Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remember that time I used to write opera reviews?

Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Mycenaean way, why is it that Elektra is so much better than anything else that happens, musical or otherwise. Sometimes, while I'm being all Hellenically inquisitive about things, I also wonder why the MTA would choose to piss on my evening by skipping three stops without announcing it. Me, if I were a subway conductor instead of a rage-obsessed daughter of a murdered king, I would announce that kind of thing. But then I don't run the subway or drive a train. Ah, you'll be thinking, but you also never saved an axe for years and years so you could murder your immediate family with it. Well, maybe, maybe not. On the internet, nobody knows you're an Argosian princess, as the old cartoon says.

It's not as if I'm home late, anyway. Elektra is an hour and three quarters soaking wet, and actually I know this from recent experience because that's about what it clocked in at with Lorin Maazel really laying it the fuck on. I heard (and failed to get) a joke about Lorin Maazel and a fan in an elevator, but we'll leave that for the second set, when the act goes blue, because even I can't find the relevance.

Anyway like a Berlinian hedgehog of conducting, Maazel made One Big Choice, and that was to lead everything at a lumbering pace that almost never varied. It wasn't unnuanced if I'm making it sound like that; on the contrary there were places where the breadth of things gave Strauss' grotesque little filigrees (like the tootling around before the big orchestral freak-out that begins Elektra's monologue...insert maybe apocryphal thing about Strauss/Mendelssohn/"fairy music") room to introduce themselves properly, in case you hadn't met. And, somewhat to my surprise, it made Klytamnestra's "oh shit, here she comes" music extraordinarily menacing rather than dulling its impact.

What it did do, however, was underline the few longeurs the score does have, like when they opened out the "Penthouse Forum" cut ("Dear Penthouse Forum: This one time, I told my sister how slim and supple her hips were, and then we had a pillow fight and killed our entire family.") it came to feel like a bit of a shaggy dog story, despite the fact it's really not that long. What else it did is throw some nasty demands the way of the singers. Not only did Chrysothemis' waltz lose its giddy despair, but Anne Schwanewilms had to yelp out a couple of top notes, notes that turned out to be pretty workable later on when she got to approach them a little more favorably.

Schwanewilms, truth to tell, was overparted, but a good way? It's like how Lisa della Casa is the more moving (with Mitropoulos, you know, on record) because she sounds a bit out of her depth, as is her character. She's a good actress, insofar as you can tell in concert, though she doesn't enter right after the double bar howling like a wounded animal, but you know who the hell does?

Jane Henschel, sorta. You remember that one Halloween we sat in the house playing Jean Madeira's hideous cackle from the Bohm recording? Oh, wait, you weren't there. You'll have to take my word for it. It's a highlight of the history of studio recordings, though, right? And her screams: also first rate. You basically don't get to hear that live. It just gets lost, if the mezzo in question does it at all.

The one time I actually had tears in my eyes during this performance, though, was at Jane Henschel's exit, because she made the most unhinged, embarrassing sounds. It was perfection. As were her screams, maybe--one was thrown momentarily off one's critical moorings by the fact that this effect came from up in the balcony. Actually it was fun to watch the lady in front of me keep looking nervously up there ever after, in case there might be more Murders in the Mezzanine.

Weird thing is, Henschel started off with no promise of what was to come. A few things I have always assumed Klytamnestren live for were thrown away like they didn't matter, most notably the line "sie redet wie ein Artzt" in which you just get to sound like an absolute car horn if you feel like it. There was another that baffled me, I think in the part about...uh....well the part that an online translator tells me goes like this:

I wish from my soul all hull
and replace the fan gentle air,
from where it will come up, admit as
the sick do if they cool the air,
Sitting on ponds, evening their bumps
and all their Eiterndes the cool air
disclose the evening, and nothing raquel think
as a relief to create.

Yessiree. I think you're supposed to replace the fan after 10,000 miles right? Or is that the air filter? But so then you get to "Darum bin ich so behangt mit Steinen" [Therefore, I hang out with Gloria Steinem] and all hell breaks loose, with the chest voice, and the basically growling, and my favorite line, the one about zefressen von den Motten, where everyone gets to pretend they're Martha Modl. Well that was all fine and dreadful. No complaints here. For fun, she is two feet shorter than her stage daughter, which adds some kind of dynamic I can't put my finger on.

Actually it was at the moment of the death screams that I remembered something. Which is that riiiight about when I was flirting with maybe liking Not Always Pretty Music, but not yet, I heard a broadcast of Elektra, and thought in that way that romantic comedy heroes and heroins hate one another when they meet: that is some nasty, fucked up shit. This was 1991, I think. Who knows, could even have been Polaski.

Polaski, you see, has been singing the role for goddamn ever. And the natural conclusions you will reach, correctly, are 1) that she is in some ways out of voice, and 2) that she probably knows what the hell to do about it because this is far from her first time at the rodeo. There are places where the sound is very, very frayed, but someone must have told her at some point that if you rev the engine a certain way, nobody will notice you're driving a rusty Pinto.

Here's what she uses: volume you can't argue with, a trick of crooning higher stuff for a second before slamming into it (a kind of "fake it 'til you make it" approach that loud German opera can be pretty forgiving of) and a knowledge of the score that lets her know where she can coast because you're not going to hear her no matter what. Oh and of course rock solid conviction, that thing that comes from within that nobody can teach you. She happens to have that. And it means she doesn't have to move around as much as she otherwise might have to, and that you think you can see her facial expressions even when you're in row KK. (One row behind practically everyone you know. Didn't it seem tout let tout was there? Maybe just my tout.)

Smaller roles (sorry to skip Orest...good voice, not a role I feel I can size a singer up in) were uniformly well cast. All I can think to comment on as I fade off to bed here is Janice Meyerson's pointy German diction, the generous yelling of Richard "I sang Bacchus at the Met really recently" Margison in a bit of luxury casting, just...everyone was good, ok? Hell, even the audience was good, very into it except for the few oldsters that clomped out upon discovering that, as my friend up on row JJ put it, Elektra sounds way different from his earlier work like The Blue Danube.

Potentially a lot coming up to blather about. Tristan for sure, Don G at some point, crazyweird concert at BAM I may or may not write about, Thais...


R. said...

Being one of the works that got me into opera in the first place, and still one of my top favorite three, AND the first opera I ever saw at the the Met, I've been agonizing over whether to see this Elektra. I'm just afraid that a concert performance of this supremely theatrical work will end up tasting like one of those non-flavors. Like aspartame, or decaf coffee, or light beer. But your review is encouraging. Isn't there supposed to be a staged revival at the Met in some upcoming season(s)? I may just hold out for the real thing.

I love the picture of Juliette Lewis autographed by Lisa della Casa.

Burns said...

I thought Henschel was pretty great once I figured out that she was not the Snapple™ lady. But I swear I saw her getting off the bus from King-of-Prussia this afternoon wearing a santa sweater.

Tuesday was also Polaski's 175th "Elektra"... count it!

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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