Conductor Valery Gergiev is not a bar-shaper who smooths each moment of music that emerges from under his baton. In the context of so many who pursue an interpretive identity through fussiness, Gergiev’s performances can seem arch, even angry. For his performances of Richard Strauss’s unusually violent opera Elektra, presented two years ago at London’s Barbicon Center, Gergiev powered orchestra and singers through a reading surprisingly more tame than, say, his Prokofiev operas.
Strauss’ score, a shocker for pre-Stravinsky 1909, is as complex and dissonant as the composer ever would get, wherein even the sounds of the words themselves are as score-woven as the pitches. The classic myth of mother-love and betrayal is a nonstop, white-knuckle whitewater race (rudely interrupted by a fade-out, fade-in CD change), and Gergiev and his forces persuasively traverse the arcs of it, even with some unexpected restraint.
Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet brings a big presence to the title role, her voice settling into the demands after a wobbly climax to her long entrance number (“Allein!”). She needs a little of the assurance of mezzo Felicity Palmer, whose reputation as a terrifying Klytemnestra is again affirmed. And she’s effectively contrasted by bass Matthias Goerne, whose Orest loses none of its power even in the affecting reunion scene he sings with Elektra, his sister.
The economics of recordings pretty much demands in-concert recordings of operas these days, which anyway benefit from the excitement of having an audience at hand. Armed with audio from multiple performances and a rehearsal or two, an optimal compilation can be realized—if the sessions are recorded well. The engineers did excellent work miking the nuances of the piece, so that orchestral intricacies lost even in some of the older studio versions shine through. If there’s sometimes too much competition between voice and orchestra, well, I find it adds to the excitement. Nobody ever gets badly swamped.
The classic cut-your-teeth-on-it version for me featured Birgit Nilsson (no relation) with George Solti conducting, and it stands the time test. A more recent, better-sounding set with Deborah Polaski in the title role alongside Palmer, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, offers audiophile competition, but Gergiev’s serves the score itself best of all, and deserves your attention at least for that.