A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 1)

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The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha! Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

Click here to read my thoughts on Mahler 9.

My thoughts on Elektra:

  • Elektra is riveting, jaw-dropping, spellbinding, mesmerizing, and everything a one-act opera should be. The drama seethes from beginning to end and Strauss’ score is nothing short of heart-pounding.
  • The story is all about Elektra’s quest for revenge against her mother and her mother’s lover, who before the opera begins, have killed Elektra’s father, Agamemnon. Most of the opera is Elektra trying to convince people why her mother deserves to die. Spoiler alert, the killing does eventually take place but that action is only the final 20 minutes or so. The real drama in Elektra takes place in the mind of the title character.
  • Such a psychological opera requires a production with similar focus. The music *is* great, of course, but a park-and-bark version of Elektra totally misses the point.
  • Director Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra was hailed as a masterpiece when it debuted in 2013 at theFestival d’Aix-en-Provence. Audiences at The Met have known it was coming for three years and they’ve been waiting excitedly.
  • What makes the Chéreau staging so incredible is the insight you get into each character through their movements on stage. (This is where being married to a physical therapist pays dividends: professionally, my wife analyzes people’s movements to determine how their injuries or chronic conditions are affecting them. That’s certainly a physical process, but there’s a ton of psychology involved as well. So, she noticed things on stage in even greater detail than I was able to.)
  • We feel Elektra’s inner turmoil through the tiniest of gestures: a head tilting in one direction or another; her posture when addressing her mother directly; her facial expressions (bring opera glasses…or go to the HD theater screening); her fear and hesitancy as she unwraps the axe (the one that killed her father) that she’s been hiding.
  • Most prominently and most powerfully we see the physicality of psychology exhibited in the opera’s final scene: after Elektra’s brother Orest (or however you want to spell/pronounce it) has killed their mother and her lover, Elektra sings of celebration and dance. But she cannot dance. She is physically unable to move.
  • Nina Stemme’s performance of this moment was so devastating. It was like watching someone turn to stone in front of you. She kept trying to move–even getting to her feet and making a few triumphant movements–but in the end, she ended up glued to the ground. In other productions, Elektra dances herself to death. Her greatest purpose in life has been accomplished and the rage and revenge that has completely filled her soul now has no object. In this production, Elektra is slowly killed from the inside out.

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  • Nina Stemme (Elektra), Waltraud Meier (Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra), and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis) made for the most formidable triumvirate of singers I’ve ever seen grace an opera stage…and Eric Owens (Orest) added his trademark power to the lineup.
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen fuels the psychodrama with his interpretation. New York audiences really love Salonen. Other than Nina Stemme (Elektra), Salonen got by far the biggest cheers. New York audiences also seem to really want Salonen in their city long-term. The performance of Elektra we attended was on the same day James Levine announced he was retiring as The Met’s music director. As we were walking out of the opera house, I overheard several conversations among patrons who were suggesting Salonen take over for Levine. The next day in his review of the performance for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini suggested the same.

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  • Earlier in the day, my wife and I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in its bright, new Renzo Piano-designed building, which opened in May 2015. One of the featured exhibitions, “Laura Poitras: Astro Noise,” was fresh in my memory as I took in Elektra. Poitras is an artist, filmmaker, and journalist, and this is her first solo museum exhibition.
  • The show focuses on mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. One of the pieces was raw, unedited footage that she shot while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. While she was shooting, the unit she was embedded with was ambushed and a number of the servicemen and women were injured or killed. Poitras was detained and questioned without being told why. It was only after a lengthy lawsuit against the government that she learned that the U.S. military thought she might have provided information to Iraqi troops to aid in the ambush. She offered to show the government the footage she shot that day, but they declined to watch it.
  • As I watched Elektra melt down psychologically and then eventually completely bring about her own demise because of emotions that, while understandable, ultimately led to immoral and unjust actions, I couldn’t help but feel a connection between Elektra and post-9/11 America.
  • Final thoughts: if you’re going to be in New York during the run of Elektra (through May 7), go see it. If not, go to the HD theater screening of this production on April 30th. You won’t regret it.
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