Elektra | Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra
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Elektra | Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra

NEW YORK CITY
Carnegie Hall
10/21/15

RARELY OF LATE HAS STRAUSS'S ELEKTRA sounded so stark, so jarring—and especially so loud—as in the concert performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on October 21. Conductor Andris Nelsons seemed intent on detonating the last trace of rage and violence contained or implied in the score, and his fiery principal collaborator, soprano Christine Goerke, showed a similar single-mindedness. With her oversized, dark-hued voice and a tendency to operate nearly always at fever pitch, the singer portrayed Elektra as a raw wound, anger personified.

At times the intensity generated by soprano and conductor achieved an ideal fusion of music and drama. The virtuoso orchestra became a hyperactive Greek chorus, while Goerke’s absorption in her role felt instinctive and complete. But the vehement interpretation was not without collateral damage. 

One casualty was balance between voices and orchestra. The conductor reveled in Strauss’s fleeting, often barely heard instrumental details—such as the comic tuba staccatos punctuating an early reference to Aegisth—and he seemed equally to savor orchestral power. Singers were often forced to the background, struggling to be heard. After a crushing opening chord that sounded more like a cataclysmic finale, the half-dozen servant women in the first scene resorted to desperate-sounding, unrelieved fortissimos against the orchestra turmoil. Their function here is to set the scene, describe Elektra’s habits and generate suspense— but in this case everything sounded strained, enraged, overacted.

German soprano Gun Brit Barkmin, in the role of younger sister Chrysothemis, was given scant opportunity to portray the conventional feminine, maternal instincts that contrast with Elektra’s degraded state. Pacing and orchestral noise kept her sounding nearly as frantic and unhinged as the heroine. Fortunately, Barkmin mustered considerable power, especially in her shiny top register, a display that was brilliant if not always in character.

The tendency toward generalized mayhem also skewed Goerke’s portrayal. The character’s softer side finally came through when she recognized Orest; here Goerke’s tone and delivery affectingly conveyed warmth and affection. But she and the conductor showed little interest in other lyrical moments that can enrich the characterization and supply touches of vocal beauty – passages like the false flattery she uses with Klytämnestra (“you too are a divinity, Mother”) or the lament for her lost femininity (“like the moon’s silvery mist”).

The roles of Orest and Klytämnestra offered a welcome change of manner. Baritone James Rutherford, as the long-absent son and brother, suggested mixed feelings of duty, reluctance and horror both in his demeanor and his vocal delivery. As the dream-haunted queen, mezzo Jane Henschel was masterfully expressive in a range of minute inflections, benefiting from a rare show of support and restraint on the conductor’s part.

In this semi-staged concert performance, the individual singers seemed left to their own discretion, with inconsistent results. Goerke’s naturalistic acting included actual dance steps (with some lifting of her skirt), while Gerhard Siegel, as a non-flamboyant Aegisth, stayed in concert mode, barely moving during his death scene and then walking offstage in a businesslike way.  —David J. Baker 

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