Strauss Elektra, London Symphony Orchestra/ Gergiev, Barbican Hall London

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The Independent Culture

Watching and hearing Valery Gergiev conduct Strauss’ Elektra was truly an unholy collusion of neurotic natures.

The overwhelming exposure of the London Symphony Orchestra across the length and breadth of the Barbican platform already ensured an optimal decibel count but from the very first bar as Gergiev flung down the “Agamemnon” motif leaving hollow clarinets like an open wound it was clear just how starkly the festering innards of this amazing score would be thrown into relief. The worming bass woodwinds, the rhythmic twitching of frayed nerve-endings, the things that go bump in the palace of Mycenae as Queen Clytemnestra hovers “between sleeping and waking”, a living corpse awaiting the maggots and moths – these were the horrors Gergiev brought us with an immediacy that is rarely if ever achieved in the opera house. The LSO, scarily impressive, could sense the abattoir.



Of course, the greatness of Strauss’ score is exemplified by the way it clings like rotting flesh to the carcass of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s wonderfully gothic libretto. The words have their own ugly percussiveness and seemed to wrack the bony face and body of Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet’s Elektra as she began her long day’s journey into hellish night. This was very much an actor’s performance, brave and tormented and only a syllable or two away from the madhouse. The concentration of it was extraordinary and quite disturbing from close quarters – but rather more disturbing in the end was the fact that Charbonnet really has only a fraction of the voice required for the role. The words deploy every register to grotesque effect and she shirked nothing but pushed everything and without the girth and resonance of a true dramatic soprano it sounded a little like a new age pop singer in a parody of opera.



One missed particularly the bloom and beauty that must surface in the recognition scene with Orestes. Not only was the infusion of warmth not there in the two-fold utterance of his name but Charbonnet came in early both times. Matthias Goerne meanwhile was apt to sound as if he’d strayed in from Wigmore Hall though his archness was suitably surreal as if he really had returned from the dead.



The sensational Felicity Palmer evoked just that and then some as Clytemnestra, her sepulchral rasps turning the line “my nights are bad” into the understatement of the century. As her other daughter, Chrysothemis, Angela Denoke presented a pale skinned beauty worlds away from the ravaged Elektra, but she was seriously over-parted vocally and patently without the required reach at the top.



But the drama prevailed with a vengeance and the words “there will be blood” were left etched on our eardrums.

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