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Richard Strauss
18 Jan 2010

Elektra at the Barbican

Concert performances of operas are often problematic in that the work tends to be cut or otherwise played around with, or the venue is inappropriate - after all, these were meant to be staged pieces.

Richard Strauss: Elektra

Elektra: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Chrysothemis: Angela Denoke; Clytemnestra: Felicity Palmer; Orestes: Matthias Goerne; Aegisthus: Ian Storey. London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Valery Gergiev. London Symphony Chorus.


The LSO’s Elektra under Gergiev really had only one problem, which was that the orchestra was frequently too loud, and when you have a team of singers amongst whom only the Clytemnestra, the Oreste and the Second Maid actually manage to ride consistently over it, you have a somewhat unbalanced evening. It was bound to be so - Strauss’ orchestral requirement is huge, and the band really must be in a pit or there must be some other way devised to protect the singers from it.

This is not to say that distinguished playing was absent - far from it, since the LSO under Gergiev gave a searing performance, often responding to their conductor as though their lives depended on it, and achieving the all too rare distinction of making one hear parts of the music anew. If this was at the cost of a less lyrical, less poetic interpretation in parts, then it was a worthwhile one.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s Elektra was new to me, and she certainly chewed up the carpet in histrionic terms, gyrating all over the place and generally giving her all, but her voice frequently had trouble in surmounting the vast sounds coming from behind. Her finest moments were in the address to the shade of Agamemnon, ‘die um sein hohes Grab / so königliche siegestänze tanzen!’ projected with bitter ecstasy, and her almost hypnotic incantation of ‘Der ist selig, der seine Tat zu tun kommt’ to her brother at the crucial moment of decision.

It surprised me that Matthias Goerne was singing Oreste, not because his voice isn’t right for the role, but because it’s such a small part for him - perhaps his Speaker in Die Zauberflöte has given him a taste for tiny yet significant roles. This was an Oreste of brooding presence and stentorian authority, and even if we did miss a little of the more moving qualities of the recognition scene, it was a nobly conceived interpretation.

Angela Denoke certainly has what most would term ‘a Strauss soprano voice,’ and she used it most movingly in ‘Eh ich sterbe, will ich auch leben!’ providing both a tonal and dramatic contrast to her sister - the final cries of ‘Orest! Orest!’ though, could have been more gripping. Felicity Palmer’s Clytemnestra is now a classic interpretation, her grim delivery and absolute mastery of the characterization in a world of their own - why, one almost felt a grudging sympathy for the frightful old bat as she sang of her terrible nightmares.

Ian Storey did what he could with Aegisthus, but it’s never really going to work if the character simply strolls off when he dies - another problem with this kind of staged opera. The Maids were a strong group, with Ekaterina Sergeeva the most expressive and forceful, and Vuyani Mlinde’s Servant / Companion further enhanced his status as one of our finest bass soloists - he first impressed me at the RCM in 2005, and he has not disappointed since.

The audience was as crammed in the hall as the orchestra on stage, so much so that the LSO chorus had to occupy one of the side aisles, with surprisingly little diminution of the intensity needed during that final cleansing of the House of Atreus.

Melanie Eskenazi

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