When Richard Strauss was writing his opera Elektra in 1907, Freud had published his first important papers and expressionism was the new flavour in the visual and performing arts. Those two facts have coloured productions of the opera ever since, with some directors focusing on psychopathology and others emphasizing the piece's lurid situations.
Two new productions of Elektra step back from the influence of Freud and the expressionists, toward what might be called a more humanistic view. Opéra de Montréal's first-ever Elektra (opening Saturday) and a Patrice Chéreau staging due at New York's Metropolitan Opera in April both seem to share a common and surprising watchword: compassion.
There's no doubt that everyone in the family of Agamemnon is severely messed up. His widow and murderer, Klytaemnestra, is tortured by her dreams, and his daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, are stuck in patterns that, as the latter says, are closer to death than life. We can hardly measure the damage done to his long-exiled son, Orest, because he shows up just in time to realize Elektra's obsessive need to see her mother killed. In modern parlance, they all need healing, which wasn't really a factor in the ancient Greek tellings of their story.
"I want to stress the humanity of the characters, most of whom are suffering," director Alain Gauthier says during a break in technical rehearsals for his OM production. "I think you can have compassion for all of them, even Klytaemnestra. You can make a monster out of her so easily, but for me it's even touching to see this fragile, suffering woman."
Chéreau, an influential French director who died after his Elektra's first appearance at Aix-en-Provence two years ago, sounds a very similar theme in a video interview included with the DVD recorded during that opening run. The piece focuses on three strong women, he says, "and each is entitled to our understanding; each has her own reasons." They all find a sympathetic response in the music, he adds, which in each case, at some point, expresses their reality with tenderness.
Neither production leaves the opera in ancient Greece. Chéreau brought the piece forward to a non-specific modern setting, while Gauthier's Elektra unfolds near the time of composition – but not, he says, because he wants to comment on Strauss's time.
Most directors work from an initial concept, but in this case Gauthier began with a gigantic prop: a 25-foot statue of Agamemnon crouching and writhing at the moment of his murder. OM artistic director Michel Beaulac had commissioned the piece from Spanish sculptor Victor Ochoa, and asked Gauthier to build a production around it.
"They gave me an object to work with, and I had to make sense of that," Gauthier says. In one way, the sense was clear: "Agamemnon is the only character who is never on stage, yet it's all about him." The task of actually building a production around a huge inert object was something else, and became more complicated as the sculpture was fabricated.
"They had seven 3-D printers working non-stop for four months, making 3,000 little plastic pieces," Gauthier says. Those were put together into bigger chunks, to be assembled all together in Montreal. But when they were put together, it turned out that the big pieces had warped a little, and no longer fit together smoothly. Gauthier laughs when he recalls being told by telephone that instead of looking like a stone sculpture, it would have to look like welded metal.
"They were afraid I'd be like, 'Nooo!' but I said, 'Great, that's even better!' " he recalls. "It changed my whole way of putting the show on stage." The opera suddenly had a time period – the dawn of structural metal, the period of the Eiffel Tower – and the sculpture had a more urgent reason to be there, because Gauthier saw that Elektra, who spends her days obsessing over her father, had to be the sculptor.
"I like it when ideas come out of an error in the process," Gauthier says. When one of the pieces of the sculpture got lost, he decided that Elektra had not quite finished it, and would do so after her mother's killing. Otherwise, there's nothing else on stage, just the statue in a theatrical black box. For the rest, Gauthier says, "[Étienne Boucher's] lights are going to create the space, like in a rock show," with a fine watery vapour cast into the air to catch and magnify the light.
Chéreau's set design, by Richard Peduzzi, is almost a textbook realization of the kind of lean perpendicular stage architectures made by Adolphe Appia, a seminal Swiss stage designer from the early 20th century who also pioneered the expressive use of lighting. The tomb-like classical stillness of Peduzzi's setting gave Chéreau a pared-down space in which to work out the emotional transitions of the piece, which, as he says on the DVD, are constantly compressed by Strauss's 100-minute score.
"I liked the way Patrice worked," says Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who appeared as Chrysothemis in the production at Aix and will sing the role at the Met in April. "He was so interested in the relationships, very much like an acting director in terms of intention and focus."
You could argue that Strauss approached the piece in the same way. His music changes character drastically as it sounds the characters' different needs and fears. That was seen as a weakness by some early critics, though Strauss didn't write a pastiche: The opera is tightly structured. As Michael Kennedy says in his biography of the composer, the opera is "not truly expressionist" music, in part because Strauss's extravagant harmonies and scorings all fit within a strictly tonal frame.
That frame will be presented in Montreal by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and in New York by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Lise Lindstrom will sing the title role at OM, and Nina Stemme takes the part at the Met. In both places, it will be 100 minutes of hurting music, and a violent story told with compassion.
Opéra de Montréal's Elektra opens Nov. 21 at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. The Metropolitan Opera's production opens at Lincoln Centre on April 14, and will be broadcast in theatres across Canada on April 30.