BWW Review: Electrifying ELEKTRA from Goerke, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall

Christine Goerke as Elektra and Andris Nelsons, Music Director and
Conductor of the Boston Symphony. Photo: Chris Lee
Christine Goerke as Elektra, Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis
and Andris Nelsons, Music Director and Conductor of
the Boston Symphony. Photo: Chris Lee

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the term "Electra complex" (rooted in Greek tragedy) to describe a girl's sense of competition with her mother for the affections of her father and, sister, does the title character in Richard Strauss's ELEKTRA have it bad. Dad's (that's Agamemnon to you score keepers) already murdered by the time the opera starts, so we don't get to see him with all his flaws. All we see are Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis (their brother Orest arrives later), reduced to Cinderella types, seeking revenge for the father they adored. No evil stepsisters here to keep them down--just a psychotic mother, Klytaemnestra, and her lover, Aegisth.

One thing you should know about ELEKTRA: When it's done right, the audience works itself into a fever pitch and--after the orchestra has played the final notes--it stands and screams its head off. I've seen this before and it happened again the other night, with sopranos Christine Goerke in the title role and Gun-Brit Barkmin as her sister Chrysothemis, in an exhilarating performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) under its music director Andris Nelsons.

Goerke has had an amazing couple of years. In New York, it started with her performance as the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN at the Met in 2013--a place where her only major role had been Donna Anna in DON GIOVANNI. Suddenly, it was off to the races, with the Met announcing that she would be doing TURANDOT (which she did earlier this season), Ortrud in LOHENGRIN and Brunnhilde in the next revival of Wagner's RING Cycle. The Met had its own new production of ELEKTRA coming up, but that was already spoken for: Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is the star attraction. Goerke would have to wait for another season to do it.

Well, the BSO and Nelsons decided to trump the Met (where the new ELEKTRA doesn't debut till April) and present its own take, with Goerke leading the show. She's not the typical Central European/Scandinavian, stainless-steel kind of soprano personified by Birgit Nilsson, frequently associated with this role--not that there's anything wrong with that--whom I loved as Elektra. But Goerke took a more lyric approach and still managed to cut through the heavy orchestration, with her big, plush voice easily heard over the ensemble, in her own, thrilling way. She jumped in--no waiting for her to warm up--moving swiftly and surely to command the stage.

This was no stand-up-and-sing concert version, by the way, and Goerke showed everything she had, dramatically as well as vocally. In a blood-red gown that almost became a character of its own, she flounced, she ran, she hid, she exhorted and she cajoled, never leaving the stage for 100 minutes or so. And, I should add, she triumphed.

With the sure hand of Maestro Nelsons leading the way, she had an admirable co-conspirator in this Greek tragedy (as retold by Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, based on the latter's play), as Elektra wrought vengeance against her mother, Klytaemnestra, for Agamemnon's murder. He brought out all the colors of the score and showed it as something more than the cacophonous piece it can become in the wrong hands.

Not that this is a one-singer opera, either. Hardly. Soprano Barkmin, who was a sensational Salome with the Vienna State Opera on their recent visit to Carnegie Hall, had her own triumph as Elektra's sister, who wants vengeance but can't think about how to do it. While Elektra is determined to hold herself together until she puts her action plan in motion, Chrysothemis teeters closer to the brink. She goes from girlish to ghoulish, using her voice to contrast her character from her sister, yet soaring above the orchestra easily as well.

As Klytaemnestra, the veteran mezzo Jane Henschel was a pro from start to finish, showing off a voice still in remarkably good condition. Unlike many older singers who have barked their way through the role, she refuses to come off like a raving conniver right from the start. In fact, she almost had us thinking that Elektra may have been being a little overly dramatic and her mother was not so bad--until that final cackle at the end of her scene, which was absolutely chilling.

The men are relegated to the sidelines somewhat, even baritone James Rutherford as Elektra's brother Orest. First thought dead, he makes a surprise entrance, unrecognized even by his beloved sister and their reunion was a wonderful, almost joyous, moment in this dark, dark opera. Aegisth, Klytemnestra's lover and co-conspirator, is one of those Strauss roles--like Herod in SALOME--that can bring on sinus headaches with some singers. Here, we were lucky to have Gerhard Siegel--still a sniveling type who we were happy to have dispatched by Orest--and his bright delivery to see us through.

The opera was singularly well cast throughout, starting with the five maids who begin the opera--Nadezhda Serdyuk, Claudia Huckle, Mary Phillips, Sandra Lopez and Rebecca Nash--down to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. But it was Andris Nelsons, the BSO, Christine Goerke and Gun-Brit Barmin who raised the roof of the House of Agamemnon--and Carnegie Hall.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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