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.

A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

When I heard Pierre Boulez had passed away on January 5, I cannot say that I let his death pervade my thoughts or affect me significantly. One of the few performances I saw him conduct was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall in May of 2009. The piece was what it was, gargantuan and monumental, but I did not feel uplifted when I left the auditorium, which is normally a given after listening to the “Symphony of a Thousand”.

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

That was until I was introduced to his Jahrhundertring, or the “Centenary Ring” production presented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 for the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s four-part series of epic music dramas. In a collaboration with the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau, Maestro Boulez and he created a launching pad for “Regietheater”, advocating broad-mindedness for not only musical interpretation, but taking liberties with the staging and setting as well. The artists in this revolutionary production did not channel their characters in traditional mythological garb: Sir Donald McIntyre’s Wotan was dressed in a frock coat as a banker in the Industrial Revolution, and Gunther sports a tuxedo to contrast with his blood-sworn brother Siegfried, who is dressed in rags as a dragon-killing, mountain-climbing, fire-jumping hero. The Ring itself is born from gold stolen from a hydro-electric plant, not from the banks of the peacefully blue Rhine river.The struggle between capitalists (Wotan and the rest of the Godly race) and the working class (the Nibelungs) undermines the conventional Norse mythology found in Wagner’s work.

Boulez and Chéreau’s combined work was booed mercilessly at Bayreuth for years. After its final performance in 1980, however, it was given a 45-minute ovation, showing that the staging of opera was moving in a new direction and that audiences were conforming and opening up in response.

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Sir Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the final scene of Act III of Die Walküre

Nothing like Boulez and Chéreau’s collaboration had ever been done anywhere else previously, let alone atop the sacred Green Hill. Remember in 2013 when audiences for the Met’s new production of Parsifal were getting hot flashes because Jonas Kaufmann unexpectedly loses his shirt before his big smooch with the supernatural Kundry? That erotic style of staging for Wagner was very similar to the staging for Peter Hofmann, another very good-looking German tenor, as he loses his shirt during the Todesverkündigung with Brünnhilde. What seemed deranged and nutty back in the late seventies is perceived as typical on today’s stages. Maestro Boulez was a man ahead of his time.

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Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre

While I may not have enjoyed some of his speedy tempi and abrupt endings to phrases, I understand that his background of contribution to the development of innovations such as computer music, integral serialism, and controlled chanced allowed him to introduce opera to the future, and looking back from 2016, the longterm. The intense, dramatic acting and intimacy between characters implemented in the Centenary Ring has become a necessity for Ring productions today. Maestro Boulez created a new standard with which opera directors in the present day work, and for that, the music world should be forever grateful.