The audience roared on Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera after the premiere of a new production of Strauss’ Elektra by the late Patrice Chereau. Not only did Elektra and her siblings bring down the House of Atreus, they brought down the Met. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme starred in the title role; Adrianne Pieczonka was her sister Chrysothemis; the treasured Waltraud Meier played their mother Klytämnestra; and Eric Owens played the long-awaited returning brother Orest. Conducting the production, which was first done at Aix-en-Provence in 2013, was Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Under Chereau’s masterful judgement, only the bare necessities of Hofmannsthal’s adaption of Sophocles’ play were kept. The courtyard of Agamemnon’s palace was barren, dominated by hard cement to make real Elektra’s prison-like treatment since the killing of her father. The curtain rises on the maids of the house sweeping the stairs and completing household chores, making it all the more shocking when the first blast of the “Agamemnon” motif puts things in motion. Elektra is made to look as unfeminine as possible in her grey, ragged garments and her short, greasy hair as she crawls around the stage in contrast with Klytämnestra’s regal green dress and jewels.
Ms. Stemme’s Elektra challenges Evelyn Herlitzius’ as far as whose Elektra was better in Chereau’s production. The utterly full, bold sound Stemme produces in such large quantity is astounding. Similarly to Birgit Nilsson, notes were hit confidently without the use of swooping or other mannerisms. Her staggering and unsteady dancing made her look all the more demented, and all the more convincing that she alone was not ready to take on the task of avenging her father’s death until her strong brother returned home. Adrianne Pieczonka played the thin-skinned, idealistic Chrysothemis. On only a couple of occasions did her top become strident, yet she kept it exciting enough to match Stemme. In the small, yet powerful, role of Orest Eric Owens sang with compassion towards/with Ms. Stemme.
Waltraud Meier could have spoken her lines and she would have been just as eloquent. She is a master at understanding character. While many view Klytämnestra as a maniacal, murderous creature, many forget that she has reason to be upset, as Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenie. Instead of playing her as a monster, Ms. Meier played her as the distraught mother who is scared out of her wits by her nightmares and the prophecies of her own daughter. The orchestra covered her in some spots, as her voice did not carry as well as Stemme’s did. However, the many times she was heard her delivery was crystalline, as she made lines such as “Ich habe keine gute nächte” sound like speech.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting was riveting. He makes conducting a humongous orchestra look so effortless in his smooth motion. The orchestra played with exuberance, especially in Elektra’s dance of death. While Maestro Salonen had them under control, simultaneously the players made it sound as if her dance was going faster and there was no brake, just like Elektra’s demented state of mind. It can’t be easy to control music that is supposed to sound out of control, yet the Met Orchestra unsurprisingly succeeded.