The second item in the RSB’s Strauss opera program this week, a concert performance of Elektra, showed Marek Janowski in his element: absolute structural clarity, understanding of the score’s graphic orchestral effects, a forward-moving approach to tempo that avoided unnecessary ponderousness and the right decision making in what regarded balance between singers and orchestra. This could only work because of the RBS’s extreme affinity with this piece: all musicians were fully integrated in the dramatic action and were ready to try different sounds, not to mention that the harsh and aggressive sound picture of Elektra comes more readily to this orchestra than the crystalline kaleidoscope in Daphne.
Casting too proved to be very effective, even when it was not ideal. Catherine Foster’s performance in the title role has to be considered with the fact that she has agreed to sing her part having an orchestra on stage and without cuts usually adopted to help singers in the most demanding passages. There has only been one perfect Elektra – and that was Birgit Nilsson – all the other singers fall in two groups: those who manage to get to the end of the opera singing something similar to what Strauss wrote and those who don’t. Ms. Foster fits in the first group. She has clear advantages: her basic tone is clear, youthful and spontaneous, she can lighten her voice for curvier phrases and to float mezza voce now and then and she proved capable of producing some very loud acuti in climactic passages. Although she manages her resources relatively well, there are moments when she is understandably tired, most notably in the final scene. Then she can sound fluttery, strained and brittle. But there is never the feeling that she “is not going to make it”. Watching her performance, I had the impression that she saw Kristin Scott Thomas at the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’ tragedy last year. Her approach had a similar irony, intelligence, vulnerability and a certain provocativeness. When this Elektra shows her soft side (as in the Recognition Scene), this sounds like a natural consequence. The problem remains that Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is doomed from the start – there cannot be a sense that she is going to survive this. And Catherine Foster is somehow too self-possessed and too ready to soften to ultimately deal with the escalating paroxysms leading to the final exhaustion in the end of the opera. If I had to point out a drawback in this performance, however, this would be less than crispy declamation, making some of Elektra’s vituperation generalized and unvaried.
Camilla Nylund’s velvety soprano offered a nice contrast for Chrysothemis. She dealt with the testingly high tessitura without saturating the picture with strident high notes and blended well with her Elektra towards the end of the opera. A beautiful performance. I have never warmed to Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and hearing her live only confirmed my impression that she lacks resonance in this lower role, often resorts to speaking voice and is sometimes inaudible. Her understanding of the psychology of this role is very keen and more believable than the caricature put on by some exponents of this part. Günther Groissöck was a dark-toned, resonant Orest, and the role of Ägysth was glamorously cast with Stephen Gould, who could sing all his notes over a loud orchestra. Small roles were all of them well taken, but Gala El Hadidi (Second Maid) and Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Third Maid) deserve special mention.