The Gergiev histrionics might seem entirely appropriate for Richard Strauss’ expressionistic outpouring of hate and revenge and this, the second of two concert performances of Elektra at the Barbican, confirmed the match. Yet it was the beauty of the score that was most striking here.
It would be easy to think of Elektra as one unrelenting, dissonant climax but it’s actually a score of opulence and some delicacy. This was a reading on the brink of a waltz-fest, with the kind of refinement one usually associates with later Strauss works, such as Rosenkavalier.
This approach may seem at odds with the grimness of the subject matter but there was room for the terror too, with passages of remarkable power and a finale that saw this conductor and orchestra at something approaching their best.
One couldn’t fault Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s physical commitment in the title role – her petite, wiry figure writhed, contorted and tensed throughout. The voice isn’t the biggest you’ll hear but the intensity was all there and helped her battle the almost overwhelming orchestrations.
There was subtlety in both Angela Denoke’s patient Chrysothemis and Felicity Palmer’s Hausfrau Clytemnestra, no raddled old bag but someone struggling with an acute family dilemma. What is more disturbing than a woman terrified of the harm her children may do to her? Matthias Goerne was luxury casting for Orestes but the role seemed to lie a little low for him and it was a slightly subdued performance.
A line-up of Russian maids of varied ages – glammed up as though for the ballroom – was another breach of expectations, while Ian Storey was a surprisingly urbane and fresh-voiced Aegisthus. But then the emphasis of the whole performance was on the lightness and elegance of a believable court rather than the wallowing pit of misery that this house of Atreus so often becomes.
At times one craved a more forthright interpretation but somehow Gergiev crept the horror in by the back door and the cumulative effect was quite awe-inspiring.