La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Aix en Provence Elektra a Performance for the Ages

Review of Web-Stream on Arte:  Elektra / Aix en Provence
July 19 2013

by Joseph So

Waltraud Meier as Klytemnestra in Aix en Provence Elektra (Photo: Pascal Victor / Artcomart)

In this age of Regieoper, audiences are frequently confronted with productions seemingly designed for shock value rather than anything with musico-dramatic truth in mind. Instead of a director with the primary goal of illuminating the music and the text, we often get superfluous directorial whims that are willful and self-indulgent, distracting the audience from focusing on the music. So it is gratifying to encounter this new Elektra directed by the great Patrice Chereau. He is of course best known in the opera world for his Bayreuth Centenary Ring Cycle in 1976. It was a ground-breaking production that had its detractors at the time but has since become a classic. Following the Ring, Chereau's ventures into opera has been very infrequent, preferring to channel his creative energies into directing film and theatre.  That said, he did return for select projects, his most recent success was Janacek's From the House of the Dead six years ago. To that you can add this new Elektra as a production for the ages.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis) (Photo: Pascal Victor /Artcomart)

Unlike most Regie-inspired productions, this Elektra has no cutting edge stagecraft, no Expressionist symbolism, no nudity, no outrageous costumes, no extra non-singing characters added, and most importantly, no alterations (additions or subtractions) of the music and text. There's nothing bizarre or grotesque here, just a deeply felt re-telling of the tragic story. To that end, the set and costumes are very low key, even somewhat anonymous but perfectly in keeping with Chereau's vision. To be sure, there are a few unusual touches. After Orest murders Klytemnestra, she is brought onstage. When later Aegisth sees the dead Klytemnestra, he goes to her and cries "Helft! Moeder!" and he's stabbed, not by Orest but by his tutor, here sung by the 89-year old (!) Franz Mazura. At the end, Elektra does not drop dead on the ground as is typical of the staging (often based on musical cues), she remains seated and in a trance.  I would love to hear Chereau's explanation for his directorial decisions.

Evelyn Herlitzius is Elektra (Photo: Pascal Victor / Artcomart)

This production features an exceptionally strong cast led by German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as a searingly intense Elektra. She is a name we don't hear often on this side of the pond, and it's a pity, as Herlitizius is one of the most compelling singer actors today. The voice may not be exactly bel canto, but her sincerity and commitment are never in doubt. In any case, a pretty voice with no expression is out of place in this opera. Herlitzius was stunning in the telecast on July 19th, indefatigable in this most grueling of dramatic soprano roles. The Recognition Scene was particularly gut-wrenching. She received a spectacular and totally well deserved ovation at the end. Another high profile principal is Waltraud Meier as Klytemnestra. She has gone from her mezzo beginnings to tackling zwischenfach roles like Sieglinde and Kundry, even Isolde. As a result, she lacks the contralto lows that would have given Klytemnestra more of a sense of authority in her confrontation with Elektra. Perhaps because of Chereau's vision, her Klytemnestra is formidable enough but elegant and understated - she's a queen after all. It doesn't have the grotesque histrionics one sometimes encounters in other productions. The third principal is Canada's own Adrianne Pieczonka. Singing Chrysothemis for the first time, Pieczonka showed that her gleaming tone and sympathetic stage presence is ideal as the healthy and "normal" sister, a perfect foil for the crazed Elektra.  Orestes is the eminent Russian baritone Mikhail Petrenko who was good but to be honest didn't quite rise to the level of intensity of the women.

Director Patrice Chereau with Roberta Alexander (Fifth Maid) and Sir Donald McIntyre (Old Servant) at Rehearsal (Photo: Aix en Provence photo-stream)

It is the secondary roles that makes this Elektra production special.  Where else will you find a performance of Elektra that features two Wotans (Sir Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura), two Brunnhildes (Hertizius and Renate Behle), and two Sieglindes (Meier and Pieczonka)?  On top of that, you have the wonderful American soprano Roberta Alexander as the Fifth Maid - talk about luxury casting! Now 64 and with a face and body proudly showing the passage of time, Alexander sounds miraculously youthful. I have the greatest respect for Chereau for casting these old-timers. I think Sir Donald - the Wotan in the Chereau Ring - is singing the Old Servant with its two lines for old time's sake.  Having seen and heard these older singers many times in the past, it moved me tremendously to see them on stage again, sort of a symbolic passing of the torch to a younger generation. The Orchestre de Paris under the impeccable baton of Esa Pekka Salonen outdid itself; and the Gulbenkian Chorus was up to the task in a few brief moments of choral singing. This production is going to La Scala, Berlin, Barcelona, Helsinki, and the Met.  In the meantime, thanks to Festival d'Aix en Provence and ARTE, this performance is available for streaming from the website for the next 60 days.  Don't miss it!

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