Agamemnon Hears You

Last night Sarah and I went to the Met, where we were absolutely floored by a production for the ages: Richard Strauss’s Elektra, sung by Nina Stemme, directed by Patrice Chéreau, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The staging and costumes were unusually bare bones for the Met. Salonen’s interview with Alex Ross about Chéreau is extremely helpful. This Elektra is opera as theatre, not opera as spectacle.

For another experienced opinion, read Anthony Tommasini’s rave review.

My first real exposure to Strauss was a performance of Salome in Finland in my early twenties. It was one of the greatest things that had ever happened to me, and I spent serious time running down scores and records of Strauss’s major works.

Strauss has ended up being the source of several of my best opera-going experiences, not just most famous modernist psychodramas Salome and Elektra but also the meta Capriccio and the static-but-lush Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Like everyone else I also adore the Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings and Four Last Songs. There’s  a lot more to explore, though: Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica is what I champion as an overlooked Strauss masterpiece.

In Elektra, Strauss goes to the cliff and contemplates true atonality. The chromatic orchestral roar when the title heroine recognizes her brother remains shocking today (let alone what it must have sounded like in 1909).

In the end, though, Strauss’s genius is the manipulation of tonal harmony for ironic effect. For the final pages, we are either in C minor or Eb minor. Then there is the most brutal and dissonant resolution (the last vocal note is an unresolved F#) to repeated uniform blocks of C major.

Elektra end


Never has C major been so hollow.

Afterwards we visited percussionist Jason Haaheim backstage. Last year when we saw The Rake’s Progress I took a lot of photos, now archived at the end of my longer Stravinsky essay. Feeling like I couldn’t top that photo extravaganza this time — and frankly rather drained from have just watched Elektra! — I simply took a few shots of Jason’s annotated tympani score.

tymp 1tymp 2

Jason’s scribbles include cues and notes on how to get from tuning to tuning correctly. According to Jason this is one of the hardest tympani parts in Grand Opera. There are seven tymps in total, manned by Jason and Rob Knopper.

Sarah’s photo of Jason and me on the empty stage:

jason and ethan

The drama is done, the blood has flowed, each member of the audience is ready for group family therapy…but don’t worry, the crew was hard at work resetting the scene. There’s one more performance of Elektra Saturday night, closing out the Met’s season.