"Elektra" mezzo at The Met offers cool refinement in the midst of torment

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NEW YORK >> No monsters of depravity for Waltraud Meier, thank you. The German mezzo-soprano takes a very different view of the Greek queen Klytemnestra than the one usually seen in Richard Strauss' "Elektra."

Meier, for 40 years one of opera's most glamorous and riveting performers, is portraying the role at the Metropolitan Opera in a production conceived by the late Patrice Chereau and first seen at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France three years ago. Saturday's matinee will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide (including Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington and Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield).

During her 25-minute scene in the middle of the one-act opera, Meier exudes a cool refinement that seems almost at odds with the tormented character who murdered her husband, Agamemnon. As critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in the Financial Times, her character, "customarily a dangerous old grotesque, appeared as an elegant, attractive, almost sympathetic victim."

"I see her really as a tragic woman," Meier said in an interview, "I think we get much deeper into what's in her soul when we show that she's still human."

That takes some doing, because the opera is dominated by Klytemnestra's daughter, the vengeance-obsessed Elektra, who describes her mother in the most loathsome terms and is determined to see her punished for her crime.

"When the curtain opens we -hear only what her daughter tells about her," Meier said, "and Chereau always said we may not fall into the trap of believing Elektra too much. It's her adolescent point of view. But it is not the truth."

What does constitute the truth is complicated and involves a backstory in which Agamemnon had sacrificed the couple's oldest daughter, Iphigenia, to placate the gods as he went off to fight in the Trojan War.

"I don't say the murder of Agamemnon is right," Meier said, "but it is understandable, there are reasons for it. Not justifications, but reasons."

In the libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Elektra accuses her mother of sending gold to arrange the murder of her absent brother, Orest. Klytemnestra insists the payment was to ensure his good treatment, and Meier thinks she's telling the truth.

"Because he is still her son. And she knows that he has to come back and kill her," she said. "And on one side she wishes that, she waits for that, because that makes an end to her suffering."

At the end of her scene with Elektra, Klytemnestra is told (falsely) by messengers that Orest is dead. In most productions, she indulges in a fit of hysterical laughter and then as she exits calls out: "Lichter! Mehr Lichter!" ("Lights! More Lights!") Meier neither laughs nor cries out — choices that she sees as more in keeping with her dignified, restrained take on the character.

Another peculiarity of this production is that Orest murders his mother onstage instead of offstage. After he stabs her, Meier falls to the ground and has to remain there in full view of the audience for the rest of the opera.

"It's very hard in both senses," she said. "You may not move. However you fell down you have to stay like that. Those 17 minutes can be long."

THE MET LIVE IN HD

What: "Elektra" by Richard Strauss

With: Nina Stemme, Waltraud Meier, Adrianne Pieczonka, Eric Owens

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen

When: 1 p.m. today

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington; Beacon Cinema, 57 North St., Pittsfield

Tickets: Mahaiwe — $25 (reserved seating); Beacon — $25 (general admission)

How: Mahaiwe — (413) 538-0100; mahaiwe.org; in person at Mahaiwe box office. Beacon — thebeaconcinema.com; in person at Beacon box office


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