Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

12 January 2010

First performed in 1909, Elektra which tells of the eponymous princess thirst for revenge on her fathers murderers, remains Richard Strauss most advanced large-scale score.And this concert performance at the Barbican features every instrument and all 112 players (give or take a few) that the composer originally stipulated.

Elektra arguably lends itself better to a concert performance than many other operas because it so focused on one central character, the drama resting upon the range of emotions that she goes through as she overcomes her despair and plots her deadly course. Jeanne-Michle Charbonnet utterly convinces as the (initially) fragile, waif-like Elektra. Applying a slight stoop to her body, she appears so ready to collapse at the start that one genuinely wonders if she will last two lines, let alone an entire opera, before doing so.

But it is all part of the performance, and her crazed expressions and stamping and dancing, coupled with her resonant voice, reveal the extent to which mental determination can overcome physical frailty. Unlike virtually every operatic performance, this presentation features no cuts, and Charbonnet rises to the increased vocal challenges that singing the entire score presents, and readily embraces the opportunities for extended contemplations of key subject matters to heighten the emotional effect.

As Elektras sister, there is a highly pleasing tonal quality to Angela Denokes voice, and her performance as Chrysothemis brings out to the full the contrasts in the siblings characters. Superficially appearing stronger and sounder in mind than Elektra, she simply longs to leave Mycenae and live peacefully, making us understand how it is the (apparent) mad woman who possesses the far greater metaphorical weapons with which to put up a fight.

Felicity Palmer is an outstanding Clytemnestra (Elektras mother and her fathers murderer). Initially appearing haughty and glamorous, we soon feel for ourselves the nightmare world that she inhabits, her dreams haunted, her paranoia taking over, and the smell of death increasingly pervading her nostrils.

Nevertheless, this Elektra also suffers in some ways from being a concert performance. The singers constant glances at, and turning of, their music is frequently distracting, no matter how well they incorporate these into their dramatic gestures, and the maids appear a little stiff as they simply stand in a line at the start. Separating Elektra from Clytemnestra with the conductors podium may help us to focus on the personae of the two individual characters, but it hinders the characters interaction. The same problem occurs when Elektra later encounters her brother Orestes (Matthias Goerne), and it simply doesnt work to see the normally dramatic death of Aegisthus (Ian Storey) followed by him calmly walking off the stage.

Ultimately this a concert performance because it is London Symphony Orchestra-led, and the advantages of hearing this splendid orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev and supported by the London Symphony Chorus, far outweigh any conceptual difficulties. It is possible to appreciate Elektra simply as an emotional tour de force from start to finish, but when an orchestra presents a clean, precise sound that does full justice to the range of moods and textures prevalent in the opera, whilst never losing sight of the required dramatic exuberance, the result is something very special.

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