With Nina Stemme in the Title Role
To Be Aired Sunday, September 18 at 12 p.m. on PBS
Elektra, Richard Strauss’s blazing tragedy about an ancient Greek princess hell-bent on revenge, comes to THIRTEEN’S Great Performances at the Met. The opera, the final opera production by the legendary director Patrice Chéreau who died in 2013, airs Sunday, September 18 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). (In New York, THIRTEEN will air the opera at 12:30 p.m.)
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts an extraordinary cast headed by Nina Stemme as the obsessed and bloodthirsty title character. Waltraud Meier sings her first Met performances of Klytämnestra, Elektra’s mother and the object of her fury, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis; Eric Owens as her exiled brother, Orest; and German tenor Burkhard Ulrich, in his Met debut, as the corrupt monarch Aegisth.
Elektra was originally seen live in movie theaters on April 30 as part of the groundbreaking The Met: Live in HD series, which transmits live performances to more than 2,000 movie theaters and performing arts centers in over 70 countries around the world. The Live in HD series has reached a record-breaking 20 million viewers since its inception in 2006.
Elektra premiered in Dresden in 1909. Shortly after conquering the opera world with his scandalous masterpiece Salome, Strauss turned to a recent adaptation of Sophocles’s “Electra” by Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal for his next project. The drama unfolds in a single act of rare vocal and orchestral power.
The resulting opera (World premiere: Court Opera, Dresden, 1909; Met premiere: December 3, 1932 with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role) is an intense and still-startling work that unites the commanding impact of Greek tragedy with the unsettling insights of early-20th-century Freudian psychology.
In the courtyard of the Palace of Mycenae, the servants are wondering whether Elektra will be grieving over her father, as is her daily ritual. Daughter of King Agamemnon and Klytämnestra, Elektra appears and locks herself up in her solitude straight away. The servants all criticize and mock her, except for one, who takes her defense.
By herself, Elektra remembers how Agamemnon was assassinated upon his return from Troy, slain with an axe by Klytämnestra and her lover, Aegisth. Devastated with grief, Elektra is obsessed with the revenge she intends to take together with her sister, Chrysothemis, and her brother, Orest. The latter grew up far away from the palace and Elektra is keenly waiting for him day after day.
Chrysothemis interrupts Elektra, who is caught up in her thoughts, and warns her that Klytämnestra and Aegisth have decided to lock her up in a tower. Chrysothemis asks her sister to renounce vengeance and let life take over again. Elektra rejects the idea with disdain.
Klytämnestra arrives with her entourage. She has been preparing sacrifices hoping to pacify the gods as she suffers from nightmares. She wants to talk to Elektra, and when her daughter’s words are more amenable than usual, she sends off her followers to stay with her. The mother asks her daughter what remedy could restore her sleep, and Elektra reveals that a sacrifice may indeed free her from her nightmares. But when the queen, full of hope, asks who needs to be killed, Elektra replies that it is Klytämnestra herself who has to die. Elektra goes on to describe with frenzied elation how her mother will succumb under Orest’s blows. Then the court is thrown into a panic: two strangers have arrived and ask to be seen. A few words are whispered to the queen, who immediately leaves without saying a single word to Elektra.
Chrysosthemis is the one who comes to bear the terrible news: Orest had died. At first Elektra remains deaf to what has been said. Then, having lost all hope, she concludes that she herself and her sister need to act without further delay. But Chrysothemis refuses to commit such a deed and flees. Elektra curses her, realizing that she will have to act alone.
One of the strangers, who claims to be a friend of Orest and has come to bear the news of his death, has now been at the court for a while. Elektra besieges him with questions. When she reveals her name, he is shaken. She doesn’t recognize him until the servants of the palace throw themselves at his feet: It is Orest who stands before of her, Orest who tricked everybody into believing he was dead in order to sneak into the palace. Elektra is both elated and in despair—she feels immeasurable fondness for her brother and deep sadness about the life of a recluse she has chosen for herself. The two are interrupted by Orest’s tutor: the hour of vengeance has arrived and the deed Orest has come to perform now needs to be done. Orest enters the palace. Elektra listens for the slightest noise. Klytämnestra is heard screaming. “Hit one more time,” Elektra cries out. The queen draws her last breath.
There is a moment of panic when the servants hear cries. But they flee when they are told that Aegisth is returning from the fields. As the sun is setting, he encounters Elektra, who in a sudden joyful mood offers to light his way into the house. Soon enough it is his turn to scream for help. He too succumbs to vengeful hands.
Chrysothemis comes out of the palace and tells her sister about their brother’s return and the double murder of Klytämnestra and Aegisth. Elektra, hovering between ecstasy and madness, maintains that only silence and dance can celebrate their liberation. Beset by extreme frenzy, she dances until she drops: she will never be the one to have executed the act of revenge. As for Orestes, he leaves the palace, alone and in silence.
The title role is demanding even by the composer’s daunting standards: Once Elektra takes the stage near the beginning of the opera, she does not leave, portraying a wide spectrum of emotions and singing over an enormous orchestra throughout the course of the work.
Munich-born Richard Strauss (1864–1949) composed an impressive body of orchestral works and songs before turning to opera. After two early failures, the 1905 premiere of Salome caused a theatrical sensation, and the balance of his long career was largely dedicated to music for the stage.
Elektra marks his first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), with whom he developed a partnership that became one of the most remarkable in operatic history. Hofmannsthal emerged as an author and poet within the fervent intellectual atmosphere of Vienna at the turn of the last century.
The orchestra for Elektra is often cited as the largest for any repertory opera. It includes eight clarinets, four French horns, four Wagner tubas, seven trumpets, two harps, a huge body of strings, and a substantial percussion section. The score encompasses an astonishing range of musical color: there are moments of sublime lyricism when the characters express tenderness or love, and there is brutal, harsh dissonance when they are at (or beyond) the bounds of sanity.
Of the current production, The Financial Times raved “… the great Nina Stemme … sang with unflagging power, with volcanic compulsion in passages of desperation, with shimmering gentility in passages of reflection. She paced, pranced and stumbled with fierce freedom, exuding passion even in repose. She also summoned compelling fervour that engaged everyone around her….”
The New York Times observed, “The director Patrice Chéreau’s production of Strauss’s Elektra… has already been deemed a landmark of contemporary opera staging… Nothing prepared me for the seething intensity, psychological insight and sheer theatrical inventiveness of this production… Ms. Pieczonka’s rich, clear voice conveys Chrysothemis’s affecting vulnerability. Yet in moments of frustration and despair, her singing has bright, piercing power… The bass-baritone Eric Owens is a deeply sympathetic Orest… his rich, muscular voice is suffused with suffering…“
Soprano Renée Fleming hosts the broadcast.
Great Performances at the Met is a presentation of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Corporate support for Great Performances at the Met is provided by Toll Brothers. Major funding for the Met Opera presentation is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. This Great Performances presentation is funded by the Irene Diamond Fund, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, The Agnes Varis Trust, and public television viewers.
For the Met, Gary Halvorson directs the telecast. Jay David Saks is Music Producer. Mia Bongiovanni and Elena Park are Supervising Producers, and Louisa Briccetti and Victoria Warivonchik are Producers. Peter Gelb is Executive Producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is Series Producer; David Horn is Executive Producer.