Strauss's Elektra was one of my great discoveries at the Edinburgh International Festival. Unbelievably, considering how much opera I go to, I only heard it for the first time when McMaster chose it to open his final Festival in 2006. I was totally blown away. This is a savage, bitter, biting score that builds to a quite extraordinary climax. After that I waited eagerly for a staged production and was, if anything, even more impressed by the recent Covent Garden revival which featured a magnificent performance by Susan Bullock in the title role. So the London Symphony Orchestra's concert performance under their Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev had a lot to live up to.
The first plus of this concert was that I think I have finally cracked the problem of the Barbican Hall acoustics. I have always had problems, especially being so used to the extremely resonant sound you get in Edinburgh's Usher Hall, with the Barbican's much deader acoustic. Tonight, for I think the first time, I sat in the Balcony which is not only very cheap but seems to boast a warmer sound than the next tier down. The view is just as good too.
On to the performance itself. I thought before going that this ought to be the kind of piece for which Gergiev is suited. Not living in London, I have not heard him very often but, despite his reputation, his performances have been patchy. I heard a Mahler six at the Sage, Gateshead, which was loud throughout and gave me a headache, by contrast a King Roger and some Prokofiev and Rachmaninov excerpts in Edinburgh which were both stunning. I anticipated Elektra falling into the latter category, but in the end Gergiev's interpretation was a little below that for my money – and not as powerful as Mark Elder's performance at Covent Garden. This is not to say that there wasn't some superb playing (probably the best I have ever heard live from this orchestra) but as with his Mahler six, Gergiev didn't to my mind quite grasp the full shape of the piece. All the climaxes were suitably loud and staggering but there was not enough of a relationship constructed between them – the flow was not sufficiently there. It should be said that he was hampered by some clunkiness in terms of managing the offstage interruptions – there were some slight delays which seemed to break up the flow at key moments (for example the killing of Clytemnestra).
Compared to Edward Gardner's balancing of voices and orchestra in Edinburgh (always a problem in concert performances of opera, and the more so in a work with so huge an orchestra – 112 players according to the programme) Gergiev again was not as successful. I don't recall Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet struggling to be heard there, and when the orchestral level was reduced the quality of the performance argued against a vocal problem.
Despite their battle with the orchestra, the line up of principals was excellent. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet's acting was superb (although I missed the full length collapse on the stage which signalled the climax in Edinburgh). Angela Denoke provided an excellent foil as her sister, Chysotemis, and her voice soared over the orchestra throughout. As the third of this trio of terrifying women, Felicity Palmer, while not having quite the sonorousness in the “Warum” monologue that I remember from Leandra Overmann in Edinburgh, was piercing, crabby, and scary by turns, and again acted her socks off. Of the men Ian Storey was not as good as I have heard him on other occasions, but Matthias Goerne gave a mesmerising performance in his pivotal scene with Charbonnet – one of the most noticeable places where the singers performance was not driven home as it could have been by Gergiev's direction.
Overall then, superb orchestral playing, as good a line up of principals as one could hope for, and a conductor who just needs to do a little more work on the bits between the climaxes.