“Elektra” returns to Met for a sunny Straussian family holiday

Fri Mar 02, 2018 at 12:26 pm
Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra and Christine Goerke in the title role of Strauss's "Elektra" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra and Christine Goerke in the title role of Strauss’s “Elektra” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Karen Almond

What if Patrice Chéreau had been given more opportunities to create productions at the Metropolitan Opera?

His only productions that have appeared at the Met, Janacek’s House of the Dead and Strauss’ Elektra, are two of the finest things the company has put on stage during the current Peter Gelb regime. One was acutely reminded of the what-if Thursday night, when the Met opened a short run of a revival of Elektra.

From Sophocles, by way of playwright and librettist Hugo von Hofmaansthal, the opera follows Elektra’s (soprano Christine Goerke) long-held, murderous rage at her mother Klytämnestra (mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster), who conspired with her lover Aegisth (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) to murder her husband (Elektra’s father) Agamemnon when that king returned from Troy. The opera mixes death, violence, and a claustrophobic sexuality that are very much fin-de-siécle.

Despite Strauss’s enduring popularity with opera audiences, and the important legacy of these late romantic works, such ideas are difficult to make real and meaningful in our time. Outside of sub-genres like pulp literature and horror, which the opera world studiously eschews, there is little in contemporary culture that touches on this deep and intense gothic mix.

Chereau’s staging (assisted by Caroline de Vivaise’s plain, contemporary style costumes) hits the mark right at the point. The action takes place in the courtyard at the Palace of Mycenae, and the entrance to the palace at the back of the stage looks like a bandshell, a self-conscious admission that this is a performance, artifice. The plain exactitude of the sets lets the fecundity of the music do the work, and offers a refreshing and measured perspective.

That leaves the performers to do the rest, which in itself is considerably difficult. The drama is Sophocles by way of Wozzeck. Strauss’s hyper-romantic score transmits the sensations of his time to the present, but it can confine the dramatic experience for that same reason—madness and revenge in a high court were already dated in the world of kings and queens that was about to be swept away by World War I. The singers Thursday night had to make them comprehensible.

Nina Stemme made a deep impression as Elektra when this production first opened in 2016. LINK Goerke has the voice for it, a firm, colorful dramatic soprano that can convey urgency with vibrato and intensity with sustained notes.

Beyond her sound, she captured the part in her manner of singing–not just the knife-edged balance between moments of lucidity and the public fugue state into which Elektra dips. In the journeys from one state to another, Goreke made manifest Elektra’s extremes of experience.

This was doubly important because in terms of stage presence, Goerke never appeared comfortable. This part—uncontrolled rage that leads to a kind of sublime fugue-state—is even more difficult to act than to sing. Credible psychological disintegration is a challenge to even the most skilled actors, much less conveying a meaningful expression of the embrace of sex, violence, and death, and Goerke could not hold herself or move in any but the most superficial pantomime of a crazed person.

However, in her stage presence she was an effective foil for the vivid characters around her, especially Schuster, who was extraordinary in her Met debut as Klytämnestra, and the excellent singing and characterization of bass Mikhail Petrenko as Orest.

In her exchange with Elektra and then solo that begins with “Was willst Du?”, Schuster sang with both the elegance of a queen and the capriciousness of rage and spite that comes from the character’s insecurities. Klytämnestra is blithe to the consequences of her murder of her husband, she has somehow suppressed it as inconsequential to the present, and Schuster’s voice and bearing showed the character as someone who imagines herself to be beyond the petty feelings of ordinary people, including her daughter. She carried off the difficult bit of finding Elektra vexing even as the girl explicitly threatens her with death.

Petrenko’s Orest was calm, stately, and sinister, and he expressed a closeness to Elektra that, through unadorned gestures, showed the quasi-incestful love between the two that Hofmaansthal penned and Strauss scored. The even darkness and precision of his voice and phrasing were equally strong at showing tenderness and malevolence. Meanwhile, Hunter Morris was swamped in the truly minor role of Aegisth, who appears at the last moment to vent and die.

Soprano Elza van den Heever was in and out as Elektra’s sister Chrystothemis. Some of this came from her middle range being consistently lost inside the orchestra’s playing, but most came from the opera itself, which has the character as a wishy-washy cipher. Chrystothemis pledges revenge, then wants to call it off and run away, and then expresses joy at the final outcome in a way that strikes the contemporary listener as climbing on the bandwagon.

In the pit, incoming music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra took a bit of time to come together. There was plenty of energy among the instrumentalists, maybe a little too much at the start. Through about the first 20 minutes there was often the musical equivalent of a team eager to take the field while trying to cram too many bodies through too small a door.

For the conductor, his trademark fire with this orchestra was at an unexpectedly low heat for a while—smoldering but not yet too hot to touch. Strauss’s fleeting sensations followed one after another in a way that was vivid in the moment but that did not for quite a while form the drama.

The intensity of the grand, dissonant chord in “Die Hunde auf dem Hof erkennen mich”—when Elektra and Orest recognize each other—was the gasoline on the fire, and the gorgeous playing throughout the loving moments of their duet was the springboard for blistering music making through the scenes of murder and the finale, where Elektra has found joy through death.

Elektra runs through March 23. metopera.org; 212-362-2000.

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