Review – Elektra (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 31 August 2014)
Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Klytemnestra – Dame Felicity Palmer
Oreste – Johann Reuter
Aegisthus – Robert Künzli
Maids – Katarina Bradić, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger & Iris Kupke
Overseer – Miranda Keys
Young Servant – Ivan Turić
Tutor – Jongmin Park
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychov (Conductor)
An all-most perfect Elektra made for a weekend of memorable Strauss.
Overall it was an electrifying ensemble performance led by an incredible performance by Dame Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra.
It’s a role I have seen her perform once before – under Gergiev at the Barbican. Then as now, she was in total command not only of the role musically and interpretively, but of the rest of the cast when she was on the stage. Her diction was perfect, her interpretation of the text flawless, her projection over the orchestra masterful and her characterization beautifully balanced and intelligent. In contrast to the introspection of Waltraud Meier in Dresden earlier this year, Dame Felicity’s Queen was made of steelier stuff, regretting nothing and only briefly showing any sign of affection for her estranged daughter.
As her other daughter, Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis was similarly strong both vocally and in terms of portrayal. While overall she lacked the rich timbre of Adrienne Pieczonka, her bright and gleaming soprano was beautifully matched to the role, and at times her sense of desperation – to escape not only her life but the horror of what her sister proposed – was palpable. In Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust Barkmin negotiated Strauss’ difficult vocal line, delivering the often-missed bloom and her closing calls for her brother were searing in their intensity.
The two men were equally very good. Johann Reuter was a darkly toned Oreste – luxury casting similar to Pape – and Robert Künzli’s light, supple voiced Aegisthus was pointedly arrogant.
Of the rest of the cast, the maids and Overseer also delivered particularly strong and clearly delineated performance – vocally and dramatically. Katarina Bradić has a beautifully rich and lustrous tone and the Fifth Maid of Iris Kupke was also impressive.
What of Elektra herself? I often think that there isn’t the subtlety of characterisation required for Elektra as there is for Salome. The characterisation here is much more focused on a single act – revenge – and without the need for an evolution and awakening of feeling – the dawning sexual desire that is required for Herod’s stepdaughter and which Nina Stemme captured perfectly the previous night.
I admit – as I have said before – that I remain to be completely convinced by Christine Goerke. As at Covent Garden while there is thrilling vocal heft in the middle and lower register, I find that Ms Goerke’s upper range can sound somewhat constricted and at times there is a slight hesitation before singing the higher notes. As the evening progressed I also discerned a slight burr in her voice as well as challenges of intonation. And in those moments of tenderness her voice still lacks that sense of warmth which would give her Elektra a fully-rounded interpretation.
Yet there is no denying her total commitment in the role. The confrontation with her mother was chilling because of her demeanour and the delivery of the text. And there was no denying that that overall it was a compelling performance and stronger than that of Covent Garden.
On the podium Bychov gave the music the necessary space to breathe, indulging in the opera’s lyricism without losing momentum – the perfect balance for Strauss’ music. From the opening bars to the final C major chord, he tempered the orchestra and never let it drown the singers but he also highlighted the more chamber-like moments of the score, drawing out the orchestral light and shade – for example in Klytemnestra’s opening scene and just before her death. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded in kind with some of the most eloquent playing I have heard from them in a long time.
With the final C major chord, as Elektra lay dead on the stage, Chrysothemis weeping over her body, there was no doubt that together with Salome, it was a luxuriant – almost decadent – weekend of Strauss to remember.