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21.6.05

Summer Opera: Elektra in Paris

This summer, the Opéra National de Paris is staging Richard Strauss's Elektra. This follows on my post yesterday on Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and all this Strauss doesn't quite make up for the fact that Santa Fe Opera is no longer doing Strauss every season but it's something. I can't go to Paris, but Marie-Aude Roux reviewed it ("Elektra", oeuvre de la tension extrême, servie par des performances vocales, June 21) for Le Monde (my translation). The cast is reportedly excellent, and conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi has extended his growing reputation as one of the great Strauss conductors, but the staging is another issue, since the crowd at the premiere loudly booed young German director Matthias Hartmann.

Deborah Polaski in Strauss, Elektra, Opéra National de Paris, June 2005The vocal and dramatic performance of the American singer Deborah Polaski, as an imposing homeless princess [see her costume in the image shown here], merited her a very long ovation when the last note had faded. It was a recognition of the bravery and substantial energy deployed during the two hours and some in this crushing role, never absent from the stage, more than the beauty of singing, which was sometimes hard and unstable in the high register, but particularly touching at the moment of her reunion with Orest.
Hartmann reimagined all of the roles according to how he understood the story, even taking into account the personal appearance of each singer. Felicity Palmer, according to Mme. Roux, was an "aging Klytämnestra washed up on the Riviera" and also "simply stupefying." For a preview of the production («Elektra» sans sentimentalisme, June 17) for Le Figaro, Jean-Louis Validire interviewed Matthias Hartmann ("born in 1963," as Mme. Roux noted in her review, to underscore the director's youth), in which he described the good working relationship he had with the older von Dohnanyi:
The age difference between the director and the conductor has been more of a catalyst than a handicap. "For my generation, violence in theater, in movies, in everyday life is an immediate given. In my conception [of the opera], Orest does not want to kill, it happens against his will," explains Hartmann. The baritone Markus Brück, who plays Orest, "had at first a costume that made him look like a terrorist, but then I thought that he was a more complex character, in some ways more complete."
If it doesn't sound to you like he knows opera all that well, too, this is only the second one he has directed (and, given the reception, it could be his last, at least in Paris). However, Philippe Herlin was kinder to the staging in his review for ConcertoNet.com (my translation):
At the end, Hartmann shows us Orest recoiling before the ignominy of his actions (killing his mother!), Klytämnestra throwing herself on his knife, showing thus that the cycle of violence must stop one day! Let's push this analysis a little further by noting that the Fünfte Magd [Fifth Maid, Tracy Smith-Bessette] is dressed in a Muslim headscarf, that the yawning hole [the space used to signify Agamemnon's tomb] could be Ground Zero. Message: September 11 should not be used as an excuse for a vendetta against the Muslim world. A wink of an anti-Bush eye, subtle and simplistic at the same time. Whatever it may mean, the impact of this staging is evident: this is a renewed reading, a strong one, that brings Elektra's vengeance into our own time. A success.
Lastly, Mehdi Mahdavi published an interview with Deborah Polaski (Deborah Polaski, née pour Elektra, June 18) for Altamusica, which was interesting to read (my translation):
Many sopranos dream of singing Elektra, but few can do it. Was it a challenge for you?

It was a challenge for me the first time I sang it, because my voice was obviously younger, less developed: I sang my first Elektra when I was 35, more than 20 years ago. I dove into it with no preconceived notions, with my voice at that time, without trying to get more out of it than it could give. At the time, my agent said that it was good, but too pretty. A year ago, someone gave me a recording of that first Elektra, which I was curious to hear. It is exactly my voice, but you hear that it is 35 years old and not 46: the years of experience make the difference. Now, I know the role much better, and I know exactly where I can conserve myself and where I really have to give everything I've got. This economic approach is very important, because the role requires a lot of physical strength: you have to be able to give the least possible and to pull the most out of it in order to conserve the necessary resources for the most explosive passages. I have worked on it a lot: the problem is to know what is superfluous.
The Opéra National de Paris will present Richard Strauss's Elektra at the Opéra Bastille through July 12.

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