Sydney Symphony Orchestra: “Elektra”

Eddie Pensier writes:

Possibly the key thing to know about Richard Strauss’ Elektra is that this opera is LOUD. Delightfully, magnificently loud. How loud? Well, most Mozart operas are scored for 50-60 orchestra members, most Verdi calls for 70-80, and even Wagner tends to top out at 90-100. Elektra calls for a whopping 120.

It’s entirely appropriate because Elektra needs loud sounds to go with the loud emotions. Based on Hugo von Hofmansthal’s adaptation of Sophocles and Aeschylus, it might be the purest expression of bloodthirstiness and revenge in the entire standard operatic repertory. I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s February concert performance at the Opera House.

Christine Goerke as Elektra at the Sydney Opera House, with superfluous dancers.

Christine Goerke as Elektra at the Sydney Opera House, with superfluous dancers.

Strauss was already in hot water with the European public for his earlier Salomé, based on Oscar Wilde’s play and featuring all manner of inappropriate behavior, including necrophilia and implied incest. The combination of eroticism (most notably, but certainly not limited to, the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils) and Biblical themes led to bannings in Vienna, London and New York. Elektra‘s erotic content is much subtler, if it exists at all. One could see an incestuous relationship between Elektra and her dead father, Agamemnon; or with her brother, the presumed-missing Orestes, but the main theme of the opera isn’t sex: it’s blood and death. And hatred, specifically the bitterest kind, that born out of betrayal. (Strauss would redeem himself in polite society with his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, which ditches the grinding dissonant modernism and harsh violence for an elegant and witty Viennese comedy of manners, complete with waltzes.) Elektra quite literally lives for revenge: once it’s carried out, she dies, because it has consumed her so thoroughly.

The SSO, under the direction of new American music director David Robertson, pulled out all the stops and played like an orchestra posessed. The lyric moments in the score were achingly sweet, and the brutally expressionist moments could be heard across the harbor. Robertson kept the ensemble tight and crisp.

Christine Goerke took on the famously difficult title role: just being heard over 120 players counts as an accomplishment, and Elektra herself is on stage for the entire work. (Full disclosure: Christine is a friend, and provided me with the tickets to the performance.) Her voice is an unusual combination of dramatic power and range with an essentially lyric sound, and it floated up to the highest registers with total ease. Goerke’s repeated cries of “Agamemnon!” took on the qualities of a repeated mantra or prayer, and the climactic scene was as pure an expression of crazed, frenzied (orgasmic?) pleasure as one is likely to hear or see.

Lisa Gasteen, once a notable dramatic soprano herself and now mostly retired from the stage, gave her first performances in the mezzo-soprano role of Klytämnestra, Elektra’s murderous, drug-addicted mother. She may want to rethink her retirement, because she thoroughly rocked this role. Regal haughtiness combined with a potent and undiminished voice gave her appearances dramatic power and weight.

Elektra’s more conventional, some might say bourgeois, sister Chrysothemis (who wants justice, sure, but she’d rather get on with things and marry and have kids like a normal girl), was sung by Cheryl Barker. You may recognize her if you saw Baz Luhrmann’s 1950’s-set La bohème, which was on PBS and later migrated to Broadway. Barker’s mid-weight voice was a tad lighter than I’d hoped but she carried nicely, and projected Chrysothemis’ essential good nature. If Elektra is muddy blackened blood red, Chrysothemis is sunny sky-blue, and that contrast came across well.

Men are reduced to comparative bit players in this opera. Veteran British character tenor Kim Begley made a meal of his few moments as Aegisth, but regrettably Peter Coleman-Wright was not up to the task of singing Orest. His voice sounded weak and shredded, and the power of the turning-point Recognition Scene was diminished as a result. The maids and servants of the Atreus household were all well represented by Opera Australia young artists.

At some point in the planning of this event, it seems to have occurred to someone to say

Hey! Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we brought a troupe of modern dancers along, to run onstage at totally random moments and thrash around in pseudo-Tharp jerky movements, unconstrained by musicality, rhythm, or dramatic context?

Sadly, that idea was not treated with the dismissive contempt it deserves, and said dancers did appear, to provide… I dunno, distraction, or semaphore-signals, or some such. I managed to tune them out and focus on the music.

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About Eddie Pensier

Television junkie, opera buff, connoisseur of unhealthy foods, fashion watcher, art lover and admirer of beautiful people of all sexes.
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6 Responses to Sydney Symphony Orchestra: “Elektra”

  1. Faze says:

    “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we brought a troupe of modern dancers along, to run onstage at totally random moments and thrash around in pseudo-Tharp jerky movements, unconstrained by musicality, rhythm, or dramatic context?”

    Someone apparently had the same idea for the Polovtsian Dances sequence of the Met’s new production of “Prince Igor”. Bunch of people in nightshirts running back and forth, waving their arms and twitching in no apparent relation to the music. There was grumbling in the audience.

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    • Yes, I’d heard about that. The Met chorus members I know were none too happy about it. 😉 However, that was a fully staged production, where one can quibble about the quality and style of the choreography, as opposed to whether it should be there at all (it shouldn’t, in a concert setting, in my opinion).

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  2. fenster says:

    Strauss is probably my favorite composer, which no doubt says something about my middlebrow urges. I could never follow him into his modernist detour, though, and while Elektra was one of the first CDs I bought when CDs first came out, I couldn’t get through it. But my you write about it so wonderfully! I will have to toss it on the barbie one more time.

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  3. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Not familiar with the opera. The Aeschylus always reminded me of Hamlet. I guess it reminds everyone of Hamlet?

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