LENOX -- Has any conductor ever led such massive works as Schoenberg's ``Gurrelieder" and Strauss's ``Elektra" on successive nights before? That's what James Levine did over the weekend at Tanglewood -- although it took two orchestras to make it possible. It also took all of Levine's considerable energies and accumulated know-how.
On one level, ``Elektra" is a 100-minute primal scream, but if you were watching a silent movie of Levine during most of it, you'd think he was conducting musical quicksilver. Sometimes he barely moved, balancing this musical boulder on the tip of his baton.
Actually, some of ``Elektra" is quicksilver; it is a unique and very strange work. For all the heaving, yelling, and bloody murder, this opera is put together like a precision mechanism, generated out of a handful of constantly evolving and interacting themes and full of subtleties of orchestration, with even an occasional chilling quietness.
Strauss cannot always resist the opportunity to display his chops, and if the text speaks of hound dogs licking up blood, that's what you will hear; when Klytemnestra sings of her bad liver, there's a sickeningly queasy violin solo. But in a good performance, the opera passes like a bolt of lightning cleaving the air.
The music is both opulent and, in a peculiar way, austere. It contains the most modern music Strauss ever composed, yet it tells the ancient Greek myth in terms of turn-of-the-century Vienna, complete with delirious waltzes. Even Strauss may have been terrified by ``Elektra" and its implications, because he never composed anything this red in tooth and claw again, anything that ran along the nerves with this degree of intensity.
You really have to be born to sing the title role, the most demanding part ever written for dramatic soprano. Lisa Gasteen probably wasn't, but her performance was far more than a brave stab. She doesn't have the tireless and blazing top notes the music requires, and until she was fully warmed up, some of those high tones dragged a little flat. Later on, in the Recognition Scene, she found it difficult to project some quieter phrases over the orchestra. But the Australian soprano's powerful voice boasts a beautiful glowing, ruby timbre, deployed with vigor and insight. And she is a theatrical presence who can command attention even when standing still.
As Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister who yearns for domesticity, soprano Christine Brewer poured out torrents of radiant sound. In concert dress, the veteran British mezzo Felicity Palmer looked more like Auntie Mame than a tragedy queen, but she brought dignity to the part of Klytemnestra, which is often reduced to grotesque, unmusical caricature. Her voice communicated brazen assurance; her imagination revealed the queen's inner demons. Baritone Alan Held was a match for the steadiness and nobility of the trombones as Orest, and tenor Siegfried Jerusalem contributed a vivid cameo as the craven Aegisth.
Some of the smaller parts were nicely taken by this summer's Tanglewood Music Center vocal fellows, including Eui Jin Kim, Emily Albrink, Chanel Wood, and Ulysses Thomas. Of the rest of the supporting cast, soprano Jennifer Cheek was outstanding as the Fifth Maid.
Levine was casually clad in a long polo shirt, but his handling of the piece was masterly. Hours of work went into the TMC Orchestra's triumphant performance, not just with Levine, but with experienced coaches such as Raymond Gniewek, Metropolitan Opera concertmaster for 43 years before his retirement, who came to work with the violins and to play on the second stand at the performance. But the major contribution was made by the young musicians themselves, playing with conviction and edge-of-the-chair intensity and sounding like one of the major orchestras of the world.
The ovations were tumultuous, and when Gasteen came forward, she raised her arms like Rocky. Everyone else deserved to, too.