Sunday, September 17, 2017

Elektra Guest Post, by John Fenster

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo Corey Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

My comments focus on the production by Keith Warner, here directed by Anja Kühnhold. The concept is basically that of the musical Aida, based on the children's storybook by Leontyne Price. That story starts in the Egyptology wing of a modern museum. A woman and a man catch each other's eye and are swept up by Amneris and taken back to ancient Egypt where they take on the roles of Aida and Radames, and the story runs much like Verdi’s. Another point of reference is Loy’s Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten. The production is built from Karl Böhm's infamous 1955 recording of the opera, in the dead of winter. We see none of the fantasy elements of the opera, just distillation of the characters into the singers. But here we have the opposite; Loy’s production takes a fantasy and personalizes the drama, Warner’s production takes a very personal drama and spins a fantasy from and around it.

Though with their Aida Elton John and Tim Rice were able to make changes to the plot of Verdi’s Aida, writing songs that tell their new story, Keith Warner does not take such liberties with Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Elektra. Instead he treats it as the nightmare fantasy of the woman who takes on the role of Elektra. What we see is a sort of blend of the opera and what happened to this woman, including her father killing himself.

In the museum, she is fascinated by a video depicting six women preparing a ritual sacrifice. We hear the five maids and their overseer, and halfway through their section they burst out on stage; they have come to life.

So, the maids are not trying to clean in an attempt to wash away the spiritual stain on the place. Instead it’s almost the exact opposite: they're performing a new human sacrifice. It's twisting what was written, though it mostly fits since Klytämnestra wants to appease the gods. It is also necessary for this Elektra, who is drawn into the story because she is fascinated by them and furthermore soon becomes obsessed with having her own sacrifices performed. An Elektra disdainful of their futile efforts wouldn't work here, but I miss the resonance and the classical logic of the text. I also missed having the maids on stage for their entire scene. They also don't return later (though we do hear them).

The production continues more or less like this. One of the very curious things it that several times what we see on stage is generated from what Elektra says and thinks. That may explain the dream logic (or anti-logic) of the connection between the text and the staging. Little of it makes sense as naturalism, but that isn't what we have here. So, for example, die Vertraute and die Schleppträgerin do not actually whisper into Klytämnestra's ear until Elektra mentions it. Elektra is not responding to what has happened, rather she's actively creating her fantasy. Similarly, later on Elektra wields the ax as soon as she decides she needs it, rather than never. I found this bizarre logic infuriating, in part because I did not understand how the production worked.

That is, many of my initial complaints are oblique to the production concerns. It doesn’t make sense to complain that it isn’t die Vertraute but Orest himself that tells Klytämnestra a messenger (also him) is here to tell her that Orest is dead. Or that he still waits to see her leading to the recognition scene with Elektra. It makes zero sense, but the production is not trying to be coherent or logical. It made me mad that der Pfleger isn't immediately dismissive of Elektra to the extent that he even takes the ax which shouldn't be there in the first place from her. But this is her fantasy; she's going to have more of a sympathetic take on herself. The production has something interesting behind it. It was realized rather well, mostly.

Fundamentally I understand having an active imagination when sad and helpless. When you’re upset about something you can't control it's easy to let your mind run wild and concoct an imaginary drama to try and solve your problem. This woman is dealing with her father having killed himself (among other things) and that leaves her feeling helpless. But if he had been, say, murdered by Aegisth? Then there could be an avenging Orest to come and help make it better. And that could feel cathartic to see.

That being said I still dislike it, overall. Going in to the second performance, knowing what was going to happen I was more engaged for the first two-thirds or so, until right after Elektra recognizes Orest. There’s an emotional through-line, but it gets dropped for uninspired camp horror, complete with incest jokes.

Though some of the problem is that the entire score and libretto are pushing towards something and this production’s concerns are related but different; perhaps the ending was never going to land, exactly, so playing it all as a joke is the way to go. And that worked for some; there was laughter around me during the final scenes at both performances. But I think Elektra can be better than that.

And my comments focused on the production because it’s so abnormal that it really demands attention. But I had tickets to the first three performances because of the assembled cast, and they have not disappointed.

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