tue 25/06/2024

Elektra/Der Rosenkavalier, Nightly Met Opera Streams review - searing hits and indulgent misses | reviews, news & interviews

Elektra/Der Rosenkavalier, Nightly Met Opera Streams review - searing hits and indulgent misses

Elektra/Der Rosenkavalier, Nightly Met Opera Streams review - searing hits and indulgent misses

Challenging direction, great conducting and luxury casting in New York Strauss

Nina Stemme as ElektraElektra images by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A brutal Greek tragedy and a rococo Viennese comedy, both filtered through the eyes and ears of 20th century genius: what a feast on consecutive nights from the Metropolitan Opera's recent archive.

There's been real thought behind the wealth of programming in the company's attempts to keep the world happy for free during lockdown, including a whole Wagner week. These two of the top masterpieces by Wagner's natural successor - "Richard the Third", as Strauss was dubbed, because there could be no second - both reminded us of what worked and what didn't when Robert Carsen's sort-of-1920s Rosenkavalier came to Covent Garden, and what we're missing next month when we should have been seeing the stupendous Nina Stemme as Elektra in Christof Loy's new Royal Opera production.

Loy is a radical re-thinker, usually with startling results, though he tripped up with his recent La forza del destino; and I wonder if he could have come close to the organic reinvention of the late, great Patrice Chéreau, whose production came to the Met three years after his untimely death (★★★★★). Perhaps the film of the original 2013 Aix staging, with the electrifying Evelyn Herlitzius as the protagonist and Chéreau on hand to inspire, will always have prior place as one of the top opera films of all time (it's still available on BelAir). But this alternative also boasts the fiercely analytical but never chilly conducting of Esa-Pekka Salonen, let loose on the magnificent Met Orchestra, and Stemme's Elektra is as much to be seen and heard as Herlitzius's. Nina Stemme and Adrianne Pieczonka in ElektraOnly total conviction and the willingness to sacrifice a dramatic-soprano voice on the altar of a killer role will do, and she offers both. Close-ups are welcome to see the tragic fixity, mania and sadness in those wonderful eyes as the daughter of Agamemnon, worn down and driven to the brink of sanity, awaits the return of her brother Orestes to avenge the murder of their father by their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Despite late appearances by a solemn, mask-like Orestes - resplendently sung by the wonderful Eric Owens - and the thoroughly unpleasant Aegisthus - Burkhard Ulrich playing it straight as Chéreau asks all his singer-actors to do - this is an opera for strong women. There's even major casting among the maids whose squabble starts the action, here bowling into vicious musical life after much courtyard scrubbing and brushing; the Fifth Maid, defending the hated Elektra, is sung, as she was at Aix, by the great Roberta Alexander, one of the great Jenůfa of our time.

Chéreau makes sure the house staff are present at crucial stages of the action, but that doesn't undermine the essential isolation of the three female leads. All work at top vocal and dramatic pitch. Adrianne Pieczonka (pictured above with Stemme) is no weak sister Chrysothemis; it's just a question of Elektra being even stronger, and determined to the point of insanity. Lyric warmth with backbone meets pure steel - and both women hit the high notes with infallible focus. You might at first have to swallow the idea of their being offspring of this still-beautiful Clytemnestra, Waltraud Meier (pictured below with Stemme); but the central confrontation between mother and daughter is riveting. Chéreau makes much more of their need to be loved by each other than most directors, which only makes Elektra's turn of the screw all the more appalling. Meier, always a convincing stage animal, is also in remarkably good voice. Waltraud Meier and Nina Stemme in ElektraThe denouement, static rather than turbulent with a convincing final pay-off, may be counter-intuitive to the welter of orchestral sound in what has to be the most overwhelmingly visceral operatic finale ever (Wagner notwithstanding). But it works, which is more than can be said for the final curtain and some of the other ideas in Robert Carsen's Der Rosenkavalier (★★★), not many of them convincing substitutions for poet-playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal's elaborate original stage directions. Since Carsen first staged the work for Salzburg - there's another fine DVD, with Pieczonka as a sensuous Marschallin - he seems to have upped the luxury, partly perhaps to fill the big Met stage. It's a truthful idea to have the women of this opera dwarfed by images of male pride in portrait and frieze, but the first act can never be the chamber opera it essential aims to be, and nouveau-riche Faninal's forecourt with its obstructive cannons is only compounded for unhelpfulness by the pointless waltzing couples in the Presentation of the Rose. The Act Three brothel is more successful as a mirror-image of the Marschallin's bedchamber; the biggest laughs come here. Fleming and Garanca in Der RosenkavalierNevertheless the core comedy doesn't come off very well; Carsen seems to want to make the coarse adventurer Baron Ochs more real than funny-grotesque, and Günther Groissböck tries to compensate by flapping around the giant space in an attempt to fill it. The biggest disappointment, for me, is Renée Fleming's Marschallin (pictured above with Elina Garanča; both Rosenkavalier images by Ken Howard), the character with whom, as Hofmannsthal put it, the audience should identify most sympathetically; men as well as women beyond the age of 30 have all been there to share, if not as articulately, her worries and questions about the passing of time and the takeover of the young. The voice still glows, but at full stretch it can't be coloured to create a sense of introspection; and though this interpretation is not as vulgar or indulged as Fleming's former complicity with Christian Thielemann, she still takes the stop-all-the-clocks monologue and the first phrase of the great final trio way too slow, to show off what she can do with breath control. Less would always be more, faster tempi always preferable. Elina Garanca and Erin Wall in Der RosenkavalierWhich Sebastian Weigle, who's given us fine Strauss in Frankfurt, usually observes; he would seem to be indulging his Prima Donna. At least Elina Garanča is perfect as Cherubino-alike Octavian, the Marschallin's 17 year old lover whom she eventually has to yield. Here's one of the few occasions where one can believe in "him" as a stroppy, mostly self-confident youth. Erin Wall (pictured above with Garanča), like Clytemnestra's Met daughters, is palpably older than innocent teenager Sophie, but she has a face of very original beauty, used to express full fledgling feistiness, and she has all the money notes; I'd love to see her as Strauss's Arabella or Daphne. And despite the reservations over interpretation, this is as classy in musical terms as Strauss can get; you can never do these productions on the cheap. Let's hope the Royal Opera and the Met can come back soon to give the unique thrill of a hundred-or-so-piece orchestra and the world's best voices in the flesh.

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