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Elektra by Rafal Olbinski
08 Dec 2008

Elektra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York

Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.

Elektra: Deborah Polaski; Chrysothemis: Anne Schwanewilms; Clytemnestra: Jane Henschel; Orestes: Julian Tovey; Aegisthus: Richard Margison; Young Servant: Ryan MacPherson; Tutor: Matt Boehler. Conducted by Lorin Maazel. New York Philharmonic, performance of December 6.

Above: Elektra by Rafal Olbinski


Strauss, world-famous, by 1907, for his orchestra-straining tone poems and, furthermore, the arch-hero-villain of the opera stage for his Salome, was looking for something still more monstrous, more gut-wrenching and soul-stopping and blood-chilling for a sequel — and having, in Elektra, explored ancient history’s most dysfunctional family, drew back from the pandemoniac abyss for the remainder of his long, largely placid career.

Elektra is extreme opera-going, its single act of an adamantine intensity and focus. And if opera companies can distract you by doing something grand or monstrous with the sets or the costumes or the final matricidal dance of triumph by the shattered, emotionally eviscerated heroine, to give the thing in concert, with nothing between you and the musical shock but a titling machine (which, if anything, enhances the horror of the story, the everyday terms of hate and vengeance), calls for a cast, an orchestra, a conductor willing to submit to the demands of horror to produce art.

The four performances of Elektra given by the New York Philharmonic this month achieved that horror, that intensity, that focus, that elevating shock. It was a performance to send chills up the spine. And, though concert it was, it was in a sense staged, for there was a bit of playing area around the conductor (and a ledge stage left for the serving maids and other walk-on parts — each with its brief but extreme demands), and the singers clearly had acted these roles before and gave us thrilling, fully acted performances (the final dance aside) of their ghastly roles.

Loren Maazel was the hero of the hour, a man in total control of his material and his instrument (hundred-headed, like the primeval giants mastered by Zeus). Each taut rhythm, each gristly underlying motif had its crisp, proper place, and yet each one sounded wild, impulsive, impromptu when it came; each bark or bleat or snarl of untamed animal concealed within the score (I’d never noticed before how many there are): dogs baying, wolves howling, cows pleading as they are rushed to slaughter, carrion birds exulting, snakes twining, horses screaming (they are said to have torn Orestes apart), to say nothing of the nameless horrors that fill Clytemnestra’s dreams (described by her in succulent, gruesome detail, as if confided not to a daughter but a psychoanalyst with an unfortunate agenda) and furies of every variety filling the air with contagious hysteria. Each accent of the stage action, illustrated by the score, fell into place with the implacable precision of one’s secret terrors. The orchestra played like gods of our inner underworlds, knowing just where to stretch and threaten and pretend to console.

Deborah Polaski, who has sung most of the more haggard ladies of the heroic repertory, from Kundry to Brunnhilde, knows where the dramatic hysteria lies in the title role and where it can relax. Her looks of scorn, of pretend sympathy, of self-pity when the return of Orestes recalls her to the innocent girl she once was enhanced her vocal portrayal of these facets of character. Her voice is still in fine shape, only the whispers of the duet with Orestes betraying a certain wear and tear. Never before had I noticed how very similar the sexless Elektra is to her artistic sister, Salome — another innocent who takes vengeance on the world for too terrible, too abrupt a knowledge of the evil lurking in a mother’s soul, a stepfather’s lust, a cruel, selfish society.

Anne Schwanewilms, who has made a name for herself singing Strauss and his contemporaries in such European capitals as Berlin, London and Chicago, sang Chrysothemis. It was especially enjoyable to note the interaction between her and Polaski, the latter’s contempt, the former’s exasperation and “must-she-go-on-like-this?” glances to heaven and earth to save her from her manic sister. She is a tall, handsome woman with a clear but light soprano, not an instrument (I would guess) to hold its own with the orchestra-combating extremes of Wagner or Verdi or even Strauss (Ariadne, say) but very right for Strauss’s soaring, less earthy roles: the Marschallin, Arabella, Aithra, Daphne. Chrysothemis’s yearning for simple life, her horror of the mythic emotions of the rest of her family, are intended to set those emotions in proper context, and she sang them with the feeling of a woman who knows she is trapped: she has mythologized the ordinary, and she lets us feel the pleasure of not being stuck in an epic ourselves.

Jane Henschel sang Clytemnestra. The role — a woman slowly being driven mad by guilt and apprehension — is often performed with an eldritch wreck of a voice, but Henschel, who has a beautiful low mezzo of heroic size (her Met debut was as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten), reminded us of the lady’s past as a queen and a woman of passion; she did not wallow in sickly torment but projected her fear, her confusion, her tragedy in graceful, phrases that lost nothing in shock value by being beautiful. Elektra can see only evil in her mother, but Strauss saw something else, something once noble and womanly, the woman who gave birth to beautiful daughters, and Henschel gave us that woman as no Clytemnestra of my experience has done since Christa Ludwig.

The lesser roles were cast with care. Julian Tovey, making his New York debut, sings with a cool glamour but did not quite equal the ominous alarm awakened by the brasses at Orestes’s appearance, and Richard Margison sang ably but somewhat missed the comical quality that James King brought to the part in his final New York appearance, as Aegisthus in a concert Elektra at Carnegie Hall — a comedy the more troubling because we know he will be murdered the moment he leaves the stage. Among the many small parts, I especially enjoyed Matt Boehler as Orestes’s nervous tutor and Linda Pavelka’s surging phrases among the usually too-anonymous maidservants.

This concert will be repeated on Tuesday and Saturday, and broadcast on WQXR on December 18.

John Yohalem

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