I’ve rarely heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing with greater color, pliancy, or controlled energy as they delivered on Saturday night.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It was only a matter of time before Andris Nelsons returned to conducting operas at Symphony Hall. In March of last year, in his final Symphony Hall program before becoming music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), he led an exhilarating, raw run-through of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Now, after a year away from the tradition, Nelsons returned to it this weekend with a pair of much-awaited semi-staged performances of Strauss’s Elektra.
Strauss’s 1906–08 score is, if anything, more frightful and gory than Salome. Recounting Elektra’s desire to avenge the murder of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, Klytämnestra, and her mother’s lover, Aegisth, it’s among the darkest operas in the canon. The music rages between tonal and atonal extremes while managing the conspicuous feat of referencing both the wildness of Salome and anticipating the gentility of Der Rosenkavalier. While very much a product of its time, it’s an opera that, in its embrace of the extremes of human experience and emotions, retains a certain macabre timeliness.
Though they received the heartiest ovation, yet, of this young season, I thought Saturday’s cast rather mixed in their effectiveness. Soprano Christine Goerke brought great intensity to the title role and had stamina to spare in this most memorable, if punishing, part. Her voice sliced through the orchestra in its upper register and brought dusky warmth to Elektra’s relatively few low-range utterances. But when singing in her middle register (where the part lies for most of this hundred-plus minute opera) Goerke often sounded forced and shrill. This was a technical and aesthetic choice, not a matter of fatigue—her power didn’t once waver—and there were moments when this kind of manic focus paid dividends, such as the first half of Elektra’s monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein.” But the tendency got old as the night wore on. The singers who, in the last fifty or so years, set the gold standard in this role – voices like Varnay, Borkh, Nilsson, Rysanek, and Behrens – mined its steel but they sang it with less of an abrasive edge. For my ears, there was simply too much of the latter in this performance. To judge from the many loud cheers Goerke received at the end of the night, this is a minority view. But I stand by it.
Also less than fully satisfying was Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis. In an opera full of strong female characters, Chrysothemis, who longs to move beyond the tragedy that’s shaped her family and, especially, to have children, is the most fully human, though also the weakest-willed. Barkmin was an impressively frenzied Salome last March and she dialed down the more extravagant qualities of that performance to bring a welcome warmth to her portrayal of Elektra’s sister. Still, she was dogged throughout the night by the biggest problem that marred her Salome, namely an inability to sing consistently on pitch. Then, I chalked the deficiency up to the intensity of a one-night-only run-through of one of the most outré roles in the canon. But Chrysothemis isn’t Salome and this time there’s no such excuse.
The best singing of the night belonged to the duo of Jane Henschel, as a magnificently tortured and demonic Klytämnestra, and Gerhard Siegel, as her husband, Aegisth. The former’s projection was occasionally covered by Strauss’s thick orchestration but she ably conveyed Klytämnestra’s damaged psychological state through the force of her personality and not inconsiderable musical intelligence.
Siegel, who sang a delightfully wicked Herod in last year’s Salome, was downright marvelous in the small part of Aegisth. His German diction was impeccable as was his ability to fully capture the part of this rude, self-absorbed cretin in such a thoroughly bracing and entertaining manner.
In other roles, James Rutherford made a stentorian, if somewhat distant, Orest, while Rebecca Nash acquitted herself well as the Fifth Maid, whose sympathetic thoughts on Elektra’s plight were brutally shot down by Nadine Secunde’s Overseer. Members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang strongly from the second-tier balcony to greet Orest’s arrival and the opera’s several minor roles were all capably filled.
The biggest stars of Saturday’s performance, though, were Nelsons and the BSO. This is an orchestra that has had its share of ups and downs these last five years, but Saturday played like they were on top of the world. And why shouldn’t they? It may be too soon to tell for certain, but, to judge from his first three weeks with the orchestra this season, Nelsons’s abilities as a conductor seem to be maturing—and quickly—before our ears.
Strauss’s conception of drama in Elektra is nothing if not symphonic: it’s essentially a tone poem with voices. His developmental and harmonic procedures in it carry equal structural and theatrical weight. Last season, in large-scale music that utilized similar techniques (particularly Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), Nelsons tended to linger over individual moments, oftentimes losing sight of the larger musical picture. So far this year, in similar pieces by Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Brahms, he’s hardly exhibited this habit. In Elektra, it was nowhere to be seen: the drama unfolded in easy, logical paragraphs that packed furious momentum.
What’s more, spades of details—cascading wind figures evoking Elektra’s visions of rivers of blood, chilling discords accompanying Klytämnestra recounting her nightmares, the many subtle transformations of the opening Agamemnon motive—came across with telling clarity. The intensity the music conveys never lagged, despite the orchestra’s roundness of tone that softened some of Elektra’s more physical, knife-edged properties. The menacing figure that introduces Klytämnestra (“kick-ass villain music,” my concert companion called it) boiled with rage. You could have cut the tension in the scene before Orest avenges Agamemnon’s death with a knife, so charged was the orchestra’s playing.
At the same time, passages of terrific delicacy shimmered. The anticipations of Rosenkavalier in Elektra’s dialogue with Aegisth glowed. So did the accompaniment to the famous “recognition scene” between Elektra and Orest. The brass chorales that echo the latter’s declamations were as creamy, stout, and noble as you’d expect from the Vienna Philharmonic in this repertoire.
Yes, one might have asked for moments of greater subtlety—Nelsons rushed through parts of Chrysothemis’s first scene with Elektra (“Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren wie du”), which certainly didn’t help Barkmin with her delivery—but, for most of the evening, orchestra and conductor were perfectly in synch with one another and the score. I’ve rarely heard the BSO playing with greater color, pliancy, or controlled energy as they delivered on Saturday night.
So, if there were any lingering questions about whether or not Nelsons and his band have hit it off, they were answered definitively in the affirmative by the end of Saturday’s performance. This Elektra wasn’t perfect, but it was very good. Best of all, even with some less-than-ideal singing, it was an event, and of just the sort that Nelsons seems increasingly capable of delivering on regularly.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Just FYI, Barkmin’s one BSO Salome came at the end of a series of them she sang under Nelsons, including in NYC earlier the same week.
Otherwise I largely agree, though I liked Goerke far more than you.