I am still grateful to the conductor who once told me, “Don’t think of a concert performance as a watered-down version. Think of it as an unadulterated version: no filters of setting, scenery or interpretation between you and the composer’s thought; nothing to distract you from the music or the words; just the composer’s ideas on full beam.” Never was this more true than the masterfully penetrating performance of Strauss’ Elektra at this year’s BBC Proms, conducted by the renowned Semyon Bychkov and starring Christine Goerke, whose command of this fiercest of roles has drawn high praise from all quarters, and who reasserted her claims this evening with thrilling power.

Christine Goerke (Elektra) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Christine Goerke (Elektra)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After seeing Hofmannstahl’s play, Elektra, at the theatre one evening, Strauss wrote to the author seeking permission to turn it into an opera – the first gesture in what would become one of opera’s most famous, and productive, partnerships. The great thing about Hofmannstahl’s Elektra, and thus Strauss’, is that she is not just Elektra. Though all three ancient tragic Elektras (those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides) find an aspect of their voice in her, Hofmannstahl also splices her with Aeschylus’s Kassandra, acutely sensitive to the reek of blood and death pouring out of Agamemnon’s palace, blessed with divine intelligence yet mistreated and misunderstood;  he aligns her with Sophocles’ Antigone, flatly refusing to compromise or accommodate reality, inflexibly pursuing the task no one else dares attempt, threatened with living immolation, vainly begging her more-reasonable sister to act alongside her. He endows her with the language of the Erinyes, the Furies who will later haunt her brother, and even of the Gorgon and the maenad, who dances not for happiness, but for ecstasy – a very different emotion. In short, Hofmannstahl’s libretto gives us a condensed, comprehensive vision of Elektra: original and profound. It is a work of genius: no wonder it made such an impact on Strauss. But the music it inspired in Strauss could never have been expected: full of malevolent dissonance, the score utterly enfolds and overwhelms us in its terrible tide of blood, picked out with absolute precision and lyrical sweep by Semyon Bychkov, brought to full and terrifying beauty by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

Christine Goerke was a revelation as Elektra. Goerke gave a fully dramatised, utterly convincing performance which turned the small strip of stage in front of the orchestra into a real place, not just a space in which to sing. Her huge voice is full of beautiful textures: her cries of “Agamemnon!” and “Nun den, allein!” were spinetinglingly eerie, while her exchanges with her mother had a bitter tartness, and her final lines to Aegisth dripped with girlish sarcasm. The physicality of Goerke’s approach further enhances her portrayal; whether she sits brooding, tosses her mane of hair and walks furtively across the stage, or finally dances in jerking, stuttering steps which show her ecstasy already growing too much for her, we feel she is utterly, incontrovertibly Elektra. For the first time, I also thought about the echo of Brünnhilde in Elektra: dutiful daughters who understand their duty to their arrogant fathers better than anyone else, and also realise, much more than anyone else on stage, how important that duty is. 

Gun-Brit Barkmin did an excellent job as Chrysothemis, really communicating her sense of frustration at the futility of Elektra’s focus to begin with, full of desperate longing for children and a future, but reversing into violent relief once Orest had taken his revenge, swiftly followed by anguish, and utter disorientation, at Elektra’s death in her final “Orest! Orest!”

Dame Felicity Palmer (Klytaemnestra) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Dame Felicity Palmer (Klytaemnestra)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Dame Felicity Palmer’s Klytaemnestra was a wonderful cocktail of hypochondriac querulousness and gritty aggression, shimmering in the gems she had collected to ward off evil spirits, with more than a hint of the grande dame Hollywood diva whose life has been taken over by cults, mystics and other snake oil merchants who all promise salvation without delivering it. Palmer’s scene with Goerke highlighted Klytaemnestra’s fear of her daughter, and her selfish determination to survive at all costs.   

Johan Reuter was heartbreaking as Orest. Singing his lines with steely precision, Reuter portrayed Orest as a man desperately committed to a fate he does not want, but has resolved to undertake.  Full of palpable concern for his sister, and bringing tears to my eyes in the recognition scene, the very first moment Orest and Elektra saw each other was like an electric shock.

Robert Künzli had a good sense of nastiness as Aegisth. Miranda Keys, always a magnetic stage presence, made a chillingly calm and passive-aggressive Overseer, nicely characterised and well voiced. The Five Maids, Katarina Bradić, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger, and Iris Kupke, were all superbly characterised, individually and beautifully sung, with Hanna Hipp perhaps just stealing a march on her companions with her remarkably clear, strong voice, and Katarina Bradić for her wonderful expressions in face and gesture, her natural dramatic instinct drawing the eye irresistibly. The small parts were also strong: Jongmin Park gave a sonorous and accomplished short appearance as Orest's Tutor, as did Ivan Turšić as the Young Servant.

I left with my heart beating fast, my blood pulsating: Bychkov and his talented cast finished on an ecstatic high.