Elektra, Barbican Hall, London
Le vin herbé, St George's, Bloomsbury, London
Earplugs come in handy once Greek tragedy is in full cry, but a neglected oratorio proves exquisite
Sunday 17 January 2010
The best one can say about starting the year with Elektra is that it puts one's own family in a kinder light.
So your mother is passive-aggressive, your daughter rolls her eyes whenever you speak, and your sister-in-law gave you the Christmas present you'd given her two years earlier? Frayed tempers over the holidays are as nothing to the rage and resentment in the House of Atreus, a snarling gynaeocracy in dysfunctional thrall to a murdered father and missing son, made yet more shrill and spiteful in Valery Gergiev's concert performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Elektra is an opera in which you can almost smell the hormones, a lurid nightmare of hot flushes, mittelschmerz and menstrual cramps, written in an age obsessed with hysteria. Yet though the female voice predominates – cawing, crooning, howling and shrieking from the first entry of the maids to the heroine's final, bloody dance – the ghost of Agamemnon hangs thick, male, and heavy over the drama. Slain in his bath on his adulterous wife's commission, he is the "bag full of god" in Sylvia Plath's "Daddy", the "swastika/So black no sky could squeak through". Crazed with loss and fury, Elektra (Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet) is condemned to mourn him, alienated from the sister who simply wants babies, any babies (Angela Denoke's Chryso-themis), and the mother (Felicity Palmer's Clytemnestra) whose post-menopausal attentions dart lizard-like between lust for her lover and terror of retribution. Though vengeance is achieved, it comes with an insult: Elektra's axe is forgotten, the blow delivered by her brother, Orestes (Mat-thias Goerne). Penis envy? Jawohl!
The problem in any concert-performance of Elektra is less one of lack of visual stimuli than one of balance. Under Gergiev, the LSO made each smudge and swipe of what Strauss described as "night and light, or black and bright" brilliant and distinct, bruising and burning the ear, somewhat to the detriment of the singers. Charbonnet's intruder-alarm vibrato dissipates her sound instead of propelling it forward, yet her whole-body performance – dancing and stamping, torso twisted in pain and ecstasy, arms raised to the sky – made her colleagues seem pallid. Denoke's wan voice, garbled diction and persistent lip-wobbling did little to win sympathy for Chrysothemis. Second Maid Ekaterina Sergeeva was alone among the Russian domestics in having excellent German and a clear, healthy voice, while Palmer's lip-smacking, whip-cracking, ululating Clytemnestra underpinned Grand Guignol invective with intelligent, humane details. In a role that calls for little more than sturdy tone and crisp diction, Ian Storey delivered both, while Goerne's grave Orestes was sung with lieder-like sensitivity, and as though fully aware of the price he would pay for lifting the family curse.
Ardente Opera's hemi-demi-semi-staging of Le vin herbé at St George's, Bloomsbury, made me wonder why this cool, pensive dramatic oratorio is so rarely performed. Narrated by a choir of 12 voices and exquisitely scored for seven solo strings and piano, Frank Martin's 1941 treatment of the Tristan and Isolde myth sounds sometimes like Poulenc, sometimes like late Fauré, or like a sketch discarded by Debussy, and seems a better fit for Bill Viola's Tristan Project videos than Wagner's greedy masterpiece.
With judicious, if noisy, lighting changes and the sparest of movement direction, this dreamlike drama unfolded like a series of meditations. Hawksmoor's church favours ping over warmth, allowing Greg Tassell's reticent Tristan more glory than Angela Henckel's gentle Isolde, though his "mortal wound" looked suspiciously like muscle-fatigue from carrying the vocal score around (tut-tut). Under Julian Black, the choral sections were impeccably balanced, fresh and sweet, while the instrumental ensemble, led by Davina Clarke, played superbly. Expect neither this work, nor Elektra, to feature in ITV's From Popstar to Opera Star – of which, more next week.
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