Elektra at Prom 59

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

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.

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.

Felicity Palmer has been a remarkable Clytemnestra for many years and it was
lovely to make he 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.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Christine Goerke: Electra, Gun-Brit Barkmin: Chrysothemis, Dame
Felicity Palmer: Clytemnestra, Robert K¸nzli tenor: Aegisthus, JohanReuter
baritone: Orestes, Katarina Bradi? : 1st Maid, Zoryana Kushpler : 2nd Maid,
Hanna Hipp : 3rd Maid, Marie-Eve Munger: 4th Maid, Iris Kupke: 5th Maid,
Miranda Keys: Overseer, Ivan Turöi? tenor: Young Servant, Jongmin Park bass:
Orestes’ Tutor. BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Semyon Bychkov: conductor.
Justin Way: stage director. Sunday 31 August 2014, BBC Proms at the Royal
Albert Hall.

image_description=Christine Goerke [Photo courtesy of christinegoerke.com]
product_title=Elektra at Prom 59
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Christine Goerke [Photo courtesy of christinegoerke.com]