Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra Delivers Electric ‘Elektra’

Christine Goerke
The New York Times

What makes a conductor the right fit for an orchestra? In August, after just one season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the dynamic Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons signed an extended contract that will keep him in that post until 2022. Questions still hover over his leadership. His long-term artistic vision for the institution seems unclear. He has yet to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for contemporary music, a serious shortcoming. And last month, Mr. Nelsons accepted the directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany, starting in 2017, a prestigious position that can only dilute his focus. 
Still, the reasons the Boston Symphony organization is committed to Mr. Nelsons came through, and how, on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall. Mr. Nelsons, 36, led the inspired players of this re-energized orchestra and a thrilling cast in a seething, inexorable-sounding concert performance of Strauss’s “Elektra,” a one-act shocker, completed in 1908 and the composer’s most boldly modernist score.

The night belonged to the American soprano Christine Goerke, who simply owns the title role. Over the last decade, she has developed into one of the most fearless and formidable dramatic sopranos of the day. Last month, she excelled in the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Metropolitan Opera. On Wednesday, she brought effortless power, gleaming sound and dramatic intensity to this unforgettable Elektra, earning an ovation so ecstatic she was overcome with teary emotion. From Ms. Goerke’s first entry — hurtling up the steps on the side of the stage, wearing a blood-red dress and looking slightly crazed — she seemed determined to make you forget this was just a concert performance. The general plot, adapted by the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal from the Sophocles play, is familiar. Years before the opera begins, Elektra’s beloved father, Agamemnon, the king, was murdered by Klytamnestra, his wife, and Aegisth, her lover. Two obsessions drive Elektra: a determination to exact revenge upon her mother and Aegisth, and a yearning to one day dance at a funeral rite for her father.
In Elektra’s first monologue, Ms. Goerke sang with aching grief and earthy colorings. Yet, when she pleaded with her dead father to show himself to fortify her resolve, Ms. Goerke sent Strauss’s phrases soaring with a burnished power that stunned you. Her sister, Chrysothemis was sung by the bright-voiced German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who sang the title role in the thrilling concert performance of Strauss’s “Salome” that Mr. Nelsons conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic last year at Carnegie Hall. The weak-willed Chrysothemis harbors horror over her mother’s actions and feels trapped at the palace. But how long, she repeatedly asks Elektra, can you cling to hatred? Ms. Barkmin, singing with steely power and volatility, conveyed that the emotional prison Chrysothemis lives in is more confining than the near-servitude she endures at the palace.
Moment after moment of gleaming ferocity came through in the performance Mr. Nelsons led. What I will especially remember, though, was the way he made the recognition scene — when Elektra realizes that the sullen stranger who has arrived is her beloved brother — seem the most sadly beautiful music Strauss every wrote. And Ms. Goerke suffused her phrases with longing and lyricism. But no matter how his tenure develops, Mr. Nelsons led one of the most memorable performances at Carnegie Hall in some time. And Ms. Goerke rules as Elektra.
Read the rest of the review here