Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Producer: Patrice Chéreau
Stage Director:Vincent Huguet
Elektra: Nina Stemme
Klytamnestra: Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest: Eric Owens
Aegisth: Burkhard Ulrich
Among all the exciting prospects of my 2015-2016 Met season, Elektra had to have the top spot, not so much for the opera itself, which admittedly has plenty going for it, but for the artists involved in this new production. I had loved Patrice Chéreau's long-overdue Met debut From the House of the Dead several years ago and was fully confident in his ability to bring a unique perspective to one of opera's most dysfunctional families. Esa-Pekka Salonen, who also made his Met debut in From the House of the Dead, worked closely with Chéreau on this Elektra, which debuted to unanimous acclaim in Aix-en-Provence in 2013, shortly before Chéreau's death.
Nina Stemme was a thoroughly convincing Turandot earlier in the season, and after the cold Chinese princess I was curious to hear her take on the vengeful Greek princess. I could not wait to finally get an opportunity to experience the power of living legend Waltraub Meier in person, and to become reacquainted with Eric Owens after too many years apart.
And if I had to sacrifice part of another sunny spring afternoon in New York for this new adventure, so be it.
As a popular Greek mythology figure, Elektra had made a name for herself way before Hofmannsthal and Strauss decided to make an opera out of her. She was the main character in classical tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides before occupying a central role in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire and Eugene O'Neill. Oh, and she's an American comic book heroine as well. Heck, she even gave her name to a neo-Freudian mother-daughter complex. So the woman is clearly here to stay.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme's formidable presence and visceral singing are no news, but in Elektra she has found the perfect character to use the full range of her dramatic chops as well. Yesterday she was unquestionably enraged by her mother and her lover murdering her father, ferociously ranting and raving all over the stage while obsessively plotting her revenge, but she also showed a truly vulnerable side first when she was with her mother and later with her brother in two of the most heartbreaking scenes of the afternoon. Once she had made her discreet yet unmistakable entrance, Stemme powered through the next two hours with admirable focus and stamina, and delivered a memorable performance.
As the mother Elektra wants to murder, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, still blessed with an inherently beautiful voice, impeccable acting skills and a magnetic presence after four decades of dazzling audiences, was a naturally commanding and surprisingly human Queen Klytamnestra. She was not presented as the typical hysterical murderess, but as a deeply conflicted woman suffering from bad dreams and desperate to reconnect with her rebellious daughter. As such, her singing was not only technically assured, but also touchingly poignant. At this point, I will probably never fulfill my dream of hearing her sing Isolde in context, but we'll always have Klytamnestra.
Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka may not have been as well-known as the other lead singers on that stage, but she more than held her own as Chrysothemis, Elektra's deeply unhappy sister who only dreams of a normal life with husband and children. Her fiercely expressive singing and impressive dramatic flair are valuable assets that she used with utmost intelligence to create a strong and relatable character. She appeared to be as grounded as Elektra was tormented, and conveyed her thoughts through clear phrasing and expertly shapes lines.
As the put-upon brother who simply has to do the deed, American bass-baritone Eric Owens was an emotional and determined Orest, emotional when at long last he was reunited with his beloved sister, determined when he coolly went off to accomplish his gruesome mission. Before he revealed himself to Elektra, he was seen for a while in the background, silent and imposing, the inescapable figure of fate.
In the small and thankless role of Aegisth, Klytamnestra's lover and accomplice, German tenor Burkhard Ulrich had trouble making a lasting impression. On the other hand, the five female servants and their overseer who were cleaning the steps and ground during the opening scene in silent first, and then singing to the music, were all outstanding, with a special mention going to Roberta Alexander, the older woman and the only one defending Elektra.
The set was spartan with just a few walls, steps and not much else, everything being in light shades; the costumes were also minimalist and in earthy colors. In fact, everything seemed designed to place the story in nondescript place and time, emphasizing the timelessness of the conflicts and focusing the attention on the characters. The end result was a cleverly streamlined production that resolutely brought out raw human emotions, not shrieking hysteria or orgiastic decadence.
By all accounts Elektra is a wild, non-stop, two-hour ride; therefore it takes a fearless conductor to be in charge of taming the complex score and properly directing the 120 musicians in the pit while making sure to convey the composition's many fascinating qualities. Fortunately, we had the right maestro in Esa-Pekka Salonen, who not only dug out myriad of details from the music, but also subtly highlighted its fundamental beauty and intense lyricism, which in turn made the shattering eruptions all the more startling and terrifying. Kudos to him also for not drowning the singers' voices even during the most forceful outbursts.
The Met Orchestra's sterling reputation of being able to handle anything thrown at them – And an awful lot is constantly thrown at them – was reinforced one more time yesterday afternoon. As the drama was steadily unfolding on the stage, the instrumental performance was wildly colorful, but also richly textured, gorgeously nuanced and profoundly haunting.
When all had been said and done and everybody finally got a chance to catch their breath, we all found ourselves thoroughly exhausted, and immensely elated. The tremendous ovation that followed confirmed it: Patrice Chéreau may rest in peace. His Elektra vibrantly lives on.