Rarely can the acrid stench of Richard Strauss' most fascinating yet disturbing score have been more persuasively realised than it was on Monday night at the Royal Opera – indeed, you'd have to go back a long way, maybe to Solti and Eva Marton in 1990, to find a performance that came close to matching this one for its unstinting power, intensity and raw emotion. By anyone's reckoning the first night of this revival of Charles Edwards' 2003 staging was not only one of the finest performances of Elektra for a generation, but one of the Royal Opera's greatest evenings as well.
The opera makes huge demands of its three female singers, yet never before have I had the good fortune to come across a staging where all three are at the top of their game, as they are here. American soprano Christine Goerke has sung the title role, which is one of the most arduous in the standard operatic repertoire, in Madrid, Houston and Chicago so her debut in the role at Covent Garden was highly anticipated especially as she's not been seen in the House since she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in 2002.
As Elektra, she was nothing short of sensational. The voice is huge, yet she never resorts to screaming – every note was perfectly placed, and her top notes rang out to thrilling effect. Combined with a luxuriantly rich and coloured lower register, she has all the vocal armoury at her disposal to be ranked alongside the greatest Elektras of yore. She is also a superb actor and a riveting stage presence, although it's only fair to say that by the end of the evening she was beginning to tire, which was particularly noticeable in the Recognition Scene when some of her quieter notes didn't ‘sound' exactly as she wanted them to, but that's a small gripe given the overall excellence of her performance.
She was well matched by Michaela Schuster as her mother - an uncommonly youthful and attractive Klytemnestra. The decision to cast a younger singer than the previous two incumbents in this role (Felicity Palmer and Jane Henschel respectively) radically changes the dramatic landscape of the pivotal mother/daughter scene as Schuster was about as far removed from the traditional ‘crazy old bag' interpretation as possible. This makes her character far more dangerous, and genuine theatrical sparks fly between her and Goerke here. It was also a joy to hear the role sung with such a Lieder-like intensity.
As Elektra's sister, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka filled out Chrysothemis' soaring vocal lines with consummate ease. Given that sopranos of this calibre do not grow on trees it seems unfathomable why we've not seen her at Covent Garden since 2002 either. I just hope she returns soon as she is such a treasurable artist.
Iain Paterson makes a notable impression as Elektra's brother Orest, although some of the lower notes could have done with more power. A stirring contingent of maids and overseers completed this strong cast.
Propelling the drama to its inexorable and shattering climax, Andris Nelsons conducted a thrilling account of the score, bringing out all the detail without losing sight of the overall architecture of the piece. This was a blood and guts, no-holds barred interpretation that packed an enormous emotional punch where needed, but also revelled in the score's more tender moments, and he was rewarded with incandescent playing from the orchestra. There are still tickets available for the remaining performances - be sure not to miss out on one of the operatic events of the year!