Elektra, BBC Prom 59, Royal Albert Hall, RAH, 31 August 2014Posted on 1 September 2014
Who needs an opera house for Elektra? Justin Way’s staging allowed plenty of space for interactions between the singers, and there was none of that dark lighting and seediness so beloved by directors of this opera. On the contrary, the house lights brightened suddenly on the first bar of music, and again at the end when Elektra sings joyously of hearing music conveying the triumph of Orestes. She swings her sister Chrysothemis in a circle, and during her final victory dance suddenly falls dead on the stage — a magnificent coup de théâtre!
And if the staging surpassed some of those I have seen in opera houses, so did the singing and orchestral playing. Semyon Bychkov ardently encouraged the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the singers to give their all, and they did.
As Elektra herself, Christine Goerke repeated the role she sang at the Royal Opera House last September, but this was far better. In her first monologue when she calls out to Agamemnon to reveal himself again in the shadow of the wall’s corner (zeig dich deinem Kind) her face showed a wonderful rapture, and in the scene with Klytämnestra her voice rose above the orchestra with an expression showing her luxuriating in the power to predict her mother’s death.
That Klytämnestra even has this tête-a-tête with her daughter is thanks to a determination to throw off the advice of her ladies-in-waiting, which she mocks as merely the Atem des Ägisth (breath of Aegisthus), and Felicity Palmer was superb here. Her excellent diction and magnificent put-down of these women contributed to a riveting vocal representation of this harridan, with a blood-curdling off-stage scream later as she meets her end. Superb diction too from German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin who was a revelation as Chrysothemis. Her first duet with Elektra showed lovely phrasing endowed with the vocal power to rise above the orchestra as she sang of the blessings of motherhood, and towards the end her Hörst du nicht? (Can’t you hear it) suggested the sublime transfiguration of Isolde. This is a singer to watch out for. The interaction with her sister, when Elektra decides it is they who must do the deed, was powerfully presented, and her voice was full of passion as she yearned for freedom.
In the end it was Christine Goerke’s compelling madness that swept all before it. Veering from sisterly passion to rejection of Chrysothemis to a beautifully expressed sadness during the duet with Johan Reuter’s nobly sung Orestes, she sang with glorious vocal lyricism as she finally recognises him. Wonderfully gentle emotional support from the orchestra here, before moving to a gripping finale.
Robert Künzli made an excellent brief appearance as Aegisthus, and I very much liked German soprano Iris Kupke as Fifth Maid. Altogether a hugely strong cast that gave a truly great performance of Elektra. But why were there so many empty seats in the Balcony? When the Proms does an opera there should not be a spare seat in the hall because the music and singing in these one-off performances is usually better than anything you can get in a longer run at an opera house. And if it’s staging you want this was riveting. At the end, as the body of Elektra lay on the ground, Chrysothemis went over, falling to her knees and embracing her sister. Utterly gripping.