Season Opening Elektra in Madrid a Triumph for Semyon Bychkov

SpainSpain  R. Strauss, Elektra:   Soloists, Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, Coro Intermezzo, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Teatro Real de Madrid 2 & 3.10.2011 (JMI)

Production: Naples Teatro San Carlo

Direction: Klaus-Michael Grüber (original), Ellen Hammer (revival)
Sets & costumes: Anselm Kiefer
Lighting: Guido Levi

Elektra: Christine Goerke / Deborah Polaski
Chrysothemis: Manuela Uhl / Ricarda Merbeth
Klytaemnestra: Jane Henschel / Rosalind Plowright
Orest: Samuel Youn
Aegisth: Chris Merritt

Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

Madrid’s Teatro Real starts into a new opera season, the second under artistic direction of Gerard Mortier. The title chosen for the occasion is Elektra, performed on two other occasions in the past 12 years in this house.

This fine, if not particularly original production—premiered in Naples in 2003—is that of German director Klaus-Michael Gruber, who sadly died in 2008. The sets present a series of containers at different levels, with a basement where Elektra lives. Sets and the costumes in tones of timeless gray, come courtesy of the painter Anselm Kiefer. The stage direction in Madrid was carried out by Ellen Hammer, who moved the extras and maids nicely through the opera.

Semyon Bychkov conducted—and it was his work that accounted for the biggest success of the evening. His reading was in short spectacular, and saturated with emotion. Under his baton the orchestra, enlarged to 110 players, offered the best performance I can remember from them. Kudos to Teatro Real if this is really going to be the new musical level in this house…

Elektra was performed by two American sopranos. Most convincingly and committed by Christine Goerke, whose soprano is large and attractive in the middle register and quite easy around the top, if rather artificial near the bottom. Deborah Polaski offered her strengths (and weaknesses) of recent years. She is always a great artist, resulting in an at least equally convincing Elektra, but her high notes are too problematic nowadays for this role. There were two excellent German sopranos as Chrysothemis. Both Manuela Uhl and Ricarda Merbeth were perfectly suited to the character, and they were as good as one can wish in the part.

Jane Henschel made for a wonderful Klytaemnestra. Her voice has lost some of the freshness of some years ago, but she is well suited to the demands of the character—written for that kind of aging ex-sopranos. Rosalind Plowright is a good interpreter also, but not a true mezzo soprano, lacking the necessary vocal contrast between Elektra and her mother in the crucial scene of their confrontation.

All the secondary roles, including Samuel Youn as  Orest and veteran Chris Merritt as Aegisth were well cast.

José Mª Irurzun