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Opera Review: The Righteous Heart of Darkness

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Met mounts Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra. by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: The Righteous Heart of Darkness

Elektra (Nina Stemme, right) does nothing to alleviate the fears of her mother Klytaemnestra
(Waltraud Meier, seated) in a scene from the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' Elektra.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropoltan Opera. 

When a great artist dies, his audience may have the chance to experience his final work performed highest possible standard. That is the case with Elektra, the final opera production by French Patrice Chéreau and the last of six new stagings put on this year at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Chéreau died in 2013, but this staging is very much his, with modern costumes, drab sets and a focus on the drama over the customary trappings that come with this Richard Strauss opera. This staging is by an all-star team: conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen in the pit (more on him in a minute) and a strong cast, including soprano Nina Stemme, mezzo Waltraud Meier and bass Eric Owens.
Elektra, opened April 16, and is scheduled to get the Live in HD treatment this weekend. Tuesday night’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera House had the fancy cameras in place, whirring away with booms raising and lowering over stage left and right. At the opera's beginning, the audience was treated to the most unusual of events (for the Met), a false start by the orchestra and singers, apparently caused when someone forgot to turn on the lights in the orchestra pit, throwing 120 players and Mr. Salonen into confusion. The conductor called a halt and re-started the opera from the slam-bang opening chords.
Following this small mishap, Mr. Salonen and his players recovered to present a lucid, searching and unusually lyric reading of this score. With 120 players churning away in the orchestra, Strauss' barrage of leitmotifs and "special" orchestral effects can sometimes sound like orchestration for its own sake. Mr. Salonen's carefully paced interpretation went much deeper into this work's dark heart. Conductor and singers found the gray emotional core of this drama, a German translation of the Sophocles version of the Elektra story. (In case you don't know the plot, Elektra is a Greek princess. Before the opera starts, her father Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Klytaemnestra and her lover Aegisth. She is out for bloody revenge.)
At nearly two hours and played without pause, Elektra can be forbidding. Mr. Salonen, am acclaimed composer in his own right was sure to underline Strauss' lyricism throughout the score, capturing the dance rhythms and reveling in the atonal skitters and slides that accompany Klytaemnestra's account of her nightmares. The score's greatest moment is the Recognition Scene, which features an amazing orchestral effect as eight of the sixteen violists in the pit briefly trade their instruments to become a fourth violin section, an effect which elevates the reunion of Elektra and her brother Orestes to new poignancy.
In the title role, Ms. Stemme showed that her abilities go far beyond good German diction and crystalline, dead-on high notes delivered with full dramatic force. She was deep in the role of Elektra from curtain-up, playing the traumatized princess as a figure to be admired for her tenacity and yet pitied for the fits and outbursts caused by the trauma of her father's murder. As she twitched and lurched across the stage, one could to help but admire the singer’s fearlessness and utter confidence in her part and the production as she gave an absorbing and unforgettable performance.
Waltraud Meier’s laser-like mezzo may only stab at some of Klytaemnestra’s low notes, but the trade-off was well worth it. Hers is a regal stage presence and a dramatic intelligence thanks to forty years of singing German opera for a living. This production shies away from portraying the Queen as some kind of monster, emphasizing her elevated station and the crisis of conscience that her actions have caused. This was a sympathetic portrait. Adrienne Pieczonka, who sang Chrysothemis in this production's first run at Aix-en-Provence, ahowed musical intelligence, though her voice emphasized necessary volume over beauty of tone.
Eric Owens’ Orestes is a radical interpretation of the character, showing emotion and great warmth in his recognition of Elektra, but going into a kind of shell-shocked state when it is time to kill his mother. The murder of the queen and her lover Aegisth (shrill tenor Burkhard Ulrich) took place on stage, with little to no blood, a harsh contrast to the gory images summoned by the text. (Actually, Aegisth doesn't get a royal death here, he is stabbed by Orestes' tutor, played by bass Kevin Short.) Mr. Owens wandered off at the opera’s end, stunned by his deeds.
Finally, mention should be made of the razor-sharp ensemble of five female  servants and their overseer, who opened the opera with a long dumb-show of cleaning the bloody steps and courtyard of the House of Atreus. These singers (Susan Neves, Bonita Hyman, Andrea Hill  and Claudia Waite) overcame the evening’s false start to deliver a nuanced and engrossing opening scene. Among these the standout was veteran Roberta Alexander as the Fifth Servant, played here as an older woman who one might imagine as having been the family nanny. She received a warm wave of bravos from the audience when it was time to take her bow.

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