Elektra – Opera in one act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Sophocles
Elektra – Deborah Polaski
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Clytemnestra – Jane Henschel
Orestes – Julian Tovey
Aegisthus – Richard Margison
Clytemnestra Confidante – Jessica Klein
Clytemnestra Trainbearer – Renée Tatum
Young Servant – Ryan MacPherson
Old Servant – Frank Barr
Orestes’s Tutor – Matt Boehler
Overseer – Helen Huse Ralston
Maids – Janice Meyerson, Stephanie Chigas, Linda Pavelka, Priti Gandhi & Julianne Borg
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 9 December, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
This performance was the third of four in a semi-staged run of Richard Strauss’s early one-act masterpiece, “Elektra”, with a cast that was for the most part outstanding and with amazing playing from the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel.
This particular account marked the 150th-performance of the title role by Deborah Polaski. Her enormous voice and razor-edged diction were a perfect match for the shimmering sonorities of the Philharmonic — but even more dazzling was her authoritative, captivating and goosebump-inducing high range in the quieter dynamics. Her amazing voice was not the only thing under enormous control: Polaski’s characterization of Elektra is that of a woman simultaneously over the psychotic edge yet utterly disciplined, waiting with superhuman patience for the moment where she can at last wreak unholy vengeance on her father’s murderers. Polaski brought an unexpected heldensopran dignity and honor to the role.
Jane Henschel used her deeper-hued, dramatic voice to impart Clytemnestra with unctuous, regal villainy — and her dramatic depiction had just the right dash of scenery-chewing panache, bringing real tension to the power struggle between the homicidal queen and Elektra. Jessica Klein and Renée Tatum, both members of the Juilliard Opera Center, sang the brief roles of Clytemnestra’s reptilian retinue with sinister, sycophantic style.The orchestra too often overpowered Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis; her warm lyric soprano was not a good fit with this orchestra or cast. Julian Tovey’s Orestes seemed austere and distant – which works for the first portions of the Recognition Scene, but neither his voice nor his depiction seemed to catch fire until shortly before his departure from the stage, leaving the impression that he was not so much the heroic avenger-to-be as Elektra’s lackey. Richard Margison fared far better, bringing to the role of Aegisthus just the right measure of smarm and obliviousness. The New York Choral Artists brought an air of triumph to the opera’s final scene.
Unlike last season’s somewhat disappointing “Tosca”, Lorin Maazel for the most part did not muck around, judiciously deploying rubato to make both dramatic and textual sense, with well-chosen tempos to underpin mood and action, and well-made balances to highlight details and timbres. While Maazel and the orchestra projected the grotesque nature and squalor of the opera’s setting and libretto in vivid relief, the overall effect leaned toward the analytical side of the emotional spectrum up until the pivotal moment when Elektra at last recognizes her brother (“Orest!”). It was as if Maazel threw a switch — from that moment on the singers and the conductor honed-in on the shifting emotional landscape and projected with remarkable intensity all of the suspense, tension and horror. Perhaps it was intentional — the night-and-day transition was structurally jarring, but the build-up to the denouement was as thrilling as one could wish.