From their study of the great texts of Ancient Greek literature, many Columbia students are well acquainted with the curse that hung over the House of Atreus, but far fewer are likely to be familiar with the operatic setting of the story by German composer Richard Strauss.
The plot of his opera “Elektra” focuses an episode in the family’s story after Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, has been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after retuning from the Trojan War. Composed in 1903, Strauss’ frenzied score flirts with the then in-vogue move towards atonality in order to covey the opera’s violent subject matter. It is one of the most challenging operas to perform, so extra care goes into the preparation of a production as was the case when the Metropolitan Opera presented the work on April 14th.
The evening marked the premiere performance of a new staging by the late director Patrice Chéreau. Throughout his career, Chéreau was known for bringing an insightful perspective to many of the repertory’s most complex works, offering audiences revelatory theatrical experiences.
The entire evening unfolds against Richard Peduzzi’s towering set – a set of imposing, drab walls that seem to add to the opera’s sense of suffocation and despair. The scenery’s simplicity is complemented by pared down costumes by Caroline de Vivaise, both of which help focus attention back on the psychological drama unfolding onstage.
When the opera begins, Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra is so obsessed with destroying her mother and avenging her father that she has descended into a state of semi-madness. She awaits the return of her brother Orestes who will enact vengeance, but these hopes are dashed when messengers arrive to inform the family that Orestes has been killed. Ultimately, Elektra discovers that one of the messengers is actually Orestes himself, and brother and sister are reunited in order to overthrow their mother.
The weight of a successful performance of “Elektra” greatly rests on the shoulders of the soprano executing the incredibly taxing title role. Only moments after the curtain rose, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme took the stage and did not exit for the remainder of the nearly two-hour-long presentation. Not only was her stamina unflagging, but Stemme delivered Strauss’ music with a throbbing, steely tone that successfully sliced through the opera’s bewildering orchestration. Stemme owned the night with a crazed interpretation of the title character, but she also lent the character a sympathetic humanity that made her portrayal far more poignant.
Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister and only ally, is conflicted about the plans to assassinate Clytemnestra and instead longs for a peaceful life of domesticity. In this role, Adrianne Pieczonka sang the role with a lustrous tone that soared over the orchestra and nicely contrasted Stemme’s intensity.
As Clytemnestra, veteran mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier proved that, even with age, her rich timbre still has the power to tackle incredibly dramatic parts. Meier brought great nuance to her portrayal, balancing the character’s mental anguish with her regal elegance.
Eric Owens is a favorite of Met audiences, but at times, his hefty bass can seem too weighty for the roles he undertakes. Orestes, however, was a natural fit for his instrument, as the character’s reserved determination was evident in Owen’s dignified performance. Burkhard Ulrich brought a penetrating tenor to the smaller but essential role of Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus, while the remaining members of the well-cultivated ensemble of singers contributed strong performances all around.
As is the case in the composer’s other masterpieces, Strauss uses the orchestra in “Elektra” to convey the narrative throughout and paints vivid musical pictures with genius orchestration. As always, the Met Orchestra performed the score with great dexterity, but as is often the case for especially demanding works, they infused an extra degree of passion into their playing, here under the baton of renowned conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In all honesty, “Elektra” demands a great deal from listeners. The music and language are dense, and there is little physical action onstage for much of the evening. That being said, it is a standout masterpiece of 20th century opera, and this production, cast, and orchestra offer a superb rendering of a challenging work.
Performances of “Elektra” run through May 7th with the April 30th matinee performance being broadcast live into movie theaters and broadcast on WQXR 105.9 FM. More information can be found online at metopera.org.