Elektra Gabriele Schnaut
Chrysothemis Janice Watson
Clytemnestra Felicity Palmer
Aegisthus John Treleaven
Orestes Alan Held
Overseer Mary Lloyd Davies
Young Servant Huw Rhys-Evans
Confidante Tamsin Dalley
Trainbearer Monike Stache
Old Servant Gavin Horsley
Orestess Tutor Guido Sanguinetti
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 29 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Few works can be said to fill the Albert Hall with sound: Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder – both heard at last year’s Proms – do so, while Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony cries out for a revival here. Among operas, Richard Strauss’s ’dynamic duo’ of Salome and Elektra can be relied upon to create an impact – tonight’s semi-staged performance doing that and much more besides.
Premiered at Dresden in 1909, Elektra is considered the apogee of the Expressionism then prevalent in Viennese music. Certainly its intensity is unremitting for nigh on 105 minutes, without the nod towards set pieces or the melodic appeal of Salome. Then again, Strauss’s tendency to ’send up’ the climactic dramatic moments of that earlier opera is by no means absent here either – confirming that, for this composer, inward expressive depth was synonymous with outward emotional impact. A feeling that was reinforced this evening by a light-show dizzying even by recent Proms standards. Moving from lurid turquoise in Elektra’s monologues to garish scarlet at the murders, this was definitely more ’Hammer House’ than Hofmannsthal.
It was in maintaining a fine line between insight and overkill that Gabriele Schnaut’s portrayal of the title role was at its most impressive. Not for her the abrasive anguish of Birgit Nilsson or the ringing implacability of Hildegard Behrens; rather an attempt to capture the mood-swings of a wronged and maltreated woman as she veers between lamenting and lust for revenge. Moreover, the psychological distance around the character makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sympathise with her plight in conventionally emotional terms. The self-communing in her dealings with Chrysothemis, whose yearnings towards acceptance and motherhood are viciously brushed aside, throws the element of sympathy decisively onto the latter, while the reunion with Orestes is moving because of its relative directness of emotion – an oasis of human chemistry in an expanse of dysfunctional relationships. Her barbed insouciance in the brief but precipitate exchange with Aegisthus before the latter’s murder set the seal on an interpretation which grew in conviction as the drama proceeded.
Unlucky, perhaps, that in the theatrically-stunning confrontation with Clytemnestra towards the opera’s mid-point, Schnaut was up against Felicity Palmer in a role she has effectively made her own over the last decade. Few exponents have delivered the part with the visceral synthesis of sheer nastiness and acute hypochondria as here, projecting a corrupt decadence that carries all before it. Her facial contortions at the news of Orestes’s alleged death were magnetic in themselves, while the role-playing with Electra beforehand was chilling in its psychological brinkmanship. A portrayal to be remembered for a long time.
If Janice Watson’s Chrysothemis did not evince that degree of conviction, her identification with the role was in keeping with a singer whose versatility and intelligence in a wide range of operatic characters is always a pleasure to encounter. Alan Held was similarly affecting as Orestes, a vein of impetuosity leavened by bitter experience, but John Treleaven’s unsteady Aegisthus – qualities not inappropriate to the part – was the one relative failing of the evening. The subsidiary roles were decently taken, with Tamsin Dalley and Guido Sanguinetti characterful in their cameos as Confidante and Orestes’s Old Tutor respectively.
Donald Runnicles met the opera’s requirements of knife-edge dramatic pacing and balancing of the many-layered orchestral sonority with assurance and aplomb. It helped that the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was uniformly excellent, with Wagner tubas subtly enlarging the depth of brass sonority and the many pointed solo-woodwind contributions given with due attention to their dramatic placement. If Elektra is in essence a theatrical spectacle intended to ’wow’, its finer shades of interpretative nuance were as evident here as the pile-driving orchestral might that Strauss, in an opera preoccupied with inhibition, was never again to unleash so uninhibitedly.