Elektra, Op.58 – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, adapted from his play, after Sophocles [sung in German, with English supertitles]
Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Clytemnestra – Jane Henschel
Orest – James Rutherford
Ägisth – Gerhard Siegel
First Maid – Nadezhda Serdyuk
Second Maid – Claudia Huckle
Third Maid – Mary Phillips
Fourth Maid – Sandra López
Fifth Maid – Rebecca Nash
Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Clytemnestra’s Confidante – Elizabeth Byrne
Clytemnestra’s Trainbearer – Meredith Hansen
Young Servant – Mark Schowalter
Orest’s Tutor / Old Servant – Kevin Langan
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 21 October, 2015
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
For the second of its three Carnegie Hall concerts this visit, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave a spectacular performance of Elektra, Richard Strauss’s initial collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As Andris Nelsons raised his baton and the BSO played the initial motif that all but cried out “Agamemnon”, the audience’s pre-concert buzz gave way to rapt silence, with not so much as a cough to be heard for some 100 minutes and the opera’s end.
Christine Goerke’s account of the challenging and taxing title role was a tour de force. Present throughout, either soliloquizing or engaging with the other characters, her powerful soprano soared above the enormous orchestral forces. In voice and gesture, she effectively conveyed the range of emotions that Elektra undergoes: anxiety, vengeance, confrontation, affection, determination and exultation. The story concerns Elektra’s obsession with avenging the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Ägisth. Elektra unsuccessfully enlists her sister Chrysothemis, ultimately arranging for her brother Orest to do the deed.
Gun-Brit Barkmin gave a fine portrayal of Chrysothemis, her short hairdo and circa-1920s flapper costume – a long chemise, ropes of pearls and a fur stole – contrasting sharply with Goerke’s flowing hair and bright-red off-the-shoulder gown. Barkmin’s strong but lighter soprano also provided distinction with Goerke’s heftier voice. Jane Henschel was a marvelous Clytemnestra, perfectly intoning some of the most chromatic music and creating a character whose mocking laughter following her dramatic confrontation with Elektra and her off-stage screams in the final scene were highpoints. There were also eight excellent singers in the ‘lesser’ female roles.
Although women’s voices dominate this opera, the male roles were also well performed. James Rutherford was fine as Orest in the ‘Recognition Scene’ in which he and Elektra realize their kinship, and Gerhard Siegel was terrific as Ägisth, singing in a penetrating tenor voice as Elektra sends him to his death at Orest’s hands. The ‘smaller’ roles were also ably taken.
The BSO played superbly. Nelsons guided the Bostonians with a sure hand, capturing the opera’s broad sweep, yet paying great attention to detail. The augmented brass section gave real heft to many passages, and the large variety of woodwind and percussion instruments added many colors. Despite the score’s many strange harmonies, it is redolent of German Romantic tradition as well as passages that presage Der Rosenkavalier, the next Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration.
During this concert performance, the singers’ interactions and the supertitles generally sufficed to make the action clear. However, in a couple of instances – the beating of the Fifth Maid and the killing of Ägisth – vocalizations that are supposed to be off-stage were sung ‘on’, making them less convincing. Following Chrysothemis’s declaration that Orest has killed Clytemnestra and Ägisth, members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, stationed high above, repeated Orest’s name. As Elektra collapsed in the frenzy of her dance of exultation and Chrysothemis desperately called to her brother, the BSO’s forceful statements of the opening ‘Agamemnon’ motto brought the opera to a thrilling conclusion.