Updated: Friday, March 2, 2018, 4:24 PM
NEW YORK — And the love affair continues….
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is entering Phase Two of his late-winter Metropolitan Opera residency with an extraordinary degree of visibility and adulation. No longer a distant presence on the company’s horizon, the Met’s music director-designate this Thursday conducted the second in a pair of richly-applauded productions.
Objectively speaking, Thursday’s opening of Strauss’ Elektra was a knockout that assured he need not fear comparisons with the great conductors who have come before him. Strauss’ dense, high-velocity dramatization of the Sophocles-based tale of murder begetting murder was evidence of his burgeoning rapport with the great Met orchestra, his keen attention to the needs of singers (in what can be a voice-killing opera), and a mutual infatuation with the ticket-buying public.
He’s also conducting Wagner’s Parsifal in repertory (that was Phase One), and in that six-hour saga, Nezet-Seguin has suffered comparisons to the departed James Levine in terms of sustaining the more contemplative passages of the composer’s quietest opera. Yet at last Friday’s performance of Parsifal, Nézet-Séguin was clearly the audience favorite.
Even more interesting, he was supposed to have that particular night off, which initially explained why the ticket availability was far better than other dates. When the originally-scheduled John Keenan fell ill and Nézet-Séguin was announced as the replacement, the “will call” line was unusually long the night of the performance.
The cheaper seats in the Family Circle are often the province of elders with fixed incomes. Friday’s crowd for Nézet-Séguin’s unscheduled bonus performance was predominantly under 60, with lots of same-sex under-30 couples.
Support for Nézet-Séguin seems to be growing out of the concrete (as opposed to anything grassroots) and is clearly reinforced by lots of press.
In fact, his longtime followers might’ve been a bit puzzled over the New York Times photo spread on Thursday documenting his 14-hour day on that Friday that started with him conducting an Elektra rehearsal and continued with the Parsifal performance in the evening. Philadelphians know that he periodically conducts a matinee with the Philadelphia Orchestra and an evening show at the Met. Or vice versa.
Nézet-Séguin is the talk of the New York critics, some of whom think he should slow down and concentrate on a smaller repertoire. They’re probably right. But longtime watchers also know that Nézet-Séguin is going to do what he’s going to do.
One could’ve predicted that Elektra would’ve been a success, partly because the crucial casting of the stentorian title role was filled by Christine Goerke — first heard in Philadelphia singing lighter baroque repertoire with Tempesta di Mare but now the kind of Wagnerian diva who can hold notes even longer than necessary while navigating the stage with great theatricality.
Add to that a depth of characterization that she has found over her three years-plus singing Elektra. In a role obsessed by avenging the death of her father Agamemnon, Goerke projected a greater sense of the melancholy isolation that has come with the quest. This is a complete Elektra, the likes of which I haven’t seen in years.
Other roles have plenty of their own challenges, with Elza van den Heever portraying purity and femininity as Chrysothemis amid Strauss’ orchestral maelstrom. Michaela Schuster wasn’t quite the kind of tortured, diabolical presence that one might want with Klytamnestra. Goerke and Mikhail Petrenko as Orest made the famous Recognition Scene claim its place as the opera’s emotional center.
The performance was streamed, allowing me to revisit it the next morning, revealing much about Nézet-Séguin‘s conducting that one misses in performance.
Yes, the Met orchestra exploded at its considerable best, with Nézet-Séguin finding orchestral colors and all manner of nervous rhythms that one associates with the great Georg Solti. But the stream also showed how Nézet-Séguin wraps whoever is singing like an orchestral glove, and one that’s exactly the right size.
Opera doesn’t get any scarier than the violent, hyper-dramatic Elektra, though my guess is that those performing it on Friday could enjoy the freedom that comes with the security of a devoted colleague.
Also: Longtime Opera Philadelphia watchers may be interested to know that the production was the Met debut of Lisa Daltirus (aka Lisa Gwyn Daltirus), who sang an unforgettable Aida in years past and lives in the Philadelphia area. Here, she’s the Fifth Maid — a role that’s not as minor as it sounds, and she was excellent. Might we be hearing more of her now?
OPERA REVIEW Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts "Elektra" at the Met Additional performances March 5, 9, 12, 17 (matinee), and 23 at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. Information: (212) 362-6000 or metopera.org.