Elektrifying Elektra

Photo by Chris Lee
Last night's Elektra (courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall) was one of those nights where the audience was screaming and stomping, like a gladiator arena. It was by far the most exciting, visceral opera performance of recent memory.

At the center of the performance was Christine Goerke's electrifying performance in the title role. Goerke's voice is a real dramatic soprano. It has organ-like richness and resonance and unusual warmth. She was skilled with singing off the words -- you didn't have to understand much German to feel a chill when you heard her declamations towards her dead father Agamemnon. When she first opened her mouth in "Allein!" people gasped that after so many pretenders, here was the genuine article. Her voice is so ripe and has so much texture that an occasional thin top was barely noticeable. She sang the title role with passion, conviction, and beauty. (Yes Elektra has many beautiful moments.) She was also a magnetic actress. She used no score and stayed onstage the whole evening, her red dress symbolic of Elektra's bloodthirst, her huge eyes radiating hatred. At the end of the evening when she did that cathartic dance it didn't look awkward at all -- this was "semi-staged" performance at its best. In short, she was demented.

She was surrounded by colleagues who also all brought their A-game to the table. Gun-Brit Barkmin (Chrysothemis) was nearly as arresting as Goerke. Her soprano is an intriguing mix of silvery lightness with unexpected power. The dialogues between the sisters crackled with tension. And both women were convincing enough actresses to make the sister dynamic totally believable. Jane Henschel was a more subtle, passive Klytämnestra than the typical portrayal. She played the World's Worst Mother as a recognizable type -- the mom that just doesn't care, and lets her lover take over her world. Her one misfire was the extended cackle at the end of her scene with Elektra. It just didn't seem to fit her passive, "my daughters are living like animals and my husband was killed but eh, whatever" characterization.

The supporting cast was equally strong. Gerhard Siegel (Aegisth) was simply outstanding in the brief role. He exuded menace. You totally believed that he'd made the household a torture chamber for Elektra and Chrysothemis. James Rutherford (Oreste) was stiff, a bit formal, the only one who very obviously was singing in a "concert opera" rather than Elektra in concert format. But you couldn't argue with the richness of his timbre or his vocalism. Even the various household help were excellent.

Conductor Andris Nelsons led a sensitive, even lyrical account of the score, that emphasized the disconcerting waltz rhythms and bright major keys that perpetuate this blood-soaked, harrowing drama. The 100-member orchestra of course rocked the house during the climax of the opera but Nelsons was careful to never make noise for noise's sake.

It seems as if every opera fan has this story of how they went to Elektra and screamed their lungs out afterwards. I had always kind of rolled my eyes at those stories, because my experiences with Elektra have been ... well, mediocre. But last night I finally got my "that one time, when I went to Elektra, and I screamed and stomped and banged the walls" tale.

Christine Goerke has set a very high bar for current Elektras. One endearing thing about her: it seems as if she took Birgit Nilsson's advice of wearing comfortable shoes. During the frenzied dance at the end of the opera you saw that underneath the billowing red gown was a pair of cute ballet flats.


  1. I believe that the part of Aegisth is sung by a tenor.

  2. Out of curiosity, what have been your mediocre Elektra experiences. I missed the last met revival.
    I'm going to sound like such a downer but I while I admire Georke and especially appreciate her musicality, I really just don't find her that exciting a stage presence and thought she really pushed towards camp in her general approach to the role. Herlitzius is a divisive singer and not as consistent or attractive vocally but her Elektra is spectacular. I saw her alongside Pieczonka and Meier and that was a performance for the ages.

    1. Saw the last Met revival with Susan Bullock. Eh. Also saw Gabriele Schnaut.

    2. I skipped the Bullock run because I'd seen her at covent garden and thought she was poor. The cast supporting her looked pretty bleak as well. Schnaut I saw both runs and I thought she was mediocre but the cast supporting her (schwarz was klytemnestra, pape was orest, and voigt could still sing) was super. I'm eager to see Georke in a staged production to see how she fairs. She's the top choice vocally and I would take her over stemme who doesn't seem to be doing so well lately

    3. The production by Chereau seems really good, and Stemme's a good actress. As amazing as her Elektra was, when I heard Goerke I really thought of Isolde. I'd travel to see that.

    4. I personally hope for a Georke Brunnhilde. It has been FOREVER since the role has been sung by someone who can get through roles like elektra without tiring out and whose voice is as full and rich as Georkes is. Something about the coloring of her voice and the way she phrases reminds me of Varnay and I'd love to see her bring some life the current met production. I have a harder time picturing her as Isolde because her vice is a bit too muscular, but I'm willing to be proven wrong. I just prefer more lyricism and subtly in that particular role, more so than Brunnhilde.

    5. And do see if you can view the chereau DVD, it's simply amazing.

  3. Jane Henschel, not Herschel. "Her voice is so ripe and has so much texture that an occasional thin top was barely noticeable"--unintended irony?


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