An Overwhelming ‘Elektra’


an opera by Richard Strauss, directed by Patrice Chéreau, with Vincent Huguet
Metropolitan Opera, New York City, April 14–May 7, 2016
Susan Neves as the Confidante, Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra, and Nina Stemme as Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra, at the Metropolitan Opera
Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Susan Neves as the Confidante, Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra, and Nina Stemme as Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra, at the Metropolitan Opera

There is no music as the curtain goes up on the Met’s new production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra—the last testament of director Patrice Chéreau, who died in October 2013, not long after this production’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence. The silence continues for what seems like a long time as we take in the set, which represents the courtyard of a generic ancient palace. It is a space without ornament, not even picturesquely ruined or weather-beaten. (The palace’s inner walls also provide a convenient surface for the projected subtitles. Given the compression and simplicity of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s text—some lines are so pared down as to have the force of ideographs—the translated words become an integral part of the dramatic action.) Women move about engaged in sweeping and cleansing the enclosure, working with the indifferent efficiency of a routine blunted with repetition. Their costumes are thrift-shop drab, beat-up clothes for a beat-up world.

Here and throughout there are to be no metaphorical intrusions, no signposted historical or political cross-references. The clothes are modern but they seem perfectly at home in an archaic world entirely lacking any sense of myth or magic. We are simply dropped down in the midst of a situation, in a place where nothing has changed for a long time and where nothing is officially expected to change. Ancient trouble has been so fully absorbed that it has faded from conscious awareness, leaving only a residue of discontent and unease and a permeating hint of intimate disgust.

Much of this has been expressed before the sounding of the gouge-like triadic theme that inaugurates the opera and that will soon be linked to the name of the slaughtered king Agamemnon. The first notes set in motion a calibrated mechanism that proceeds without interruption or interlude under the most unrelieved pressure. The opera’s course could be described as sustained turbulence with intermittent bursts of emotional violence that subside only to emerge more forcefully. There is not even so much repose as a flight of fancy or a happy memory. Every human contact is pitched on the edge of explosion, as Elektra (Nina Stemme) confronts her sister Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka) and her mother Clytemnestra (Waltraud Meier), each such encounter excavating a deeper wound. The extreme becomes only more extreme. What is most obviously striking about Chéreau’s production—as directed at the Met by his longtime collaborator Vincent Huguet—is its deliberate underplaying, its toning down of any tendency to exaggerate what is already exaggerated or to evoke yet again the historical echoes of expressionist modernism.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts the production as he…

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