Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra: a comedy for music

Elektra - Metropolitan Opera, 4/14/2016
Stemme, Pieczonka, Meier, Owens, Ulrich / Salonen

Though I came into the house thinking on previous Elektras (including, of course, Christine Goerke's epochal account at Carnegie Hall in October), the actual event looks more significantly back to Esa-Pekka Salonen's and Patrice Chereau's 2009 Met debuts in Janacek's setting of From the House of the Dead. Like that show we get supertitles projected onto stage walls near the characters (Met titles are disabled, though the onstage words must be illegible from far away) and a maximally drab, cheap-looking, and relatively featureless physical production. The echoes mark this as the third attempt by Gelb and the Met this season - after Lulu and Manon Lescaut to go back to the well from which they got a well-received production in the past. All made their directors' previous successes look worse in retrospect.

For while the subpar choices in Chereau's Dostoevsky/Janacek show were decorative ones that did not impede the course of the opera, here Chereau and Salonen's choices worked together to remove the bloody, compulsive, tragic, Dionysian character that defines this piece. Chereau himself is, of course, dead, and not having seen the original 2013 run of his version I leave some space for the possibility that the followers and adapters who've had their hands on this staging deserve some or much of the responsibility. But surely the drabness of not only the costumes but the allowed body language was largely his, as certainly was the literalizing dullness of having Aegisth's death (and Klytemnestra's body) onstage and Elektra's non-death end with her sitting down on a stone bench as Orest inexplicably walks out the front gate (a really silly re-explanation of Chrysothemis's final cries).

In any case Salonen's conducting indisputably drives the show. It is, in its way, incredibly accomplished. He draws out details and textures with a control and clarity that speak volumes of his skill both in conceiving the score and in obtaining a unity of purpose from the orchestra. And yet... that's all he seems to be interested in. In achieving these ends Salonen homogenizes the emotional extremity of the piece - Elektra's primal cry of loss and accusation, Chrysothemis's desire for desire, Klytemnestra's creepy, poisonous dreams and hangers-on - all are rendered within a narrow expressive range so as to make Strauss's explosive score into well-crafted film music that reflects these distinct impulses only indistinctly at a remove. Indeed, as I listened through the actually boring first half of the performance, I believed Salonen was too-cleverly extremely-slow-playing the buildup to the Recognition and subsequent series of climaxes, which in their frenzy would justify to most the non-tragic dramatic slackness of the initial scenes. No such luck: though Eric Owens and Nina Stemme did their best to make something of the Recognition, interest from the pit only really perked up during the later semi-comic scene with Aegisth. This was, in fact, rendered exquisitely, and I'd certainly be interested in hearing Salonen conduct a later Strauss opera (perhaps he could draw a proper civilized comedy out of Egyptian Helen?), but the main point of the opera is nevertheless missed. By a mile.

The main cast (particularly Waltraud Meier, whose Klytemnestra came closest to being distinct) seemed each to be working in the proper vein for his or her character, but again the orchestra limited their expressive range with a sound not only emotionally homogenized but too loudly so.

One closing jeer to whomever decided to pipe the (choral) shouts greeting Orest after the slayings into the house over speakers.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.