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22.8.06

Summer Opera 2006: Elektra

There was a single concert performance of Strauss's Elektra last month at the Tanglewood Festival. I would have liked to have heard it, not least because of the casting: Lisa Gasteen (Elektra), Christine Brewer (Chrysothemis), Felicity Palmer (Klytemnestra), Alan Held (Orest), and Siegfried Jerusalem (Aegist). Having James Levine back at the podium didn't hurt either. Richard Dyer was there (Levine marshals the ferocity of 'Elektra', July 18) for the Boston Globe:

The music is both opulent and, in a peculiar way, austere. It contains the most modern music Strauss ever composed, yet it tells the ancient Greek myth in terms of turn-of-the-century Vienna, complete with delirious waltzes. Even Strauss may have been terrified by "Elektra" and its implications, because he never composed anything this red in tooth and claw again, anything that ran along the nerves with this degree of intensity.

You really have to be born to sing the title role, the most demanding part ever written for dramatic soprano. Lisa Gasteen probably wasn't, but her performance was far more than a brave stab. She doesn't have the tireless and blazing top notes the music requires, and until she was fully warmed up, some of those high tones dragged a little flat. Later on, in the Recognition Scene, she found it difficult to project some quieter phrases over the orchestra. But the Australian soprano's powerful voice boasts a beautiful glowing, ruby timbre, deployed with vigor and insight. And she is a theatrical presence who can command attention even when standing still.

As Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister who yearns for domesticity, soprano Christine Brewer poured out torrents of radiant sound. In concert dress, the veteran British mezzo Felicity Palmer looked more like Auntie Mame than a tragedy queen, but she brought dignity to the part of Klytemnestra, which is often reduced to grotesque, unmusical caricature. Her voice communicated brazen assurance; her imagination revealed the queen's inner demons. Baritone Alan Held was a match for the steadiness and nobility of the trombones as Orest, and tenor Siegfried Jerusalem contributed a vivid cameo as the craven Aegisth.
Anthony Tommasini also mentioned this performance in a review (At Tanglewood, James Levine Transforms Students Into Pros, July 17) for the New York Times:
And talk about rehearsing! On Saturday night Mr. Levine conducted an exceptional roster of singers and the students of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in a concert performance Richard Strauss’s “Elektra.” For all their talent and experience, most of these young musicians have not come close to playing an opera like “Elektra” with a conductor as versed in the genre as Mr. Levine. He devoted nearly 17 hours to rehearsing the orchestra in this blazing, complex and still shocking score. The hard work paid off. Seldom has a frenzied ovation been more deserved.
I need to get up there to Tanglewood next summer.

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