Cher Public

Aged in blood

Simply put, Christine Goerke is a stupendous Elektra.  

Not to slight her sterling collaborators at Wednesday night’s Carnegie Hall concert, but any version of Richard Strauss’s towering one-act opera will inevitably be all about the soprano brave enough to tackle its incomparably demanding title role. Perhaps Goerke, after a bumpy run as Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera last month, felt particularly inspired in a city where she has seen numerous successes (along with a few missteps) at both the Met and New York City Opera because she gave a tireless performance of unrelenting dramatic intensity and impressive vocal security.

Although the evening was billed as a concert version, apparently no one told her. The rapt Carnegie audience experienced a fully realized portrait of the tortured Mycenaean princess bent on avenging her father’s brutal murder. Just a red blur, Goerke swiftly entered the hall from a side door as if shot out of a canon the moment the orchestra thundered out its initial iteration of the great Agamemnon theme. Initially cowering behind the violins, she rose to defiantly confront the five serving maids and their overseer as they talked trash about her.

From that moment on, there was no question that despite the terrible conditions in which she has been forced to live outside the palace this was still a fiercely proud, obsessed woman, wily and clever in her single-minded quest. With a startlingly organ-like “Allein!” Goerke began Elektra’s monologue. Looking svelte and beautiful in a bouffant scarlet gown—styled very like the legendary Edith Head frock Bette Davis flaunted in All About Eve—she firmly planted herself next to the conductor’s podium to recount her haunted heritage. She announced, then and there, that she would need no time to warm up vocally or dramatically.

By turns wheedling and impatient with her unhelpful sister, sly and brutal with their haunted mother, Goerke fully inhabited Elektra’s journey. Particularly witty was the way she sat waiting for Klytâmnestra: she delicately smoothed her flowing skirt, primly folded her hands at her waist and smiled sweetly in wicked anticipation. The frightening curse “Was bluten muss?” which concludes the immense mother-daughter confrontation was frightening in its seething severity.

The news that her brother Orest had been killed abruptly stifled her confidence and inconsolable sadness reigned until her brother finally did appear alive before her. In that wrenching recognition scene Goerke movingly traced Elektra’s hundred warring emotions until she literally jumped, still half-unbelieving, into the arms of her equally stunned brother tracing his half-remembered face and palm with her own shaking hand.

After the throbbing emotion of that reunion, her impish teasing of Aegisth unfolded as comic relief, but his death cries brought forth that much longed-for relief as her wide face beamed a most ecstatic smile of vindication until the exertions of her manic dance drove her to collapse in the chair to which she had occasionally retreated. That final shocking stillness occasioned a deafening roar of applause that brought Goerke to her feet looking fresh enough to have another go at the role that very evening!

Vocally she was in complete command of every moment of this grueling role. An occasional thin top note or brush with iffy intonation paled in light of the confidence and security with which she conquered Strauss’s insane demands. She may have sacrificed some facility in spinning out piano passages, but the vast sound she would pour at the many climaxes was thrilling. The middle of the voice in particular remains enviably plush and enveloping. She rarely uttered an ugly note and never ignored the terrible beauty of Elektra’s music.

I thought back to the first time I heard Goerke as a last-minute substitute for the ever-ailing Teresa Stratas in selection from Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles during the eight-hour Levine Gala in 1996. I don’t remember her making much of an impression that evening but I was likely perturbed by Stratas’s inevitable cancellation.

But the next year brought her towering Iphigénie to New York City Opera, a portrayal so beautifully sung and intensely acted that she triumphed over the buzz surrounding Francesca Zambello’s homoerotic vision of the Gluck. A deliciously manic Armida in Handel’s Rinaldo three years later also at City Opera gave further notice that this was a real star-in-the-making.

A difficult decade of ups and downs followed until murmurs about a great “new” dramatic soprano began to surface. Her triumphant Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met two years ago proved that the rumors were more than true. After successes in Madrid, Chicago, London and Detroit as Elektra, Goerke’s subjugation of first the Boston public and then New York’s gave final confirmation that she is now one of opera’s most exciting stars. Peter Gelb, though rumored to hate opera, was spotted at Carnegie Hall enjoying his future Brünnhilde knock it out of the park the same night the Mets did!

Oh, and yes, there was also the spectacular Boston Symphony Orchestra on stage with its newish music director Andris Nelsons leading an occasionally slow but increasingly intense reading of Strauss’s opulent score. The first half was cleanly, carefully done but without the insinuating power that should imbue the important Elektra-Klytämnestra confrontation. However, from the entrance of Orest, the performance took on a gathering momentum and pathos and the recognition scene proved uncommonly moving. Nelsons never strove for decibels for their own sake although the BSO at full cry was a marvel, but just as memorable were the quietly creepy moments.

The remainder of Nelsons’s cast was imposing in its depth and commitment. A full-throated contingent of serving maids immediately riveted one’s attention although the important Fifth Maid, Rebecca Nash, had a disconcertingly dark, covered sound. A nostalgic note was struck by the appearance as the Overseer of Nadine Secunde who sang Chrysothemis when Seiji Ozawa conducted (and recorded) Elektra with Hildegard Behrens and Christa Ludwig and his BSO in the late 1980s; she later became a considerable Elektra herself.

Familiar from his performances as Mime at the Met, Gerhard Siegel was an outstanding, clarion Aegisth, a welcome respite from the superannuated heldentenor one so often hears in the role. I was less enamored of James Rutherford’s grave Orest; although he sang well enough, the role seemed to lie a bit low for him and his weighty baritone might have been steadier. A stiff actor, he failed to be very responsive to Goerke’s galvanic performance during their scene together.

On the other hand, Gun-Brit Barkmin’s arrestingly kinetic Chrysothemis could not be accused of passivity. Nelsons’s Salome when the Vienna Staatsoper visited Carnegie Hall last season (a performance I unfortunately missed), Barkmin brandished her occasionally unwieldly laser-like soprano with a compelling nervous intensity. With her tall, thin build, Louise Brooks bob and long, long strands of pearls, she couldn’t have been more different from her boldly extroverted sister. Quivering with fear and longing, she made Elektra’s whiny sister less of a trial than usual. Though occasionally they turned strident, her big high notes soared with stirring power.

Looking like everyone’s kindly grandmother (albeit in a striking glittering floor-length evening jacket), the veteran mezzo Jane Henschel was the subtle, frightened object of Elektra’s hate. After many years her voice remains in nearly prime estate from ringing high notes to disturbing sepulchral low ones. Klytämnestra’s long narration of her haunted dreams was a deft master-class in relishing Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s magisterial text. Perhaps her manic cackling at her scene’s conclusion went on a bit long but this was an indelible reminder of sadly how rare Henschel’s New York appearances have been.

It seemed as if every inveterate New York opera-fanatic took special care to be at Carnegie Hall, a gala occasion which took me back to the last time I heard Elektra there: Eva Marton’s incendiary 1991 collaboration with Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic. Those not lucky enough to have been there Wednesday or at Symphony Hall last week should seek out a copy of Saturday’s Boston broadcast to savor Goerke’s triumph.

Nina Stemme will have a tough act to follow when her Elektra arrives at the Metropolitan Opera this spring in a new incarnation of the late Patrice Chéreau’s already legendary final production under another dynamic maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Photos by Chris Lee.