The Metropolitan Opera season is now over. One of its successes was Elektra, the Strauss opera, in a production by the late Patrice Chéreau. The primary reason for the success, I think, was Nina Stemme in the title role. She is a Swedish soprano.
Good Elektras are hard to find, in my experience. You have battle axes who have the strength and stamina—but not the lyricism and warmth. Then you have the lyrics who could use a little more battle ax in them.
One of the best Elektras ever was Inge Borkh, the German soprano. I’ve always loved what Georg Solti said about her: a “wild beast,” a “Teutonic Callas,” a “brilliant singer.”
I saw the production, and heard Stemme, on Wednesday night. She was magnificent. She filled the bill of Elektra, a bill so hard to fill. She was superb in her acting, but she did not forget to sing, if you know what I mean. Elektras get so absorbed in the role, they forget to sing well, or fail to do so. And everyone forgives them because the piece is overpowering.
Stemme was strong, subtle, wild, and meek. Brilliant. I am grateful—downright grateful—to have witnessed her Elektra.
In the pit was Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor (and composer). In a way, he was born to conduct this opera, because it is very intense, and so is he. It is very intelligent, and so is he. Indeed, he was excellent. But I'm going to pick on him a little.
At some points along the way, I would have liked a little more savoring. A little more reveling. Even a little more milking, dare I say. Salonen was straightforward and straightahead. He left some of the score unexploited. For me, the dance music at the end should have a little swagger and fatness. From Salonen, it was brisk and lean.
But again, he was excellent. So was the Met orchestra, in particular the woodwinds, whom Strauss gives important work to do.
If you asked me how I thought Elektra should be—and you allowed me just a phrase—I might say “elegantly animalistic.” That’s the way it was from Salonen, the orchestra, Stemme, et al.
In the role of Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister, was Adrianne Pieczonka, the Canadian soprano. She has a quality that is very good for Chrysothemis: kindness. Kindness in the voice, and kindness in manner. It’s what makes, or helps make, Pieczonka a valuable Leonore, in Beethoven’s Fidelio, too.
Waltraud Meier, the veteran German mezzo, was Klytämnestra, the girls’ wicked mother. She was an interesting kind of Klytämnestra: glamorous, really glam. How can Meier help being? The production often had her at the back of the stage, which made her somewhat hard to hear. She would have been better off at the foot of the stage. Still, she called on her wiles, vocal and dramatic, to deliver a memorable Klytämnestra.
Orest was the bass-baritone Eric Owens, regal. It was slightly hard to hear his words, but perhaps that can be chalked up to bass-baritonal beauty. And may I tell you who was one of the maids—the Fifth Maid? Roberta Alexander. Yes, the Roberta Alexander, the famed American soprano born in 1949. It was a pleasure to see her again.
Chéreau’s production is an interesting and unusual one. I will comment on just a few aspects of it. Titles—i.e., the words of the show—are beamed onto the set itself. There is no need to look at supertitles or, at the Met, backseat titles. This is very easy on the eyes, in my opinion. I should feel sorry, however, for those who would rather not see titles.
In this production, you actually see the murders—the murders of Klytämnestra and her hubby, Aegisth. Ordinarily, these occur backstage (though you can of course hear the screams). I like the conventional way. It’s more horrifying than seeing these stagey onstage murders. But a break away from convention can be welcome, too.
Finally, I have a question. Does Elektra die at the end (as she’s supposed to, I think)? In this production, she’s just sitting there, seemingly stunned or catatonic.
I have another question. Almost always do I come away from Elektra impressed. Is that because the work is great or the performance was? I don’t know. Some blending, probably. Also, when a company puts on Elektra, it is probably capable of doing so. Otherwise, it shies away.
In the current issue of National Review, I have an interview with Riccardo Muti about Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff. I said to him, “Is Falstaff a perfect opera, in your opinion? Is there anything wrong with it?” Those who regard Muti as the ultimate in arrogance may be surprised at his answer, or rather, at his wording. He said, “I’m nobody to make such a judgment, but, for me, it’s perfect.”
I’m nobody to make such a judgment, but I hold Elektra to be perfect. One of the greatest operas ever written. One of the greatest depictions of madness in art. One of the greatest depictions of the destructiveness of hatred and vengefulness. A thing of beauty, too. Exactly right in length and shape. A masterpiece.
“Masterpiece” is so overused, I wish there were another word.