A brand new Elektra by the late Patrice Chéreau at the Met
Richard Strauss’s Elektra is one of my favorite operas, which, I suppose, says a lot about me. It says that I very much love complex operas (no pun intended), intricately yet swiftly plotted, set to emotionally charged music intimately wedded to an insightful text, thus strong characters who, hopefully, in performance, are matched by strong interpreters both on stage (and on the podium).
I found all this last night at the premiere performance of the Met’s new Elektra, our local realization of the late Patrice Chéreau’s production, which also resides in five other major opera houses. For the Met, it follows Chéreau’s iconic staging of Janáček’s Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) in 2009, also the occasion of the Met debut of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted last night.
Musically, this new Elektra is a hands-down winner. The title role is solidly essayed by the dare I say great Nina Stemme, who continues to impress in the most challenging roles in the soprano repertory. Her commitment to the extremes of the character, which, believe me, lie on the outer fringe of sanity, are met with both musicianship and abandon. In this Stemme always wins the championship-level contest between her and Strauss’s exceptionally large orchestra, cranked up to the max when necessary by Mr. Salonen.
She is ‘mothered’ by the great Waltraud Meier, who brings, under Chéreau’s conception, a softer, more reconciliatory, though basically no less troubled Klytämnestra. Meier has a way of bringing many extra things to all of her interpretations, even to roles such as Venus, Fricka and Waltraute. I cherish her Kundry and Isolde as exquisites portraits.
Meier’s Klytämnestra, like a CEO, is still always in control of the world around her, but willing to break the silence between her and her justifiably estranged and enraged daughter Elektra. As staged, theirs are not just stand and deliver performances, but rather a nuanced discourse between troubled souls. Subtitles projected onto the rear side walls facilitate comprehension of their issues.
Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis is ably sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, whose bright soprano also rises above the din.
Eric Owens gives a richly sung, deeply intoned Orest, the long awaited sibling-avenger, but dramatically on the stiff side. He is, as directed I guess, emotionally detached from virtually everything else but the ‘deed,’ which, not to give anything away, is to murder his mother Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth for their ambush of Agamemnon, her husband, with an axe to the head while he’s taking a bath (not shown, thankfully). He was just freshening up after his return from the Trojan War.
I guess I gave it away.
Burkhard Ulrich makes his Met debut as Aegisth. Many of the Maids have traveled about with the production. Standouts are Roberta Alexander (welcome back), Andrea Hill, and Bonita Hyman. Susan Neves, as the Overseer is also significant.
I have heard many fine conductors (Schippers, Böhm, Leinsdorf, Levine, to name four) lead the forces of Elektra at the Met (several others on recording too). Esa-Pekka Salonen is now a welcome addition to that list. Salonen is not willing to sacrifice volume, and goodness knows it gets loud, or slow the propulsion at the expense of orchestral detail, phrases, nuances which kept my ear intrigued throughout. And the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is as excellent as ever. This is a powerful, dynamic performance of a very powerful score. Bravi!
Chéreau passed away in soon after this production was launched in 2013, but from the playbook it’s directed here by Vincent Huguet in his Met debut. Chéreau brings to this opera a sort of stylized naturalism, such as he brought to his controversial centenary Ring production at Bayreuth, his Lulu in Paris, and From the House of the Dead here. These are ones I’ve seen either on video or in the house. His singers are constantly moving. Elektra’s intention that Klytämnestra’s blood shall be that which must flow is visually realized by her mother’s body dragged out to be displayed on a slab. Not all went loose and natural last night. Perhaps things will tighten as the team gets into the run.
And perhaps the technical flaws will be worked out too. When the curtain opened I thought oh dear these sets are just as ugly as that awful cardboard brown Tosca, which, you’ll recall, the Met replaced the sumptuous and much loved Franco Zeffirelli production with. Lo and behold, the cardboard brown sets for this new Elektra are by Richard Peduzzi, same fellow responsible for the Tosca. Right then and there I regretted caving into the impulse to purchase the DVD Chéreau Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera Shop prior to the performance (same production of course, lighting by Dominique Bruguière and costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise, filmed at Aix de Provence in 2013). But as the evening played out, Salonen’s gripping conducting, Meier and Pieczonka in their roles, plus others, convinced me to keep it. Funny thing though: Peduzzi also designed the sets for Janáček’s From the House of the Dead that season (2009) which, I remember, were perfectly apt in every way musically and dramatically for that opera.
Herein lies the rub: the color scheme of the Elektra sets are a nightmare for a synesthetic. The music is emphatically not shades of beige under bright lights. Viewing the DVD of the filmed performance of Chéreau's Elektra, which I did the next morning, one sees a much darker, grayish hue to the scenery, far more in line with the color of the music, suggesting that Peduzzi’s sets for the Janáček work in large measure because of the lighting. The mood of the Met’s Elektra is compromised by the brightness of the lighting.
Also, for the record, the amplified chorus of courtiers heard from behind the walls at the end of the opera is too loud.
Otherwise it this is an Elektra you will not soon forget. Happily I say again: Run, do not walk!
Reviewed performance date: April 14, 2016, Opening night of the new production.
Photos: Marty Sohl
Elektra is performed here in one act. The running time of the HD performance is just about one and three quarter hours; there is no intermission.
Enjoy! No overcoat on the walk to the car last night…heaven!