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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Opera Review: Blonde and Dangerous

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Elektra.
by Paul Pelkonen
She's a lumberjack: Eva Johansson as Elektra.
Photo by Martin Mydskov Rønne © 2006 Zurich Opera.
The presentation of opera in the concert format is at its heart, an artificial process, sometimes marred by the formal dress of concert singers and an uninvolved conductor. However, the Philadelphia Orchestra's first hack at Richard Strauss' opera Elektra proved the opposite. Conductor Charles Dutoit (who is ending his tenure as Philly's chief conductor this month) generated a white-hot intensity that is usually reserved for the opera house.

The performance was anchored by Eva Johannson, a Danish soprano who has run the gamut of German repertory, from Mozart and the lightest Wagner parts to Brunnhilde, Isolde and of course, the heavyweight title role in this opera. Aided by Mr. Dutoit's careful, judicious control of the Philadelphia players, Ms. Johannson found the lyricism in Strauss' elegant vocal lines where other singers simply bring the noise.

Even on the lip of the Verizon Hall stage, Ms. Johannson was an involved actress, using gestures and her eyes to convey torment. The ice melted completely in the Recognition Scene, where Elektra realizes that the mysterious stranger in front of her is her brother Orestes. This scene featured a ghost-like pianissimo that floated above the stave, and an (almost) incestuous longing. In sync with Strauss' kaleidoscopic orchestra, Ms. Johansson changed vocal colors again for the final triumphant dance, demonstrating stamina and beautiful tone in this demanding music.

Elektra's sister Chrysothemis (Melanie Diener) is literally trapped in the house, caught between her desire to marry and raise a family and Elektra's thirst for revenge. Ms. Diener was strong as this wilting flower, with her best singing coming in the edgy, sexual second duet between the sisters. When the two singers finally joined voices in the last scene of the opera, it was a glorious sound of two instruments perfectly melded. It helps that they recorded the opera together in 2006.

Strauss reserved his most difficult, dissonant music for Klytaemnestra, the insomniac matriarch of the House of Atreus. Jane Henschel was admirable in this mezzo part, handling not only the account of the Queen's disturbing dreams, but the subsequent scene where Elektra engages her mother in a battle of wits. Ms. Henschel also deserves credit for two blood-curdling offstage screams that jarred the audience during the murder scene. 

Ain Anger (a singer new to this writer) was a stolid, resonant Orestes with a potent bass voice. It was also a real pleasure to hear the great Siegfried Jerusalem in the ungrateful role of Aegisth, a traditional "last" part for heldentenors before they retire from the stage. The five Maids in the opening scene were taut and sufficiently differentiated, with an outstanding performance from Jennifer Check as the sympathetic Fifth Maid.

Despite the outsized nature of Strauss' instrumentation, Mr. Dutoit brought bloom and polish to the big moments, and rhythmic snap to the ironic, sometimes parodic waltzes that pepper this score. This was Strauss as the composer intended, with a light, almost Mendelssohnian touch, the aural equivalent of a soufflé loaded with razor blades. This may have been the Philadelphians' first Elektra in front of an audience, but they sounded as if this Greek tragedy had been running on Broad Street for years.

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