Elektra at the Met


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.

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Der fliegende Holländer: Red scare

I would put last night’s Der fliegende Holländer into the third quintile of Wiener Staatsoper revivals. Christine Mielitz’s production has been sketchily and statically staged and was plagued with technical calamities, but it’s still interesting. Peter Schneider’s conducting was reasonably exciting and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Senta and Stephen Gould’s Erik are both good. And none of the rest is that bad.

“Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer, romantic opera in three acts by Richard Wagner [sic, that’s what it says in the program–except in German].” Wiener Staatsoper, 2/12/2011. Production by Christine Mieilitz (revival) conducted by Peter Schneider with Albert Dohmen (Dutchman), Adrianne Pieczonka (Senta), Stephen Gould (Erik), Walter Fink (Daland).

This production was one of the more controversial efforts of the Staatsoper’s verfliegende Holender, former intendant Ioan Holender. Vienna gets its panties in a twist easily; this is not exactly high-level provocation.

Mielitz’s work here is interesting, but in this revival it came across as scattered. As is the norm for Staatsoper revivals, the direction of the singers was non-existent, the production reduced to the visual elements and a few static stage images. The numerous technical issues–mistimed (I think) lighting cues, creaky set changes, stuck curtains–didn’t help either. I want to be generous, because who knows what resemblance this performance bore to her original vision. I know I say something to this effect in almost review I write of rep performances, but it really bears remembering.

Some technical frailty was understandable, because Stefan Mayer’s set is complex (and not easy to make out in either of these photos, both of which are from the beginning of Act 2). A boat-like curved floor is contained in a bourgeois room, with a moving ramp, various appearing and disappearing walkways, and a catwalk above where Daland apparently keeps his birds (in cages). The red sails of the Dutchman’s ship approach from upstage center. It owes something to Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth Holländer. The dress is ambiguous twentieth-century.

Daland and the society of the village are good capitalists (Daland reads the Financial Times), while the Dutchman and his crew are outcast radicals who dress like Goths circa 1991 in long leather trenchcoats with red bits. Senta longs to escape the strictures of bourgeois life (also the rapey drunken sailors), where she is nothing more than a commodity to her wealth-seeking father. The portrait she fixates on depicts not the Dutchman but a quartet of revolutionaries–Marx, Engels, Che, and one I couldn’t identify. Ha, that’s what kind of red those sails are. The world of the Dutchman is dark, lit by bits of yellow and red light, the bourgeois world is bright (though the switches between the two were awkwardly executed). Erik seems to represent a middle ground between the two worlds, as indicated by his brown leather jacket. I think. Maybe you see why this concept was a little unclear.

Mielitz’s most controversial gesture (judging by standing line gossip) is staging Senta’s death not as the usual jump into the sea but rather as a Brünnhilde-style immolation. This departure from the world of sea and water is unfortunate, but the redemption by fire thing is apt, no? The production takes Senta very seriously, and this is a more dramatic way of going out.

Peter Schneider conducted with the kind of energy and excitement that makes some reference to sea foam necessary. There wasn’t a lot of nuance but it was competent, effective, and that’s not bad. The brass overpowered the strings at times, particularly at the start of the overture, and the timing at the end of the development didn’t come off quite right, but in general the orchestra sounded good. The cast was respectable if not electrifying. Albert Dohmen was a passable Dutchman, certainly more imposing than Juha Uusitalo at the Met last April. He is loud and declaims effectively, but the sound is harsh, dull and lacks resonance, as well as genuine stage presence or a unique take on the character. Adrianne Pieczonka’s clear, feminine soprano (more a big lyric sound than a dramatic) is a good fit for Senta, and her accuracy and musicality are always appreciated. She acts well enough.

This was my second time hearing Met Siegfried-to-be Stephen Gould, and the second time as Erik. Fortunately he impressed me much more this time than he did at the Met last April. He’s got a big, somewhat unwieldy Heldentenor (with a dull spot around the top of his range), but the tone is genuinely heroic and he did his best to sing the music with finesse and Textdeutlichkeit. And he was a considerably more engaging actor than I remembered. He is also singing Siegfried in Vienna’s Ring this April, and now I am looking forward to hearing him in a bigger role.

Supporting characters were the usual Staatsoper crowd, including Walter Fink as an unfocused and underpowered Daland and Norbert Ernst as an ardent, somewhat pushed Steuermann. The male chorus really sold their music, sounding hearty to an almost absurd HMS Pinafore chest-thumping degree. I did wonder about the male choral division; perhaps due to the set design the Dutchman’s chorus sounded wimpy in comparison to Daland’s.

Short ovation at the end, loudest for Pieczonka and Gould, lukewarm for Dohmen. Not amazing, but a step up from the Met’s effort last spring.

Four performances remain, February 15, 18, 22, and 25.

Bows–you can almost make out Senta’s portraits at the top of the first photo:

Performance photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper, bows photos my own.

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Der Rosenkavalier: Wie du warst, wie du bist

While Otto Schenk’s Wiener Staatsoper Der Rosenkavalier have been spiffed up and the staging is showing alarming signs of rehearsal, a great Rosenkavalier still requires a great cast. While Adrianne Pieczonka’s Marschallin is very fine, neither she nor her less distinguished costars quite lit up the stage. With the exception of the excellent orchestra, this wouldn’t have rated above a solidly routine Rosenkavalier in most houses. In Vienna, a city that takes its Rosenkavalier almost as seriously as its Mozart, it ranks as a disappointment.

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Simon Boccanegra: I Can Still Sing, But I Never Could Fence Properly

Verdi-Piavo/Boito, Simon Boccanegra.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/22/10.  Conducted by James Levine. Placido Domingo (Boccanegra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia), Marcello Giordani (Adorno), James Morris (Fiesco), Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo). Directed by Peter McClintock after a production by  Giancarlo del Monaco.

Oh, better far to live and die
Under this baritone’s flag I fly,
Than sing an odd modulating part,
With an aging voice if a tenor’s heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where other tenors transpose too;
But I don’t care which fach I sing,
I’ll live reborn as a Baritone King.

Apologies to G&S.  (I hasten to remind you that Simon Boccanegra was a semi-pirate before becoming Doge.  You don’t know how hard it was to not write a lot of pirate jokes into this review, mateys.)

This opera is pure gold, y’all.  Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the score is absolute perfection from start to finish. And maybe it’s partly because I’m so partial to this period of Verdi but this was one of the most musically satisfying performances I’ve seen at the Met in a while.  Sure, there are some perplexing things (like “age”) happening to the voice of our dear Placido Domingo, which I will discuss!  And the staging is pretty as a picture, a picture painted many centuries ago, and about as mobile as a painting too (coming from me, this is not a compliment)!  And yet I highly recommend.

Let’s start off with the most important thing, and that would be James Levine.  When I see him conduct like he did last night I feel that most of the time I am insufficiently appreciative of his skill, because it was awesome.  But I honestly haven’t heard him conduct a performance this majestic, this finely colored, this exciting in a while.  There are a few little orchestral interludes that ended up being a little conductor-showy–I swear part of the intro to Amelia’s aria was sounding like a Klangfarbenmelodie–but all to fantastic effect.

Adrianne Pieczonka sang Amelia, the only female role in the opera.  She had a slightly iffy start, the entrance aria doesn’t sit in the prettiest part of her voice (an aria Krassimira Stoyanova hits out of the park, actually her Amelia is generally fantastic).  But after the aria Pieczonka was fantastically consistent.  By which I mean, musically perfectly precise, refined, and controlled.  That’s not something you hear in this rep very often.  Her voice itself is very lyric, clear, and even in color and yet big, projecting marvelously, an interesting combination that makes me think she would be good as the Elisabeth of your choice (Carlos or Tannhäuser).  Really gorgeous, I would love to hear her more at the Met.  Get on that, Casting Department!

She was somewhat oddly matched with the infuriatingly inconsistent Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno.  He’s got something that not many tenors have, a certain sound and fearlessness that makes things work in an exciting way.  But his voice can turn sour on occasion, and next to a singer as tasteful as Pieczonka he sounds somewhat musically sloppy and coarse, she somewhat too restrained (JJ in the Post referred to her as “primly musical,” which is harsh but also true).  But mostly it was a good night for him, this role a much better fit for his unsubtle style than most–Adorno is such a hothead–than, well, Faust in Damnation de Faust.

In what often resembled Senior Night onstage, James Morris as Fiesco had the unenviable effect of making Placido Domingo (see below) sound young.  I realize in years he is somewhat fewer, but all those Wotans have had their costs.  He has gravitas, yes, there’s a lot of sound left too, but it’s wobbly, and his low notes have deserted him more or less completely.  He’s not quite in Ramey territory yet, but approaching it (look behind you, you may see a hill).  Also, the sword fight between him and Placido in the Prologue was rather pathetic, I’m not sure if this was due to a lot of arthritis or insufficient rehearsal time or what, but it did not live up to the ferocity of the score in any way.
OK, now onto Placido Domingo.  Let’s forget about the questionable management of opera companies and conducting for a moment.  Miraculously, at his age and in this tessitura, he still sounds like Placido Domingo, more or less.  And that would be a tenor sound.  Ironically, he may have finally proven to all those critics who said he’s a baritone that he’s been a tenor all along (a criticism whose logic I fail to see–he was a baritone who had a very long, very healthy career as one of the best tenors ever? really???).  In case this isn’t already clear, I LOVE Placido Domingo.  I have heard lots of his recordings, if I need a recording of an opera and one by him is available and the thing isn’t in German I will almost always pick him, I’m not a completist because generally I’m not like that and besides being a Domingo completist would be IMPOSSIBLE, but I’m very familiar with what his voice sounded like in his prime.

Which makes seeing him in this opera just a little surreal at times.  Because he is, inarguably, still Placido Domingo, and still sounds like it.  But the age and tessitura disguise him a bit, like watching Sean Connery in a movie today after having seen lots of James Bonds.  But there’s no way he sounds like a baritone, he sounds like Placido Domingo singing low, and while there is a certain loss of that Verdi baritone sound in this opera, there’s a lot of gain because it is Placido-freaking-Domingo.  The very audible prompter did have a big job last night (not the first time), but still, he gets the nobility and generosity of this character just right, even with the occasional wobble.

No whining about the plot, folks, sure, it’s too complicated and has some holes but I actually like it, and find it much more involving than many other works of similar convolution, maybe because the music is so good.

I feel obliged to comment on the production, but don’t have much to say about it.  It is pretty, the prologue and Council Chamber especially so.  It has a few functional issues, namely sometimes it’s a little creaky in the most literal sense and the offstage chorus behind the Council Chamber isn’t the most audible.  The statue that is pulled down in the Prologue is a silly-looking effect (apparently the Genoese equip their statues with hinges for smooth toppling and removal).  The Act 3 set is set very far upstage in a way that I believe facilitates a faster scene change but seems like a slightly spiteful screwing of those of us who are already sitting pretty far from the stage.  The Personenregie wasn’t out to make any statements, the only interesting thing that happens is in the last act, when Fiesco sits in Simon’s chair, which actually is a good kind of point.  If you want a fancypants Regie Boccanegra it does exist on the YouTubes, and looks intriguing.

So yeah, go if you can, you won’t regret it.

Next: A plane carrying a commedia dell’arte troupe crashes on a tropical island inhabited only by a lamenting woman, some unhelpful nymphs chanting mysterious numbers, and a cloud of smoke with a bad attitude.   Let us now say thanks that the prima of Ariadne auf Naxos does not fall on the same night as that of Lost.

I won’t be seeing Il Mondo della Luna at Gotham Chamber Opera, though appears to be something right up my alley it is sold out and I failed to remember to buy a ticket earlier.  (Gotham Chamber Opera!  Call me!  I will write about it!  Not that you seem to have any problems selling tickets, but, well, I’m totally an opster!)

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