In general the operatic side of Gergiev's career, which seemed so successful when he was traversing the output of Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov for Philips, has stumbled on LSO Live. Almost always the results have followed the same pattern: Gergiev whips up excitement with the orchestral part, the London Sym. plays magnificently, ensemble and discipline are as good as any studio recording, but the singers fall short. Even when the critics come to the rescue of his opera recordings, as they did for Parsifal and Lucia di Lammamoor, it was hard for me to hear the virtues they praised. In fact, Wagner from Gergiev remains problematic - a long banishment from the Mariinsky during the Soviet regime erased whatever Wagner tradition the theater had, and Gergiev's revival of the Ring and Parsifal struggle to find a convincing style.
I imagine that Strauss was banned, too, but this isn't a Mariinsky performance, and the musicians know how to play him, which leads to the best part of the new recording, the orchestral playing. Captured in quite good sound considering that the venue is Barbican Hall - an ugly duckling that would need demolition to turn into a swan, acoustically speaking - Elektra boasts an astonishing score that has not diminished over the decades. Its mixture of crunching dissonance and yearning melody can be presented as brutally as possible, the way Solti does it in his famous and yet to b3e surpassed Decca recording. Gergiev leans the other way, and he mostly succeeds, especially in the Recognition Scene between Elektra and Orest, but his reluctance to make the Agamemnon motif, announced in the very first bars, sound apocalyptic is a mistake, I think.
One gets the feeling that he is puling back to help his singers, and they need it. One reason that stage directors have risen to prominence over the past thirty years is that singers have declined, and the sad truth is that no stellar dramatic soprano exists who can deliver a world-class Elektra and few who can convincingly carry Chrysotemis's lyrical lines over Strauss's huge orchestra. The last generation who sounded convincing included Cheryl Studer, Deborah Voigt, and Deborah Polaski, and in their prime old-timers were only fairly satisfied. The likes of Inge Borkh, Astrid Varnay, and Leonie Rysanek were gone, not to mention the incomparable Birgit Nilsson.
We slip several notches down with the American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, who has the notes, more or less, and can endure the rigors of a crushingly difficult role, but whose vibrato turns into a wobble under pressure. She lacks the force of true anguish, and you can hear her trying to economize her voice in order to make an impression during Elektra's big moments. Of Nilsson's vocal mastery there is barely a trace. As Chrysotemis Angela Denoke is only good enough, despite her major career in these heavy roles. We have to fall back on veterans like Felicity Palmer and Matthias Goerne before the singing rises to an admirable level.
With so little vocal satisfaction, it's baffling to read the rave reviews that this concert performance receive from the London critics. Gergiev must have stirred up and exciting event, but microphones are cruel, and on disc this Elektra cannot compete with the Solti. For an alternative, also taped live, I am enthusiastic about a recording made with Jeffrey Tate and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (of all things) with Gwyneth Jones at her best in the title role.
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (Elektra), Angela Denoke (Chrysothemis), Dame Felicity Palmer (Clytemnestra), Matthias Goerne (Orestes), Ian Storey (Aegisthus)