/BBC Prom 59: Richard Strauss’ Elektra **** [FOUR STAR]

BBC Prom 59: Richard Strauss’ Elektra **** [FOUR STAR]

BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) and conductor, Semyon Bychkov

 BBC Prom 59 [Sunday 31st August] was dominated by Elektra (1909); the second of the two so-called  psycho-pathological operas of Richard Strauss following a lusty and staggering performance of Salome the night before [see link below.] Christine Goerke took center stage making her prom debut as the menacing and evil daughter Elektra while 120 musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) gave a steadfast and prominent performance conducted by the seamless and precise Semyon Bychkov who is well-versed in Strauss’ work.

It was in 1903 (or 1904 according to some musicologists) that Strauss had attended a performance of the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play Elektra that spurred them to work collaboratively – for the first time – and transform it into an opera. Set in antiquity, it follows the terrifying path of a troubled daughter, Elektra who seeks revenge for her father’s bloody murder. 

Elektra is imbued with turn-of-the-century themes such as dreams, psychoanalysis, sacrilegious rites, and inklings of lesbian incest from the original works of Sophocles. However, there is no official source that suggests, either, Hofmannsthal or Strauss were familiar with Sigmund Freud’s work. 

The immediate entry into the opera involves – almost – all instruments diving in with dissonance and tension which presents the omnipresent and looming dead father similar to Mozart’s Commendatore in Don Giovanni.  The BBCSO had its largest orchestral size comprising of up to eight horns, eight clarinets including two rare basset horns and a full assembly of percussion instruments.

Although filled with glaring stress and intense musical chords underpinning the instability and uncertainty of the tale of Elektra, there are harmonies fully illustrating by the BBCSO, such as D minor for Orestes, Elektra’s lost brother sung by Johan Reuter, and E flat for Chrysothemis, their slightly subdued sister performed by Gun-Brit Barkmin. In this evening’s performance, compared to the last, all singers memorised their lines and brought primed distinction and verve to Justin Way’s semi-stage.

(Left to Right) Johan Reuter, Dame Felicity Palmer, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Christine Goerke

Goerke had already sung the same role at the Royal Opera House last year which made her the optimum choice for the BBC Proms. Her vocal agility was unflagging and constant; one could hear the killer instinct of a tormented Elektra throughout. While her voice echoed, from where I sat in the Royal Albert Hall (RAH), her music still towered over. 

Barkmin also moved the audience being Elektra’s docile, yet spirited sister as a strong soprano. She didn’t, however, match Goerke’s prowess, particularly at the last scenes were their voices seemed to clash. Yet, irrespective of this, Barkmin still held on until the very end despite how vocally demanding her role was.

Dame Felicity Palmer as Elektra’s mother, Clytemnestra entered in like a Hollywood star in a diamanté queen’s black robe to resemble a superstitious and guilt-stricken mother. Palmer’s fashion was fitting as her previous experience as Chytemnestra shone through and peaked; it was a delight to hear her and see her on stage as Goerke’s antagonist.

Reuter also showed a full-proof Orestes in the musical climax scene with Elektra. Although Robert Künzli as Clytemnestra lover, Aegisthus and Jongmin Park as Orestes’ tutor had smaller roles, they still managed to prove their merits as operatic performers while the five maids (Katarina Bradić, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger, and Iris Kupke) sung with vim and vigor. 

The score of Elektra is earth-shattering and musically booming; this is ignited by the dissident blend of countless instruments which amalgamate dissonance with melodies. With Semyon Bychkov’s precision, the BBCSO successfully conveyed Strauss’ intriguing opera which was filled with quiet, subtle hushes and victorious brass instruments to build up wicked suspense. An example of this is when Orestes and his tutor kill Chytemnestra and she screams. It is the trilling strings and abrupt instruments that turn up the volume and violence which discernibly supplements Strauss’ fixation with female voices and the female psyche.

An shortened version of my review of Prom 59: Richard Strauss Elektra: 


 Review of Prom 58: Richard Strauss Salome


Information on the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, events and ticket bookings