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Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
February 22, 2014
Richard Strauss’s Elektra is one of the biggest beasts in opera, maybe not in terms of length, nor in cast size, but certainly in its orchestral forces and therefore in the demands it places on its singers – in particular, the title role is on stage for the full two-hours without a break. It tends to be one of those parts that sopranos tackle after Wagner, such is the stamina and volume required to push the sound out over 110 instrumentalists. Not only that, Hofmannsthal’s Freudian translation of Sophocles with its fin-de-siècle imagery of a society decaying from the inside out, demands an actor also capable of inhabiting one of the most emotionally intense and draining psychological characters in all opera. Let me say from the outset – American soprano Christine Goerke is all of that and more.
That David Robertson chose it as his second outing as Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a mark of his ambition. That he chose to add to the mix eight dancers from Sydney Dance Company and proceed to dismantle the stalls of the concert hall to accommodate his epic forces bespeaks an imagination keen to eschew routine and a desire to do things differently. In other words, this is experimental theatre on the grandest of scales.
The decision to bring the audience into almost direct contact with the orchestra is inspired. Robertson’s reading is essentially a romantic one, avoiding the relentless granitic approach of a Solti or the heightened hysteria of a Sinopoli. Like Karajan, he recognises the sweeping beauty of the score and by placing the audience virtually in the middle of it he draws attention to the ravishing details therein. Listen to the way he caresses the love theme at the heart of Elektra’s first great monologue. To single out individual players in an orchestral performance as universally excellent as this seems unnecessary but I’ve never realised the extraordinary string quartet writing at the heart of Strauss’ juggernaut before and Dene Olding (concertmaster), Roger Benedict (viola) and Umberto Clerici (cello) are revelatory here.
The choreographic element was in Robertson’s mind from the outset, inspired by Elektra’s final ecstatic instruction to “be silent, and dance” and married to Strauss’ predilection for the Viennese waltz (Elektra has nearly as many waltzes as Rosenkavalier, if not as many laughs). That element was realised through the classical beauty of eight dancers who appear behind the singers and don’t so much represent them as embody the emotional content of the score. Their appearance against the busy dialogue of the five maids is initially unsettling, fighting for attention with the surtitles, but as the story develops they become more and more compelling, especially when, in Stephanie Lake’s crystalline choreography, they are spatially discrete from the action.
So back to Christine Goerke. She’s been making her name abroad in the role (Covent Garden most recently) and it's a pleasure to have her here. With her wild mane of hair and dressed in black she is a magnetic presence from the start. The voice is as dark and velvety as her dress (at times reminding me of Jessye Norman in her prime), and her rich, romantic sound fits Robertson’s view of the work like a glove. Without any sign of strain, and never scooping or running out of steam at top or bottom, Goerke embodies Elektra as a woman on the verge of madness, with exhilarating intensity. The top notes are utterly thrilling – I can’t recall a performance as vocally secure and gripping as this, and that includes superb Elektras like Gwyneth Jones and Eva Marton.
As her straight-laced sister Chrysothemis, yearning for the return of some semblance of normality, Cheryl Barker is absolutely ideal and the perfect vocal and dramatic foil. Her glittering soprano matches Goerke note for note, soaring over the orchestra with no sign of fatigue. Her radiant recollection of her friends at the well with their babies (set to another waltz) is heart-breaking.
Lisa Gasteen, herself a former Elektra of note is a compelling Klytemnestra from her first backlit appearance. She makes the monstrous mother into a more sympathetic character than is often the case, utilising her powerful middle range and not pushing the bottom into grotesque territory like some. As she reveals her crazy superstitions and her grim determination to “open the veins of every creature that crawls or flies”, her desperation is almost pathetic. The culmination of her scene with Elektra (yes, it’s another waltz tune) is overwhelming.
Peter Coleman-Wright is a sympathetic Orestes, firm and craggy of tone lower down, compensating for any lack of heft at the top with vocal intensity and a powerful physicality. Veteran tenor Kim Begley as Aegisthus proves he still has it vocally and contributes a ripe portrait of the pompous, preening despot.
The smaller roles are all of them excellently taken – it’s a luxury when you get the likes of Warwick Fyfe popping on for two or three lines. Amongst a fine set of maids, Nicole Youl, Amanda Windred and especially Emily Edmonds stood out for vocal power and use of the text.
The best is almost saved till last, after the wicked have received their just deserts, when Robertson pulls it all together and adds the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs into the mix, singing from all corners of the auditorium in a cacophony of exultation. Barker and Goerke rise over the tumult with one last radiant duet before the tragedy of the latter’s exhausted demise. It has to be said that the conductor almost danced himself to death at this point as well.
On this showing (and that of last year’s fine Flying Dutchman) Robertson’s commitment to opera in the concert hall promises to be an annual highlight, especially if he tackles the monsters that simply won’t fit in the opera theatre next door. The unanimous standing ovation said it all. There’s one more performance on Monday night – my advice? Murder your mother for a ticket…