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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Opera Review: Home for the Holidays

Elektra returns to the Met for the Yuletide...er..slaughter. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Never were there such a pair of sisters. Susan Bullock (top) and Deborah Voigt
in a scene from Richard Strauss' Elektra.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.

Elektra may seem like a weird choice for a holiday offering. The blood-spattered Greek tragedy brings the sledge-hammer orchestration of Richard Strauss to the bloody tale of Orest and his return to the House of Atreus, where he slaughters his mother and her lover in a series of events that wouldn't be ouf of place in a George R. R. Martin fantasy novel.

This revival of the Met's sturdy Otto Schenk production (the one with the giant horse statue downstage that serves no discernible purpose in the drama) was brought in by Met general manager Peter Gelb as a substitution for the company's rarer (and more expensive) Herbert Wernicke staging of Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Such is life in a recession. 

Some Elektras are leather-lunged belters, trying their best to live up to the opera's reputation for hysterical screaming. Susan Bullock (who would have originally played the Dyer's Wife in Frau) is a more delicate artist. She packed plenty of punch in her upper register, actually sang the notes and did not wobble on the big cries of "Ag-ga-memnon!" She is also a very physical princess, scuttling about the stage, looming over her mother in their big confrontation scene, and finally dying in a paroxysm of joy after the murders have been committed. Her best scene was when she lured Aegisth (Wolfgang Schmidt) into the palace, in a moment that was both repellent and seductive.

The opera really flies when Ms. Bullock shares the stage with Deborah Voigt, looking energized and slimmed down from past appearances in this role. The once and future Empress of the South Seas was simply off the chart as Chrysothemis, Elektra's equally neurotic sister. The best scenes of the evening were the sisters' two big duets, when Elektra tried to convince her sister that she must help murder their mother and stepfather. Chrysothemis has the most beautiful, tender moments in the opera, and Ms. Voigt made them shine with her strong, flexible instrument.

Felicity Palmer (the planned Nurse) gave a harrowing performance as Klytämnestra, singing the atonal nightmare sequence with accuracy and ease. She made the Queen intimidating and pathetic at the same time, capturing the full measure of this complex character.

As her paramour, faded heldentenor Wolfgang Schmidt was an excellent choice. His harsh, metallic tone and pain-inducing "Bayreuth bark" are actually well suited to the role of the cowardly Aegisth (Thank God we didn't have to hear him sing the Emperor!). Evgeny Nikitin is a compelling Orest, almost Wotan-like in his long Recognition Scene with Elektra. Otto Schenk's sturdy production still looks like an earthquake hit the House of Atreus.

In his Ten Golden Rules, Strauss recommends that one should "conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: faerie music." This approach describes the podium leadership of Fabio Luisi, who produced effervescent waves of strings and hypnotic woodwind textures, shot through with heavy slabs of brass and timpani that evoke the mythic stones of the house of Agamemnon. This was a brilliant performance from the Italian conductor, always maintaining a consistent momentum and carefully balancing the gigantic orchestra with the singers onstage.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.