Muddle instead of music (2)


That’s the second time I’ve used this title, and of course it is not mine.

Last night to the SOH to hear the SSO under David Robertson and a cast of guest singers do Strauss’s Elektra.

The picture above is the afternoon before the last time I went to see this, just under 6 weeks ago, in Leipzig’s gloriously Stalinist opera house.  An earlier report on the same production by Wanderer is here.

There Eva Johansson was Elektra.  And just to put everything in proportion, the night before the same orchestra under the same conductor performed Die Walküre and Ms Johansson was Brünnhilde in that.

In Leipzig I sat right up the front, on the woodwind side. The Gewandhaus fielded 94 players (the man putting out the music told me that). They must have cut down a little on strings (the wind and brass complement looked complete), and the last few trumpets were squeezed into the corridor outside the door of the pit on the side opposite to me

In Sydney, I sat in row V of the stalls on the violins’ side.  The SSO placed the orchestra – reportedly about 110 [I am now told 103] – out in front of the normal stage in the space usually taken up by the stalls to about row L or M.  The stage itself was given over to an elevated platform on which 8 or so dancers from the Sydney Dance Theatre did some “interpretative dance” and on which Elektra herself occasionally prowled around.  Only in the final moments of Elektra’s dance, presumably the inspiration for the idea, did the two become really integrated: before that, for me, the dance was a distraction which added little.

The concert hall’s acoustic rings were hoisted way out of, if not sight, then certainly any operative effect, which they could hardly have had once the orchestra was relocated in any event.

Elektra is an opera which poses a balance problem.  When the SSO and Australian Opera did it together in the Capitol in 2000, one thing Simone Young and others remarked was the serendipitous resolution in that venue of this problem – everybody could be heard. 

Bringing the orchestra forward but not really in a pit exacerbated that problem – a big orchestra is pretty loud.  Even so, loudness was not really the problem for me, but rather clarity.  Everything was enveloped in an echoic bloom.

Peter McCallum, writing in the SMH, has said that the singers were amplified.  I myself wondered that, especially because Christine Goerke had such an enormous voice and some consonants came over with a kind of super-resonance, but I couldn’t go so far as to say that was the case: the sound still came from where the singer was, which is an indication otherwise, and I know stages can have some echo on them anyway. Anyway, it was the orchestral sound which frustrated me.

What I missed was all sorts of detail which I knew, from my Leipzig experience, is there to be heard. Different colours of string sounds; wind writing which is more than the emergence of the odd highlight from a generalised pitch aureole. The only bit where the acoustic really worked was in the trombone portents on Orestes’ return. Clytemnestra’s song about wanting to be a mother lacked the (relatively) gentle lyricism which could contrast with Elektra’s more frenetic moments. The solo-string writing was scarcely audible or distinguishable. The sum of this was a restriction of the range of mood and [affect?]effect: there was just so much unrelenting and indiscriminate LOUD – and I know the work isn’t simply that.

By the time we got to the amplified off-stage voices, a mark had been well and truly overstepped.

One advantage of concert performances by the SSO is that the vocal casting can be luxurious by Sydney operatic standards. Goerke was phenomenal; Cheryl Barker as Chrysothemis had to force her tone a little in her lower register but had exemplary diction; Lisa Gasteen as Clytemnestra was much better than reports had led me to believe; I’m sorry to say that Peter Coleman-Wright seemed miscast as Orestes, though he could have been better in more favourable balance conditions. Pascal Herington had a good if brief moment as a servant.

Indeed this was not a simple concert performance. Apart from the dance, the singers all acted their roles sans score. That’s a plus, but it’s still a long way short of a fully produced opera.

This sounds boring of me, but for the SSO’s next big-orchestra opera performance (and we can assume more are planned: my nomination – Jonny spielt auf), I’d like to see the orchestra back on the stage with the acoustic rings performing their (albeit insufficient) role. I’m happy to do without the dancers, and I would put the singers on an extended stage in front of the orchestra.

To be fair most of the audience loved it. Maybe Leipzig spoiled me.

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8 Responses to “Muddle instead of music (2)”

  1. wanderer Says:

    103 I believe, and I didn’t see any switch from violas to fourth violins (Recognition and Dance?). We were in X and must have been just behind you.

    Going up to the circle to for tonight’s.

    Peter McCallum is spot-on I think.

  2. marcellous Says:

    I hope the circle is better.

    I agree with you re Peter McC save that I don’t dare to say that there was amplification involved other than for the offstage singers. The thing that looked like a sound-desk may have been a lighting desk.

  3. stephen Says:

    I was in stalls row Q, the first time I have been closer than V right up the top and could have carried on a conversation with the bassist or cellist if I had wanted to. But I did have trouble noticing the harps.
    Thanks for your review – you are the only one to discuss the orchestra – everyone else was only concerned with the singers.

    Agree that until the end the dancers were a distraction, especially in the 1970’s blue outfits.
    I’m not an opera goer (I think Sweeney Todd’s the only opera company production I’ve seen) but was disturbed by the inconsistent costuming – is that a normal thing?

    • marcellous Says:


      I think it’s normal for singers in concert performances to wear their own outfits rather than costumes per se. Here perhaps there was a theme, and the women of the household were given a bit of costume jewellery.

  4. harryfiddler Says:

    Spot on Marcellous. I was in the front row of the circle where the balance was fab, but any lower down and the orchestra would have been overwhelming. There’s a reason opera houses use a pit.

    I didn’t pick up that the singers were amplified, but not surprised.

    What did impress was the orchestra’s dynamic range – all the way from loud to very very very very very loud (and I mean that as a compliment.)

    • marcellous Says:

      HF, had I known the disposition of the orchestra when I booked I would probably have chosen to sit in the front circle. I was sorely tempted by the one seat that on Sunday was still available for Monday night in the middle of the front row (financial moderation got the better of me – particularly because I had to sell my damaged and uninsured car for $500 that morning after an unfortunate accident earlier in the week).

      Actually I can adjust for balance when I sit close to the orchestra and the singers are relatively distant: it was the lack of clarity which really was the problem for me. Things are bad enough in the Concert Hall under normal conditions.

  5. Opera 2014 | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Elektra, Sydney (Symphony […]

  6. Iphiginie en Tauride | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] There is cause for plenty given the unhappy family history in question. Iphigenia is on Tauris, whence she was spirited many years ago by Diana/Artemis when her father, Agamemnon, prepared to sacrifice her to ensure a fair wind to Troy. (That was Gluck’s earlier Iphigenia in Aulis). Meanwhile, there’s been the Trojan war, Agamemnon has been murdered on his return by Clytemnestra, his wife, and then Orestes, his son, has killed him in revenge. (That’s Elektra.) […]

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