Strauss: Elektra

The Metropolitan Opera

23 December 2009 2 stars

Marty SohlRichard Strauss' monumental Elektra returned to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on December 10. 

The production, designed by Otto Schenk, with sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose and lighting by Gil Wechsler, was originally unveiled in 1992, and featured the late Hildegard Behrens in the title role. 

In the intervening years, there have been three additional revivals, including a highly successful run in 1994 (again with Behrens) that was filmed for television (will the MET ever release this on DVD?).  With the current revival, the MET will finally achieve the fairly modest benchmark of 100 total performances of Strauss' brutal masterpiece.  It is surprising that Elektra – an opera perfectly suited to the MET's large space and virtuosic orchestral forces – has been offered on so few occasions since its house premiere in 1932.

The current production is well suited to librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's highly focused and suffocating adaptation of Sophocles' near-demented Elektra and her obsessive drive to avenge the murder of her father, Agamemnon.   The traditional sets – modeled on mythical antiquity – are an innocuous backdrop for what is essentially a psychological drama that hinges almost exclusively on the thoughts and impressions emanating from the mind of the title character.  Rose's forbidding courtyard, up-heaved stones, and crumbling edifice satisfyingly depict Elektra's deteriorating mental state and volatile mood-swings.  Still, the sheer awkwardness of movement (no doubt intentional) among the various platforms and uneven steps quickly becomes distracting, particularly during the opening scene.  Perhaps it was due to a lack of rehearsal, but the five serving women looked cartoonish as they clambered over the stones, while the Overseer ineffectually flailed her silly whip to and fro.  Rather than providing an emotionally dissonant, clamorous atmosphere for Elektra's entrance, the scene was reduced to a kind of bumbling prologue, further blighted by undistinguished singing.  One wonders why Susan Neves – a one-time singer of leading roles like Abigaille at the MET – has retreated to the comprimaria status of a role like the Overseer.

Marty SohlUnfortunately, the awkward blocking of the serving women was only the beginning of a long night of directorial missteps.  Only Aegisth, with very little to do, was unscathed by poor direction or acting (or both).  No doubt many of the problems could be attributed to the 'revival' status of this production (was there, in fact any fresh direction for these singers?), but they nevertheless undermined several genuinely important dramatic moments.

Susan Bullock, in her MET debut, offered a manic-depressive Elektra, sometimes darting from place-to-place, and other times, sitting stone-still and pouting.  There was a surprising lack of detail in her acting, considering her substantial stage experience in the role.  There were times (during Klytämnestra's long dream-monologue, for example) when Bullock simply sat on a platform and stared into space.  One can understand her need for rest and calm; the role is well known as one of the most grueling in the repertoire.  Still, it is hard to imagine that Elektra, with all her caged-up fury, would have simply sat by quietly while her mother rambled about dreams and death only a few feet away.  In addition, any dramatic contrast this 'calm' might have generated was hampered by Bullock's utter lack of ability to meet the vocal challenges of the ensuing scene ('Was bluten muss…').  This moment, when Elektra openly threatens her mother, practically scaring her to death, should be one of the most viscerally thrilling moments in the score, but Bullock had neither the dramatic bite, nor the vocal amplitude to make it anything more than routine.  At the climax, when she screams: 'Und ich!  Ich! Ich, die ihn dir geschickt…' both the emotional underpinnings and relentless tessitura demand a true dramatic soprano to ride the orchestral forces.  Bullock offered what might best be called a 'strong lyric' sound.  She was thoroughly swamped by the orchestra, and the scene was thus drained of much of its sinister, near-cathartic quality.  It must also be noted that Bullock's chest register is pallid, and she tired noticeably by the end of the evening (with even a few squalls creeping into the voice).  Frankly, Bullock simply doesn't possess an Elektra voice.  On the plus side, she offered some well-judged lyric singing during the recognition scene, and I did enjoy her manic dance of triumph at the opera's conclusion.

Marty SohlDeborah Voigt has been much lauded for her assumptions of Elektra's calmer, less crazed sister Chrysothemis.  She has long experience in the role, having sung it in every revival of this production at the MET, and in 28 of the last 33 performances.  Seventeen years ago, when the production was new, Voigt was an up-and-coming star with an opulent, gleaming, sound that bloomed especially magically in the highest register.  These qualities distinguished her impressive Kaiserin, and made her Chrysothemis an indelible characterization – all wide-eyed optimism and soaring Straussian vocal arcs.  Alas, much has changed over the years, and Voigt now brings an entirely different technique and sound quality to her still successful, if substantially less glamorous portrayal.  Acting has never been Voigt's strong suit, and her inability to break free of the singing mechanism and imbue her characters with any level of dramatic detail continues to detract from the overall quality of her performances.  She was in mostly good – if muscular – voice at the performance I attended on December 15, and the audience showered her with vociferous applause at the conclusion of the opera.  Surely, there were some superb ascents to her still impressive high register, but her singing now seems to require strenuous effort, and she had a real struggle to get up to several of her climactic high B's.  Her low register remains the weakest part of the voice, and easily turns shrill when forced.  Yet, she retains the natural amplitude for her role, riding the orchestrations with significantly greater ease than Bullock.  In all, Voigt's assumption was a hard-earned success.

The veteran Felicity Palmer made a surprisingly strong impression as the bleary-eyed, cackling Klytämnestra.  She doesn't really command much of a tonal center to her voice these days, but through sheer force of will, she conjured an eerie, resonant chest voice that served many (not all) of Strauss' requirements.  Best of all, Palmer is a vivid actress, and provided a point of focus on the stage sorely lacking in detail elsewhere.  The venomous description of her dreams and the persistent need to seek salvation through sacrifice was a histrionic highpoint of the evening.  Palmer's one major miscalculation involved her collapse during Elektra's threats.  She made a wonderfully creepy, croaking scream, but chose to collapse onto her back while sliding down a raked platform headfirst.  It certainly looked awkward – and not at all natural – and ruined the important moment when her confidante whispered the news of Orest's 'death'.  It simply looked as if the confidante was trying to help Klytämnestra stand up, rather than deliver the triumphant news.  Additionally, her uproarious laughter lacked the power and chilling effect that many others have brought to the role.

The important role of Orest was sung with vivid resonance and noticeably accented German, by the Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin.  Though he stood motionless for much of the time, his few attempts at 'acting' were some of the most awkward I have ever seen from a professional singer.  His sheer discomfort on the stage reduced the emotionally transcendent 'Recognition scene' to mere stock gestures completely devoid of tenderness and the cathartic relief so necessary to the emotional contour of the opera.  Neither he nor Bullock seemed to know quite what to do with each other.  Wolfgang Schmidt offered exactly what is required of Aegisth: nasal tone, good diction, and a clumsy, but not clownish stage presence.  Both his and Palmer's off-stage death screams were poorly amplified, making them sound hollow and distorted, rather than more appropriately blood-curdling.

Despite the various disappointments of this production, it is always thrilling to hear Strauss' amazing score played by a virtuoso orchestra.  Fabio Luisi kept a tight lid on his players, rarely allowing them to break out and play with abandon.  This approach highlighted the chamber-music aspects of Strauss' orchestrations, but at the expense of much of the paradoxical brutality. Surely the singers benefitted, as Luisi was thoroughly supportive of them, providing rhythmic leeway as necessary, and keeping dynamics under strict control.  On the whole, the performance felt slow, however, and I missed the raw energy of huge instrumental forces on the verge of raging out of control.  Nevertheless, the beauty came through intact, gleaming and wondrous as always.  There are three more performances scheduled for this ever-fascinating opera, including a radio broadcast of the December 26 matinee.

By David Laviska

Photos: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera


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