Christine Goerke as Elektra at the BSO

Boston Audience Bonkers Over Performance

By: - Oct 20, 2015


Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo van Hofmannsthal, based on his play, which was freely adapted from Greek dramas by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides
First performance: Dresden, 1909
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, music director and conductor
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Symphony Hall, Boston, October 15 and 17, 2015|
Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 21
Cast: Christine Goerke, soprano (Elektra), Gun-Brit Barkmin, soprano (Chrysothemis), Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano (Klytämnestra), James Rutherford, baritone (Orest), Gerhard Siegel, tenor (Aegisth); Nadezhda Serdyuk, Claudia Huckle, Mary Phillips, Sandra Lopez, Rebecca Nash, Nadine Secunde, Elizabeth Byrne, Merdith Hansen, Mark Schowalter and Kevin Langan as maids, overseers and servants

Alexander Nevsky
Music by Sergei Prokofiev adapted from a score from a film by Sergei Eisenstein|
“Symphonic Dances”
Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelson, music director and conductor
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Nadezhda Serdyuk, mezzo-soprano
Symphony Hall, Boston, Oct. 6 & 16, 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 22

They say that Boston is not an opera town. But you’d never know it from the ecstatic audience response Thursday night to the ecstatic performance the Boston Symphony Orchestra delivered under the ecstatic direction of Andris Nelsons. I don’t remember flower petals being thrown upon that august stage, but they rained down as the audience as a single force stood and applauded. It left the palms of my hands red for half an hour later. Bravo! Maestro Nelsons and the stellar cast he assembled for the traversal of Strauss’s lurid early masterpiece will long be remembered here by those who were there. Not to mention the nonpareil Boston Symphony Orchestra, which we tend to take for granted, that provided the shimmering dissonance-soaked romanticism Strauss required as if it were second nature to them.

The cast was not least among the reasons for the success of the performance of a very difficult opera. First among them was Christine Goerke, the Metropolitan Opera’s new leading dramatic soprano in the German repertory. The moment she appeared stage left in a blood-red gown and loose, henna-red hair as five palace maids gossiped unsympathetically about her weirdness, we were riveted by her presence even before she opened her mouth to sing. And when she did, all hell broke loose. She was the embodiment of the wronged daughter seeking vengeance – upon her mother and her lover - for her father’s murder.

I have written before about how concert opera is the curse of opera in Boston, but it wasn’t in this case. All the principal singers inhabited their roles dramatically as well as vocally. Goerke was Elektra even as she skulked on stage to overhear the maids, all except one loyalist, dis her. And they – at least the women – dressed for their parts (The men, who were secondary dramatically, wore tuxes); Goerke in her flaming red gown, which she told the Boston Globe she had had specially made for these concerts, Gun-Brit Barkmin as her wimpy sister Chrysothemis in a pearly gray gown with fur collar and ruff, Jane Henschel as Klytämestra, the mother from Hell, in a matronly black dress and spangly floor-length vest.

Of course, that was the least of it. They could have been sporting Balenciaga if they barked through roles like many of their peers who face the challenges of the roles, and we wouldn’t have been so impressed.

Goerke was first among equals. Her big, resonant, richly colored, deeply expressive voice, heavy at the bottom of her range, lyrically touching at its top, the registers traversed without apparent effort, was like a force of nature, in that sense reminiscent of Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Verrett and precious few others. (It’s hard to believe this was the same singer I heard in a misguided production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” the late-Opera Boston mounted five years ago. In the role of Leonora, Goerke was awkward dramatically and tentative vocally. She was if anything, underpowered, hard to hear in the mid-size Cutler Majestic Theatre. Maybe it had something to do with the hideous suit she had to wear, which made her look like a tragic transsexual –Leonora tries to pass as a young man in order to infiltrate a prison and free her political-prisoner husband – or the general ridiculousness of the production.)

Mezzo-soprano Henschel, who seems to make a specialty of mothers from Hell – she sang Herodias in “Salome,” the BSO’s previous effort at presenting opera under Nelsons two years ago - was her equal. Despite their ability to provide vocal pyrotechnics, both Goerke and Henschel are singers who cling to the written text, alert to its subtleties, exploring every nuance of every phrase, every syllable. Even if, like me, you don’t know German, you could almost follow what was being said by their vocal inflections. (And of course there were supertitles to let you follow every line.) Their duet in scene three – the opera is done unbroken without scene or act breaks – preceded by Klytämnestra’s enormously disturbing monologue about the guilt-laden dreams she has been having – was the emotional and musical highlight of the evening. The later so-called “Recognition Scene” between Elektra and her long-gone brother Orest, thought to be dead, which many consider the opera’s emotional climax, lacked the same emotional weight because the Orest, James Rutherford, although otherwise admirable, was not, like Henschel, Goerke’s equal.

Barkmin, who sang “Salome” here two years ago with Nelsons was more tonally secure this time around – Chrysosthemis is a much less demanding role than Salome– but less dramatically intense. If you play a wimp longing for a husband and children – Strauss in his Symphonia Domestica mode – then you can’t flame out demanding the head of John the Baptist on a plate. But still, a card-carrying member of the House of Atreus can’t help being drawn into the psychodrama of its family politics. Remember that Strauss was writing his two early dysfunctional family dramas – “Salome” and “Elektra” – at the same time and in the same place that Sigmund Freud was writing his jolting early works.

Time out for a little plot summary. All those of a certain age know the story of the House of Atreus from required freshman humanities courses. Memory is short, however, and I also wonder if today’s freshmen, dreams of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg dancing in their heads, even take humanities courses. The story is central to Greek mythology. Basically, it relates a tale of a royal family of divine origin that slays together to stay together. Today, their patricidal, matricidal and fratricidal legacy includes thousands - no millions - of descendents on all continents, in all cultures, if few of royal lineage. We read about them in the newspapers – or online - everyday. No wonder Freud went to the Greek myths to root his theories.

The opera, like the play, is about grievance and revenge. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, has gone off to the Trojan Wars to help free his brother’s wife, the famous Helen of Troy, from her captors. Because of a curse, his fleet is stuck in harbor and he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia – there are other operas about her – for the winds for his ships to sail on. His wife, Klytämnestra, is not pleased to lose her first-born. Anyway, Agamemnon is away for many years, and Klytämnestra, the anti-Penelope, Ulysses’ wife - also the subject of many operas - takes a lover. When Agamemnon unexpectedly returns, they kill him in his bath with an ax. Her three-remaining children are alienated. Orest, the eldest son, the heir to the throne, is sent off for his own protection. The eldest remaining daughter, Elektra, lives for revenge. The other daughter, Chrysosthemis, just wants everything to be OK. When Orest returns unexpectedly and kills his mother and her lover, Aegisth, everything seems resolved, but Elektra, in victory, dances a dance of death that equals in its sexual dementia that of Salome. (Those Germans, influenced by Wagner, can’t seem to shake the idea of the love-death.) And the curse goes on and on into subsequent generations.

Elektra’s entry aria is a statement of existential despair: “Allein! Weh, ganz allein” (Alone, I am all alone.) Her aria recapitulating the story ends with an almost keening invocation of her dead father, “Agamemnon, Agamemnon, Agamemnon!” If Goerke’s voice is preternaturally strong, dominating a loud orchestra of more than 100 players, it can also be ravishingly lyrical. She takes a break from her impassioned wailing to beg her dead father to show himself to her, the lovely lyricism forecasting Strauss’s abrupt change from the Expressionism of “Salome” and “Elektra” to the insinuating, waltz-saturated, Mozartian comedy of “Der Rosenkavalier,” his next opera. Elektra soon enough returns to her lust for vengeance. Fantasizing the death of her mother and stepfather, she says that when they’re gone, “we will dance,” and she gives a demented little dance, the first of two, twisting her skirts like a gypsy. She ends the scene by singing in ecstasy, the name of her father, again, “Agamemnon!” Chilling.

The next scene is a look into another world, conventional, bourgeois, Viennese. Chryosthemis sings of wanting a normal life: “I want children before I wither.” Elektra can barely contain her contempt for her weak sister, but she needs her in her attempt to kill their parents – if the long absent Orest fails to return. In her Louise Brooks bob, Barkmin looks lovely, ready to preside over a tea party for other women of her class in some Vienna Werkstätte-designed salon, and she sings powerfully, fully inhabiting a role that is not one that makes hearts beat faster.

The scene between Klytämnestra and Elektra is extraordinary, even if the two singers were not at the top of their professions as singing actors as Goerke and Henschel are. Klytämnestra enters accompanied by strident strings and drums. Echoing Christ on the Cross, she sings, “Oh, God, why do you punish me so. Why have you abandoned me?”

She has had horrible dreams, “Why am I like a barren field where only nettles grow,” she sings with a low growl. This woman, a monster by any standard, who has reduced her two daughters to servant status, has come to Elektra to confide and to ask for help in overcoming her pain. “I have no peaceful nights,” she sings, “Can we waste away like carrion and not even be sick?” When she tells Elektra of her dreams, she sings, “The marrow in my bones is melting.” (Freud would analyze the source of her distress as guilt over having killed her husband.)

Henschel sings the text almost conversationally, her voice rising for emphasis to stentorian volume, or quieting to a lovely lyricism. She is the very model of a singing actress, not a prima donna, but a singer devoted to put the text across in order to serve the drama.

Elektra, essentially her slave and prisoner, toys with her, feigning sympathy, leading her on, finally proposing that the only thing that will release her from enduring her nightmares is a bloody death – hers - but Klytämnestra exits laughing, knowing that Orest, the son fated to kill her, is dead.

And so it goes relentlessly for six more scenes to the final bloody end and Elektra’s manic dance of death at her victory. Not a note is wasted. There are no digressions, no subplots – just the story of one of the most dysfunctional families in literature.

The entire cast was excellent. It was just hard for any of them to make an impression when the three central female characters were so extraordinary. James Rutherford did not have much stage-presence as the returned-from-the-dead Orest. Strauss wrote some of the most ecstatic orchestral music for his so-called “Recognition Scene” with Elektra, but it did not ignite. As Aegisth, the lover who killed Agamemnon at Klytämnestra’s command, Gerhard Siegel declaimed lyrically, his voice capably expressing hysteria when it becomes clear to him that he is to be killed. But the role lacks the juice he was able to explore when he sang Herod opposite Henschel in “Salome” two years ago. The many maids, servants and confidantes in small roles were all at least serviceable.

The huge orchestra was a star equal to Goerke and Henschel. Playing with richness and force, it was equally adept at the jagged Expressionist passages and the rare lyrical episodes that looked ahead to the mature Strauss. There is nothing in local music like hearing the BSO at full throttle in its home hall.

And Nelsons, after two years, at home with his orchestra, where the love is still flowing in both directions, kept everything together, dancing on his podium like the young man he is, drawing out the smallest telling detail in a score that could easily descend in bombast.

Let him bring opera to us more often. He is so clearly inspired by it, and the audience so clearly loves it.

Sandwiched among the “Elektra” performances, Nelsons led the orchestra in Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” cantata, which he adapted from his score for the Eisenstein film. In this work, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which didn’t have much to do in “Elektra,” was an equal partner with the orchestra. And the moving mezzo-soprano solo, “The Field of the Dead,” a lament like only a Russian could write, was sung by one of the maids in “Elektra,” Nadezhda Serdyuk.

“Alexander Nevsky” is one of the greatest choral works of the 20th century, one of my personal favorites, and seldom done, so I was really excited to hear it. It was, however, a disappointment. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed – I imagine it was putting all its effort into “Elektra” – although, consummate professionals that they are, the players were able to produce the propulsive, percussive sound Prokofiev wanted, only it was a little unfocused, a little ragged. I hope they get their act together by the time they get to New York. Boston has always been a try-out town for the Big Apple, a role the endangered Colonial Theatre played for decades, which has seemed a little galling to me. Symphony Hall concerts should not also be functioning as rehearsals for New York. But that’s the way it too often is. As soloist, Serdyuk was persuasive in expressing the grief of Russians in time of battle. However, the role calls for a voice apparently summoned from the bowels of the earth. Few have it. Serdyuk, who is a soloist at Leningrad’s famed Kirov Theatre – oh, sorry, they have both been renamed in an effort to erase the past, they’re now St. Petersburg and the Mariinsky – had a voice a little less earthy than the ideal, although she sang the role with understanding and passion.

After intermission, Nelsons led the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s final work, his “Symphonic Dances.” Unlike “Alexander Nevsky,” the Rachmaninoff has been frequently performed by the orchestra, and the brilliant performance underlined the tentativeness of the Prokofiev, which makes fewer appearances in Symphony Hall.

The solution: program “Alexander Nevsky” more often. Like Shostakovich, whose symphonies Nelsons is exploring and recording with the BSO, Prokofiev, historically championed by the orchestra, has been in recent years relatively neglected. Time to reset priorities.