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Monday, March 5, 2018

An Elektra With No Charge

Goerke as Elektra, photo @ Karen Almond
If there was one event at the Met that I was looking forward to all season, it was Elektra. I was certain that in an otherwise safe and dull season Elektra would blow the roof off the place. I wasn't basing this on mere conjecture. I was convinced that this Elektra would be absolutely elektrifying (sic) because in 2015 I heard Christine Goerke sing an Elektra at Carnegie Hall for which demented is too mild a word. It was one of those evenings where the oldest, quietest gentlemen in the upper rings of the balcony were screaming their lungs off. Surely when she sang Elektra at the Met it would be just as great, if not even greater?

The sisters, photo @ Karen Almond
So it was with these sky-high expectations that I went to tonight's performance. And things started promisingly. The cavernous, organ-like quality Goerke's voice made her opening phrases in the "Allein" monologue crackle with excitement. Just the way she bellowed "Agamemnon!" gave one a visceral thrill. But as the monologue went on and the tessitura went higher I began to realize that this was a singer in major vocal trouble. Her upper register is completely disconnected to the rich, contralto-like core of her voice. Her top notes are alternately thin, wobbly, shrill, and at times inaudible. I give Elektra bonus points because the relentless assaults into the upper register can be taxing for even the strongest of voices, but even with that "it's Elektra" mindset, there were times when the sounds Goerke was making wasn't music, but noise.

It's a shame because Goerke's interpretation of Elektra was interesting and very different from Nina Stemme's cold, zombie-like portrayal. Goerke portrayed Elektra as much younger, with more life and spunk left in her. At times she appeared to be in arrested development as she clung to a security blanket and hugged her hated mother almost out of habit. It was thus a disappointment to see Goerke's dramatic choices in the final moments of the opera. Goerke had played Elektra as full of fury and fight, and I expected her to do what she did in Carnegie Hall, which was dance around the stage (or in the case of Carnegie Hall, the tiny platform) in a frenzy. But Goerke decided upon a series of rather slow, jerky movements and ended the opera sitting onstage in a daze, still very alive, as her sister entreated her to follow Orest and start a new life. I think had Patrice Chereau been alive he no doubt would have worked out an ending that worked better for Goerke's own stage personality. As it was, the finale which is usually thrilling was just awkward.

I mean just look at the wild abandon of Goerke in this scene compared to Stemme's more closed off portrayal. I just feel like that energy was not utilized for much of the opera.

Schuster, photo @ Karen Almond
Goerke's vocal struggles contrasted with Elsa van den Heever, who had a complete triumph. She sang Chrysothemis with pure tone, gleaming upper register, and an evenly distributed voice. Dramatically she hit the right notes too, as the sympathetic sister who still hopes for a good life. Her duet with Elektra was alternately tender and chilling. Her final entreaties to Elektra soared over the orchestra and one ended the opera hoping that Chrysothemis really has that family and kids that she longs for.

Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra was also vocally a huge improvement over Waltraud Meier, the previous Klyt of this production. Meier looked like a million bucks and acted the hell out of the role, making her a sort of glamorous monster. But she barely had a voice. Schuster wasn't as gorgeous physically but she actually had a voice (a rather gravelly mezzo), and her confrontation with Elektra felt more evenly matched. She also played Klytämnestra more sympathetically than Meier. Meier was Cersei v. 2.0. All fake glitz and sympathy. Schuster sounded genuinely traumatized and made us remember that in the Greek myth Klytämnestra's hatred for her dead husband is justified -- he sacrificed her daughter Iphigenia.

I also enjoyed Mikhail Petrenko's Orest more than Eric Owens' portrayal. Petrenko's bass is kind of dry, cold and colorless, but his portrayal is more vivid. For one, he looked creepy. He looked like a man who has been to hell and back and is used to lurking in the shadows. Owens had a tendency to sing his lines with little regard for the Elektra of that production (Nina Stemme). With Petrenko and Goerke, the recognition scene felt like a real dialogue and that also happened to be the part of the score which was the most simpatico to Goerke's voice.

Goerke and Petrenko, photo @ Karen Almond
Jay Hunter Morris was Aegisth and his never-beautiful tenor has now turned very thin and sour indeed. Aegisth is a short role though. I was also disappointed with the singing of the maids and servants and Orest's guardian (Kevin Short). I realize this is a revival but the maids are an important part of the fabric of Elektra and all that screeching did not make for a good introduction to the opera.

I am in the minority on this but I did not care for Yannick Nézet Séguin's conducting. It's very loud, very exciting and the audiences loved it but I thought it was totally insensitive to the singers. When a conductor hears a singer struggling the way Goerke was during the performance, it is NOT time to turn up that 100-member orchestra to a level 10. I noticed this tendency to bluster through in Parsifal as well -- when René Pape was struggling, YNS swept the orchestra right along until Pape was just about drowned out. Right now he's still conducting like an orchestral conductor, and not an opera conductor.  Just my opinion.

The Chereau production on a rewatch looks a lot weaker. The cerebral approach (it starts with maids silently sweeping) takes a lot of the juice from Strauss and von Hofmannstahl's masterwork. And some of the blocking now looks ridiculous. For instance, Klytämnestra is not killed offstage, but dragged onstage. Elektra then beckons Aegisth towards the discovery of her body with a candle. This would make sense if Klytämnestra was offstage. But it makes less sense when Elektra is leading Aegisth around the stage for five minutes and his wife's body is two feet away from him. The mechanism for him discovering the body is also very contrived -- Klytämnestra's body has apparently been meticulously placed on this sliding panel on the floor, so it can be pushed upstage so tada! Aegisth finally sees his wife's corpse after being in a 2-foot vicinity for five minutes. It's very artificial, and Elektra is primal. As a result the audience response after the final chord was the most muted I've ever experienced.

It doesn't make me happy to write this review. I went in fully expecting to love it, and I think Goerke has a lot to give as a singer and as an artist. The richness of the core of her voice is very special indeed. There are many dramatic soprano parts that do not require such punishing tessitura. I would love to hear Goerke sing those roles. But I think her Elektra days are over. As a side note, her predecessor in this production, Nina Stemme, also did not sound her best as Elektra. The next season she sang Isolde magnificently. Hint hint for Christine?


  1. She sounded fine in San Francisco.

    1. She sounded amazing in Carnegie Hall.

  2. The gamble when going to a regular performance at the Met is a half-hearted performance. I took my daughters to see Cav-Pag. Cave was very good. After Pag my kids did not want to go to another.

    1. Cav and Pag are tough for kids. I'd take them to something lighter like Lulu or Wozzeck ... jk.

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