[Met Performance] CID:307840

New Production

Metropolitan Opera House, Thu, March 26, 1992

Debut : Susan Neves

Elektra (68)
Richard Strauss | Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Hildegard Behrens

Deborah Voigt

Leonie Rysanek

Bernd Weikl

James King

Susan Neves [Debut]

Serving Woman
June Card

Serving Woman
Sondra Kelly

Serving Woman
Jane Shaulis

Serving Woman
Heidi Skok

Serving Woman
Eva Zseller

Judith Goldberg

Jean Rawn

Young Servant
John Horton Murray

Old Servant
Richard Vernon

Herbert Perry

James Levine

Otto Schenk

Jürgen Rose

Lighting Designer
Gil Wechsler

Review 1:

Review of Manuela Hoelterhoff in the Wall Street Journal of April 3, 1992

The popular contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink had just sung Clytemnestra in the world premiere of Richard Strauss's "Elektra" in Dresden in 1909. "A fearful din" was what she called an event she did not remember fondly. So when asked about repeating the part of the debauched queen in New York, she said: "If Mr. Hammerstein were to put on the opera tomorrow and offer me $3,000 a night I would say no. And $3,000 is a great deal of money and I have many children" (seven, not counting a stepson).

Three thousand dollars is still a heap of change and I have many cats, but I'm not sure it would be enough to get me to sit through another performance of the new "Elektra" at the Metropolitan Opera. With its psychotic characters and churning score, "Elektra" usually makes for an entertaining night out. But this short, intermission-less opera has rarely seemed longer than it did at Lincoln Center last week. Hildegard Behrens has done some memorable singing at the Met, most particularly as Brünnhilde a few years ago. But it wouldn't be too difficult to re-create the effect of her Elektra by staying home and drilling a hole in your head.

In many ways, this was a production one had looked forward to even though Otto Schenk was listed as director. The time had come to replace the old clunker in which Birgit Nilsson once thrilled as the madwoman of Mycenae. And the choice of designer, Jurgen Rose, seemed promising to those of us who had warmed to the Met "Salome" he set in an urban cesspool suggesting Manhattan. But that visually interesting production was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, whose ideas don't arrive covered with dust.

Mr. Schenk, however, is a director who doesn't like to surprise us by bringing to the stage ideas we haven't seen before - many times. Even so, it must have taken some effort to turn this dark bloodcurdler with its anxious whispers and night-piercing screams into a feeble melodrama that was never as suggestive as the score.

The most arresting image in the safely traditional production (a looming palace wall; a tilting courtyard to suggest a family out of kilter) was a large, broken statue of a horse lying on its side near the edge of the stage. It served as a handy reminder of the Trojan War, in which Agamemnon led the Greek army after sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to make the wind god blow into his sails. I always thought Clytemnestra was completely justified axing him to death upon his return with the help of her lover, Aegisthus, but this was not the view taken by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the libretto he adapted from Sophocles' play.

When the opera starts, Elektra is a dirty bundle of mental and physical problems (singing, though, isn't meant to be among them). Hounded by the help, fed like a dog, she teeters on the fine line between sanity and madness - living not in the present but in the blood-soaked past and the equally bloody future (when Orestes, the banished brother, will return to avenge their father by killing their mother. They don't seem to miss sister Iphigenia).

Elektra is an enormously difficult role to sing, even without some Ginger Rogers dancing thrown in at the end. After her first, long monologue, "Alone, alone," she never again leaves the stage - something I remembered with mounting dread as Ms. Behrens cracked and then soldiered on with what sounded like a private improvisation based glancingly on Strauss's score but without the high notes. I guess she was sick, though not announced as such. It was no house secret that the soprano had not sung at the rehearsals, creating some suspense in the process. Maybe James Levine was forewarned, since he didn't fall off the podium when she began this peculiar odyssey into opera history by giving one of the more bizarre performances by a major artist in living memory.

With her lower jaw firmly imbedded in her chest in that strange vocal technique that no longer serves her well, Ms. Behrens seemed to find the floor more interesting than her colleagues. But Mr. Schenk probably didn't help matters by leaving crucial relationships unexplored. Even Elektra's confrontation with Clytemnestra failed to terrify, though Leonie Rysanek is always a presence even in a role meant for a contralto, not a soprano with an age-reduced range. Dressed in a kaftan loaded with jewelry, she looked a lot like Louise Nevelson at a gallery [first night]. Hers was an unusually fragile, nearly human portrayal, rather different from the typical weaving, chest-clutching hag. It was interesting. But in an already pallid staging, it just faded into the scenery, which was dully lit anyhow by Gil Wechsler.

There was one nice effect. Orestes arrived in a beam of light, as he set about bringing a new day to this gloomy world. Bernd Weikl sang sturdily, though he is not a singer who is compelling while standing still, something Orestes does much of. The others in the cast were fine. James King has enough voice leftover from his heldentenor days to sing a bright, convincing Aegisthus. And there was much to admire in Deborah Voigt, who sang Chrysothemis in an ugly costume that emphasized every bulge. When the diminutive Ms. Behrens clutched at one of her legs it was hard not to think of little Freia and big Fafner. But if one could not possibly imagine Ms. Voigt as Elektra's weak-kneed sister, at least one could not fail to hear her. Her bountiful soprano cut through the orchestra, with plenty remaining for those power surges that make Strauss so exciting with the right voices and the right conductor.

Mr. Levine was often just such a conductor, urging the orchestra along to the end we were all waiting for. Perhaps he could do us an even greater favor and call up Eva Marton. The imperious Hungarian left the company in a snit a few years ago because she wanted to sing roles the Met didn't want to hear. But there is surely common ground and a big vacuum to be filled. Meanwhile, you can hear Ms. Marton in full throttle on the 1991 EMI release with Cheryl Studer's pipsqueak Chrysothemis.

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