Prom 59: Richard Strauss’s Elektra with Christine Goerke, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Felicity Palmer & Johan Reuter; Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Strauss
Elektra – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, adapted from his play, after Sophocles [sung in German with an English translation provided in the programme]

Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Clytemnestra – Dame Felicity Palmer
Aegisthus – Robert Künzli
Orestes – Johan Reuter
First Maid – Katarina Bradić
Second Maid – Zoryana Kushpler
Third Maid – Hanna Hipp
Fourth Maid – Marie-Eve Munger
Fifth Maid – Iris Kupke
Overseer – Miranda Keys
Young Servant – Ivan Turšić
Orestes’s Tutor – Jongmin Park

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Justin Way – Stage Director


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 31 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouWhat a weekend it has been for musical high Romanticism at the Proms – of a notably deathly hue – comprising not just the Strauss operatic double bill of Salome and Elektra, but starting with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. As the climax of this triptych, to say that Semyon Bychkov’s conducting – with a magnificent vocal team, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – did not disappoint would be grossly to damn with faint praise. In short, it was spellbinding from beginning to end, starting with the chilling D minor arpeggio motif which calls up the spirit of Agamemnon – who haunts the opera and most of the characters. Bychkov excelled not only in pointing up every startling orchestral detail, but also in the terrifyingly powerful sweep of his direction, giving the music all the force and weight for which one would otherwise have to go back to Giuseppe Sinopoli and Karl Böhm for the same effect on record.

The orchestra variously conveyed sweetness and innocence, whether real – in Chrysothemis’s music – or false, as in Elektra’s attempt to lure her sister into her plot to kill their mother; doom-laden fear to conjure up alternatively the anxieties of Elektra or Clytemnestra; and horrific triumph during Elektra’s wild dance at the end. Especially striking was the flawless Wagnerian tones of the extensive brass section, such in accompanying Orestes’s first appearance.

Christine Goerke as Electra and Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis  in Elektra at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThere was hardly a weak member of the cast and, rightly, this centred on the rock-like solidity of Christine Goerke’s singing in the title role (which she also realised in Covent Garden’s run of the opera last year) demonstrating fearsome power throughout the wide vocal range which Strauss calls for. There was no question as to her ability to fill the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, and to convey successfully all the dramatic nuances of the part – all the more telling, given the necessarily limited stage action. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis matched her for vocal weight, but also manifested a comparative guilelessness. Both she and Goerke absolutely resisted caricatured hysteria.

Any doubts as to whether Clytemnestra could live up to these musical standards need not have been entertained in view of the firm, authoritative characterisation by Dame Felicity Palmer – every inch the commanding matriarch, and no less imperious even as she vouchsafed the nightmares which beset her.

With this trio of lead women, nobody could underestimate the forces with which Orestes and Aegisthus had to contend. Johan Reuther was a serious, unflinching Orestes, somehow all the more compelling on account of the mellow quality of his baritone voice. As Aegisthus, Robert Künzli made light of the situation with an almost jovial, sneering aspect to his performance which offered a well-judged contrast to the prevailing tenseness of the drama.

The minor parts all cohered well, and it is worth singling out Iris Kupke for her vociferous singing as the Fifth Maid – rightly enabling this otherwise anonymous character to stand out as the only one of the Maids who sympathises with Elektra’s plight. Jongmin Park also evinced a musical maturity, belying his youthful age, as Orestes’s Tutor.

Taken altogether, this was a performance of consistent intelligence and dramatic urgency which the very best opera houses would be proud to present, or should aspire to promote. What can one say, but elektrafying!

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