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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Elektra

Nina Stemme is out for blood in this new production.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's a trick. Get an ax: Nina Stemme and friend in Elektra.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Although it is one of the loudest operas ever written, Richard Strauss' Elektra is spoken of in hushed tones. It is Greek tragedy writ large: an intense 100-minute thrill ride through a musical funhouse. Here, Nina Stemme takes on the challenging title role in this new production, an import from Aix-en-Provence.

This Elektra is the last opera production by Patrice Chéreau, who passed away shortly after its premiere at Aix in 2013.  (A review of the Aix production can be found here on Superconductor.) Following a successful run of this show at La Scala, it comes to the Metropolitan Opera, a house which has been presenting Elektra on its stage since 1932.

Chereau sets the drama simply. All the action takes place in the courtyard of the House of Atreus, where a bedraggled Elektra waits on what seems like an eternal vigil, awaiting the arrival of her brother Orestes (Eric Owens) and longing to murder her mother Klytaemnestra (Waltraud Meier) and her boyfriend Aegisth. Why? Because they took an axe and chopped her father to pieces while he was relaxing in the bathtub.

Accompanying Elektra on her vigil is her sister Chrysothemis (Adrienne Pieczonka) a far gentler soul who wants to leave all this horror behind and raise a family of her own. Eventually, Orestes returns and the opera ends in a bloody climax that (like a good horror movie) is mostly left to the imagination of the listener.

Strauss wrote Elektra for an enormous orchestra, using three violin sections, expanded woodwinds, lots of brass and all manner of percussive effects to depict the baying of hounds, the slithering madness in Klytaemnestra's brain and the gouts of blood that spray forth at the opera's violent denouement. Here, acclaimed conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen commands the Met forces, bringing a light and quicksilver touch to the complex orchestration, one which makes the dramatic moments stand out in stark ferocity.

Elektra opens April 14, 2016. A Met Live in HD broadcast is scheduled for April 30.

Recording recommendations:

There are many recordings of Elektra as the title role is a plum part for a German dramatic soprano. Strong ones include Birgit Nilsson's (with the Vienna Philharmonic sounding particularly ferocious under Sir Georg Solti) Giuseppe Sinopoli's effort (also with the Vienna players and starring the underrated pairing of Alessandra Marc and Deborah Voigt) and the recently reissued Eva Marton set under the great Wolfgang Sawallisch. Strap in and bring a copy of the score.

Watch a trailer for the forthcoming Blu-Ray of the Aix-en-Provence staging of Elektra here:

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