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Christine Goerke scores as Strauss heroine

One of the joys of frequent opera-going is the chance now and then to hear an artist take on a role for the first time and score a memorable success.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the joys of frequent opera-going is the chance now and then to hear an artist take on a role for the first time and score a memorable success.

The Teatro Real of Madrid is offering that opportunity right now with its production of Richard Strauss's one-act tragedy "Elektra," starring the American soprano Christine Goerke in one of the most daunting roles ever written.

Goerke, heard at her third performance of the run on Thursday night, is simply thrilling as the vengeance-obsessed daughter of the slain Agamemnon and his murderous wife, Klytemnestra.

Her supple voice combines a warm, velvety lower and middle register with a shining top that rises easily to high C. Her sound, while not huge, has no difficulty penetrating the 110-piece orchestra — an ensemble so big the theater had to remove the first two rows of seats for this production.

Above all, Goerke brings a vocal bloom to the role that few sopranos today could match. That quality paid off especially in the gorgeous music that follows her recognition of her long-lost brother Orest, a passage she sings with melting tenderness, complete with ravishing, soft high notes.

Her acting, which seemed slightly self-conscious at first, gained strength through the nearly two-hour-long performance until she became completely absorbed in the conflicting emotions of rage, despair and, finally, frenzied jubilation that ends in her death.

Goerke, who is alternating with veteran Elektra Deborah Polaski in the Madrid production that runs through Oct. 15, has been moving gradually into dramatic soprano territory. She has previously sung the lighter role of Elektra's sister, Chrysothemis, in this opera, and has also performed in operas by Mozart, Handel and Gluck.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether she will be able to preserve her freshness after repeated performances, or whether she will develop the worn, strident top one often hears in other Elektras. Much is riding on it, for Goerke has plans to add some other famously difficult roles in coming years, including the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's "Die Frau ohne Schatten" and Bruennhilde in Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

The Teatro Real's production, by the late director Klaus Michael Grueber, was staged initially for the Teatro San Carlos in Naples, and imported to Madrid by Gerard Mortier in his second season running the company.

It features a stupendous, monumental set by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, representing the courtyard of a decaying palace rising four stories, its walls made of rough, whitish stone with fluted columns and doorways along the sides and rear at every level. In the opening scene, maids are feverishly scrubbing the walls and floors, but one large stain that looks like blood resists all their efforts.

The cast, well-directed by Ellen Hammer, a Grueber colleague, includes soprano Manuela Uhl, as a bright-voiced, urgent Chrysothemis, and mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as a scarily stentorian Klytemnestra.

Bass-baritone Samuel Youn sings fervently as Orest, and Chris Merritt, a one-time specialist in Rossini tenor roles, lends elegance to the small part of Aegisth, Klytemnestra's paramour.

Much of the evening's success is due to conductor Semyon Bychkov, who makes the orchestra sound like a world-class ensemble, capturing every nuance of Strauss's amazingly varied score, from the crashing dissonances to the most delicate moments of lyricism.