I think my original attempt at posting about Elektra was devoured by my laptop. So here's take II.
Context: I am not right in the head about Elektra. In Houston, with Behrens and the grand ruins of Rysanek, it was the first time music made my heart beat as if I'd just run a block. (Mm hm, that's my version of "run a marathon." Hi, I'm Maury, and I'm a sedentary blob of out-of-shapeness.) It was before I'd found my bravo, if you happen to have read that entry, so at the end, after Eschenbach pulled the final bars out so long you thought you'd scream or at least have a birthday waiting for the resolution, I was all pent-up excitement. That was a Serban production, and I remember it as not overly inventive but very tuned in to the exuberant rage that is Elektra. Barstow, it was rumored, had shown up not knowing the role and was told, "learn it or hit the road." I wouldn't be completely surprised if this were true, given the deliriously nervous character of her reading.
Since then, I have seen it at the Met where Voigt was the lone beacon of delight, saddled with a combo I remember through a haze of blah as Schnaut and maybe Hannah Schwarz; and in concert at Tanglewood with the generally excellent Lisa Gasteen and Hurricane Palmer as her moms, about which I have spil't ink already. It's an opera I had to take a break from because I had listened the juice out of it, usually in one of the many Borkh outings. It is a work that produces in me that gratifying feeling of "this is a thing I could never, with any amount of training, have thought up myself," like standing at the base of the pyramids, I'd imagine--and at the same time it's so deeply familiar to my soul it feels, I might say, were I a mad Greek on the verge of collapse instead of a nebbishy opera blogger, as if the music came from me.
So what the hell can I tell you that's going to be at all objective? You already know how I feel about Podles, unless you are illiterate, in which case what are you doing reading this? Go back to watching Wife Swap and voting republican. Actually that may be a point of entry, though, my nigh autistic worship of perhaps the animating obsession of these pages: Podles in most things one sees her in is a little like Voigt up in the previous paragraph, surrounded by capable, even good singers whose highest notes but taste the glory of EP's lowest. The Wizard of Oz metaphor is tired but, for me, inescapable: she puts everyone else in black and white.
I'm pleased to report, maybe surprisingly, that Ewa Podles in the Canadian Opera Company's Elektra is in context. I didn't come away feeling like I had heard her and some other incidentals. In a negligible way, it felt sad not to be uniquely blown away by her, but the payoff was a consistently taut and heart-rending sing from basically everyone. Not on purely Stimm-based merits, you understand, but in roundly gesamstkunstwerklich terms.
Susan Bullock I know previously only from a Houston Butterfly whose sonic form has vanished utterly from my mental files. I was not expecting much. It is a voice that has had a kind of greatness beaten into it, on evidence of the prima. The top spreads and will never be pretty, but the middle has lingering warmth that lends itself better to the recognition scene than most who can soldier through the role. Ok, it's not a terrific instrument, but (after a tentative first few minutes) it is deployed with a ragged dementia I have not recently seen on an opera stage, something that takes me back to Behrens in fact. Much rocking and uncontrollable weeping, stuff along those lines that we live for. Elektra, you know, is not where you want a whole lot of restraint and good taste.
Which brings us naturally enough to Madame Podles. In an interview before the opening our hero says to a reporter for the Toronto Star, ""Ah, Strauss. It's like a good piece of steak. There's blood inside." [Interstingly, in this interview, she goes on to totally harsh on her stepdaughter/accompanist, and it's sliiightly hard to tell if she's kidding.] If you've heard her sing anything, you know she always ends up with blood on her teeth, and this was no exception. The staging of her entrance was ingenious (I was fond of the production as a whole, despite a few touches like the-past-as-pantomime that can go horribly wrong) and from there, she just pretty much did her thing, chesting what needs to be chested, pulling faces that could be seen in Kansas, but with that aesthetic grounding and consistency that makes for catharsis rather than parody. From "ich habe keine gute Nachter" on, she evinced an understanding of what makes Klytamnestra a compelling villain, the grandeur under the decay; her singing embodied both. It was the exact midpoint between the unhinged harpy school of Klytamnestren, cf.: Fassbaender, and the dignified, well sung version put forth by such as Blanche Thebom.
Alwyn Mellor, unfortunately costumed, refused us the howl of a wild animal that's supposed to come just before "Orest ist tod!" but otherwise was as ready for a romp through the carnage as the rest of them. Funny voice, hers...it's pretty round and well-behaved throughout until you get to the top few notes which are, how to say, wiry or something, but large and clear. They do their own thing. I guess a wild top never did Ms. Rysanek any harm, I'm just sayin' is all. I wish the director had let her laufen an die Tür des Hauses, as the libretto states, and schlagen daran. For some reason I've never seen that happen, and it seems like it would be so satisfying, I mean really schlagen the hell out of the Tür, because the very end of Elektra is even less the time for restraint than the rest. I bet Mattila schlagte the damn thing schwarz and blau.
My only quibble was the conducting, I guess, and it's half a quibble, more of a quiblet--it's a very good orchestra, and I suppose I could see how the score came out as a deliberate thing: every jagged edge was sanded down to an interesting smoothness: come see the softer side of Strauss! A little slowness here and there, some narrowing of dynamic ranges, the whole thing comes off as deco and diaphanous, maybe as Mendelsohnnian "fairy music," as Strauss is said to have requested. Only he can't have been serious, cuz honey, this is Elektra. It is about steak and blood, as certain people know. It kind of ruined the monologue for me, to be honest, and pissed me off in a couple of other places, though as you have gathered, the whole product was immensely exciting. Kudos to the conductor, whose name I don't have right here, for opening up at least one large traditional cut, y'know, the whole "hot girl-on-(related)-girl action" bit a little while after the CD break.
Wait, can I talk about the production again for a sec? Because I just read Ken Winters' review in The Globe and Mail and it reminded me of some stuff. I have to agree with Mr. Winters, by the way, that there was something about Ms. Bullock's costume and affect that called to mind Judi Dench's similarly crazy-and-then-some turn in this year's Notes on a Scandal. Anyway what I started to say is I think the reason I'm so content with the odd convention of portraying the House of Atreus (here I mean the actual physical dwelling, as in "open no doors in this house!") as little white monopoly house in the middle of the stage is that attempts to make it represent all the misery that have made Elektra what she is overlook the fact that it's probably nothing all that grand. The libretto doesn't say much about it, but let's not forget it's the people who should be draped in expressionist gloom, if anyone. A blank, white house suggests that the House of Atreus (now the family) is only interesting and distinct from, let's say, the families on Wife Swap in that they're the primal fucked up family, one we can project everything onto. Am I full of shit? I didn't get all that much sleep last night. Don't you kind of hate how that's always my excuse? Oh well, the proper response is to become my blogpatron, then I'll quit my day job and be well rested and coherent always.
Incidentally, the company's new house is a wonderful space. I hope to return there next time I feel recharged and equal to the creepy once-over you get crossing the border back. Try telling a butch number with a handgun and a lot of arbitrary authority you left the country for 24 hours to see an opera sometime and see what he makes of it.
Next up: Il Trittico. Not to ruin anything but if I hate it I may refer to it as "Il Shittico." Oh, my rapier wit!
p.s. Wife Swap is a really good show.