Credit must be given to the Dresdeners who were in the opera house the night of January 25th, 1909, when Richard Strauss’s Elektra was first performed. The audience rose to its feet at the end, seemingly embracing the conductor’s expressionist, dissonant, difficult, indeed, brutal – and not to mention extremely loud – score. Credit also must be given to Strauss, the marketing genius: He refused to allow journalists to hear a note and rehearsals were closed; no piano-vocal score was published. Not to mention the merchandising: Dresden shops sold Elektra boots and beer mugs. The opera, with a libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal based on Sophocles’ drama of the ultimate dysfunctional family, has remained in the repertoire, but remains jarring.

Christine Goerke as Elektra with Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons © Chris Lee
Christine Goerke as Elektra with Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons
© Chris Lee
Nowadays audiences know what to expect, and if they do not, the opera’s gigantic opening three chords – which, we later discover, are the first three syllables of the name of Elektra’s murdered father, Agamemnon, as Elektra sings it a few minutes later – allow them to experience the work’s intensity immediately. And from the moment conductor Andris Nelsons gave the downbeat to his Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night, the full house felt the full impact. One hundred astonishing minutes later, there was an eruption from the throng that was almost as terrifying as what we had heard.

This is an opera whose music is filled with hate, hate that comes through not only in the sheer noise and bulk of the one-hundred-plus players and singers, but in the relentless tension. It is probably Strauss’s greatest opera – there isn’t a wasted note – and the sheer ugliness of the music he composed for Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra, remains horrific and frightening today. There are times when a solo violin crawls around Klytämnestra’s vocal line like a snake ready to kill; music can threaten and menace. Elektra’s final Dance of Death is arguably the most grotesque and demented waltz ever composed. But at the same time, there is great beauty, even if it is invariably couched in tragedy and sadness. When, early in her opening monolog, Elektra sings “Wo bist du, Vater?” and lingers on the soft note of the first syllable of the word “father,” one can feel her pain.

Christine Georke (Elektra) Gun-Brit Barkmin (Chrysothemis) Andris Nelsons conducting Boston Symphony © Chris Lee
Christine Georke (Elektra) Gun-Brit Barkmin (Chrysothemis) Andris Nelsons conducting Boston Symphony
© Chris Lee
This was a concert performance, devoid of sets and with very little action; there were entrances and exits. The singers reacted to each other as if in conversation, as if they were actors in a fully staged performance; they acted with their voices and spat out the text with clarity and seeming spontaneity.  And they were brilliant. At the opera’s center is the title role, a marathon, almost without break. Elektra, having been kept in her mother’s palace among the wild animals, must cajole, threaten, scream, and express tenderness, in turn, all the while allowing the audience to sympathize with her grief, her rage and her insanity. The voice must be able to rise over the huge orchestra and ride the climaxes (“Louder, louder! I can still hear the singers,” Strauss was reported to have said during rehearsals). A newly slimmed-down Christine Goerke is today’s go-to dramatic soprano (she has just finished a run of Turandots at the Met and is singing Brünnhilde elsewhere), and in the last few seasons has become a theatrical presence as well. She haunted the stage like an animal. This was a complete performance: each nuance, each mood change, each drab of sarcasm in her scene with Klytemnestra, each moment of pleading with Chrysothemis, and the radiant warmth and relief as she recognizes her thought-dead brother, Orest, was spotlessly clear. The singing itself was miraculous, with nothing held back at any register and volume, and the ability to wring every feeling from this most bizarre character at the same time is something to cherish.

Jane Henschel, hardly as riveting a physical presence, sang Klytämnestra’s punishing music with clarity and ear-perfect pitch and played off Elektra’s madness with her own – this was a fearless confrontation, topped with a cruel laugh that seemed to drive Elektra even madder. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s bright sound contrasted well with the other women but was not ideal for the trembling, confused, simpler sister who just wants a semblance of normalcy, a husband, a father. As Chrysothemis realizes how hideous the situation is becoming – there will never be normalcy or anything like it – Ms Barkmin’s fierce, focused tone became more apt.  

Perversely, men loom large over this opera but are largely absent: Agamemnon is dead and Orest has very little stage time, latish in the opera. James Rutherford’s baritone, passive and impersonal before he and Elektra recognize each other, gained stature once the pair were (briefly) reunited; he accepts Elektra’s love with great warmth. The slimy Aegisth, Klytämnestra’s new husband, arrives drunk and is quickly murdered, but Gerhard Siegel made an indelible impression with his huge, unappealing tenor in the brief time he had. The smaller parts were impressively taken.

As suggested, Nelsons had the BSO playing at frenzy force, but with accuracy, stunning tone, and scrupulous dynamics. The low strings could be felt underfoot; the brass shone brilliantly and the spicy woodwinds pierced the air. There was mania afoot, but it was controlled mania. There was a standing ovation – the first I’ve experienced at Carnegie Hall in a couple of decades. Breathtaking.