Following on from a successful fully-staged Salome in February 2020 at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre, Victorian Opera has now presented the second of Richard Strauss’s operas featuring an unhinged female protagonist and a dysfunctional family, this time in a semi-staged form at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. Despite being an incomplete theatrical experience, the crucial musical dimension certainly benefitted from being presented in a venue that has recently been renovated to enhance the acoustics. The sharpened focus on the singers, who performed from memory, also heightened the impact of the music.
In the title role, we had Catherine Foster, one of the world’s great dramatic sopranos, singing from the front of the stage to astonish us with the power and beauty of her voice. Strong in all registers and with never a hint of a wobble, her voice bloomed with a golden lustre in expansive top notes. The steely edge associated with some other famous exponents of Wagner’s Brünnhilde was reserved to colour the voice for dramatic effect. For the 100 minutes or so of sustained melodramatic intensity, she was the only one never to leave the stage, and she sounded as fresh at the end as she had at the beginning. The second she entered the stage to take her bow, there was an outburst of cheering, with people leaping to their feet to applaud her mastery of what is one of opera’s most demanding roles.
Not only is Catherine Foster a phenomenal singer, she can also act convincingly. Sophocles’ Elektra is a half wild creature consumed by the idée fixe of avenging the murder of her father, Agamemnon, slaughtered upon his return from Troy by her mother Klytemnestra and her mother’s lover Aegisth. As she waits for the return of her brother Orest to wield the avenging axe, she has become filthy and emaciated. Resplendent in a coat of gold and turquoise, Foster might have looked regal, but her voice, gestures and facial expressions held all the force of Elektra’s alienated character. If anybody could elicit those cathartic responses of pity and terror it was this compelling singer. The only “props” on stage were her eloquently handled coat, the back bar of the conductor’s podium and a chair. From her initial cries of “Agamemnon!” to her look of grim satisfaction as she sat in that chair listening to Klytemnestra’s death screams, Foster provided several absolutely spine-tingling moments. The final scene in which Elektra triumphantly dances herself to death was evocative while being tastefully portrayed.
Very much holding their own in the company of this English vocal powerhouse, were Australians Deborah Humble as Klytemnestra, Anna-Louise Cole as Elektra’s much gentler sister Chrysothemis, and Derek Welton as Orest. Humble’s luscious mezzo-soprano soared splendidly in the climactic moments and was singularly expressive in portraying the bizarre behaviour of a murderess plagued by fear and debilitating nightmares. Her command of German underpinned incisive colouring of Hofmannsthal’s graphic libretto, and she made effective use of the limited space in front of the orchestra to portray Klytemnestra’s agitation. Her performance in the lengthy scene with Foster’s Elektra was spellbinding as she reeled between contemptuous sneers, maniacal laughter, wheedling pleas for help and frantic desperation.
Anna-Louise Cole’s angelic appearance suited the role of the sister who longed for a normal life of husband and children. Her passionate singing featured the vocal amplitude of her colleagues, her final ringing top note simply astonishing in its power.
Although Orest only appears towards the end of the opera, bass-baritone Derek Welton made a significant impact. He is another much-admired Australian singer with a superbly rich and powerful voice, who is making his mark internationally. Anybody who had heard him sing the role of Amfortas in Victorian Opera’s Parsifal would have been keen to hear him again. His duet with Foster as brother and sister finally recognised each other was the only time singers physically interacted in this performance, which made it all the more telling – two glorious voices for the opera’s most touching moment. It came as a shock when Elektra said that she had failed to give her brother the axe after he had rushed off to wreak vengeance. To laugh (which the audience did) seemed so incongruous – and yet it somehow made Elektra more human, relatable – and pitiable.
The line-up of maids included some of Melbourne’s most illustrious local talent: Dimity Shepherd, Shakira Dugan, Sally-Anne Russell (with a snarl to unnerve anybody except Elektra), Olivia Cranwell (who also gave an exceptionally strong performance as The Confidante), and Rebecca Rashleigh. Kathryn Radcliffe completed the talented cohort in smaller female roles as The Trainbearer and The Overseer. The smaller male roles also included some notable singers. James Egglestone as Aegisth, Simon Meadows as The Guardian of Orest, Paul Biencourt as Young Servant and Stephen Marsh as a spry sounding Old Servant all sang commendably, as did the off-stage chorus.
One of the major advantages of a concert performance is the opportunity for the orchestra to take centre stage – quite literally. Strauss’s music requires substantial forces – in this case more than 90 musicians – to provide a wide dynamic range with huge swelling climaxes. Opulent orchestration coupled with harmonic complexity makes the work immensely satisfying. It was obvious that Richard Mills, Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, found conducting this sensational score a labour of love as he inspired players and singers to excel themselves under his expert direction. Orchestra Victoria and some of the cream of Australia’s young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music were among the stars of the evening and were duly acknowledged as such by a most appreciative audience.
It was a night to remember.
Photo courtesy Victorian Opera.
Heather Leviston reviewed the concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on September 14, 2022.