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S & H Prom Review

PROM 15, Richard Strauss, Elektra, Soloists, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, RAH, 29th July 2003 (MB)


The first truly outstanding concert of this year’s Proms, this was a performance of Elektra that was by any standards world-class. There may have been imprecisions in ensemble, and some of the voices were clearly challenged by Strauss’ writing, but dramatically it was the equal of any performance I have heard in the opera house. In no small measure this was down to Donald Runnicles’ superlative conducting which was fierce and lyrical, brutal and sensuous and powerful and flexible: a truly inspired, even virtuoso, display from a conductor at the height of his operatic powers.

At least three orchestral moments stand out as exceptional. The first was the sweep and neurosis that Runnicles gave to the opera’s opening bitonal chords, so utterly emblematic of the underlying psychological disorder that is later to disturb the barely seething harmony of the score’s undercurrents. The second was the opera’s first major climax where Elektra believes she has triumphed over Klytemnestra. Runnicles built up the tension magnificently with the orchestra playing furtively at first, to suggest the nightmarish terrors of Klytemnestra, and then broadening its sound base to devastating effect to evoke her triumph over despair into murderous despot. The pungency of tone was bewilderingly dark. The third was the closing scene of the opera which I have never heard more sublimely done – here, Runnicles used his orchestra with catastrophic power to suggest the collapse of Elektra’s perceived triumph (have the tubas ever sounded more menacing?), the reversal of dramatic fortune curtailed by those final deadening chords. Even beside a final dance that was beguilingly vertiginous, and almost obscenely Viennese in its parodying, and an entrance by Klytemnestra and her entourage that barely concealed its savagery, these were compelling moments.

Vocally, however, this was an unevenly cast Elektra. Gabriele Schnaut sang Elektra with great feeling for the part, but the voice came under strain too frequently for her performance to have been a great assumption. Noticeable is a flattening out of her top notes (a top C during her exchange with Klytemnestra (in her ‘Was bluten muß’ solo) sounded almost a tone lower than it should have been) and even if there is now little wobble at the top of her voice (there once was!) that steadiness is achieved with great difficulty. In the middle register she is indeed firm – but her best singing was reserved for the Recognition Scene which was spellbinding in its beauty, a mesmerising example of a soprano confident enough to allow the inner voices to preternaturally take control of events. Alan Helds Orestes was more mellifluous than we are used to but he has the richness of sonority to be able to project over the orchestra – which he did with ease.

Easily the most magnificently sung performance of the evening was Felicity Palmers Klytemnestra. This is a singer who lives the role, as she did at Covent Garden in April. I wrote of her performance there that:

Dramatically, she dominates Edwards’ production bringing vividly to stage the cruelty, dementia and hysteria of Klytemnestra. It is a tour de force of acting and stamina, although I am less convinced by her vocal strengths. As with the role of Elektra, Strauss cruelly exposes Klytemnestra’s vocal writing in the upper and lower registers. Ms Palmer is quite magnificent in the lower and middle reaches, indeed I would be hard pressed to think of a more convincingly sung nightmare than what we had here with the tension she produced in her voice proving not just haunted but genuinely paranoiac. When Elektra interprets her dream of the anonymous terror as the avenging Orestes Ms Palmer visibly looks on the point of collapse, ‘Mutter, du zitterst ja!’ Elektra exclaims. However, whilst the voice above the stave is secure it is often an uningratiating sound, although even that can be forgiven in a portrait that is really one of the monstrous creations of our time. How she caresses her jewels and lurches like a female hunchback across the stage suggests real understanding of Klytemnestra’s emotional chemistry. And if vocally there were moments of discomfort lines like ‘Und müßt ich jedes Tier, das kriecht und fliegt…’ were delivered with the kind of fortitude and rasping hatred which makes her one of the outstanding interpreters of the role today.

In many ways all of those comments apply to this performance – I still find her voice slightly sour in the upper registers – but as an actress she simply has no rival. Even though this was a concert performance she brought such physical energy to the role that her words were given added impetus, the true focal point of this performance. It remains utterly compelling, the reincarnation of pure evil. A stunning off stage cream (which had been preceded earlier in the opera with hyena-like laughter of sheer perniciousness) – a shriek of agonising frailty that reverberated around the Albert Hall with terrifying power – was the culmination of a murder that was unapologetically towering in its savagery.

Both the Chrysothemis of Janice Watson and the Aegisthus of John Treleaven (both singing from a score) were less distinctive. Ms Watson lacks the necessary lyricism to make an ideal Chrysothemis, and sometimes the weight of her voice was suffocated by the orchestral playing. Although she is capable of much beauty of phrasing, and was majestically so in her final cries of ‘Orest! Orest!’, ultimately she seemed rather lightweight. A similar charge can be levelled against Treleaven’s Aegisthus who really did have difficulties in his small scene with the size of his voice (this is after all a Tristan voice) surprisingly vanquished by the Albert Hall acoustic. The maids of Susan Gorton, Antonia Sotgiu, Sarah Castle, Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers and Rebecca Nash were supremely confident in their opening music and the contrast in timbre between their voices worked well.

Elektra is such a vast canvas of allusion, psychology and musical connectivity but even a badly sung Elektra (of which this was not really one) has moments of greatness. If the singing here wasn’t perfect (but so few singers in this work are) it was memorable and highly dramatic, the colours in the voices as evocative as the peacock-blue or blood-red lighting going on behind the orchestra (a welcome use of lighting for a change). Yet, the overriding impression is that of conductor and orchestra – such beautifully intoned Wagner horns, lush strings and savage percussion – all held together with an iron grip by the mercurial Donald Runnicles. If Covent Garden should revive Elektra in the not too distant future they should call on Mr Runnicles – on this showing few conductors have a better grasp of this seminal and astonishing score, still as fresh today as it was almost a century ago.

Marc Bridle




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