WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014 – In the world of opera, it’s always a disappointment when you buy a premium ticket to see and hear a big name diva, only to discover when you arrive that she’s canceled for whatever reason. That’s what the National Symphony Orchestra faced last week when scheduled soprano Iréne Theorin unexpectedly called in sick at close to the last moment, putting the ensemble’s all-Richard Strauss program in some jeopardy.
But luck (and, no doubt, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach’s extensive Rolodex) intervened when the orchestra was able to latch on to soprano Christine Goerke to replace Ms. Theorin, popular here for her fine performances with the Washington National Opera.
An experienced Wagnerian herself—she’s sung in grand opera performances around the world and recently debuted as Brünnhilde in a concert version of “Die Walküre” in New Zealand—Ms. Goerke is slated to star in that role in the Met’s upcoming 2018-2019 season revival of its recent, controversial new Ring Cycle, co-starring its high-tech “machine.”
Ms. Goerke has also sung big roles in Richard Strauss’ similarly stressful operas. Ultimately, that made her the perfect replacement in the NSO’s big, colorful celebration of the latter composer’s 150th birthday last week. Kudos to the NSO for snaring her at the proverbial last moment.
Under Mr. Eschenbach’s able baton, the NSO opening last week’s program with the traditional “overture”—in this case, actually Richard Strauss’ early “tone poem,” his Opus 20, entitled “Don Juan,” first performed in Weimar in 1888 with the 24-year old composer wielding the baton. “Don Juan” is Wagnerian to the hilt, but also charted a bold, more modern path forward for the young composer who started out writing symphonic works but gradually became more famous for his daring 20th century operas.
This reviewer admits to an uncommon fondness for “Don Juan.” It’s the first live symphonic work he ever heard way back when as a pre-teen, performed, once again in the “overture slot” by no less than George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall. The performance was sensational, the future writer was hopelessly hooked, leading to a most pleasurable addiction that continues to this day.
“Don Juan” is still one of the more viscerally exciting pieces in today’s standard orchestra repertoire. The rip-roaring, swashbuckling brass flourishes that open this work are still exciting enough to make you levitate from your seat, launching you on a quarrelsome, Romantic quest that ends in death and tragedy, charting as it does at least one version of this legendary lover’s story arc.
Mr. Eschenbach—whose own professional story arc once intersected with the late Mr. Szell’s when, as a young concert pianist, he began his shift toward a conducting career—seems to have picked up the Straussian skill set himself, shifting this NSO performance of “Don Juan” into a well-controlled overdrive. He gave the orchestra’s brass sections ample opportunity to shine while still blending that ensemble with the remaining musicians to produce the necessary but uncommonly difficult richness of sound this score requires.
“Don Juan” set both the mood and the expectation high for the pair of Straussian operatic excerpts that followed, the Recognition Scene from his “Elektra,” and the final scenes from his “Salome,” both intense, innovative and powerful one-acters.
“Elektra” (1909), as its name implies, highlights the anguish and ultimate revenge of the eponymous ancient Greek princess. Anguished and enraged at her mother Klytemnestra (German spelling) for collaborating with her lover Aigisth in the assassination of her husband, King Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War, Elektra vows to kill them both, unexpectedly aided in the end by the surprise return of her brother, Orest (Orestes).
She first encounters the disguised Orest in the aforementioned Recognition Scene. Cautious, Orest does not fully reveal himself at first. But as his identity gradually becomes clear to Elektra, her initial anger and hysteria shift to passion and resolve, making this one of the great dramatic moments in opera.
The orchestration is rich and complex, offering a writhing, seething undercurrent of conflicting emotions that support Elektra’s anguish. Interestingly, one can also hear an occasional bar that seems to have been lifted, consciously or unconsciously, from the composer’s earlier “Don Juan.”
With the exceptional assistance of the authoritative bass-baritone John Relyea in the supporting role of Orest, Ms. Goerke was able to give her Elektra an undivided and passionate attention, at times bravely overcoming Strauss’ snarling and dissonant brass passages with focused vocal rage, while at others lowering her voice to a more nuanced, lyric sensibility. It was a marvelous performance, winning well-deserved plaudits from the audience.
The program’s second half included a pair of excerpts from another famous Strauss one-act opera, his earlier and highly controversial “Salome” (1905), based on a straightforward German translation of Oscar Wilde’s equally controversial erotic poem of the same title.
The historical and legendary Salome are hard to separate, save from the likely fact that it was she who inspired her stepfather, King Herod of Judea, to lop off the head of the unfortunate but obstinate John the Baptist—known here and in Wilde’s verse play as Jochanaan.
In this version of the story, the climax is reached when Salome dances her famous (but historically dubious) “Dance of the Seven Veils,” convincing Herod to grant her any wish of her choosing. Horrified at her request, Herod reluctantly orders the beheading of Jochanaan, which leads to the opera’s gruesome and still-disquieting finale, Salome’s soliloquy-aria to the Baptist’s bloody head.
The NSO led off with Strauss’ all-instrumental “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a compellingly odd but seductive series of short dance episodes veering from exotic, Oriental melodies and rhythms to frenzied, barbaric outbursts from the full orchestra. It’s an exciting tour-de-force, paralleling once again, as in “Elektra,” the earlier “Don Juan” in its brashness.
The composer has been criticized in some circles for approaching modernism yet never quite giving into it at this point in his career. Yet this is what gives both “Elektra” and “Salome” an exquisite edginess. The psychological torment endured by each of these embattled heroines are mirrored in the sometimes grating yet still tonal orchestral backdrop the composer weaves for them.
It was at this point in the program that Ms. Goerke re-appeared on stage to sing “Salome’s” final, obsessive musings. With today’s more graphic stagings of “Salome,” Strauss’ music, in combination with Salome’s narcissistic, sado-masochistic, yet bizarrely Romantic ravings may still be, dramatically at least, one of the most unpleasant and upsetting scenes in opera, conjuring up similar imagery one might see today in some mad-slasher movie but with characters clad in Biblical finery.
That said, as in certain well-done horror films, audiences still sit in rapt if uncomfortable attention, riveted not only by this famous story but also by the ironies of Wilde’s sensuous imagery and the composer’s wildly exotic music.
As in her projection of the revenge-maddened Elektra, Ms. Goerke once again fully grasped all the intentions and emotions embodied in the text, re-creating for the audience a final scene nearly as spellbinding as it often is in a fully staged production of the opera. She captured perfectly the mercurial, violent mood shifts of this strange, hyper-sexed princess who, unable to compel the Baptist to love her in this life, attempts to claim him in the next.
Like the role of Elektra, the role of Salome is another great moment—and challenge—in the operatic soprano repertoire, demanding as it does great acting talent as well as a huge array of vocal skills ranging from the Wagnerian heroic style to the quieter moments of lyric opera. Ms. Goerke navigated this treacherous terrain with convincing skill, earning both she, the NSO, and Mr. Eschenbach a thunderous ovation for this brilliant evening focusing on the very best of Richard Strauss.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Upcoming NSO concerts:
The NSO’s formal concert series takes a break this weekend (March 28 and 29), shifting over to the NSO Pops. According to their online brief, this weekend’s edition of the Pops encounters “new musical territory when they welcome Nas–actor, rapper, multi-platinum recording artist, and son of Harlem-based bandleader Olu Dara–to kick off the Kennedy Center festival One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide! Their program is a 20th anniversary symphonic celebration of Nas’s debut album and instant classic Illmatic, “a densely textured, deeply lyrical portrait of life in Long Island City’s Queensbridge projects” (The New York Times).” The NSO also notes that the vocals in this concert contain “explicit language,” so moms and dads—you are forewarned.
The orchestra returns to its regular season schedule the following week (April 10-12) with James Conlon as guest conductor in another interesting program featuring the music of three oddly kindred spirits, Johannes Brahms, Erich Korngold, and Alexander Zemlinsky. Featured works are Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn,” Korngold’s well-known but still-controversial “Violin Concerto in D-major,” and the still-unjustly neglected Zemlinsky’s tone poem “Die Seejungfrau” (“The Little Mermaid”), a gorgeous work based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and a work Mr. Conlon has championed. Gil Shaham is soloist in the Korngold.
For tickets ($20-125 for the Pops, and $10-85 for the regular season concert) and information on both concerts, visit the NSO section of the Kennedy Center website.