An Extraordinary ‘Elektra’ Shows a Path Forward for the Met

03.02.18
Christine Goerke
New York Times

The Metropolitan Opera is struggling right now, facing longstanding challenges like declining tickets sales and a shriveling donor base, as well as looming ones like coming labor negotiations.

But Thursday’s extraordinary performance of Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” pointed a way out of the company’s problems: Just keep presenting opera on this level, and all should be fine. The intense, tormented one-act opera lasts just over 100 minutes. And I was swept up in every moment of the rapturous, terrifying and moving performance.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has made some mistakes during his tenure. But Thursday’s “Elektra” is the result, in part, of three smart calls he made, each of which bodes well for the future.
 
He brought in the visionary director Patrice Chéreau, who was responsible for two milestone productions: a grimly powerful staging of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” then this “Elektra” in 2016, a collaboration with other companies that, sadly, arrived at the Met nearly three years after Mr. Chéreau died in 2013. The production places the bloody saga of the house of Agamemnon in a vaguely updated setting: the drab, stone courtyard of the dead king’s palace in Mycenae, where the tale plays out like the ultimate dysfunctional family drama.

In another savvy move, Mr. Gelb went calling on Christine Goerke with contracts to sign once it became clear that she was developing into the most impressive dramatic soprano of her time. She now owns the role of Elektra, as she demonstrated on Thursday with this overwhelming performance. And next season, she will bring her acclaimed Brünnhilde to the Met for the first complete revival Robert Lepage’s much-debated production of Wagner’s “Ring.”

The third wise move on Mr. Gelb’s part was placing the artistic future of the company in the hands of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His magnificent account of Wagner’s “Parsifal” just ended a seven-performance run. And on Thursday he led a blazing and urgent, yet richly nuanced account of Strauss’s still-shocking score, first performed in Dresden, Germany, in 1909. This immensely gifted, youthful conductor was not scheduled to become the company’s music director until 2020. But when James Levine was suspended in December following allegations of sexual misconduct, something had to be done to fill the leadership vacuum. Mr. Gelb persuaded Mr. Nézet-Séguin to shift commitments around so that he could start his tenure with the new season this fall.

This “Elektra” showed him at his best. All the modernist elements of the music came through with slashing incisiveness and piercing sound, from the opening orchestral blast of chords that signal the motif of Agamemnon, murdered by his wife, Klytämnestra, and her lover Aegisth, and mourned every day with obsessive compulsion by Elektra, his daughter. But I was ever more impressed by the subtleties and lyricism Mr. Nézet-Séguin drew from the music, which has moments of plush, shimmering allure that conductors with a blunter approach often miss.

Now and then, though, especially during the opening scenes, Mr. Nézet-Séguin let the orchestra erupt with too much brassy fervor. Even Ms. Goerke, with all the thrilling power of her voice, was covered by the orchestra during some crucial outbursts.

In every moment her courageous singing exposed the tormented nature of this mystifying character, who lives to avenge her murdered father. Yet, as Ms. Goerke made clear, Elektra is all talk, a young woman who has adopted the identity of the avenging child and seems powerless to take any action. She stalks around the palace like an unkempt animal, say the servants who both mock and fear her.
 
Read the rest of the review here