fri 27/11/2020

Elektra, Gergiev, LSO, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Elektra, Gergiev, LSO, Barbican Hall

Elektra, Gergiev, LSO, Barbican Hall

Felicity Palmer's Clytemnestra takes honours in a pulverising performance

Richard Strauss’s 1909 opera Elektra is a diabolical piece of work - less an opera than an event determined to cut its mark. A vast orchestra of 112 players unleashes a two-hour tsunami of sound across the stage, on which female voices are buffeted like pieces of driftwood, shrieking of mothers who murder husbands, daughters who want to murder mothers, rivers of blood, flayed horses, dogs, bodies. Subtle it isn’t. Loud it is. In the hands of Valery Gergiev and London Symphony Orchestra this week, pulverisingly loud.

Can you easily believe that Strauss’s next opera was that fountain of tenderness, Der Rosenkavalier? Hardly, when three sopranos - angelically entwined as they would be there - here are trading screams of hatred and fear. Yet Elektra can and should be moving, as well as unsettling. I remember being profoundly touched by both Gwyneth Jones and Birgit Nilsson in this extraordinary crackpot role of the daughter of Agamemnon, victor of the Trojan Wars who is murdered by his vicious wife. The girl might be mad, even grotesquely so at times, but you just about touch knuckles in understanding with her in a great performance.

But with Gergiev in charge of the lunatic asylum, this was not a place for calm understanding. Rather, he drove the gigantic orchestra as if it was all he cared about, leaving the neurotic women to fight their corner any way they could. One who did, in spades, was the great Felicity Palmer, whose arrival on stage as Clytemnestra shocked a rather under-electric start into frightening and spellbinding life. Looking like a Victorian grande dame in black bombazine, come to murder some colonial on the Orient Express, Palmer simply opened her mouth and sang, throatily, bitchily, gloatingly, yet horridly vulnerably too, about being a mother of desperately disappointing children. She spat out her disdain for feeble stammering Orestes, ignored younger daughter Chrysothemis, and challenged Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s Elektra to a singing duel, which she won, handsomely.

Charbonnet was a late substitute for the originally scheduled Eva Johansson - the dazzling Danish soprano who has cornered Elektra for herself since the days of Hildegard Behrens and Jones - and the American does not possess the sheer blazing firepower to override the merciless decibels that Gergiev delivered. It's wickedly exciting for an audience to hear a conductor nail his colours so autocratically to the mast of the symphony orchestra, beckoning to all his trombones and timpani to smash the voices to kingdom come, but must have been nerve-racking for Charbonnet and Angela Denoke as Chrysothemis, both of them sounding winded and frayed in their high notes some way before the end. Charbonnet is an intelligent and willing actress, but she didn’t get inside the convulsive personality of Elektra and her vibrato was hardening and widening as she competed with the orchestral leviathan behind her. Denoke has a more thrilling vocal quality - perhaps even a potential Elektra herself, if she can find the vocal stamina. It exemplified the dramatic power-balance of the performance that both the sisters were singing from scores while the mother knew her role inside-out and was having a ball stealing the honours.

There was some sensitive casting in Matthias Goerne and Ian Storey as Orestes and Aegisthus - Goerne’s introverted, velvety baritone well became the depiction by Clytemnestra of a son who’s not in her own blood-curdling image, and Aegisthus is described by the sisters early on in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's juicy libretto as “a woman”, making Storey’s camp, dithery cameo rather apt.

A surprisingly large subsidiary cast came on and off stage for surprisingly short contributions as miscellaneous servants, among them the rousing tenor of Andrey Popov, who sang his two sentences to splendid effect. But the night belonged to the London Symphony Orchestra. There’s no doubting the passion Gergiev feels for his players, fluttering his fingers lightly over the air almost as if it were unnecessary to command their mightiest efforts. He held the leviathan back for the still, catacomb sadness of Elektra's meeting with Orestes, an oasis of true feeling, and again in her erotic, Salome-ish reminiscence of her former beauty, but for the most part Gergiev wielded his sharp, heavy blades of earsplitting sound like an axeman with a big family to murder before bedtime. One was glad to get out alive after it.

Further Gergiev/LSO concerts in the season include Strauss and Bartok (11 February) and later Messiaen, Dutilleux, MacMillan and Stravinsky.

Check out what's on at the Barbican Centre this season

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terrific review!

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