Elektra - LSO / Gergiev - Barbican, 12 January 2010
Starting on a high is one thing, sustaining it for two hours quite another. Gergiev's Elektra landed such a sucker punch in its opening bars that there was nowhere left to go. A cauldron of seething hormonal hysteria gushed out in an earsplitting tidal wave. Nothing was held back. If Gergiev had reined in his forces there and then, perhaps the climactic moments later on would have registered with full effect. But the same thrilling but ultimately wearing pace was maintained throughout. Even a rollercoaster's no fun if you spend all your time at the top of the ride. He seemed buried in his gigantic Russian-edition score throughout - was it simply a lack of full preparation? He had the temperature of the work down, no doubt, but a sense of form and shape eluded him.
Tellingly, the most gripping passage was the entrance of Orest. Here the drastically reduced orchestration literally forced a moment of quietude, a written-in contrast to the tumult around it.
But where dramatic light and shade was missing, colour was not. Though he recognised that the densely-carpeted score needs binding together more than transparency, Gergiev drew details out like flowers in a forest, not easy with the full orchestral complement of 112 on stage.
The vocal honours went to some of the briefest appearances. Felicity Palmer, a fabulous and terrifying Clytemnestra, was the only singer to consistently pierce through Gergiev's decibels. Matthias Goerne's velvet baritone created a world-weary, enigmatic Orest, riveting in his subdued recognition scene, less effective when he had to force his voice above the orchestra.
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, for all her overbaked writhing, was an unpersuasive Elektra. Serene and lyrical, more concerned with tone than text, the impassivity of her singing contrasted with her constantly flailing body. She sang attractively but without either the power or the vocal expressivity for Elektra's matricidal hysteria to register in all its horror. And she didn't quite have the stamina for this very demanding uncut version of the score, flagging noticeably in the final minutes.
Angela Denoke's Chrysothemis wasn't quite right either. Though she matched her resources intelligently to the demands of the role, ultimately there's too much steel and not enough lyricism in the voice to convey girlish innocence. I don't believe the title role is in Denoke's repertoire yet, but it's the direction her voice is headed. Ian Storey completed a less than perfect cast, singing Aegist efficiently but almost totally without inflection, like a brilliant sight reader who'd just been handed the score. Mariinsky soloists of varying quality were shipped over for the bit parts - no doubt a perk of Gergiev's position, but surely an expensive one?
A few days ago, despite critical raves, maybe half of tonight's stalls seats for Katya Kabanova were unsold. A newspaper promotion reduced the price from £135 to £50, and bingo, the lot were filled. Proof that high prices keep many people away from opera - or that more people read the special offers than the reviews section?
For over fifty years it has been Sir Charles Mackerras's mission and passion to bring the work of Janácek to a wider public. Could there have been a more ideal conductor for this production? He brought all his experience and know how to bear in a nuanced interpretation of great delicacy and sensitivity, the orchestra responding immaculately in one of the best performances I have heard here for a very long time. Mackerras picked out the elusive feminine qualities in the scoring which contrast and complement its rawness.
Age always defeats beauty in Janácek, and often the singer in the matriarchal role can dominate proceedings too. Not so with Felicity Palmer's Kabanicha - although her caustic performance was magnificent, the other singers more than held their own. None more so than Janice Watson as Katya, her vulnerability and desperation tragically spotlit. Liora Grodnikaite, a late sub for the sick Linda Tuvås, was as impressive playing Varvara as she had been last week in her small role in Thaïs, finding the right note of bubbly optimism to contrast with the doomed Katya. Toby Spence's boyishly exuberant Kudrjáš was another highlight. Kurt Streit as Katya's lover Boris took a while to settle vocally, and generally gave a rather understated performance, as did Chris Merritt as Katya's husband Tichon - underlining Mackerras's emphasis on Katya at the unquestioned centre of the drama.
The set - a rough path spiralling up through a Munch-like stormy blue-black sky - certainly set the tone well enough, but it began to pall after a while. Director Trevor Nunn must have sensed this - why else the gratuitous equine finale to Act 1? Any punters who'd been nodding off of course perked up as Tichon's car arrived on stage drawn by two real, live, and slightly irritable horses. But really, unless you're doing Götterdämmerung, nothing signals a director's lack of faith in his production concept like sticking a live animal on stage. The collapsing wooden cross in Act 3 too seemed more of a confusing commentary on the drama than an attempt at interpretation. Simpler would have been better - but really anything would have worked with performances this wonderful.