Ever since Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an inspired performance of Strauss’s “Salome” two seasons ago, local audiences have been waiting for the BSO to return to more opera in concert under his baton. The wait finally came to an end on Thursday night, as conductor, ensemble, and a cast led by soprano Christine Goerke delivered a performance of Strauss’s “Elektra” that was easily the most memorable BSO concert of the year. This was in no small part due to Goerke’s searing, richly layered, and ultimately revelatory account of the title role.
For opera lovers Strauss’s “Elektra,” modeled mostly on the Sophocles tragedy, requires no introduction. With a tightly honed libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, this is a burning fuse of an opera, lighted by the title character at her very first entrance. Elektra has been kept like a wild animal in the palace after the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Klytämnestra, and her mother’s lover, Aegisthus. She dreams monomaniacally of avenging her father’s death. Vengeance finally comes at the hand of Elektra’s brother, Orestes (Orest in German), who returns after years of absence. In the opera’s final pages, Elektra celebrates in her own ecstatic dance of death.
Strauss’s score is of course renowned for its daring harmonic complexity, fierce drama, and improbable beauty. In practice, any soprano brave enough to take on the role of Elektra must command supreme reserves of vocal stamina and the power to sing over an enormous orchestra. What made Goerke’s performance so riveting was her ability to not just leap over the evening’s technical hurdles, but to do so while projecting a subtle network of emotions, the discreet layers of a ravaged self — in short, what Hofmannsthal once described as the opera’s “mixture of night and light.”
She did this not only through her physical acting but, most of all, through the nuances of her vocal performance. In the line “Wo bist du, Vater?” (“Where are you, father?”), her tone on the held word “Vater” was one of the night’s multiple wonders, revealing not only the depths of her character’s anguish but also a childlike tenderness, a sense of profound loss that lies beneath her murderous obsession.
Another example came in the famous Recognition Scene, after Elektra discovers that the mysterious stranger arrived at the palace is in fact her brother, in whom she has placed her most fervent hopes for avenging her father’s death. After blasting his name ecstatically at the top of her range, Elektra utters it to herself three more times, in a repeating upward-rising vocal gesture. Other singers sometimes treat this as a straight repetition but Goerke distilled into the three words — “Orest, Orest, Orest” — a vast emotional journey, from shock to sublime relief to a crystalline love. The libretto makes clear enough that she is no longer alone; Goerke makes us register the force of this revelation as, for Elektra, a private miracle.
Nelsons handled the music of this recognition scene with the utmost delicacy, and throughout the night, drew thoughtfully paced and committed playing from the orchestra.
The cast included Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister, who brought an intensity of feeling to the role that ennobled this character’s longing for the normalcy of life outside the palace walls. Jane Henschel made a formidable Klytämnestra, capable of going toe to toe with Goerke’s Elektra. James Rutherford brought a mahogany tone to the role of Orestes, if leaving some of the role’s dramatic potential unrealized. Gerhard Siegel was a solid Aegisthus.
Nelsons and company reprise the opera on Saturday. My advice: Catch it before it’s gone.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Saturday)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.