The House of Atreus Brings Down Met Opera House: A Review of the Met’s ‘Elektra’

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.

 

Waltraud Meier and Nina Stemme in the Met’s ‘Elektra’. Photo by Marty Sohl.

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.

Performances of Elektra run through May 7.

Is Opera Color Blind?

A couple of weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of hearing Nina Stemme tear up the house as Turandot live at the Met. The sheer size of her voice brought me back to see her again, only at a movie theater instead of the Met so I could witness her power live in HD. Yet again, her entire range was solid as a rock. She never let a stray note waver or sound out of place in the vast space she creates in her skull for successful resonance. Seeing her Live in HD did leave me with something else to think about other than her musical performance, however.

Stemme-as-Turandot

Nina Stemme as Turandot © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, January 2016

There is no question that the Met HDs are geared towards the movie industry. The film crew behind their production makes a viewer more aware of a singer’s makeup and appearance than he or she ever would sitting in the opera house. As I was enjoying listening to Ms. Stemme’s astounding sound, I could not help but be distracted by the heavy makeup around her eyes, which was utilized to give her more of an Asian look. The character of Turandot the ice princess came from a Persian collection of stories titled “The Book of One Thousand and One Days” ; and the word “Turandot” itself means “daughter of Turan”, Turan being a region located in Central Asia. Puccini set his opera to take place in the city of Peking, or present-day Beijing, China.

While Ms. Stemme’s makeup did not affect my enjoyment of her performance, it did take me back to a contoversy earlier this season over the use of blackface in the Met’s new production of Otello which opened the season. In this case, Shakespeare created Otello as a “Moorish captain”, based on the story “Un Capitano Moro” published in 1565 by Cinthio. While “Moor” has been used as a term to describe Arab and Berber people emigrating from North Africa to Spain, many have simply identified Othello as distinctly darker than Iago and Desdemona, and thus, isolating him from the light-skinned society for which he serves as a general. Countless references are made in both Shakespeare’s text and Boito’s libretto to Othello’s “blackness”. In the duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act I of Verdi’s Otello, Otello describes how “scendean sulle mie tenebre la gloria, il paradiso e gli astri a benedir” or “upon my darkness shown a radiance, heaven and all the stars in benediction”. Desdemona responds: “Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure splender del genio l’eterea beltà” or “And I descried upon your dusky temples genius’ ethereal beauty shining there”. In other words, it is made obvious that Otello should be personified as a character with darker skin than Desdemona.

When posters were first hung up and New York City buses began bearing ads for the Met’s new production, outrage broke out over Aleksandrs Antonenko’s dark makeup. After Nina Stemme’s thick eye makeup was shown to viewers all over the world on Saturday, I wondered where that same outrage was. For many years, the government of the People’s Republic of China banned performances of Puccini’s world renowned work because it gave an unfavorable portrayal of China and the Chinese people. In the past, productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly have been criticized for using “yellowface”, or a type of Hollywood-born makeup used to make actors look “more Asian”. As it was obviously intended by the makeup artists to give Ms. Stemme the complexion of a Chinese princess, where was the fuss? Should her face have been left alone to only let her costume advocate her Asian heritage?

With operas like Otello and Turandot, we are lucky. Costumers and makeup artists have the choice and disposal to create certain complexions they have in mind for the stage. In operas like La Fanciulla del West, however, that choice is not provided, as hints of racism are depicted in the speech or vernacular of the characters. Wowkle, Annie’s pregnant Native American servant, and her husband, Billy Jackrabbit, repeatedly say “Ugh”- filling the popular “stupid Indian” stereotype white Americans used at the time they were trying to move further West.

Is there reason for outrage or is the Met correct in following Puccini’s intentions for an Asian title character? I am very interested in hearing your responses. Please comment below if you have any thoughts.

Swedish Steel: A Review of the Met’s Turandot

The Met opened its last run of Turandot for the 2015-16 season on Monday night. Nina Stemme starred in the title role, Marco Berti was the daring Calaf, Anita Hartig sang the tragic role of Liù, and Ukranian bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk was Timur. Paolo Carignani conducted the Met Orchestra and Chorus. 

Nina Stemme taking her bow after Turandot on Monday night

 

Nina Stemme is a Turandot made of Swedish steel. Maybe the icy waters of the Baltic Sea carry treasures to produce the rich Swedish ranks of Birgit Nilsson, Iréne Theorin, and other dramatic voices. If so, we should be grateful for how they enhanced Ms. Stemme’s solid high notes, dead-on pitch, and perfect attacks. Her performance bade well for what she will bring to the Met’s new production of Elektra, coming from Aix-en-Provence, when she sings the title role. Marco Berti forced as Calaf, causing some of his sustained high notes to either disappear or crumble. It came as a surprise to hear a dead audience at the end of “Nessun dorma”, which normally rouses fanatic applause.

Anita Hartig put the never-ending devotion of Liù’s character into her voice. She never let it drop as she ventured through her pasaggio and jumped registers. Her legato was sensational; none of her phrases died away. Timur’s last appearance in which he is told of Liù’s death was all the more devastating, as Mr. Tsymbalyuk sang so tenderly. He caressed each phrase, particularly when he was singing about Liù and how God would frown upon all who supported her torture. Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes were hilarious as the kooky trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively. Each of them stayed on the beat in their tricky passages in Act I. Mr. Croft gently reminisced about his house of bamboo, generating a feeling of sentimentality.

Maestro Carignani conducted without bombast, allowing the singers to be heard and creating an ideal balance in the orchestra. The thorny passages in the woodwinds were managed particularly smoothly. The Chorus acted as a strong force, and the backstage Children’s Chorus acted as a comforting break from the violence caused by Puccini’s special princess.

Performances of Turandot continue through January 30. Go enjoy some hardcore Swedish steel!