Wednesday 4 May 2016

Elektra, Met Opera Live, 30 April 2016

Metropolitan Opera House, New York
(viewed at Curzon Cinema, Mayfair)

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Eric Owens
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
First Maid – Bonita Hyman
Second Maid – Maya Lahyani
Third Maid – Andrea Hill
Fourth Maid – Claudia Waite
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander
Overseer – Susan Neves
Young Servant – Mark Schowalter
Old Servant – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Orest’s tutor – James Courtney 

Patrice Chéreau (director)
Vincent Huguet (stage director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Dominique Bruguière (lighting)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Poor productions – performances are another matter – of Elektra are few and far between. The work itself does so much of the work, quite apart from the striking similarity of so many set designs. This production, Patrice Chéreau’s last, was, however, quite different, not so much in terms of set designs, nor even costumes, although difference – genuinely meaningful difference there certainly was there – as in the directorial Konzept, and the harrowing, once-in-a-lifetime brilliance with which it is brought to dramatic life.

I might be tempted to call it feminist, and in a way it is, but it is above all profoundly human, profoundly Elektra’s story. Her experience has trauamatised her, destroyed her, made her ill, above all mentally, to an extent I have never previously witnessed; it threatens to do likewise to us. Whilst Chéreau is far too subtle a director to suggest, let alone to state, that the drama is all in Elektra’s head, it clearly is in part. How could it not be? Such is the nature of trauma. This is a woman so damaged, a daughter so damaged, a sister so damaged that there is no catharsis. She participates more clearly, more directly, in Orest’s revenge than she normally would, and yet remains at a certain remove from it. She dances, or attempts to, yet cannot, at least she cannot in the way that we, uneasy, terrified voyeurs might like; we violate her by watching her tentative, clumsy steps. At the end, she is not dead, nor is she triumphant; she is even more damaged, looking outward, at or into nothing in particular.

Nina Stemme’s performance in the role was – and this is certainly not a claim to be made lightly – perhaps the single greatest performance I have seen from her, most likely heard from her too. In the case of her and Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra, these were performances that would have been astonishing had they been actresses in a spoken drama, a spoken filmed dramas. The unsparing nature of HD cinema for once enhanced rather than detracted. Stemme’s performance had everything: precision, line, total command and portrayal of her role. Her facial expressions were just as much part of that as her unerring ability to pitch, to shade, to connect the many, many notes of her part. And, of course, she had to be on stage for all but the very first few minutes. Never did she tire; never was she anything other than outstanding.

Meier’s Klytämnestra – Chéreau’s too, I presume, and Vincent Huguet‘s – was so much more rounded than the norm, indeed so much more rounded than I have ever heard. She was no mere grotesque; no figure of high camp. (Herodes will always win hands down in those stakes.) This was a mother we saw and heard: a flawed mother, but one with a human relationship between her and her daughter. We were led to recall, even though it is never stated her, what loss and agony she too had endured. Agamemnon had been no victim. The tenderness and nobility of this queen were an important part of a far more complex character than reductionism would have us believe. Strauss’s score was both agent and beneficiary in that respect. And yet, we seemed, if anything, to go beyond Strauss and Hofmannsthal – both forward to the concerns of our own time and back to Sophocles, indeed to Æscyhlus. Perhaps more to the point, we were invited to sympathise, to empathise, above all to bring our own experiences, and to find meaning in them and in the work.

Adrianne Pieczonka showed herself fully in command of Chrysothemis’s treacherous vocal line. More than that, she drew upon a full array of vocal-dramatic colours. The darkness of Eric Owens’s Orest chilled to the bone: there was humanity there, to be uncovered at the end of the recognition scene, but there was psychopathy too. What a luxury it was to have so fine an Alberich sing the role and perhaps even to bring something of that role to his performance. Burkhard Ulrich’s Aegisth did what it should in the short time allotted. All five maids – this is surely tribute both to Chéreau and to their performances – presented plausible individuals, not mere numbered appendages. If the Fifth Maid touched me most, that is surely in part a reflection of the role, but also of the extraordinary capabilities, apparently undimmed, of Roberta Alexander.

The Met Orchestra sounded magnificent. It is probably here that a cinema relay suffers most; even with excellent sound, the experience will always seem lesser than in the house. And so, if I missed a little of what orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Vienna Philharmonic at their greatest might bring, that most likely reflected the lack of ‘liveness’ rather than a shortcoming in performance. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s coldly modernist starting-point brought something quite different to the score from anything I can recall previously having heard. There was no doubting Salonen’s knowledge of, immersion in, ability to communicate the extreme complexity of Strauss’s orchestral writing. By the same token, there was no doubting his command of musico-dramatic pacing. The waltz-writing suffered not a jot, but there was as much steel, or perhaps platinum, as gold here. The question of this score’s relationship, or otherwise, to Schoenbergian expressionism is complex. One can argue the toss either way – except of course that there are multiple ways. It was a great strength of Salonen’s reading that one might have experienced it with equal justice in Schoenbergian or Schenkerian aural-analytical terms; indeed, more so even than in his Philharmonia Tristan, the either/or was refuted.

Grumbles about presentation: the Met’s website and the sheet available at the cinema on the way out only give cast details for the major’ five; some Internet scouring found me most of the rest, although neither the Confidante nor the Trainbearer. Artists deserve to be credited. And might we kindly be spared the gushing banalities of Renée Fleming’s ’wonderful’ introductions? They do not improve with age. But the drama, Strauss at his very greatest,a was the thing. Nothing could detract from it; nothing came close.