It’s been an extraordinary season for the Live in HD programs from the Metropolitan Opera in 2015-16. But the best is yet to come on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 12:55 pm. with the transmission of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. Hosted by Renée Fleming, it can be viewed at more than a thouand theatres around the world, while here in the Berkshires everyone heads to the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, and at the Beacon Cinemas in Pittsfield. The Mahaiwe also offers Scott Eyerly’s Pre-Broadcast Opera Lecture two hours before the transmission. Also of note is an encore showing of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux at the Mahaiwe on Wednesday, April 27th – 1:00 pm. That opera is previewed <here>.
Strauss’s blazing tragedy about an ancient Greek princess hell-bent on revenge comes to the Met in the final opera production by the legendary director Patrice Chéreau. Esa-Pekka Salonen, who made a riveting Met debut leading Chéreau’s production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead in 2009, returns to conduct an extraordinary cast headed by Nina Stemme as the obsessed and bloodthirsty title character. Waltraud Meier sings her first Met performances of Klytämnestra, Elektra’s mother and the object of her fury, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis; Eric Owens as her exiled brother, Orest; and German tenor Burkhard Ulrich, in his Met debut, as the corrupt monarch Aegisth.
World premiere: Court Opera, Dresden, 1909.
Met premiere: December 3, 1932.
Shortly after conquering the opera world with his scandalous masterpiece Salome, Richard Strauss turned to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s recent adaptation of Sophocles’s Electra for his next project. The resulting opera is an intense and still-startling work that unites the commanding impact of Greek tragedy with the unsettling insights of early-20th-century Freudian psychology. The drama unfolds in a single act of rare vocal and orchestral power.
In the courtyard of the Palace of Mycenae, the servants are wondering whether Elektra will be grieving over her father, as is her daily ritual. Daughter of King Agamemnon and Klytämnestra, Elektra appears and locks herself up in her solitude straight away. The servants all criticize and mock her, except for one, who takes her defense.
By herself, Elektra remembers how Agamemnon was assassinated upon his return from Troy, slain with an axe by Klytämnestra and her lover, Aegisth. Devastated with grief, Elektra is obsessed with the revenge she intends to take together with her sister, Chrysothemis, and her brother, Orest. The latter grew up far away from the palace and Elektra is keenly waiting for him day after day.
Chrysothemis interrupts Elektra, who is caught up in her thoughts, and warns her that Klytämnestra and Aegisth have decided to lock her up in a tower. Chrysothemis asks her sister to renounce vengeance and let life take over again. Elektra rejects the idea with disdain.
Klytämnestra arrives with her entourage. She has been preparing sacrifices hoping to pacify the gods as she suffers from nightmares. She wants to talk to Elektra, and when her daughter’s words are more amenable than usual, she sends off her followers to stay with her. The mother asks her daughter what remedy could restore her sleep, and Elektra reveals that a sacrifice may indeed free her from her nightmares. But when the queen, full of hope, asks who needs to be killed, Elektra replies that it is Klytämnestra herself who has to die. Elektra goes on to describe with frenzied elation how her mother will succumb under Orest’s blows. Then the court is thrown into a panic: two strangers have arrived and ask to be seen. A few words are whispered to the queen, who immediately leaves without saying a single word to Elektra.
Chrysosthemis is the one who comes to bear the terrible news: Orest had died. At first Elektra remains deaf to what has been said. Then, having lost all hope, she concludes that she herself and her sister need to act without further delay. But Chrysothemis refuses to commit such a deed and flees. Elektra curses her, realizing that she will have to act alone.
One of the strangers, who claims to be a friend of Orest and has come to bear the news of his death, has now been at the court for a while. Elektra besieges him with questions. When she reveals her name, he is shaken. She doesn’t recognize him until the servants of the palace throw themselves at his feet: It is Orest who stands before of her, Orest who tricked everybody into believing he was dead in order to sneak into the palace. Elektra is both elated and in despair—she feels immeasurable fondness for her brother and deep sadness about the life of a recluse she has chosen for herself. The two are interrupted by Orest’s tutor: the hour of vengeance has arrived and the deed Orest has come to perform now needs to be done. Orest enters the palace. Elektra listens for the slightest noise. Klytämnestra is heard screaming. “Hit one more time,” Elektra cries out. The queen draws her last breath.
There is a moment of panic when the servants hear cries. But they flee when they are told that Aegisth is returning from the fields. As the sun is setting, he encounters Elektra, who in a sudden joyful mood offers to light his way into the house. Soon enough it is his turn to scream for help. He too succumbs to vengeful hands.
Chrysothemis comes out of the palace and tells her sister about their brother’s return and the double murder of Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Elektra, hovering between ecstasy and madness, maintains that only silence and dance can celebrate their liberation. Beset by extreme frenzy, she dances until she drops: she will never be the one to have executed the act of revenge. As for Orestes, he leaves the palace, alone and in silence.
The reviews have been mostly ecstatic.
“Chereau conjures the kind of lethal claustrophobia that Quentin Tarantino can only dream of… The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen draws from the Met’s sumptuous orchestra a range of shadows, highlights, and gaudy violets that would do Caravaggio proud… Nina Stemme makes Elektra’s bloodthirstiness seem almost rational, Waltraud Meier brings poise and grace to Klytämnestra, and Adrianne Pieczonka gives an unexpectedly steely spine to Chrysothemis… Eric Owens sings Orest with such ghostly, elegant cool: He is not just a bringer of revenge, but a beautiful apparition, there to sublimate our fury into song.” –New York Magazine
“The director Patrice Chéreau’s production of Strauss’s Elektra … has already been deemed a landmark of contemporary opera staging… Nothing prepared me for the seething intensity, psychological insight and sheer theatrical inventiveness of this production… The bass-baritone Eric Owens is a deeply sympathetic Orest… his rich, muscular voice is suffused with suffering. As performed by the orchestra under Mr. Salonen, the rapturous, sighing reunion scene was overwhelming. You might have expected that, being a composer, he would emphasize the shocking, modernist character of Strauss’s score. He almost did the opposite, drawing out every moment of Straussian lyricism, glowing string sound and delicacy, though the vehement outbursts were steely and terrifying.” –The New York Times