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Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra - Game of Thrones

Meier and Stemme in Chereau's Elektra, photo @Marty Sohl

My favorite TV series now that Mad Men is over is Game of Thrones. I've followed the sex and gore in Westeros since the first season and have also read all of George R,R. Martin's books. One of the greatest things about Game of Thrones is the character of Cersei. Cersei is the series' great villainess. She's pure evil. It would take too long to list all of Cersei's depraved machinations and deeds. But one of the fascinating aspects of Cersei is that all of her actions are understandable, and even sympathetic. In her own mind, she's doing the right thing, and when we watch her, we find ourselves agreeing.

Last night the Met premiered Patrice Chéreau's intelligent and insightful production of Richard Strauss's Elektra and I thought about how everyone in Elektra (at least as directed by Chéreau) is like Cersei -- a monster who happens to be 100% right. Chéreau died before he could personally direct this production (it premiered in Aix in 2013) but Chéreau's DNA was all over the evening. This production took away the campy sensationalism that Elektra can sometimes become and really brought the Greek tragedy back into the opera.

The unit set (by Richard Peduzzi) at first looks unremarkable -- Mycanae is an orderly grayish courtyard where the servants are (surprise!) cleaning. The look is vaguely Hellenic and timeless at the same time. And for the first part of the opera there really wasn't anything "special" about Chéreau's direction -- Elektra (Nina Stemme) was indeed the feral creature of most other Elektra productions -- she crawled on all fours and burrowed in an underground basement that was accessible by a trap door. She carried around a blue security blanket. When she sang "Allein" it was clear her physical, emotional, and psychological separation from everyone was an unbridgeable gap.

Pieconzka and Stemme, photo @ Marty Sohl
Where Chéreau's intelligence as a director became evident was the first duet between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka). The contrast between the two sisters was remarkable -- Elektra is dressed in baggy pants and a grubby T-shirt, whereas Chrysothemis for all her deprivation looks beautiful and put together. And when Klytämnestra entered (Waltraud Meier) suddenly this looked like a real family, not just an opera family. Chrysothemis physically and facially resembles Klytämnestra, and Elektra looks nothing like them. Waltraud Meier plays Klytämnestra not as a cackling harridan, but someone very much like Chrysothemis -- determined to maintain appearances no matter what the circumstances. Like mother, like daughter. Klytämnestra and Elektra are unable to reconcile not only because of Agamemnon's death but because mother and daughter simply have two different worldviews. How many times have we heard "I just can't get along with my mother? She just doesn't understand me, and she never has." That was them, onstage. 

There are so many other thoughtful, human touches to Chéreau's personenregie and I don't want to give away how he handles the final confrontations of the opera but one way he really makes this a real drama is the way he directs the servants. The oldest servant (Roberta Alexander, 67 years of age) was also the most sympathetic to Elektra. That makes sense, as she would have known Elektra as a child and seen her before she became feral and consumed by anger and rage. There are no small roles in this production. You can tell the servants also live in fear, from the way they roll out a red carpet and bow obsequiously to Klytämnestra to their furtive side glances whenever Elektra comes onstage. Even Orest's guardian (Kevin Short) was a vividly realized, chilling character. His reaction (or non-reaction) to the bloodbath spoke volumes about what this man has seen, what horrors Orest's journey might have entailed. This level of thoughtfulness and text-specific direction makes Chéreau's death that much more of a loss to the artistic community.

Stemme and Owens, photo @ Marty Sohl
Chéreau's production is so intelligent that I wish I could say the evening was an unalloyed success. There was however some seriously compromised singing. Nina Stemme despite her committed acting and wonderful interpretation struggled with the vocal demands of the role throughout the night. In the beginning of the opera, her middle simply didn't have the richness, steadiness and resonance to cut over the huge orchestra, although the attacks on the upper register were exciting. Later in the opera, just when the core of her voice settled, her top turned wiry and harsh. Maybe it was opening night nerves, but the exciting climaxes of Elektra's music were subdued when it was so clear Stemme was working that hard to control her instrument. Adrianne Pieczonka has a bright soprano with a surprising ability to cut through the orchestra, but her upper register can also sound harsh and colorless. The interaction between the sisters was beautifully portrayed though -- as I said, this seemed like an actual family rather than an "opera family." When Elektra spits "I curse you" to her sister it wasn't just a vocal and dramatic climax. It was an intimate family drama.

Waltraud Meier's ageless beauty and incredible acting skills almost made up for the fact that at this point, the core of her voice simply is insufficient to carry over the orchestra. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen wisely withdrew the volume during the riveting mother-daughter confrontation scene but even with the orchestra marking there were times I saw Meier's mouth open and very little sound came out. She eventually settled on a form of sing-speech but Strauss's music really demands more voice than Meier can provide at this stage of her career. Meier did not do the traditional cackle at the "news" of Orest's death. It was an unorthodox but effective choice. Queen Cersei does not need to cackle to exert her power.

Eric Owens (Orest) had the opposite problem -- his handsome bass-baritone had the firmness, richness, and pure volume that the ladies lacked. But for whatever reason he fit awkwardly into the production. Chéreau's personenregie calls for more subtlety than Owens can provide -- Owens is a straightforward sort of performer, and Chéreau's vision of Orest is ambiguous and unsettling. Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth had a similar problem -- plenty of voice, but unable to make an impact in his brief time onstage. He seemed like a bland guy in a suit.

Esa-Pekka Salonen got a huge deserved ovation for his sensitive reading of Strauss's score. If one craved decibels, he didn't disappoint -- the overwhelming loudness of the orchestra was ear-splitting in the side balcony boxes where I sat. But he also was scrupulous about following the almost lilting waltz rhythms that dot the score, and the Met orchestra sounded gorgeous during the more lyrical moments.

Last night's performance vocally wasn't an Elektra for the ages -- in terms of pure vocal fireworks, the concert at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke was more exciting. But the Met now has a wonderful new production of Strauss's seminal opera, one that hopefully will be handled with care in upcoming revivals. Strauss's opera and Hofmannstahl's libretto are not subtle. They were designed to shock, to provoke, to offend. But Sophocles' play is a timeless drama about love, hate, power, and revenge. Chéreau managed to remain true to both Strauss/Hofmannstahl and Sophocles. This was Greek tragedy at its best.


  1. I'm glad you recognized how extraordinary Meier is, even with some seriously compromised singing. I've never seen anyone achieve something comparable in this role. If anything I found her to be weirdly empathetic and she seemed almost concerned FOR elektra. All three women were wonderful dramatically but all three seem to be somewhat past their vocal prime. In Meiers case, I think this the only current role in her repertoire. Nevertheless this was one of the rare evening when the whole added up to more than the some of its parts. I would also take the Chrysothemis over the one in Carnegie hall, who I felt was strident and underpowered. Great write up.

    1. Meier was incredible in terms of acting, detail, attention to text. However her once warm middle-lower voice is not really there anymore. I'm really glad I saw this because of the detailed acting from all the three women. It was beyond opera acting. I wonder if their voices will settle later in the run.

    2. I imagine Stemmes will. Ditto Pieczonka, whose voice is the best in her fach IMO. She is also in her fifties so the top isn't what it used to be but it's still lovely. Meiers voice is just old. Still I would be lying if I said I didn't find her to be the most astonishing singer actress currently performing. To a certain extent that makes up for a lot, especially since I've seen women who in theory have more voice butcher this role but barking and speaking.

    3. Chereau's casting of Pieczonka and Meier as mother and daughter was so inspired. They look alike. Copper hair, tall, proud, beautiful. All of a sudden you saw the lifelong family dynamic in such a clear, astonishing way.
      I think among current singers only Meier and Mattila have that ability to really act beyond "opera acting." Both of them also have this ability to make you forget the flaws.

    4. Wow we are on the same wave length. I was going to name Mattila along with Meier. Her Chrysothemis was the best I've ever seen, albeit more traditionally hysterical, and her Salome and Jenufa are standards for me. Unlike Meier though, Mattila really did have a spectacular voice (in its prime I thought it was the most beautiful around). Shes experiencing a bit of a vocal revival lately and could currently probably take over Meiers rep these days.

    5. One Meier memory: I saw her do like a one-off Santuzza in the old Zeff production with Alagna. Meier is NOT a Zeffirelli type of singer. And her vocal match with Alagna was odd. BUT she made me feel Santuzza's pain like no other. Her natural beauty helps -- it adds a dimension of "how dare he do this to ME." But I just remember her ferocity. It was terrifying. When she cursed him I thought she was cursing the entire auditorium.

    6. Her and Mattila are maybe the only singer I've seen where, regardless of vocal suitability and even in roles they are theory miscast, they have never been less than compelling. Meier is the standard for me in most of her Wagnerian and Mattilas Salome (both runs) was among the most unforgettable experiences in my opera going life. Westbroek was the other one but she seems to declining a bit. Meier and Mattila are the best.

  2. please note 'personENregie"

  3. I hate to be picky, but Meier's role is Klytämnestra. You missed a few letters (or was that to indicate the state of Meier's voice?). Otherwise, great review, more honestly addressing the vocal problems than other reviews which I've read.

    Let me also mention that I share your loss with the end of "Mad Men," by far the most intelligent, entertaining and unforgettable television series I've ever seen.

    1. Nope, just chronically poor speller here. Thanks I've edited it in, and about Mad Men -- it was one of the few long-running series which didn't wear out its welcome. Each character grew and when the series ended I felt like they were still growing. I once saw Elisabeth Moss at a ballet. She was so tiny, and dressed in a very cute sundress. Realized how good of an actress she was -- she didn't even look like Peggy Olson. None of mannerisms either.