The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

MET: Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal of Elektra oratorio by Strauss

Word traveled quickly that this was to be as detailed an Elektra in orchestral conception as we might ever run across today – since Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the opera for DGG (and perhaps several other places as well) some years ago. Deborah Voigt was in considerably finer voice then than as heard today. Now, and after hearing Luisi brilliantly do Alpine Symphony with Staatskapelle Dresden from the Proms last summer, one could only surmise that such take on what was about to be heard today and probably throughout this run was something a publicity person may have picked up either first or second-hand from rehearsal sessions, limited as they most likely were. Dramatic intensity together with current of neuroticism that should infiltrate got cut off for most of the 106 minutes of this – with usual stage cuts taken.

One stage cut was most certainly necessary today - that during 'Was bluten muss?' - as Susan Bullock could have, like other sopranos attempting it, easily come to grief with it otherwise. Impetus from Fabio Luisi for unearthing so much that this score has to offer was clearly present - picked up well in the more obviously translucent passages of Elektra. A too easy tendency toward arched crescendos and hatchet downbeats on strong chords was a little more exaggerated than would normally indicate a well rehearsed performance of this. There were numerous lines in this Elektra, in the second Chrysothemis scene for instance that had the attentiveness, nuance, ease that would not make it into completely making connection with more forceful outbursts. Such sudden moments in this score break in at what can often seem at less than a moment's notice to many listeners.

It is the business of the Met orchestra not to sound as though unawares at all on such an essential staple of the repertoire as this. Numerous places, such as for howling, barking dogs, heaves, groans, flute untethered tremolo hallucinatory flourishes in central scene with Klytaemnestra Luisi attempted to bring out, but got anywhere from emerging halfway to mostly smothered instead. One need not even lightly italicize to the extent that Sinopoli does with the VPO on DGG to make such places count, at from Sinopoli only mild threat of breaking up the line. Numerous orchestras however, including the Met itself seven years ago under Levine with orchestra in top form if still an Elektra not cast especially well (except Voigt and Pape as Orest and partly Hanna Schwarz as the queen) have done better. They have certainly more meaningfully, with company under Joe Volpe’s oversight previous Saturday Elektra aired considerably more naturally brought so much more nuance out as well – all due to better rehearsal standards.

Even moments of incisive dialogue such as concerning Orest keeping company with dogs in Atrean stables and of demeaning the manhood of Aegisth by Elektra got halfway blown off. One heard the pitches, the text, but the meaning of it all just rather glibly sauntered by. Elektra’s digging for the axe in anticipation of Orest's arrival just almost sounded jackhammer enough that one could have assumed a woman at it with the biceps of George Forman or Mike Tyson; rushing up and down of cellos and basses anticipating the murder of Klytaemnestra was competently played but still unsubtle, and also broke tension by starting too loud. David Chan’s hallucinatory concertmaster solos in scene with Klytaemnestra were at first covered up, then unsubtly projected over orchestra playing still slightly too loudly not to cover them up otherwise. This was largest indication thus far that Luisi did not get the significant time he needed with his forces.

Luisi indicated numerous times his grasp of the elaborate harmonic scheme behind Elektra, a good if broad sweep to the line, very likely broader and less specific than he would have preferred. The opera he was to originally conduct at the Met this season was Frau ohne schatten. There was often specific shape to the line so much so that one could imagine how much better and ornately adorned it all could have been, if given the time - such as was heard from the Proms last summer for Alpine Symphony – ‘Alpine’ that alludes to both Elektra and Frau at once in a few places.

The best quasi-indication of under-rehearsed conditions was a tendency to underline places somewhat too conspicuously, such as during the first scene with Chrysothemis. With the very thorough time that Luisi has justifiably spent in Richard Strauss, one should hope to hear him do Elektra again, but under more favorable conditions than provided here. This was not so much badly played as just so often a tentatively, phlegmatically engaged account of Elektra – not good enough for what is deemed by Meg and Ira and also many others too to be the best opera orchestra in the world. Luisi and Dresden proved last summer, by comparison to this, how much better an opera orchestra it often is – with Alpine Symphony – some of the Orest music from Elektra intoned so beautifully today by the Met brass, to which it alludes.

The cast today proved very routiniere. Susan Bullock, had I tuned in unawares of who was in this today, could have had me imagine I was hearing Deborah Voigt as Elektra from ten or fifteen years ago, except for an aging Debbie as Chrysothemis standing right next to her, probably looking at the conductor like the Elektra too could have so much of the time. From comment I picked up from across room where I was listening to this, they each could have been trained out of the same school of Banshees as well. As much as I would hope against Voigt attempting Elektra so long ago or at any time really, same must also go for Bullock. Here is a voice for sure too light for this from singer willing to mostly coast through it, drawing with obvious effort upon what limited resources she has available to get through this.

Mid-register sounded hollow, low notes slightly choked, often weak, and a conspicuous spread almost always emitted through the passaggio. Passage such as the fleeting seduction of Aegisth, which calls on the Elektra to relax vocally emerged with good irony and revealed late in the day some acting ability on Bullock’s part, opposite an unpleasant Wolfgang Schmidt, barking off pitch at times - hardly more unpleasant than perhaps should be expected of Aegisth. Otherwise, singing and acting on Bullock's part made an overall bland impression. As opposed to what others have written - as opposed also to what Schmidt has given us before as Siegfried - Schmidt was not the problem today – certainly no more than any of the rest of this.

Deborah Voigt, in place of succeeding at a more aggressive, frontal approach towards Chrysothemis, emerged with just mostly harsh and unfocused tone instead. The middle voice, pushed so, immediately turned vinegary and strident. Whereas the voice freed up nicely to spin off a few high B’s and B-flats, especially toward the end of the opera, numerous of them could have easily come off differently. Low notes - scary to reckon for Susan Bullock - for Voigt came off no differently than for Bullock herself - dry, hollow, cracked - even almost choked at times. Voigt, as heard in Four Last Songs with DSO Berlin last summer, can still sound good, when not being compelled to press down – so hard at times here as though trying to compete dramatically with Bullock. Releases off notes were often unreliable from both women. Evgeny Nikitin (Orest) slightly reminded of Tom Krause on the deemed classic forty-three year old (though slightly over-rated) Solti recording. One could appreciate well Nikitin’s dark tone for Orest, but diction was mildly questionable and legato just cut or two above patchwork at times. Still, he won sympathy for the very ominously destined brother - in anticipation of brutal task before him.

Of the supporting cast, all three men were fine, John Easterlin and Kevin Burdette as Young and Old Servants over glibly, heavily italicized trounce through it orchestrally, and especially Oren Gradus again as Tutor to Orest from also the 2002 Levine broadcast. Rehearsed well right beforehand was the start of the ‘Orest ist tot’ introduction to the same scene, but like with so much else, follow-through was conspicuously weak. Maria Zifchak and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Third and Fourth Maids emerged the best of their lot, with a fine Overseer in, conspicuously enough, Susan Neves. Jennifer Check, as Fifth Maid, sounded outside of her element today – in comparison with her participation in Il Trittico two weeks ago.

Just listening to this, set design for the long central scene with Klytaemenestra could have just as well moved onto the floor of Chippendale’s with the rattled queen of Felicity Palmer - by now somewhat of an institution unto herself. Seen recently on disc as so fussed over, italicized to death her Zita in Gianni Schicchi under Annabel Arden and Valdimir Jurowski was, this is not surprising. No doubt, Palmer has walked the boards of the rattled queen numerous times by now. Opposite what was promised by Meg and Ira during very gratefully an abbreviated edition of the Meg and Ira show, Palmer this time gave us a Klytaemenestra from, colloquially speaking, exaggeratedly the Regina Resnik school of singing it. There was here considerably less solidity tonally - less of a solid core altogether - and less subtlety with words for sure than with either Brigitte Fassbaender for Abbado or Resnik in the part. She lightened up to attempt winning sympathy for the queen in moments of tender reminiscence of long departed happier times; much of the rest of this came close to being barked.

‘Ich habe keine gute Nachte’ ended for an entire line down in C Minor a quarter-tone flat. Having admired Palmer well for so much in the past, her Klytaemnestra included, I reckon today that other than for cameo parts and Countess in Pique-Dame, it may be getting close to time for Palmer to hang it up. For old time's sake, let us save such a Klytaemnestra for camp on PBS British sitcom or something even slightly more debauched.

Meg, alongside Ira, rewrote history in indicating Elektra as having been written nearly a hundred years ago, which if it had been done so, would have put it after Rosenkavalier. Anton Webern no less found Rosenkavalier highly admirable but recidivist after Elektra. And then there had to be the ‘back stories’, except in the case of the Oresteia, these are not really such back stories at all. For tragedies that have been out in the open to cool and dry off in the sun drenched air (with taint of olive oil) over ruins for two millennia now – add on a few centuries as well - one expects a little more or at least should.. For acting subtlety purposes, perhaps even Felicity Palmer, even with estimable knowledge of her part could have used a little consultation by Susan Flannery on how to get it right.

For acting that ranged from broad to glibly passed over (as so inconsistent to have made this conceivable as heard as merely a concert performance), much of Elektra today could have passed as some bizarre, past life episode of something or other around 12 Noon weekdays. At this point should Flannery, certainly with many back stories of her own and for her character too to offer, be at all a fan of opera, I would welcome her on any Saturday afternoon in the place of slap-happy eager Margaret Juntwait. I certainly would hope then she might take up the offer. Fine to hear from you, Susan, just as long as you read the libretto, plus some pages of historical background, commentary before coming on the air.

- Comments dedicated to Lai Tzi-Huei at Cambridge - who attended a near-definitive Stk Dresden Alpine at the Proms last summer - and especially to Edo De Waart, who gave Jones Hall (in Houston) an immaculately rehearsed and absolutely complete Rosenkavalier for HGO in co-production with Netherlands thirty-five years ago here.

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