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OPERA REVIEW : An Understudy Becomes Elektra

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It could have been an operatic Cinderella story--in context, perhaps, a Cenerentola story.

Everyone knows and loves the scenario: Famous diva pulls out of one of the most daunting assignments ever visited upon a soprano. Unknown understudy takes over, and triumphs.

It all happened at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday. All, that is, except the triumph.

The vehicle was the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.” The showcase was a glamorous new production conducted by James Levine, staged by Otto Schenk and designed by Jurgen Rose. The protagonist was supposed to have been Hildegard Behrens, for better or worse the leading Germanic heavyweight of our lightweight age.

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Behrens, unfortunately, is going through a difficult period--either the result of illness (the official Met explanation) or the result of undertaking many Brunnhildes too many (the word on the Rialto).

Reliable witnesses at the “Elektra” opening last Thursday reported a compelling dramatic portrait that constantly teetered on the brink of vocal disaster. No one was too surprised when Behrens canceled the second performance. The only real surprise involved her replacement: Penelope Daner.

Penelope Daner? It is a reasonable question.

According to her house biography, she is a native New Yorker who has had considerable experience undertaking major roles in minor German houses. She reportedly has ventured Elektra with the Pittsburgh and Royal Danish Operas, not to mention the Columbus Symphony. Her only previous work at the Met found her cast as an anonymous Valkyrie back in 1987.

She is obviously a brave woman. She dares rush in where many more famous, and better equipped, artists fear to tread. She deserves credit for saving the performance under excruciatingly difficult conditions.

Still, it should be remembered that a good seat at the Met costs about $100 these days. That implies the maintenance of certain standards, even in emergencies.

Daner introduced the sort of frayed soprano one might expect from a veteran Musetta at the New York City Opera. Her tone, often unsteady and sometimes off-pitch, strained at the top of the range and evaporated at the bottom. She offered mushy articulation of the fiery Hofmannsthal text and ignored Elektra’s crazed nobility as well as her compulsive heroism. She seemed to see the fallen princess as some demented bag lady who, in moments of stress, thinks she is the witch from “Hansel und Gretel.”

It is impossible to gauge how much of her characterization was improvised, how much was imported from another production, and how much was dictated by Schenk. His picturesque staging seemed to rely, for the most part, on traditional cliches and laissez-faire traffic patterns.

The action--or inaction--was neatly enclosed in Rose’s conventional courtyard set, dominated by the symbolic wreckage of a huge equestrian statue and modernized by some faint angular distortion. The box-like construction was, if nothing else, acoustically advantageous to the unevenly endowed singers.

The biggest voice (and, alas, the biggest body) belonged to Deborah Voigt, who created a Chrysothemis of musical if not dramatic radiance. You know something is wrong in “Elektra” when the weaker sister is the stronger soprano.

Leonie Rysanek was for decades a celebrated Chrysothemis, and she even taped Elektra once for television. Now, at career twilight, she has descended to the pathetic duties of Klytamnestra. For all her expressive intensity, she finds the low tessitura emphatically uncomfortable, and she conveys little of the guilt-ridden queen’s dignity or grandeur.

Bernd Weikl sang with considerable fervor as Orest and, unlike most of his colleagues, showed keen respect for the power of stillness. James King once again made much of the nervous Heldensputter that defines Aegisth. Levine conducted the virtuoso orchestra with spectacular breadth and incisive bravado. Still, it was all in vain.

An “Elektra” without an Elektra is no “Elektra” at all.


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