Strauss - Elektra (in concert)

La Philharmonie de Paris, Friday December 15 2017

Conductor: Mikko Franck. Elektra: Nina Stemme. Klytemnestra: Waltraud Meier. Chrysotemis: Gun-Brit Barkmin. Orest: Matthias Goerne. Ägisth: Norbert Ernst. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Choeur de Radio France.

A super strong Elektra at the Philharmonie last Friday night.

First of all, Mikko Franck was painstakingly attentive to the score. There are subtleties and details that don’t always make it over the edge of the opera house pit. But here, in a concert hall, with the Philharmonique on remarkable form, they were magnificently laid out in the open for all to hear. Franck’s approach leaned pointedly towards the late romantic: towards the Alpine Symphony, I thought; “towards Wagner,” said a colleague present the same evening. At any rate, more in the 19th-century symphonic tradition than paroxystic expressionism looking forward to, say Wozzeck (which is perhaps how I like Elektra best: wild and exhausting).

The cast was as good as they come these days, starting with an unusually sound ensemble of servants dominated by the terrifyingly grim Bonita Hyman. Nina Stemme’s Elektra was a perfect match for Mikko Franck’s musical approach: as usual, a column of pale bronze, vocally assured and carefully placed, and dramatically understated, all wry smiles and subtle glances. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s voice is of a much brighter metal, silvery, steely, at times almost shrill. Her parting “Bruder” was spot on and revealed an unexpected, intriguingly warmer core. Waltraud Meier was in amazingly good voice with a wide range of colour and dynamics, insinuating where Stemme was straightforward. Matthias Goerne’s was a deep, dark velvet Orest, deeply moving as he recounted his own death but a bit less convincing, as his voice lacks éclat, after the recognition.

However, a browse through comments on French forums confirms that, at the Philharmonie, what you hear depends on where you sit. I was on the first balcony, facing the orchestra. From there, the acoustics seemed flattering to the orchestra, warm but clear if not analytically detailed. Yet while I found Waltraud Meier especially audible, as if the acoustics suited her in particular, people sitting elsewhere claimed she was worn and threadbare and they could hardly hear her at all. Overall, I found the sense that all the voices were partially swallowed up in mid-air frustrating. You could tell you were hearing a great performance, but they all remained somehow distant in what my neighbour called “l’effet piscine” – the swimming pool effect.

What people sitting at the back, behind a dozen or so tympani and a blazing brass section, and with the singers facing the other way, hear is anybody’s guess. I gather architects like designing these spectacular-looking “vineyard” halls but I just don’t see the point.

Here, Maestro Wenarto does away with Klytemnestra.

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