Out of the Shadows

Monday, 1 September 2014

Prom 59: Richard Strauss's Elektra

Johan Reuter, Felicity Palmer, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christine Goerke, with BBC Symphony Orchestra at the end of Elektra at the Proms - photo credit BBC
Johan Reuter, Felicity Palmer, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christine Goerke,
with BBC Symphony Orchestra - photo BBC
Richard Strauss Elektra; Christine Goerke, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Felicity Palmer, Johan Reuter, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 31 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Radiant, transfigured performance with the young American soprano Christine Goerke in the title role

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Another day, another Strauss opera; it made fascinating an illuminating listening and watching to be able to hear two remarkable performances of Salome (performed at the Proms on 30 August, see my review) and Elektra. Both have highly dramatic name parts, testing a soprano to the limits, both use large orchestras, but all to such very different effect. Whilst in Salome, Strauss takes eroticism and pushes it to limits which are intensely Freudian, if not positively pathological, in Elektra he makes grisly revenge the subject for a gloriously redemptive ending. In concert, with the orchestra to the fore, the ending of Elektra took on a new light and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra's playing under Bychkov the ending took on a remarkable positive and transfigurative radiance.

Writing the opera Strauss was building, in more ways than one, on the work of Richard Wagner. Not just in the way that the piece is constructed musically, but in the size of the orchestra and range of instruments (over 110 players with instruments including Wagner tubas, a heckelphone, basset horns, bass trumpet and contra-bass trombone), and in his use of voices. Writing the title role Strauss was relying on the development of a cadre of sopranos capable of singing the dramatic roles in Wagner's operas. But the role of Elektra pushes this voice to its ultimate limit and the opera is routinely cut. One of the small niggles about this glorious Proms performance was that, being a one-off festival occasion a way could not have been found to have opened up some of the cuts.

The performance was staged by Justin Way and unlike the Salome of the previous day, all the cast were off the book and we had a coherent yet simple production which rendered the performance highly effective and helped showcased the remarkable Elektra from Christine Goerke.

Christine Goerke © Arielle Doneson
Christine Goerke © Arielle Doneson
The American dramatic soprano, Christine Goerke sang the role of Elektra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2013. I missed these performances so I was pleased to be able to catch up with Goerke's interpretation. Goerke has only started singing Elektra relatively recently (2011) and she is still relatively young for a dramatic soprano in this repertoire (born 1969 according to Wikipedia). All this contributes to an Elektra which is remarkable for its youth and radiance. She is not one of those Elektras who start the opera as demented and raddled. From the opening she projected youth and a certain rapture in the vocal line. Only gradually did you come to realise that this young woman was unhinged. Goerke had a way of smiling to herself which told volumes. What was refreshing about her performance was that, though certainly a very big sing, she did not seem to need to attack every single phrase. There was some profoundly poignant moments and this was one of the most sympathetic Elektras I have heard in a long time. If I have a worry, it was that her German seemed to lack the crispness I would have liked.

The recognition scene, with Johan Reuter's Orestes, was very touching and Goerke was just right in the way she suggested that even here, Elektra was still self absorbed. Not so much interacting with Orestes, but remembering him. Given the fine quality, it was a shame that we did not have the scene complete for once. In the final scenes, Goerke was not so much demented but transfigured. Her performance taking on a remarkable glow which reflected the glorious accompaniment from Bychkov and the orchestra.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull, as Clytemnestra and Elektra in Strauss's Elektra in Dresden in 1909
Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Annie Krull, as Clytemnestra and Elektra
in Dresden in 1909
Felicity Palmer has been a remarkable Clytemnestra for many years and it was lovely to make the acquaintance again of her vivid characterisation. This was a traditional interpretation of Clytemnestra as neurotic and raddled old woman, wracked by dreams and desperate (the first Clytemnestra, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, was only 48 when she played the role). The way that Goerke's Elektra taunted Palmer's Clytemnestra was masterly and the scene between them fairly crackled. This scene is a gift to two strong singing actresses, and here Goerke and Palmer ran with it in spectacular fashion. We had no glitzy staging to get in the way, just a pair of musically dramatic performances.

The young German jugenddramatisch soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin made a stylish and elegant Chrysothemis. She sang with bright clear tones, and a strong sense of line. Whilst she was touching in the first scene, in the way that she talked about wanting children, she too seemed as touched as the rest of her family. The closing scenes pushed Barkmin's voice to its limits, but she threw herself into the role in an intensely physical way and matched Goerke in creating the scene of transfigured radiance as the closing scenes progressed.

Johan Reuter made a dignified, notable Orestes, his virile baritone giving a sense of the character's nobility and resolve. This was very much an action-man Orestes, silently incapable of understanding the neurotic world in which his sister lived.

The remainder of the cast were all very strong, and contributed to the highly characterful backdrop to the main action of the opera. Robert Kunzli was a suitably old-maid-ish Aegisthus. Miranda Keys was a fearsomely impressive Overseer, physically dominating the chattering Maids of Katarina Bradic, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger and Iris Kupke. Ivan Tursic was the Young Servant and Jongmin Park was Orestes tutor, whilst the Old Servant and six Maidservants were taken from the BBC Singers who also contributed the off-stage chorus at the end.

Under Semyon Bychkov the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed itself to be in peak form, bringing a sense of fluidity and flexibility to Strauss's mammoth score. There were some powerful moments, how could there not be, and there was a sense that this was an orchestral tone-poem with voices, so riveting and mesmerising did Bychkov and his players make the orchestral argument. With the orchestra ranged behind the singers, balance was always going to be a problem but the results worked surprisingly well and there was never a danger that the voices would be completely covered, despite the fact that at times there felt like a wall of sound coming from the stage; a tribute to the skills both of Strauss as an orchestrator and Bychkov and his players.  You kept noticing, that despite the complexities Strauss was essentially a lyric composer and Bychkov's ear for the details was masterly. The ending, as I have said, had a radiance and also a sense of dance, something the Bychkov brought at various points of the score.

This was a radiant and unforgettable evening, the neuroses of the drama were modified by the transfigured performance from Goerke and the warm glow which Bychkov and his players cast on the score, supporting a very fine cast indeed.

The review appears in OperaToday.com

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