By Lynne Gray, PhD
This telecast from the Metropolitan’s library can be viewed at www.metopera.org from 7:30 PM eastern time, 4:30 local time, continuously for 23 hours.
Monday, April 20 ~ 1Hr and 52Mins
Starring Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Waltraud Meier, and Eric Owens, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. From April 30, 2016.
In Elektra, his first great collaboration with the famed poet-librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss took his exploration of modernism and dissonance as far as he would ever pursue it. In comparison to the much more melodic, late Romantic style of their Der Rosenkavalier, (which we heard last night, and which was written two years later), Elektra will be challenging for the “Romantic” ear. It is nearly two hours of almost non-interrupted and disturbingly dissonant “soprano on the edge of madness” singing. In the tour-de-force title role, dramatic soprano Nina Stemme gives a first-rate, if grueling, performance in this (blissfully) short one-act tragedy, which was adapted, of course from Sophocles’ original. The Met’s production also stars Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra, Elektra’s nightmare-haunted mother, Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis, her meek and indecisive sister, and Eric Owens as Orest, their brother, whose return home brings the family story to a tense and bloody climax. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the monumental score with suitably stark sets and staging by the late Patrice Chéreau. The modernist score does, nevertheless, encompass an astonishing range of musical color: there are even a (very) few moments of sublime lyricism when the characters express tenderness and love, as well as brutal, harsh dissonance when they approach – or go beyond – the bounds of sanity.
In case you are not familiar with – or just plain don’t remember – what this particular Greek tragedy was all about, here’s a brief refresher: King Agamemnon of Mycenae (brother of Menelaus who was the unfortunate husband of Helen of Troy), took his daughter, Iphigenia, to be sacrificed to the Gods so that they would help him lead the Greek army against Troy and return victorious. When he did return, with a concubine, of course, his wife Clytemnestra (who just happened to be Helen’s sister – and was no more faithful than Helen) had taken a lover of her own named Aegisthus and so decided she was justified in murdering Agamemnon – and his concubine – for killing their daughter. Following? So – she and Aegisthus indeed murdered Agamemnon with an axe to the horror of their remaining children, Electra, Chrysothemis, and Orestes. Electra, fearing for her very young brother Orestes’ life after Clytemnestra and Aegisthus took the throne for themselves, helped him escape and sent him to Phocis while she stayed behind to keep Agamemnon’s memory alive but to suffer from the scorn of her mother and stepfather as well as from the rest of their court. Indeed, a lovely family!
In the first scene of the opera we see just how miserable Elektra is, and how badly she is treated. Even the servants taunt her, and when one shows her a tiny bit of sympathy she is taken away and flogged. Elektra performs her daily ritual to honor Agamemnon’s memory and imagines the day when he will finally be avenged, and she will lead a triumphal dance. Her sister, Chrysothemis, is weak and accommodating to their mother and stepfather and so enjoys the benefits of being treated as a Princess. She does come to warn her sister, however, that their mother plans to lock Elektra up in the tower.
Now, Klytämnestra, it turns out, is suffering from nightmares that she will be murdered by Orest (whom no one has heard from in many, many years) and so she is preparing sacrifices to the Gods in the hope that they will restore her rest. Over the protests of her retinue, she stops to ask Elektra’s advice and is told that indeed a sacrifice is in order, but when she asks who should be the victim, Elektra finally says it should be Klytämnestra herself – and then her dreams will certainly stop. At that point, a servant whispers something to Klytämnestra who smiles and leaves.
Chrysothemis returns telling Elektra that two messengers have reported Orest’s death. Elektra decides that the revenge must now be carried out by the sisters alone without the hoped-for help from Orest, but she is not able to convince the hysterical Chrysothemis. Determined to do the deed herself if she must, and so digging up the axe that killed her father, she sees a strange man approaching her.
It probably will not take much imagination on your part to guess exactly who this stranger is – although it does take the siblings a while to finally figure it out for themselves and to re-commit to do the promised deed. Elektra hands over the axe to Orest who enters the palace with it. Happily, this saves us from witnessing a lot of blood – but not from hearing a lot of screaming – as Klytämnestra receives her due, followed shortly by Aegisth who returns from the fields and is led into the palace by Elektra.
As promised in the beginning, Elektra now hovering between madness and ecstasy does her frenzied celebration dance until she collapses and Orest leaves the palace alone.
You are unlikely to need your tissue box for this one – even if you make it to the end – but do save it up for tomorrow!
1. The late Patrice Chéreau’s acclaimed staging of Richard Strauss’ opera “Elektra” at the Met. Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra and Nina Stemme as Elektra in Richard Strauss’s, “Elektra” at the Met. Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Nina Stemme (and her axe) as Elektra in Richard Strauss’s opera “Elektra” at the Met. Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Nina Stemme as Elektra and Eric Owens as Orest in Richard Strauss’s opera “Elektra” at the Met. Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.