I have been to not one but two live performances of Strauss’s Elektra in the past six months or so. Each time, I come out of it feeling stunned and unable to articulate any particular opinion about the performance. But stunned is good. And sometimes the opinions trickle in later on. (I think part of it might be Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fault – I find that operas for which he has written the libretto take me a while to absorb, because I keep getting distracted by the quality of the text and occasionally miss music that I have to catch the next time around.)
When I glanced at the program last night, I was startled – the casting for this was pretty much incredible: Nina Stemme (Elektra), Adrienne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Eric Owens (Orestes). I bought the ticket to hear Stemme, who I’d never heard live before, but this is one of quadruple-bonus type evenings that you sometimes get in large cities with big opera houses.
And as I said, I came out of the opera house feeling stunned. It wasn’t because of the production, which is a new one. I think I’ve seen a DVD of their old one, which if I recall correctly is sort of grimy and grayish-yellow and mostly a shadowy box with a big door at the back. This one, by Patrice Chéreau, is not alarmingly different, though less dark. It’s a sand-colored courtyard with a large door in a vestibule to the rear (the story does admittedly place some constraints on what you can do with the thing visually). The feel early on is a dry daylight brightness; as the story progresses, the lights dim. The costumes are simple modern suits for the men, and plain dresses or skirt/top ensembles for the women, except Elektra, who wears trousers. The one awkward touch visually was at the end, as Aegisthes has come home and Elektra is knowingly lighting his way in to his doom. Klytemnestra’s body is on the stage, hidden by shadows. He asks why she is being so polite and deferential to him, and Elektra replies that she has learned when to withdraw – and at that point the section of the stage supporting both Klytemnestra’s body and Elektra slides out forward – the opposite of withdraw! did we notice that?! yes we did! — to terrify Aegisthes right before Orestes’s guardian stabs him to death. The problem is that having a section of the stage move out like that seems unnecessary and a little too obvious; and besides that, it was noisy. Rumbling, creaking, and so on.
But the music and the quality of the singing more than made up for the occasional rumble from the machinery. As I said, I came out of this feeling stunned by the collective intensity with which this was performed. Pieczonka and Stemme were a nice vocal contrast as the two sisters – the former’s voice has a brighter edge to it than Stemme’s. But the main thing that this performance impressed on me happened during the Orestes/Elektra scene when Elektra has recognized her brother and they speak together before he goes in to kill their mother. Stemme made me realize how much love Elektra has in her – for her brother and even her mother, and that is why she acts as she does. Without that capacity for love, it wouldn’t be possible for her to be so miserable and angry and vengeful. It’s love that’s twisted and thwarted and destructive, but it’s there. This theme had come up earlier, when Klytemnestra comes to speak with Elektra, and Elektra, kneeling, embraces her mother for a long moment while Klytemnestra strokes her daughter’s hair – there is a horrible tension there, because we know what is happening next; if Elektra merely hated and despised her mother, the scene would not be as powerful.
The visual presentation of the story’s end emphasized how this in some ways is a non-ending. Elektra dances, but it’s a strange, jerky, stomping-on-enemies dance that gradually slows down until she is seated, completely still, staring straight ahead. Is she dead? Meanwhile Orestes, having finished the task he came for, walks slowly out of the gate. The thing is finished – now what? It’s an odd reminder of how characters can’t exist outside of the structures of narrative that make them, even though often we imagine that they do: the mechanism that fate has set up for these people, and that they have set up for themselves, has wound down, all the questions seem resolved – now what? Can anything else happen to Elektra? There is a horrible emptiness to the end of this opera; this production gets to that very effectively.