By David Shengold
NEW YORK — Like her older sister, Salome, Richard Strauss’ 1909 Elektra still packs a punch, musically as well as via Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s searing adaptation of Sophocles’ play. The Metropolitan Opera’s new co-production was unveiled to very positive ovations on April 14. Only the fourth staging in the company’s history (previous efforts were in 1932, 1966, and 1992), it marks — rarely, one has to admit — a considerable improvement on the mise-en-scène it replaces, what critic Manuela Hoelterhoff in 1992 aptly termed a “feeble melodrama,” courtesy of late-career stage director Otto Schenk.
The new production was dreamed up and (initially) directed by Patrice Chéreau, the remarkable French theater legend whose previous Met effort — From the House of the Dead in 2009 — proved one of the strongest offerings Peter Gelb’s Met regime has presented. Like the Janácek, Elektra benefited greatly from the galvanizing hand of the extraordinary Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Hofmannsthal shows us the implacable, titular daughter of Agamemnon waiting, abused and despised, in her mother Klytämnestra’s palace for her exiled brother, Orest, to return to avenge their father’s murder by Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth. She contemplates acting herself — or with her less embattled sister, Chrysothemis, who just wants to live a more normal life — and is thrilled when Orest returns (at first unrecognized by her) to perform the prescribed matricide.
Chéreau’s surprisingly intimate, bracingly stagger-and-clutch free take on this intense story was unveiled (and filmed for DVD) at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2013. The director died a scant few weeks later. The staging has moved on to La Scala and Milan, and, after its Met incarnation, will visit Helsinki, Berlin, and Barcelona. Two of the principal cast members (Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra and Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis) remain firmly in place. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, after some initial attempts at the demanding title role in Vienna, stepped into the lead originally played by powerhouse singing actress Evelyn Herlitzius.
Chéreau assistant Vincent Huguet staged the Met show, wisely making clear in interviews that since Chéreau made continual changes, he intended to adapt details to the new venue and cast members as well. The Aix production team, also employed here — Richard Peduzzi (sets), Caroline de Vivaise (costumes), and Dominique Bruguière (lights) — had previously collaborated on From the House of the Dead. Peduzzi’s was the key contribution in Elektra, a useful combination of platforms and benches with an arched gate upstage and several other doors at the ready.
Happily, we saw none of the usual broken pillars and equine statues that often haunt this piece. In fact, there was nothing particularly Greek or ancient about the staging emphasizing the passionate yet toxic family dynamics at stake. Some of the subtitles were projected onto the set, which worked surprisingly well. Other than a beautiful blue gown for Meier and a nice suit for capable debuting tenor Burkhard Ulrich (surely the youngest-looking Aegisth in history), de Vivaise’s drab, Salvation Army-surplus fashion for the rest lacked any defining character. No choreographer was listed; Stemme’s jerky stomping, though seeming duly spasmodic, just didn’t suit the relevant musical passages.
The staging seemed at pains to avoid the usual Elektra clichés drawn from silent German Expressionist cinema; this helped to universalize the loneliness and hurt the characters felt. At the same time, I felt rather distanced from some of the work’s dramatic peaks by the near-constant presence of inessential characters onstage during what are meant to be monologues and charged dialogues.
That said, these characters, constantly impinged upon by the palace’s other inhabitants, rarely made physical contact; again, an interesting if not always satisfyingly cathartic approach to the wrenching events portrayed. In keeping with the eschewal of traditional “Greek drama” trappings, the killings of Klytämnestra and Aegisth took place onstage. As far as one could tell, Elektra didn’t die at the end; she and Chrysothemis had watched Orest exit the palace without acknowledging their presence.
Stemme sang throughout with remarkable fluency, if lacking the visceral impact of Deborah Polaski or Christine Goerke in unforgotten local concert stagings of Strauss’ opera. One or two sharp notes on high aside, the role’s fearsome range presented no problems, and she was able to bring float and dynamic contrast to bear in coloring her lines.
Pieczonka showed commitment and adequate volume; ideally, one would also have more of the billowing allure Leonie Rysanek and Karita Mattila were able to bring to this tough sing. Eric Owens’ bass-baritone sounded very strong and healthy and certainly showed the requisite gravitas for Orest’s short but crucial role. Meier now does not produce a great deal of volume onstage, but she remains a remarkable vocal artist. It was salutary not to hear Klytämnestra shrieking with stagy laughter when she departs after her confrontation with Elektra. Under Salonen, the Met Orchestra maintained a similar elegance.
The evening began with groans when a house official came onstage with a microphone, betokening a substitution or request for indulgence. Audible relief greeted the news that Scott Scully was jumping in for Mark Schowalter as the Young Servant, fortunately nothing more damaging to the ensemble. Presumably, had one of the production’s “name” stars (Stemme, Meier, Owens) been indisposed, Gelb himself might have made the announcement. Scully ran into some trouble on a high phrase, and two of the other comprimarios (Susan Neves’ Overseer and Claudia Waite’s Fourth Maid) emitted distressingly otherworldly noises, but there was good work from Kevin Short (Orest’s Guardian), the debuting Bonita Hyman (First Maid), and Maya Lahyani (Second Maid).
In the initial Aix staging, some of the opera’s tiny roles had been played by veterans of Chéreau’s game-changing Bayreuth Ring, like Donald McIntyre. Also, he decided to cast the Fifth Maid with the fine American soprano Roberta Alexander and make the character an older woman who had been Elektra and Orest’s nanny instead of a young, admiring outsider. Alexander, last heard hereabouts as Vitellia in an April 1991 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, returned to the Met after 25 years, still sounding dulcet and full-voiced. Movingly, it was she and James Courtney (Old Servant, Met debut 1979) who recognized the returning Orest before his sister Elektra did. In all, Chéreau’s final operatic testament proved a notably interesting and worthwhile evening at the Met.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.