the S-Bahn, which involved some waiting for trains but not too much actual transit time. There are also options in Lindau. The S-Bahn runs extra-late for the festival (an example Bayreuth could learn from!).

Seebühne from the back

While it’s in Austria, Bregenz is most easily approached from Zurich, though Munich is also reasonably close.* Salzburg is around four and a half hours away by train and at almost seven hours Vienna is way more distant than you would think possible for such a small country.

As Destination Opera, I’m not convinced that Bregenz is necessarily worth a major trip by itself, though the Hoffmann arguably is. The program is quite narrow and it thus lacks the intensity of its more famous siblings–for the most part you can’t see four different things in a long weekend. But in combination with other area festivals such as Munich, Salzburg, Bayreuth, Luzerne, or even Verbier, it’s definitely worth a look, and won’t break the bank.

*If you’re coming from Munich, the REX train route is as fast as the EC so you can use the cheap Bayern-Ticket to get almost all the way there; you will just need to switch to the S-Bahn with a local ticket in Lindau. If you’re doing this summer’s mysteriously popular Bregenz-Bayreuth Regiestrecke, be aware that this may involve more changing of trains than seems reasonable. You could also do this trip on the Bayern-Ticket, but since it isn’t valid on ICE trains it might take a lot longer depending on your particular route. This has been a note from someone who has spent too much time and money on Bavarian trains.

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Ratty Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Festival Lohengrin has become an improbably beloved production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is justifiably the most popular performance of the festival and the score sounds amazing in the space, even though it predated the Festspielhaus. But the production: famous for its chorus of rats, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be remembered for one weird image, put into a collective Strange Opera photo album along with Neuenfels’s Nabucco with bees and that Bieito Ballo that no one can get over. Instead it became an almost instant classic. In part it is memorable for the rats’ indexicality, yet the rats are not only an image but a compelling idea. And while the rats would seem to preclude the romantic knight in shining armor aspect of this opera, that’s not really what happens.

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