Charles Dutoit is stepping down as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, finishing his distinguished tenure. The maestro has been publicly candid about the sacrifices the musicians have been making while the orchestra reorganizes after last year’s bankruptcy and union contract disputes. Through it all, Dutoit has been a proved a stabilizing, ever valiant presence.
This month, Maestro Dutoit was business as usual for three weeks of programming featuring a repertoire associated with him. On May 12, he conducted a volcanic concert version of Richard Strauss’ "Elektra" that may just go down in Philly musical history based on the lusty response from the audience.
"Elektra" is adapted from the Sophocles’ heavy Greek tragedy and Strauss, collaborated with his brilliant librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to streamline, but keep its dark psychological elements clearly in place.
Strauss packs it with chromatic and tonal shape shifting and for the lead singers, the opera is a vocal Mt. Olympus. The music is so gripping that the audience knew not to applaud after major operatic feats by these singers.
It starts with the symphonic thunder swirling around the castle as the Greek chorus of women trash Elektra as a whore and worse, even though she is the daughter of Klytemnestra, now imprisoned by her mother for her devotion to her murdered father.
Her sister Chrysothemis tells of the plots against her and how her mother now plans to kill their brother, the banished Orest, and retain her demented tyrannical power. The fate of the country rests on this family dysfunctions that lead to petty jealousies, betrayal and murder, not to mention mother-daughter hate.
Soprano Eva Johansson, seems possessed to avenge the death of her father. Johansson, wears a black gown shredded at the bottom, offset dramatically by her electric blue eyes and blond hair. Her vocal control and deft characterization of Strauss’ music is magnificent.
Chrysothemis must convey the psychological weight of the action of the story, motivations of the character’s ’deeds’ and her conflicted emotions about Elektra, and soprano Melanie Diener’s is full of power and sensitivity. Ain Anger muscled bass is so electric in the denouement with Orest as he reunites with Elektra.
Mezzo Jane Henschel’s Klytemnestra is a monstrous character and she not only revels in her cruelty as she torments Elektra, but also camps it up with some vaudevillian mugging (hard to tell if it was completely intentional). Vocally so strong, even with a few evaporation points, which, added to her overall effect of one hateful mother.
"Elektra" has various instrumental sound effects, all executed with precision. Dutoit could have reined in the fortissimos a bit, a little editorial overdrive maybe, but, in all ways he was masterful in conjuring Strauss’ dramatic inner chambers and swirling orchestral counterpoints. It was fine choral work from members of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia.
And throughout, all of the sections of the orchestra distinguished themselves, with the brass particularly fine in the heralds leading up to the thundering crescendos.
At the end, Verizon Hall sounded like both the Met and a soccer stadium combined, the singers soaking in the livid ovation as Dutoit pulled Johansson close, kissed her, and she rested her head on his shoulder.