Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra have marked the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birthday in grand style. After an outstanding concert performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” two weeks ago, the group is featuring two more of the composer’s operas, “Salome” and “Elektra,” in this week’s concerts, the first heard Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Settling on the composer’s most familiar and often-performed operas could be characterized as underwhelming, as could featuring only one tone poem, “Don Juan,” from one of the few composers to distinguish himself equally in symphonic and operatic realms. On the other hand, this program stood out for its focus on themes of desire, disgust, and bloodthirsty violence, oddly woven together as they are in all three of these works. It made for a disturbingly Freudian but ultimately compelling evening.
The result could have been a great disappointment, given that the soprano on whom the whole program rested, Iréne Theorin, withdrew for health reasons. Happily, Christine Goerke, who garnered glowing critical response last fall with her performances as the Dyer’s Wife in “Die Frau ohne Schatten” at the Metropolitan Opera, was able to step in to save the day, and she did so in epic fashion. This was certainly no surprise to anyone who heard her as Chrysothemis in Washington National Opera’s 2008 production of “Elektra,” in which she was a runaway sensation.
Here, she was back as the title character in the recognition scene for the NSO’s first performance of “Elektra.” In this scene, Elektra is reunited with her brother Orest, although at first, neither of them recognizes the other. When Elektra finally understands and calls out his name, the orchestra unleashed a berserk fury of sound, after which Goerke floated a serene but puissant high note, beginning the ecstatic soliloquy that marks one of the opera’s emotional high points. Goerke’s voice was here acid-edged and there velvety, from the most incisive highs — a B-flat that could cut through steel — to the throatiest lows. Bass John Relyea was effective but wooly in tone as Orest, stretched a bit at the top of the range.
On the second half, there was the devastating and depraved final scene from “Salome,” where the spoiled princess finally gets to plant a kiss on the mouth of John the Baptist’s severed head. Goerke had the power to soar over the orchestra, although Eschenbach did better in the second half than in the first at controlling that massive orchestra’s sound — always a challenge when sharing the stage rather than playing in a pit. Her greatest strength, though, was a suave legato caressing of more sumptuous and soft passages, applied here to creepy effect as Salome swoons over the beauty of her conquest — music cast by Strauss in radiant C-sharp major. The brief lines sung by Herodes and Herodias in the scene were omitted, making the stark murder of Salome at the end even more jarring.
Rather than yet another performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” the cheesiest music in “Salome,” another tone poem would have been preferable — although it was hard not to be carried away by the serpentine slithering of the oboe and flute and the work’s vulgar climax.
“Don Juan” certainly made a strong curtain-opener, with its bold, brassy initial fanfare given plenty of oomph. The ebullient horns made a splendid sound on their statements of the hero’s theme, and solos from violin, oboe and flute all sparkled coyly, although the faster passages in the strings were occasionally not all as one.
Here, too, sex turns implacably toward death as Strauss, following a version of the legend by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, has Don Juan allow himself to be killed in a duel with the brother of one of his conquests.
Scholar James Hepokoski, in an essay on “Don Juan,” proposed a theory that the duel at the end is not an actual death but rather the seducer figure giving up his old ways and accepting a new persona, as husband. That is similar to what was happening in Strauss’s life at the time: He had met his future wife, Pauline, just before the composition of “Don Juan,” which was completed in 1888.
If we accept the theory, then Don Juan was the most sensible character of the evening when it came to love.
This concert repeats Friday and Saturday night.