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Performances

Orestes, Electra and Hermes at the tomb of Agamemnon, lucanian red-figure pelike, c. 380-370 BC, Louvre (K 544) [Source: Wikipedia]
05 Jun 2018

A volcanic Elektra by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic

“There are no gods in heaven!” sings Elektra just before her brother Orest kills their mother. In the Greek plays about the cursed House of Atreus the Olympian gods command the banished Orestes to return home and avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra. He dispatches both her and her lover Aegisthus.

A volcanic Elektra by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Orestes, Electra and Hermes at the tomb of Agamemnon, lucanian red-figure pelike, c. 380-370 BC, Louvre (K 544) [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The Furies then take up Clytemnestra’s cause and torment Orestes. In Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra, the first of several collaborations with his beloved librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the gods are deaf or absent. The characters must navigate a psychological quicksand, expressed in the elusive tonality of the score, on their own. Plagued by dark dreams, Klytaemnestra offers up blood sacrifices in vain. Her daughter Chrysothemis hopes to be released from her dysfunctional family by a man who will give her children, while the grieving Elektra effaces her womanhood and waits for Orest to satisfy her need for vengeance. It’s a terrifying world of impossible expectations and crushing loneliness, and the best performances of Elektra reveal this gaping horror. Last Saturday at the Concertgebouw Markus Stenz and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra did just that. Their Elektra was volcanic, seething and spitting from one terrifying eruption to the other. At the center of a vocally strong cast was the marvelous soprano Elena Pankratova in the title role.

The painstaking casting typical of the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series ensured that talented singing actors staffed the royal palace of Mycenae. The performance had a gripping start with a terrific group of maids, led by Alwyn Mellor’s febrile Overseer. Mezzo-soprano Cécile van de Sant as the First Maid and Kirsten Mackinnon as the put-upon Fifth Maid were particularly fine. Laetitia Gerards and Renate Arends were Klytaemnestra’e glamorous attendants. Tenor James Kryshak and bass Charles Dekeyser gave their all as the male servants and baritone Florian Just made a vivid appearance as Orest’s tutor. The Orest of bass-baritone Károly Szemerédy was impassive and reverberant, a deluxe killing machine. With Stenz and his musicians afire, it isn’t any wonder that the whole cast seemed inspired. Propelled by the precise violence of the six percussionists, the orchestra found a middle ground between beauty and brutality. Each crashing dissonant chord held the awful fascination of shattering glass. Bravo to the woodwind soloists who slid through the chromatic figures like glossy cobras.

Although mostly sensitive to the singers, Stenz could not help releasing the floodgates at key moments, and the afternoon was all the more exciting for it. He never overwhelmed either Pankratova or Asmik Grigorian as Chrysothemis, but drowned out Thomas Piffka’s yells for help when his obtuse Aegisth was slaughtered. Dalia Schaechter’s mezzo-soprano also went under at times, but this was a small limitation to her rich interpretation of Klytaemnestra. Schaechter inflected intelligently, fully exploiting her instrument to color every word, every syllable even, with meaning. At times her Klytaemenstra was almost pitiable, in spite of hideous statements like the one comparing Elektra to a nettle sprouting from her body. The monologue about bad dreams was fascinating, delivered inwardly, as if the queen were drifting into a psychotic episode. Stenz provided nightmarish orchestral support, making those cloth-eating moths she talks about fly out as if from some hellish nest.

Elena Pankratova was vocally peerless. No part of this exacting role was beyond her. Her velvety soprano is too beautiful to make Elektra sound like a half-savage. Heartbreak stamped her portrayal. The repeated cries of “Agamemnon!” in the opening monologue were a loving summons and the reunion with Orest achingly tender. You could really hear that she was once a replacement mother to her younger brother. This is not to say that her Elektra lacked fierceness. It was there, a righteous anger expressed in sumptuously swelling lines and spectacular fortes. Singing off book, Pankratova created the illusion of mounting nervousness while moving sparingly, stamping her foot defiantly during her fatal dance. It was a jubilant performance, acclaimed with frenzied applause. Asmik Grigorian was just as enthusiastically received. After her sensational Marie in Wozzeck last year, she returned to the ZaterdagMatinee for her role debut as Chrysothemis. Defying the orchestral decibels, her steely, platinum-clad soprano hurled raw hurt and desire at each corner of the house. The thrills just kept coming as the sisters hit one full, lustrous top note after another. No one who was there is ever likely to forget this duo, Pankratova in a black gown with chiffon wings, like a priestess, and Grigorian a proud, wounded princess in gold. They were the shining towers atop a thundering fortress of a performance.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Elektra – Elena Pankratova, soprano; Chrysothemis – Asmik Grigorian, soprano; Klytaemnestra – Dalia Schaechter, mezzo-soprano; Orest – Károly Szemerédy, bass-baritone; Aegisth – Thomas Piffka, tenor; Orest’s Tutor – Florian Just, baritone; Klytaemnestra’s Confidante – Laetitia Gerards, soprano; Klytaemnestra’s Trainbearer – Renate Arends, soprano; Young Servant – James Kryshak, tenor; Old Servant – Charles Dekeyser, bass; Overseer – Alwyn Mellor, soprano; Maid 1 – Cécile van de Sant, mezzo-soprano; Maid 2 – Iris van Wijnen, mezzo-soprano; Maid 3 – Jelena Kordić, mezzo-soprano; Maid 4 – Lisette Bolle, soprano; Maid 5 – Kirsten Mackinnon, soprano. Conductor – Markus Stenz. Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor). Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Saturday, 2nd of June, 2018.

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