Elektra – Tragedy in one act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal [sung in German with English surtitles]
First Maid – Olga Legkova
Second Maid – Ekaterina Sergeeva
Third Maid – Varvara Solovieva
Fourth Maid – Tatiana Kravtsova
Fifth Maid – Lia Shevtsova
Overseer – Ekaterina Popova
Elektra – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Chrysothemis – Angela Denoke
Klytämnestra – Felicity Palmer
Confidante – Ekaterina Popova
Trainbearer – Ekaterina Sergeeva
Young Servant / Orest’s Companion – Andrey Popov
Old Servant – Vuyani Mlinde
Orest – Matthias Goerne
Ägisthus – Ian Storey
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 12 January, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This was a compelling concert performance of Richard Strauss’s ever-fascinating one-act opera. There was Valery Gergiev at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra leading what some may have found a rather idiosyncratic interpretation, but nonetheless bringing an undeniable freshness of approach. Not for him an over-dominance of rich string tone, except at the obviously romantic moments, but an ever-shifting focus with which to enhance the nervy orchestration and interplay of the thematic material to perfectly suit the psychological aspects of the drama that are so enshrined in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s superb libretto (surely one of the best of all). Elektra’s dance both at its initial appearance and at the conclusion of the work was speedier, though curiously less angular-sounding on its first appearance when Elektra is anticipating how she will dance. That works. Perhaps the passage following Elektra’s “Nur so wie gestern, wie ein Schatten, dort in Mauerwinkel zeig dich deinem Kind!” was over-romanticised in terms of tempo and mood – though Elektra perhaps needs her moment of reverie!
The huge orchestra, replete with heckelphone and contrabass trombone, was here taking up the entire stage and still looking somewhat needy for space. The LSO was on blistering form, and alive to maintaining clarity of texture throughout. There was careful control of dynamics, allowing the singers to override the tumult in all but the very loudest moments – indeed it was only in the final minutes (after the slaughter of Aegisthus) that the soloists seemed to be struggling to make themselves heard. The Expressionistic orchestration that accompanies Klytemnestra’s fearsome and almost maniacal description of her waking nightmares was beautifully realised, and Felicity Palmer’s now-classic account of this role enhanced the passage through her vivid colouring and inflection of the text – she knows too the art of stillness and of bringing the audience to her to make effects. From an orchestral perspective this was a supreme team achievement.
In the exhausting role of Elektra – the more-so here as the opera was presented uncut – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet was a dramatically extrovert interpreter. Both vocally and physically the complexities of this fixated character and her changes of mood were presented unstintingly. She compelled those close around her to interact with her and sustained the intensity of the performance at a high level. Vocally she was more than up to the demands of the role, though occasionally one might have wished for a slightly more penetrating tone. She won and deserved and rapturous ovation at the end of the performance. As a foil to this extrovert sister was Angela Denoke’s surprisingly restrained Chrysothemis. Not for her the near-hysteric interpretation that can work opposite a more restrained and baleful Elektra. This was far more subtle. The younger sister’s repressed desperation to escape the atmosphere within the palace and find emotional stability in a relationship and children was charted well, as was her inability to leave her troubled sister to her fate. The passage where she described the futility of waiting for Orestes or a messenger from Orestes or even a messenger from a messenger was very moving indeed. Denoke sang well and with warmth and vibrancy, with only the final orchestral onslaught overwhelming her and introducing unsteadiness to her otherwise attractive tone. Her final shattered cry of “Orest” was perfectly judged.
With the three ladies being so very strong and individual it was surprising that Matthias Goerne should present such a bland, uninvolved and uninvolving performance as Orestes. As the celebrated Lieder singer that he is one would have expected him to relish the poetry and imagery of Hofmannsthal’s text. Perhaps his lack of stage experience in the part was to blame, a part that seems to sit a little on the low side for him – his first “Ich muss hier warten” lacked that deep resonance and firmness that is needed to establish the nobility, self-control and fixation of the character. The voice itself is mellow, attractive and lovely to listen to, but more is needed here. There was something very impassive about the recognition of Elektra by Orestes that here did not ring true when contrasted with Charbonnet’s more theatrical response; the passage about the dogs in the courtyard recognising him but his sister failing to went for almost nothing. Odd too, if not rather unfair to his colleague, that he should walk off at the moment when his companion had just entered to address some words directly to him.
Ian Storey was a straightforward and virile Aegisthus – how refreshing not to have the part caricatured: Aegisthus is a ruler and fighter, if weak-willed. The smaller parts were all well sung with singers largely drawn from the Mariinsky company (the exception being Vuyani Mlinde). Of the ‘minor’ ladies Tatiana Kravtsova’s Fourth Maid really stood out. The members of the London Symphony Chorus, confined to one side of the stalls seats for their off-stage moments, made a strong impression.
Minor cavils brushed aside, Strauss’s most intense opera here packed a very particular punch.