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The Elektra Boogie

December 30, 2009

Susan Bullock and Deborah Voigt
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2009

Tuesday in New York brought the final performance this season of Srauss’ Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera. And while it didn’t split the earth in two or anything, it was far from shabby and rather fitting for this centenary year of the work's premiere in Dresden. Let me put it this way. Earlier in the day, I’d seen the excellent retrospective of Kandinsky’s work at the Guggenheim. Seeing the radical, increasingly abstract pieces produced by Kandinsky around the time Strauss composed Elektra was a potent reminder of the break these artists saw from what had gone before. And while Kandinsky would move on to become friends with Schoenberg as Strauss headed off in another direction entirely, Elektra is cut from a particularly radical early 20th-century cloth. At the Metropolitan on Tuesday there were some intensely beautiful colors, but it wasn’t exactly a completely new way of seeing things.

The well-regarded Fabio Luisi conducted the orchestra in the most revolutionary part of the performance. The brass alone was worth the ticket price. Dark and brooding but powerfully slashing at others, it was nothing short of world class. There were some things to shout about onstage as well. Primarily Deborah Voigt. I know it’s fashionable to bitch and moan about how her voice has changed over the years, but her Chrysothemis has few serious challengers in the world even now. She gave the most integrated and felt performance of the evening. As for the Elektra, Susan Bullock, despite my initial reservations I must admit she grew on me. By the time Orest showed up, the steel and stamina of her voice were clearly on display and she seemed to actually be fully coming to life. There was the unfortunate bit of her hurdy-gurdy style ax dance, which evoked Rosie O'Donnell in Fiddler on the Roof more than ancient Greece. But a little laughter can be a good thing. Strauss certainly thought so in the long run.

The production itself, another Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose number, is remarkably pedestrian even for 1992. There is that giant fallen horse statue everyone must stumble around, but it’s an otherwise rather drab jewelry box. Of course, all of the trinkets are being worn by Klytämnestra who looked like Madame sans Wayland Flowers, which cut into the whole feeling of terror around her. But Palmer handled the role well, given the costume cards she was dealt.

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I'm glad Voigt is singing Chrysothemis (the pretty part) rather than Elektra (the terrifying part). Though you were very kind in your review, reading between the lines this production of "Elektra" sounds way mediocre, even with the fabulous brass. It's a sick, dark, brooding opera that's about ten steps ahead of what Strauss was attempting with "Salome," and if you don't come out of the theatre totally shocked and exhilarated, then you've seen a subpar "Elektra." Done right, however, it's quite an experience. They don't come around very often, but they do exist.
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