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Operatic Agony and Revenge: Elektra at the Met

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/10/2009 -  & December 15, 18, 22, 26, 29*, 2009
Richard Strauss: Elektra, opus 58

Susan Bullock (Elektra), Deborah Voigt (Chrysothemis), Felicity Palmer (Klytämnestra), Evgeny Nitkitin (Orest), Wolfgang Schmidt (Aegisthus), Rosemary Nencheck (The Confidante), Alexandra Newland (The Trainbearer), John Easterlin (Young Servant), Kevin Burdette (An Old Servant), Oren Gradus (The Guardian of Orest), Susan Neves (Overseer of the Servants), Tamara Mumford, Heidi Melton, Maria Zifchak, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Jennifer Check (Five Serving Women)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (Conductor)
Otto Schenk (Production), Jürgen Rose (Set and Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), David Kneuss (Stage Director)

S. Bullock & F. Palmer (© Ken Howard)

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaborated on five operas; Elektra, Hofmannsthal’s adaption of Sophocles’ play about the tragic aftermath of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Klytämnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, was the first. After the murder, Klytämnestra banished her son, Orest, 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 Klytämnestra’s killing of her husband, who had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. And he decided that Elektra would die.

The opera premiered in Dresden in January 1909. It was a time of great intellectual ferment and the collaborators were in the thick of things. Both Hofmannsthal and Strauss 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. Their Elektra, a virtual case study, is imprisoned in a state of perpetual grief for her father, and constantly and destructively ruminates on the rivers of blood intermingling with the waters of the bath where he was murdered. Her obsession with her father has clearly stunted her sexual development. The opera was much talked about, and it seems probable that Jung was influenced by it when he wrote his Freud and Psychoanalysis, published in 1912. In this work, Jung proposed the existence of an Elektra complex as the female counterpart to Freud’s Oedipal attachment.

Hofmannsthal’s simple and spare seven scene layout enabled Strauss to unify the opera by giving it a symphonic structure. His wish and ability to do so is not surprising. After all, by the time he turned his attention to composing operas, Strauss was already an accomplished and renowned master of symphonic tone poems. The characters appear as follows: (1) Maidservants; (2) Elektra alone; (3) Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis; (4) Elektra and her mother, Klytämnestra; (5) Elektra and Chrysothemis again; (6) Elektra and Orest (who has just arrived); (7) The end including the murders of Klytämnestra and her lover, Aegisthus by Orest, and Elektra’s dance of death.

Jürgen Rose’s staging was as spare as the opera’s structure. Elektra’s obsession connotes a mental prison and the staging externalized the sense of being trapped. The enormous Met Opera stage was reduced to a shallow oppressive, almost claustrophobic space. There was a steep rake, with a dead horse on the right of the stage. The backdrop for the action was an enormous palace wall, in the middle of which was a massive flight of steps to a doorway. The floor of the set was uneven, with protruding and irregular stone blocks and various platform levels. It all seemed fiendishly difficult for the singers to negotiate. And more than once I felt a bit of angst on their behalf as they trundled up and down those steps.

The opera has three great roles for women – two for soprano, Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, and one for mezzo soprano, Klytämnestra. The central character is, of course, Elektra. The role requires so much from a singer – not the least of which is pure stamina. She must be on stage for six of the seven scenes. When we first meet Elektra in the opera’s second scene, two words allein (alone) and Agamemnon capture the pathos of her situation. She lives almost like an animal, forced to scrounge for scraps of food in the yard of the palace. She is in torment and her mother torments her further by telling her that her brother, Orest, has died. Klytämnestra delivers this news with unconcealed glee and a demonic and rather hair-raising cackle. Elektra’s dream that her brother would avenge her father’s killing had apparently died with him. Klytämnestra, racked by fear and by guilt, has the same dream, and the result is insomnia that has undermined her own mental stability. But then, incredibly, Orest appears, accompanied by his tutor and a huge orchestral climax. The music fades and then transmutes itself into the most beautiful music in the opera – a gorgeous melody, sung by Elektra, over a very thin orchestral texture.

This was the high point of Susan Bullock’s performance – heartfelt, beautifully sung, and intensely moving. Elektra feels such tenderness for her young brother, but she also feels intense shame at her degraded state and can barely meet his gaze. It is the reconciliation scene and not the subsequent revenge killing of Klytämnestra and Aegisthus that is the dramatic culmination of the opera. Against the backdrop of the full throttle, highly chromatic, emotionally charged and acoustically overwhelming orchestration, here we find Strauss at his lyrical best, with a markedly reduced orchestral texture. Unfortunately, most of the opera requires enormous power just to be heard over Strauss’s huge orchestra and it was here, most of all, that Bullock’s performance fell short. She also failed to embody and convey vocally and dramatically the mental turbulence and anguish of Elektra.

There were, however, splendid performances by Deborah Voigt and by the Met Orchestra under Fabio Luisi. Voigt is a highly versatile singer, but she is perhaps best known for her interpretations Richard Strauss roles. She sang Chrysothemis in the Met premiere of this Otto Schenk production in 1992, after making her sensational Met debut the year before. This is the fifth time she has sung the role at the Met, and she brought to it a beautiful rich gleaming sound, a thrilling top, and power to spare. Her performance as a young woman grieving both for her lost father but also for her thwarted and unfulfilled life, was extremely touching.

Strauss wrote Elektra 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 Klytämnestra’s recurring dreams about her melting bone marrow, as well as the bizarre sacrifices that she made in a vain attempt to expiate her guilt. But there are 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 Orest.

Fabio Luisi, who made his Met debut in 2005, conducts two operas this season, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Elektra. Here, he was in total command of his marvelous resources, unleashing power when required, and scaling down to illluminate details, often stunningly beautiful, in Strauss’s marvelously varied orchestral palette.

Felicity Palmer as Klytämnestra, gave an extraordinary performance as a tormented woman, desperate to put an end to her horrifying nightmares. She sang with a plush, deep tone. She was terrified and terrifying, fearful and frightening. Once again, she demonstrated that she is a singing actress who can do almost anything. Russian bass Evgeny Nikitin gave a dignified and touching portrayal as Orest, stunned and angered to find his sister so degraded. His acting seemed a bit wooden but that could well be due to the direction. Wolfgang Schmidt as Aegisthus sang with power and the requisite authority. The maid servants all sang well, although they would have benefitted from a bit more stage direction.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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