Sunday, April 24, 2016

Elektra at the Met

For all the buzz surrounding the late Patrice Chereau's staging of Elektra, premiered two years ago at the Aix-en-Provence festival and now at the Met, there is nothing particularly revolutionary in its concept or  presentation (not that there's anything wrong with that). Rather, this production earns its distinctiveness the old-fashioned way, through the accumulation of small choices and thoughtful approaches to well-known story beats.

Visually, it is almost aggressively neutral. A simple courtyard set in pastel washes is only out-blanded by the costumes, seemingly raided from a 1997 Ann Taylor. The lighting design avoids the pervasive gloom of so many Elektra productions, but doesn't substitute anything approaching natural light. This absence of setting appears to be exactly where Chereau wants his characters, a canvas on which to build the engrossing, frequently moving interactions that he creates for them.

Chereau's insistence on an honest dramatic accounting for the relationships between Elektra's characters isn't too much of a departure from the way most directors approach Elektra today. Chereau just takes this idea to its logical conclusion, obsessively stripping out any indulgent vestiges of Elektra as ancient world slugfest.

See, for instance, Chereau's deeply subdued take on the Klytamnestra scene here. Who would believe this much pity for Klytamnestra can be wrung from the score? Waltraud Meier's Queen isn't driven by the usual extravagant paranoid egotism but, pathetic, blinkered self-concern. One kept expecting her to ask Elektra why she doesn't try doing something pretty with her hair for a change.

It's not a choice without consequences, and the scene delivers the thrills which it is usually good for only occasionally. At the cost of fireworks, though, the production buys a valuable insight into Elektra's character. Here the turn on Klytamnestra is devoid of the usual smart aleck glee--Elektra is only capable of vengeance anymore, and lures Klytamnestra into a sadistic emotional trap out of instinct as much as anything. Her lack of pity for Klytamnestra becomes much more than a point on the score board, it becomes a poignant emotional fact about the character.

This sense of wounded humanity permeates the production. The deeply affecting recognition scene presented a stolid, severely non-heroic Orest (Eric Owens), who nonetheless inspires the lingering loyalty of the servants. Upon recognizing her brother, Elektra's first instinct is to escape, the emotions of reunion painful. Her tender words after the recognition are sung to herself, with little illusion that Orest's return represents a chance for her to experience human feeling again.

Likewise the chilling and enigmatic ending. Chereau denies us the usual catharsis of Elektra's feverish dance and surprise death swoon. Here, she attempts a few steps and then retires catatonic to a nearby bench. Orest, his vengeance done but his agony at the hands of the Furies only beginning, just walks away, with no acknowledgment of Elektra or her sister (an intriguing solution to Chrysothemis final cries of "Orest!"). As the orchestra boils over with pent-up fury, the characters are left empty and directionless, a challenging ending, to be sure, but it rings true.

The Met has assembled a formidable cast of singing actors for this production, led by Nina Stemme's tremendous portrayal of the title character. Stemme's coming Ring Cycle in DC has justly been the most hotly pursued of the run. If her middle register can get lost in the orchestra from time to time, it is all forgotten when her voice expands into a full and impressively assured top. "Allein" meandered a bit as she warmed up (not assisted by Salonen's slow tempi) but by Chrysothemis' entrance things had clicked and she delivered a vocal performance of uncommon beauty, consistency, and stamina. The club of Elektras one should get on a plane for is relatively small at any given time, and right now it looks like the membership is her and Goerke. 

I've been all up in this recording for the last few weeks, and went into the premiere with Rysanek's obscenely buttery Chrysothemis in my ears, which was maybe not the best choice in hindsight. Adrianne Pieczonka brings a very different sound to Chrysothemis, full-bodied but a bit astringent on top, exciting, but no butter. She wields it with abandon though, and was a committed partner for Stemme, powerfully embodying the production's take on a more canny Chrysothemis, who appears to be no stranger to the abuses of the palace and has perhaps spent a few nights in the yard herself.

As discussed above, the great Waltraud Meier is tasked with the most polarizing interpretation in the show, a subtle and sympathetic Klytamnestra. Anyone who thought this role heralded a confident move into second career shriek-fests for the 'Traud will be sorely disappointed, as she focuses on restrained beautiful singing throughout the part, as well as her expected but ever impressive capacity to bring text to life. There have been complaints about volume which are valid to some degree, though it is hard to disentangle how much of this was a deliberate choice versus some evidence of her current vocal estate.

My most recent memory of Eric Owens was his somewhat thankless turn in WNO's middling Lost in the Stars production, so it was refreshing to see him back in a major league assignment so soon. His emotionally inert Orest was another key choice in this production, and he effectively gave us Orest as angel of death, a tormented man who has returned to his home and family with the sole purpose of murder. Owens' dark baritone makes a strong impression in this role with an uncompromising color that reminds us Orest shouldn't be interchangeable with Jokanaan, but is something grimmer.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, a rare treat at the Met, led a distinctive reading in the pit. As Chereau sought to get inside the personal lives of these bloody archetypes, Salonen lingered over the smaller scenes, abandoning momentum in order to allow character interactions to bloom organically. The finale here had a ferocious transparency and momentum, awesome but almost self-effacing, to the extent that's possible for the end of Elektra.

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