Friday, September 15, 2017

Wo bleibt Elektra?

Christine Goerke as Elektra
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Spoiler warning: I'm going into a fair amount of detail about the production. Don't read past this paragraph if you like surprises. I have three pieces of advice if you're seeing this production: 1) read the libretto 2) read the synopsis in the program 3) get to your seat early so you can catch at least some of the pantomime that sets the scene before the downbeat.

Some first thoughts after the Elektra prima, which I saw last week, in advance of reading Joshua Kosman's review. I'm pretty sure I saw him on his feet during the curtain calls, and this is a rarity; then there was a tweet from him about the "stunning" performance. A tweet this morning says his review is a rave.

Okay, so my reservations are largely nonmusical. But I made a mistake: I swapped my Dress Circle seat for Orchestra M, nearly dead center, which is the perfect location for hearing the orchestra, but voices tend to be more recessed there than when you're up above them. And, goddamn it, the voice most affected by this was Christine Goerke's, presumably because of its placement, dark color, and the tessitura of the title role, which lies more in the low and middle ranges.

The other singers came over well, and I am kicking myself for relocating to the orchestra rather than Grand Tier....or staying in my subscription seat. So I feel that I can't make a fully-informed comment on her performance, and, well, this is a frustration. I've heard her live multiple times and I know perfectly well that she's got a very large and well-projected voice, and I also know about the vagaries of the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House.

Well, fortunately, I'll be seeing it again. In the meantime, as far as the vocal and musical aspects go, it was pretty damn good. My only significant musical reservation is about conductor Henrik Nánási's pacing of the first third to a half of the opera, up to Klytemnestra's entrance: I thought the tempos a little slow, and even given that, I thought his conductor lacked energy and tension. I later discovered that this was the first time he'd conducted the opera, so. I bet subsequent performances will be different.

Michaela Martest as Klytemnestra
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
I liked this costume so much more than the blue satin she wore for most of the opera.

Once Klytemnestra was on stage, the underlying energy went up considerably and stayed there to the end. Now, maybe he planned the pacing this way, but I think the opera would work better with the tension ratcheted up more at the start. This, I think, is why I was not completely carried away.

That aside, the orchestra sounded fabulous throughout, and I'll give Nánási due credit for the beautiful transparency of the monstrously huge ensemble. And maybe the subsequent performances will have more in the way of tension in the first chunk of the opera.

Now, about Keith Warner's production: the concept is that a modern woman is at a museum that has an exhibit about the House of Atreus. She hides and is trapped there after hours. And before her eyes, the story that is described in the exhibit starts to come alive, and somehow she becomes part of it.

Night at the museum. Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This has potential, but oh have I got some beefs with the execution. If you've got an Elektra where the title character starts off not knowing what exactly is going on, there's just not much justification for the intensity of her rage and knowledge in her monologue, which starts approximately six minutes into the show. And, you know, there's a lot of talk in the opening about how she looks inhuman, she's filthy, she's living in the corners of the palace, she's being fed with the dogs. It's apparent that she is a physical wreck, but because this production dresses her in a black Berkeley therapist tunic, she's nicely groomed, and she's moving like a slightly suspicious museum-goer, the character's desperation doesn't come across and she doesn't shock you on her first appearance.

(Note that it's a Berkeley therapist black tunic with a beautiful cut, probably linen, and I want one just like it. Shallow, but there it is.)

There's other stage-setting missing as well: the five maidservants and the overseer are offstage, their voices piped in, for the very opening. (And what is a singer of Jill Grove's stature doing as the First Maidservant? Perhaps covering Klytemnestra?) They have distinctive characters, but we have a lot less time to meet them and get to know them.

A scene from Strauss' "Elektra" with Nicole Birkland (Third Maidservant), Sarah Cambidge (Fourth Maidservant), Alexandra Loutsion (The Overseer), Rhoslyn Jones (Fifth Maidservant), and Jill Grove (First Maidservant).
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Later in the opera, there's some underdirection of Elektra: she spends too much unfocussed time wandering around the stage, and she doesn't dance herself to death. She seems to die more of shock; at least, she lies catatonic on the floor at the end of the opera.

Well, others thought this worked better than I did, including Joshua (yes, he did rave) and a friend who tweeted that the production "reconfigured her view of her teenage years." That is quite something. The set and costumes are attractive; there are some interesting bits involving a family tableau on the balcony at the back of the set, and I suspect there are clues to the action on the video monitors, which I didn't pay much attention to. There's some wit, in the kitchen where Elektra has a serious talk with Mom, and a few surprises.

Alfred Walker (Orest) and Christine Goerke (Elektra)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
A pretty good view of the tunic.

So, what I saw of Goerke and what I could hear was excellent, and I'm looking forward to a second performance on Sunday. I expect more impact when I'm up in the balcony, where singers sound five feet away. Certainly her sarcasm in the scene with Klytemnestra came across brilliantly, as did her rage. The recognition scene with Orest was great, very much the emotional heart of the opera and with beautiful singing from both Walker and Goerke.

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Not sure if Pieczonka is of the right generation to have one of those in her jewelry box.

Everyone else was tremendous: Adrianne Pieczonka was a dream as Chrysothemis, which is right in her vocal sweet spot. I'd heard her twice previously, as Tosca here and as Amelia Boccanegra in NYC, and while she sang both of those very well, they didn't seem quite right for her. Well, here's why: she is a Strauss soprano, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Easy to hear an Empress, an Arabella, a Salome, in that brilliant sound.

Alfred Walker as Orest
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Michaela Martens, in her role debut, sounded great, dark-toned and with a nice edge to the sound, and acted very well, an inebriated Klytemnestra. Alfred Walker, making his SFO debut, brought a beautiful, firm bass-baritone and a simmering presence to Orest; I can hear a string of Strauss and Wagner roles in that sound, and oh, boy, would I like to see him again.

This is the moment for me to mention that right here we've got most of a damn good cast for Salome, with a choice of sopranos for the title character, and most of a damn good cast for Die Frau ohne Schatten, not seen in SF in 28 years. Or, for that matter, Die Walkuere.


Mateo Santos Perry said...

Hate to say it but I was in the balcony circle on opening and also had a hard time hearing CG. Pieczonka sounded wonderful but I left feeling a bit frustrated and thought similarly that my seat placement was to blame. Needless to say I'm also going back on Sunday; probably standing.

Darrick Chen said...

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your review. It really helped me understand what I saw that I couldn't quite explain.

I was wondering about Saturday's performance as I sat there. My baseline Elektra performance is the SFO performance I was lucky to attend in the 90s with Dame Gwyneth Jones. I was new to opera then, but always felt that night was one of those nights where you get transported and the stage disappears - happens very rarely. It was A night at the opera.

That night Dame Gwyneth took me back to ancient Greece. I still remember how loud and crazy she was. At her curtain call I leap to my feet as I was so excited for having witnessed that remarkable performance.

Saturday's performance was I think better sung. Christine Goerke has got to be one of the great Elektras for the ages. I was stunned by how well Adrianne Pieczonka sang - from where I sat (Box M), she was louder and more radiant than CG. What a brilliant Empress she would make.

Anyway, after reading your comments, I do agree that the first part of the opera lagged. I was wondering why it was taking so long, but it didn't hit me it was the orchestra. I thought it might be how it was staged. After the Queen's appearance, it moved along very well.

I think I enjoyed the 90s performance better is because that production was traditional, so everything made more sense - about Elektra being unkept, etc. That production also made it perfectly clear that Elektra was devoted to her father - Gwyneth kept clutching a very large statue of Agamemnon during the monolog. The final dance GJ did in the 90s production was crazy - I will never forget it.

So while I very much enjoyed Saturday's performance, I think the production did not help. It was clever, but did not quite jell. I still would recommend people to go. I would like to see it again as I don't think it could be cast better.

Finally, will SFO please stage FROSH....I can't imagine a better time to cast this opera. CG as the Dyer's wife; I used to think Lise Linstrom would be an impressive Empress, but now think AP would be more perfect. Martest the nurse; Brandon Jovanovich as the Emperor; not sure about the Dyer.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Mateo, thanks very much for that comment. I've heard CG at the Met from their Grand Tier and at LOC from Orchestra Rear (it is an enormous house) and the First Balcony (equivalent of War Memorial Grand Tier or Dress Circle) and not only did I have no problems hearing her, her voice had enormous impact, riding over the Frau orchestra easily.

I could hear her voice bouncing around the house last Saturday, mostly over my head.

Oh, well. Tomorrow afternoon in the Balcony.

Darrick, thank you so much. I missed the 1990 Elektra with Jones, but everybody speaks of the run with awe. I saw Jones three times in the 80s and when she was on, there was no one better. VERY loud, as you say, and great on stage.

"Did not quite jell" - yeah. Give her a crazy dance at the end! Make her really nuts!

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. I was thinking of Alfred Walker as Barak.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I saw the 90's Elektra as well, and remember it as one of my greatest operatic experiences -- not just for Dame Gwyneth, but just as much for Helga Dernesch and for Andrei Serban's direction. Gwyneth could be so variable, but there were occasional nights like this one when all the technical problems with her voice cleared up and she became the greatest (and loudest) dramatic soprano ever. Dernesch, who always had such elegance and dignity on stage, played those up, and you could see Klytemnestra as a great lady come to ruin -- much more interesting than the crazed witch you often see. I know people who went to every performance of that run.

I'll be there next Friday -- sitting in row L, probably close to where you were sitting. So probably I'll have the same acoustical experience. As at the Met, the best seats for seeing and for hearing are not the same seats. If I lived in the area, I'd do what you're doing and go twice, once to look and once to listen.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Jones Elektra run was in my operatic hiatus, and oh, boy, do I ever regret missing it.

I never saw Dernesch, unfortunately.

I may be there Friday as well. Right now it's between an interesting Bernstein program at SFS and Elektra no. 3, and since I have a Traviata ticket for Saturday (yeah, I know, it will seem weak tea after the Strauss) I think I am not up for three performances over the weekend.