On Saturday, I had the good fortune of seeing Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan had seen this production in the Met's Live in HD broadcast on April 30, so we agreed to do side-by-side takes on the production.
FYI, the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform the "Elektra" Symphonic Rhapsody, a suite conceived by music director Manfred Honeck and arranged by Tomas Ille, this weekend at Heinz Hall. So if you couldn't see "Elektra" in the movie theater or at the opera house, you can experience Strauss' remarkable score in a symphonic setting.
Now, onto the reviews:
NEW YORK—At most opera productions, there is a bit of a ceremony before the actual performance begins. The orchestra tunes, the conductor comes out to warm applause, the curtain goes up, the musicians play. It is a ritual that we know and find comfort in.
The mood that opened of the Metropolitan Opera production of "Elektra" on Saturday night was different. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen seemed to sneak up to the podium, evading applause. The opera began not with the severe opening chords of Strauss' score, but with a servant brushing at the steps of the Palace of Mycenae. Her sweeps, deliberate and crisp, like a breath, resounded throughout the massive space of the house. For the first several minutes of this two-hour opera, this was the only sound we encountered.
It was in this way that the Met's tremendous production of "Elektra" opened — not with the loud, brash sounds of Strauss, but with these engrossing, eerie sweeps, "as if to purge the primal sins that earlier had occurred there," as general manager Peter Gelb put it. Even after having read his note in the program, I was still shocked at this moment. It was as if the fourth wall had been constructed without our consent.
This new production was the brainchild of the French director Patrice Chereau, who died in 2013, a few months after this "Elektra" debuted in France. His staging, revived at the Met by Vincent Huguet, unearthed the emotional and musical dimensions of this work, and the Met's dramatic and musical forces delivered a knockout realization of his intent.
The production embraced what seemed to be the classic, timeless nature of this one-act opera, which is based on the Greek myth and features a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Elektra avenges the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Klytämnestra, with the help of her brother Orest. Richard Peduzzi's stone-colored sets, with their clean, stark lines and high central arch, evoked an ancient city on its way to becoming ruins.
The singers and orchestra offered this thorny, challenging music with zeal and purpose. In the title role, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was masterful, delivering a hefty yet nuanced interpretation of the complicated Elektra — twitchy yet full of ardor. Her scene with the fierce mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, portraying Klytämnestra, was a highlight, a carefully crafted moment that humanized the characters.
Adrianne Pieczonka, playing Elektra's sister Chrysothemis, seemed to get better over the course of the performance and impressed with the substance of her singing in the upper register, while Eric Owens offered a bold, steely take on Orest. Mr. Salonen sculpted a confident, wrenching interpretation, and the orchestra's detailed performance was a rich sound-world unto its own.
It's always best to experience an opera live in the theater. But if you can't get to New York, and your local company is not likely to produce Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in the foreseeable future, the Met's invaluable Live in HD series is an excellent substitute. Moreover, the screen version brings out details that are impossible to discern even from the best seats in the house. This was particularly evident in the superlative production of "Elektra" that closed the 2015-16 Live in HD season on April 30. Notable was the highly nuanced portrayal of the title character by Nina Stemme, seen in close-ups and at unusual angles that showed every gradation of expression and reaction.
When he wrote "Elektra" in 1909, Strauss pushed the musical techniques of his day to their limits, calling for a mammoth orchestra of approximately 100 players, advancing traditional harmony, upping the emotional thermometer and adding a Freudian element — in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's masterful adaptation of Sophocles' ancient Greek drama — that is only hinted at in the original.
Strauss' contemporaries, notably Arnold Schoenberg, would carry musical expressionism further, into the realm of "atonality" and so-called 12-tone music. Strauss took a different route, turning backward after "Elektra" to write neo-Mozartean operas for the rest of his life. As it stands, the Strauss-Hofmannsthal "Elektra" remains one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater ever written, 105 minutes of high tension and inexorable beauty, a cathartic experience in the fullest sense of the Greek definition.
The late Patrice Chereau, staging this opera at Aix-en-Provence in 2013, updated the work to emphasize its timeless message and concentrate on individual feelings and responses. Contrary to tradition, Elektra is no raving lunatic, rather a frightened, abused woman obsessed by the horrendous events she has witnessed. Klytämnestra, too, is portrayed by Waltraud Meier as a still attractive woman living in fear and guilt after murdering her husband, Agamemnon and taking his enemy, Aegisthus, as her lover. The slayings of Klytämnestra and Aegisthus are shown on stage. At the end, Elektra does not dance herself to death, but lingers catatonic and immobile, while Orest returns from the building's interior to walk proudly out the palace gate.
The greatest glories of this performance were musical: conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's magnificent rendition of this immensely difficult score, and the extraordinary all-star cast. The Met's orchestra is arguably the best orchestra in the world today, and it was in top form. Ms. Stemme is a consummate singing actress, whose ironclad soprano can weather engulfing orchestral torrents, or produce meaningful pianissimos when required by the musical or dramatic context.
Ms. Meier, regal and in top form at 60, was not the usual caricature of an evil harridan. Her confrontation scene with Elektra was probing and credible. Filling out this trio of troubled women was Adrianne Pieczonka's unusually spunky Chrysothemis, a full-voiced rendition that suggests she might graduate to the title role sometime down the road.
Most affecting was the recognition scene between Elektra and Orest. As the long-lost brother who returns to avenge his father's murder, Eric Owens was a commanding presence whose resounding bass-baritone caressed the ear and made every one of his lines significant and eloquent.
Casting was generous down the line. Aegisthus was Burkhard Ulrich, a German character tenor new to the house. The Overseer was Susan Neves, who has sung Tosca and Turandot with Pittsburgh Opera. And cast as the fifth servant woman was a fresh-voiced 67-year-old Roberta Alexander, returning to the Met after an absence of 25 years.