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Madness and Hallucination Made Audible: Polaski’s Elektra

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
12/04/2008 -  and December 6, 9, 13
Richard Strauss: Elektra
Deborah Polaski (Elektra), Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis), Jane Henschel (Clytemnestra), Julian Tovey (Orestes), Richard Margison (Aegisthus), Jessica Klein (Clytemnestra’s Confidante), Renee Tatum (Clytemnestra’s Trainbearer), (Ryan MacPherson (Young Servant), Frank Barr (Old Servant), Matt Boehler (Orestes’ Tutor), Helen Huse Ralston (Overseer), Janice Meyerson (First Maid), Stephanie Chigas (Second Maid), Linda Pavelka (Third Maid), Priti Gandhi (Fourth Maid), Julianne Borg (Fifth Maid), New York Choras Artists (Maid Servants, Men Servants)
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (Conductor)

Deborah Polaski (© Monika Rittershaus)

I had always thought that no one who is not severely mentally ill could possibly comprehend what it’s like to be caught in the tight grip of psychosis. It’s true, of course, that art has the power to transport us to realms heretofore unknown, to take us on journeys that we will never undertake including those into darkness, pain, and despair. But such journeys usually have about them a certain vicariousness that protects us from the full effect of subjects that are unpleasant, frightening, or even grotesque.

At Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday evening, that vicariousness was stripped away. The relentless, shattering depiction of Elektra’s psychological disintegration spared no one – not Deborah Polaski whose performance was a test of vocal, emotional, and physical endurance, not Lorin Maazel and the NY Philharmonic, and not the audience. For almost two hours, without the respite of an intermission, we were tipped into a musical abyss that we could not escape (although perhaps a dozen people in the orchestra section of the audience did escape – literally – rushing out the door in the middle of Elektra’s soliloquy.) If the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, (who can be considered one of the fathers or at least godfathers of German Expressionism) could have imagined a musical embodiment for his most famous painting, The Scream, it would have to have been written by Richard Strauss.

The rousing ovation for this truly magnificent performance was loud and sustained. It was a celebration, but not only in the usual sense of the audience’s acknowledgement of a splendid effort by the three lead singers, the orchestra, and the conductor. It was also, it seemed to me, a celebration -- a kind of noisy sigh of relief -- that we had escaped from Elektra’s mental prison and could go out into a world that, intermittently at least, still made sense.

Strauss had already achieved success with his symphonic tone poems by the time he turned his attention to composing Salome and then Elektra. In both of these operas, his subjects were women in the grip of obsession. The musical vocabularies of the two operas, however, were not the same. The radical nature of Elektra did not signal a new direction for Strauss; in fact, his next work, Der Rosenkavalier could not have been more different. With Elektra, Strauss simply created the music that suited the text. If his expressionist style led anywhere, it was down the musical path to Schonberg’s Erwartung and Berg’s Wozzeck.

Elektra , the first of five operas on which Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaborated, was based on Hofmannsthal’s adaption, published in 1903, of Sophocles’ play about the tragic results of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. She then banished her son, Orestes, and shunned her daughter, Elektra, who dreamed of revenge on her mother wrought by her brother. In his play, Hofmannsthal made two crucial changes: he stripped rational dialogue from the story, omitting crucial motivation for Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon, who had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. And he decided that Elektra would die.

The opera premiered in Dresden in January 1909. Both the writer and the composer were influenced by and in turn an influence on the developing field of psychology. There is evidence that Hofmannsthal had read Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria. Elektra is a virtual case study, locked in her grief for her father, and perpetually and destructively ruminating on the rivers of blood intermingling with the waters of the bath where he was murdered. There are also strong indications that her obsession with her father has stunted her sexually. The opera was much talked about, and it seems plausible to suppose that Jung was influenced by it when he wrote his Freud and Psychoanalysis, which was published in 1912. In this work, Jung proposed the existence of an Elektra complex as a counterpart to Freud’s Oedipal attachment.

The simple and spare seven scene layout of the opera enabled Strauss to unify it with a symphonic structure. The characters appear as follows: (1) Maidservants; (2) Elektra alone; (3) Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis; (4) Elektra and her mother, Clytemnestra; (5) Elektra and Chrysothemis again; (6) Elektra and Orestes (who has just arrived); (7) The end including the murders of Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus by Orestes and Elektra’s dance of death.

Strauss wrote for a huge orchestra of forty-one wind instruments including five clarinets, two basset-horns, tubas and a large string section divided into sub-sections. He used a variety of harmonic techniques – including extreme dissonance and polytonality verging on atonality – to conjure up a nightmare world, musically embodying Elektra’s increasingly attenuated hold on sanity and Clytemnestra’s recurring dreams about her melting bone marrow, and the bizarre sacrifices that she made in a vain attempt to expiate her guilt. But there were also moments of incredible lyricism – ethereal and poignant -- the most moving of which come during Elektra’s reminiscences of her childhood and her reunion with her brother, Orestes, who returned to avenge the killing of their father.

The opera has three great roles for women – two for soprano (Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis), and one for mezzo soprano, Clytemnestra. In this performance, the singers who inhabited these roles (for that is what they did) were superb. The central character is, of course, Elektra. Deborah Polaski’s voice displayed a beautiful tone and unfailing power, expressiveness, and comfort with the full dynamic range. She easily glided over the huge orchestra (a challenge made all the more difficult by the positioning of the singers on stage immediately in front of the musicians). Her acting skill was equally impressive as was her stamina. She was on stage for six of the seven scenes. When we first met her in the second scene, two words allein (alone) and Agamemnon captured the pathos of her sorry state. She had been reduced to the status of an animal, scrounging for scraps in the yard of the palace. Elektra was then told by her mother that her brother, Orestes, has died. Clytemnestra showed her glee at this turn of events with a demonic and rather hair raising cackle. Elektra’s dream that her brother would avenge her father’s killing had apparently died with him. But then, incredibly, he appeared, accompanied by a huge orchestral climax which faded and then transmuted itself into the most beautiful music in the opera – a gorgeous melody, sung by Elektra, over a very thin orchestral texture. Polaski carried it off brilliantly.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, sung by the wonderful German soprano, Anne Schwanewilms, had been grieving in her own way, both for her lost father but also for her thwarted and unfulfilled life. She wanted to embrace life in contrast to Elektra, who only sought revenge. Jane Henschel, as Clytemnestra, did a star turn as their tortured and somewhat addled mother.

The New York Philharmonic gave full and passionate expression to Strauss’s orchestral genius. Their huge sound was never muddy; rather it was so clear that it was almost transparent. The quiet, lyrical passages even more so. Lorin Maazel, in his last season as their conductor, led his musicians with iron control yet economy of means. I look forward to their next outing in the realm of opera, a February concert performance of Ravel’s L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, performed along with his ballet Daphnis et Chloé at Carnegie Hall.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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