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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.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Opera Review: The Revenge Business

Christine Goerke’s Elektra rocks Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
So her brother's an axe murderer:: Christine Goerke (in red) sings Elektra in concert
 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra thundering behind her.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2015 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Richard Strauss’ Elektra is a 100-minute roller coaster, an opera where bigger-than-life mythological characters race through a collapsing house intent on murdering each other with a bloody axe. On Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, it was the perfect concert vehicle for the rejuvinated Boston Symphony Orchestra, their sophomore music director Andris Nelsons and its leading lady: soprano Christine Goerke.

Ms. Goerke entered Stern Auditorium as the first bars thundered, wild-eyed in a scarlet concert gown that suggested both her royal status and a blood-spattered Carrie White at the senior prom. From this moment forward she was the blazing star of the evening. She applied her big voice (chilling in its lower register and blood-curdling in its upper range) expertly to her character’s demanding first monologue, singing with clarity and force against the thundering 120-piece orchestra.

As this ten-minute aria/monologue rolled forward, one saw that Ms. Goerke understands those dark crannies and nuances of this score. Wandering through the forest of string players, she was a wild Maenad, bursting with energy and mourning “Ag-a-MEM-non!” with laser-like tone. The big moments (her dialogues with Chrysothemis and Klytaemnestra, the Recognition Scene with Orest) were thrilling and dramatically involved. She even managed snarky, servility as she led Aegisth to his demise, and had the same stamina and power for her last scene as she did for her first. Top marks.

Jane Henschel was a deliciously crazy Klytaemnestra, relishing her bad-guy role and indulging in maternal behavior patterns that would have delighted Freud. Particularly chilling was her repeated, echoing laugh at the news that her son Orest has been crushed to death by his own horses—it made the viewer side firmly with Elektra and her plight. Less compelling was soprano Gun-Brit Barkman. Her Chrysothemis looked like Louise Brooks but lacked presence and warmth. The “white” tone of her soprano turned hard when placed under pressure.

Bass-baritone James Rutherford was a stolid presence as Orest, bringing the character’s depth and conflict despite the brevity of his role. This is a full, and potent instrument wielded by a smart and up-and-coming singing actor. Working with Ms. Goerke, he brought out the almost-incestuous bond between the Atreus siblings. The moment in the middle of the Recognition Scene where she touched his face with wonder and delight was both moving and more than a little creepy.

“Creepy” is a good adjective for Aegisth, the ugliest tenor role ever written. It was sung with great gusto by the characterful Gerhard Siegel, nasty and sharp-tongued in his two scenes. At least this fine singer was granted the dignity of having his murder take place onstage. The Overseer was veteran Wagner soprano Nadine Secunde, leading a crew of five servants whose expository dialogue opened the opera by bringing listeners to the edge of their plush red velvet seats.

The score of Elektra is masterpiece of leitmotiv and dramatic effect, where the huge ensemble (quadruple brass, triple winds and three sections each of violins and violas) is wielded with the delicate touch of a ball-peen hammer. Mr. Nelsons delivered an exciting, muscular reading of this dense score, capturing its vitality and juice while bringing out the wealth of subtle details hidden in its staves. This was the most exciting performance of this opera in New York in many years.

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