Friday, December 11, 2009


Elektra -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/10/09
Bullock, Voigt, Palmer, Nikitin / Luisi

When I say that debuting soprano Susan Bullock is missing the one essential thing required for an effective Elektra, I don't really mean the scope and force of her instrument. It's true that her voice can't happily cope with the high portions of the role and really only showed well in her actual recognition bit ("Orest! Orest!"), but I've heard worse sounds turn into more. No, what Elektra needs is to be the main character, to dominate the proceedings in some way (vocal or not) so as to make unmissable the raw nerves, near-hopelessness, and -- at the end -- pent-up joy from this princess' ten years of dogged, degrading, exhausting, all-consuming, and -- unmistakably, as we hear one of the servants proclaim at the start -- grand refusal to make peace with outrage (her father's cold-blooded murder and the usurpation of his kingdom). What's fatal is not the smallness of Bullock's voice but the smallness of her persona, lacking abandon and inner life in the character's expressions of extremity. Though (or because) well-schooled, she's just too much an untragic and unheroic vessel even to approximate this tragic heroine.

That said, Bullock is let down by a number of others in the production. First, I suppose, was stage director David Kneuss. Besides botching the recognition scene (and more on that in a minute), he or whoever it was who worked with Bullock on the dance bits failed to come up with something that didn't look unintentionally awkward (and most unrapturous) when executed by her.

Second was Evgeny Nikitin, the Orest. He sang reasonably well in yet another Rene Pape role (Pape sang the part with Schnaut and Voigt in the last Met revival), but his acting was from a different (and definitely not German) operatic genre altogether, and not a compatible one. Whatever one might think about his un-authoritative, skittish take on Orest on its own (it seemed interestingly to highlight the character's youth, but definitely lost an opportunity to compel compared to the more assured character Pape and Alan Held presented), it failed in its key purpose: he and Bullock generated about as little chemistry and mutual awe in the all-important recognition scene as one could have imagined.

And finally, Fabio Luisi. He drew out a wonderful and fascinating tapestry of sound from the orchestra, but if ever a cast and night called for the conductor to take command of drama and forward motion, this was it. He didn't: in fact he continued to give phrases and textures space, as if to heighten the contrasting impact of a mega-climax at the end. Of course no such climax happened. As with Kneuss, perhaps what Luisi was doing would have encouraged and enflamed a different cast, but by this opening he surely knew what he had.

Things weren't all bad, of course. Felicity Palmer was a gripping Klytemnestra and Deborah Voigt -- the Chrysothemis -- sounded better than she ever yet has with her new (post-fat) voice. But unless and until Luisi decides to make this Elektra run his show or Peter Gelb steals Katarina Dalayman from Sweden (is this her role debut tomorrow?), I'd avoid it.


  1. Cannot under any circumstances agree with a single word!

  2. Excellent write-up and I agree with most of what you said. Much of the staging was lacklustre. I thought Voigt started well but then lapsed into her current form: loud but rusty. Palmer was just magnificent.

  3. I'll concede that Bullock's Elektra was not the centerpiece of this production. But is that so wrong? I know she's the title character. I know she's on stage for all but the first few minutes. But she is an inept character. A not inappropriate production might explore this a bit more.


    Her people skills are horrible. She fails to persuade Cryso to help her kill Klyt and Aeg. She does manage to piss off Klyt, but she's chatting with her two cubits from the axe with no one around and doesn't kill her. She takes 15 minutes to recognize Orest. She fails to give him the axe. She dies pretty quicly into the celebration.

    So it is not unreasonable to have a production where she might be a bit more lyric, a bit less dominant. It's not the way I would stage it, but I actually liked it. I felt her passivity, her feelings of futility, her longing for things to go her way. Again, I'd rather hear Hildegarde Behrens (may she rest in peace.)

    I agree that Debbie might have had her best post gastric bypass outing. Still not quite the clarion trumpet voice of yore, but she was pretty damn close.

    I was riveted by the orchestra. I have been studying the score in preparation for the opera, so I might be more forgiving re. the staging and acting because I spent a lot of time watching the winds.

    Will Luisi succeed Levine in the next few years? The orchestra went gaga over him in the curtain call. And he's conducting Figaro and Elektra this fall. Not too shabby.

  4. Anton

    Sue Bullock is far too light for Elektra. For those of us brought up on Birgit Nilsson this must be the standard which the Met aspire to.

    I totally support the first comments with one exception. Felicity Palmer is a good (not great) Klytaemnestra. A clever actor for sure and her part is made more dominat by a weak Elektra. But this part requires vocal guts. Oddly enough the Met have a far better Klytaemnestra in the house in the shape of Rosalind Plowright. Her portrayal in Seattle last fall was a revelation - and a debut - in the role.

    Brava for Deborah Voight. This is a true Met voice and she is coming back to her best form. As far as Fabio Luisi is concerned one has to applaud a conductor who can rehearse and perform Figaro, Elektra and Hansel & Gretel all at teh same time. Each though requires careful working and any falling of orchestral standards must in some way be connected to this burdomsome schedule.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.