Saturday, December 06, 2008


Sam Shirakawa attended the concert performance of Strauss's Elektra with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday evening. Here's his squib:



When Lorin Maazel returned to the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year to conduct an eccentric but riveting series of Walküres, I wondered why he stayed away for 45 years. For all of New York's nightly array of world-class performers, local opera fans have merely a faint idea of what they've been missing without Maazel.

But we do have a good idea of what Maazel is like conducting Richard Strauss' masterwork Elektra. He first brought it to Carnegie Hall in 1974, leading the Cleveland Orchestra in concert with a cast that headlined Jose van Dam, Kenneth Riegel, Astrid Varnay and Ursula Schröder-Feinen. In 1991, he stepped in for Claudio Abbado, when the Vienna Philharmonic presented the opera here in concert form with Eva Marton in the title role.

On Thursday night Maazel led it with the New York Philharmonic in a remarkable concert performance. The evening was especially phenomenal because so much was "new."

For starters, the music was new to the Orchestra. It's a sure bet that few if any of its members had played the difficult score at its most recent performance back in 1964 -- apart from venerable First Clarinetist Stanley Drucker. Mastering over 100 minutes of new music within the space of a few rehearsals is no mean feat, when you consider how much other work the Philharmonic has on its plate. Look, for example, at the mess the Philadelphia Orchestra made, when they tried to play The Flying Dutchman in its entirety some years ago under Riccardo Muti. The Philharmonic in stark contrast performed Thursday night with the kind of bravura it brings to a frequently recurring work such as the composer's Ein Heldenleben. Some of the woodwind and brass playing was hair-raising--especially among the soloists.

Wisconsin born Deborah Polaski is no stranger to Elektra, having performed it at the Met, but she is new to the Philharmonic, making her debut as she reportedly nears her 60th birthday. I have heard her in various cities at least seven times in the past decade, and she never has sounded better. Absent a couple of under-pitched notes during the morbid Monologue, a recondite warmth informed her singing on Thursday, that I previously found lacking. She went from strength to strength, unleashing vast reserves of tonal contrasts. At a age when most other sopranos have long called it quits, Polaski is now squarely at the top her game. She must have been wearing comfortable shoes, because she also remained standing throughout the intermission-less performance.

Strauss' librettist Hugo von Hofmansstahl pits Elektra against three formidable foils, and Polaski stood up admirably to all of them. As Klytemnestra, Polaski's fellow American Jane Henschel re-affirmed her growing reputation as a powerhouse mezzo-soprano. She is still too young to portray Elektra's mother -- and certainly too young to play Polaski's mom, but her portrayal was as deliciously addled as it was devoid of camp -- especially when Klytemnestra quizzes her daughter giddily on performing the correct animal sacrifices to dispel her bad dreams. She also elicited sympathy for the queen's drugged out derangement with a faint and daffy far-away smile, oddly reminiscent of Laurette Taylor in her legendary screen test.

And then there was Anne Schwanewilms, also making her Philharmonic debut. I have heard this young woman several times over the past decade and found her very... okay. Suddenly, though, she's blossomed into an artist in full command of her estimable vocal arsenal. What strikes me most is how the formerly dark steel in her voice appears to be turning into gold up and down the registers. At several junctures during Thursday's performance, the present character of her voice recalled Ursula Schröder-Feinen's in the brief moment of her prime: beguiling and brilliant, always teasing the imagination.

Fitting, perhaps, that young debutant Julian Tovey, who sings Orest, has been cast in an opera full of archetypes, for he embodies the archetype of the contemporary British baritone: well schooled, cooly polished and unthreateningly attractive. Orest, however, is essentially monochromatic, which makes it hard to assess Tovey's net assets. I say this much, though: the first time I heard Donald McIntyre, he sang Orest (at Covent Garden). He was excellent, as I recall, and look what became of him. Tovey sounded every bit as impressive on Thursday. Put all that under his musicologically resonant surname, and he too is on a glide path to a bright career.

Tenor Richard Margison used his ten minutes in the spotlight to articulate a nasty Aegisthus. It's immensely satisfying to hear the role sung for once by a tenor who is no has-been Tristan or Siegfried as too often is the case.

The cast was rounded out by mostly young, healthy voices: Jessica Klein, Soprano (Clytemnestra Confidante) - Renee Tatum, Soprano (Clytemnestra Trainbearer) - Ryan MacPherson, Tenor (Young Servant) - Frank Barr, Bass (Old Servant) - Matt Boehler, Bass (Orestes's Tutor) - Helen Huse Ralston, Soprano (Overseer) - Janice Meyerson, Mezzo-soprano (Maid 1) - Stephanie Chigas, Mezzo-soprano (Maid 2) - Linda Pavelka, Mezzo-soprano (Maid 3) - Priti Gandhi, Soprano (Maid 4) - Julianne Borg, Soprano (Maid 5), Members of the New York Choral Artists contributed the off-stage hoo-ha, following the deaths of Klytemnestra and Aegisthus.

The brightest lights of the evening, all in all, were Maazel and the Philharmonic. Placing a Straussian orchestra at the same level as the singers predicates huge acoustic risks, but Maazel let the singers soar above the roar without appearing to hold the band at bay. Along the way, he brought forth delightful instrumental details I never heard before.

But there must have been something about this performance that wasn't for everyone. I saw about 15 affluent-looking patrons racing to the exits less than 20 minutes after the performance begin. Maybe they were just philistines. Maybe they were expecting to hear Johann Strauss.

Elektra will be performed tonight/Saturday, Tuesday 9 December and next Saturday 14 December. If you're going to visit a dysfunctional family over the holidays, what better way to rehearse the right spirit than experiencing Strauss's and Hofmannsthal's primer on the Atreus Clan?

©Sam Shirakawa

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