An Elektra for the Ages

Strauss – Elektra

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest – Mikhail Petrenko
Ägisth – Tom Randle
Der Pfleger des Orest – Franz Mazura
Ein junger Diener – Florian Hoffmann
Ein alter Diener – Donald McIntyre
Die Aufseherin/Die Vertraute – Renate Behle
Erste Magd – Bonita Hyman
Zweite Magd/Die Schleppträgerin – Andrea Hill
Dritte Magd – Silvia Hablowetz
Vierte Magd – Marie-Ève Munger
Fünfte Magd – Roberta Alexander

Coro Gulbenkian, Orchestre de Paris / Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Stage director – Patrice Chéreau

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence. Saturday, July 13th, 2013.

Every so often one sees a career-defining performance by an artist at the peak of his or her powers. I have been very lucky this year so far to have seen some exceptional singing from artists at their peak – Joyce DiDonato as Elena in La Donna del Lago, Anja Harteros and Mariusz Kwiecien as Elisabetta and Posa in Don Carlo and now Evelyn Herlitzius and Adrianne Pieczonka in Elektra.

This was my first time at the Festival International d’Aix-en-Provence and I would certainly have liked to have had time to look around the city. Sadly, travel problems meant that I only got to Aix an hour before the show and so had very little opportunity to see what Aix has to offer. It certainly does give me a reason to go back and I would very much like to.

This Elektra was very much seen as an ‘event’ and now having seen it I can certainly confirm that. The combination of Esa-Pekka Salonen in the pit alongside Patrice Chéreau as stage director together with an exceptional cast promised much and certainly delivered in so many ways. If ultimately it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, it certainly is a major achievement.

Chéreau’s stage direction offered a domestic tragedy yet enlightened and frustrated in equal measures. Effectively, the key idea was that the inhabitants of the palace were split between the old servants (Roberta Alexander’s Fifth Maid kept reappearing as an extra and the Old Servant was present from the beginning) loyal to Elektra (and Orest) and the others loyal to Klytämnestra and Ägisth. The surtitles were posted on the back of the set perhaps in an attempt to portray the inevitability of what was happening and both Klytämnestra and Ägisth were murdered on stage.

Strauss’ opera is a paradox. There’s excess in the orchestration for sure but also intimacy in its concentration on the relationships between the individuals. No men appear in the piece until the half-way mark yet having the male servants walk around the set from the beginning made me feel that the staging lacked the concentration on the feminine that the work surely revolves around. I also felt that the constant presence of the servants, perhaps in homage to the chorus of Greek tragedies, also meant that the claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere – the concentration on the individual so inherent in the work – was missing. There were a few other ideas that seemed like non sequiturs and also things that didn’t quite make sense such as when Ägisth arrived home, why did he not see Klytämnestra’s body lying there even though it was clearly visible? It was an interesting re-imaging of the work but it struck me as more of a work in progress. It is going to travel to a number of theatres so there is a good chance that it will develop further.

Nothing could take away from the sheer magnificence of Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra. I’ve seen so many ladies sing that role and heard many more recordings but none has had the sheer strength, security, vulnerability and power of this outstanding singer-actress. There were times when she let her top really open up and the effect was stunning – the sheer volume was staggering. There were other moments where she was not afraid to pull back and give some beautifully introspective singing. Hers was an incredibly intelligent performance, she knew how to pace the role, when to hold back and when to give more, but she also completely inhabited the character and lived every single moment. Similarly Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis is also the finest I’ve heard. The voice has wonderful amplitude and sheer ease in the top with impeccable diction and beautiful soft singing. She managed to make a character that can pale into insignificance something very special.

I was expecting a lot from Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and often when expecting much, one can be disappointed. I’m afraid that for me this was the case tonight. It’s easy to take for granted the incredible word-painting that she uses in her singing but tonight it felt to me that she didn’t quite inhabit the role in the way that she normally does. The characterization was incredibly subtle but for me it didn’t quite work. Gone was the over-the-top screamer replaced by something very subtle. It’s just that I didn’t quite believe that this reasonably acting Queen would be able to dominate palace life and to inspire terror and loyalty in her staff in the way the libretto suggests.

Mikhail Petrenko was an interesting Orest, the grainy voice very different to the kind we normally hear. He worked really hard with the words and made much of the text as did Tom Randle’s playboy of an Ägisth. The maids varied from approximate to excellent – I particularly liked Bonita Hyman’s First Maid and Marie-Ève Munger’s Fourth Maid.

Elektra is a highly complex, multifaceted score to conduct and tonight Salonen brought out the expressionistic aspects of the orchestration. Yet he didn’t quite as successfully bring out the dance rhythms inherent in the piece. Some tempi were overly measured. Daniel Barenboim manages this wonderful combination of expressionistic and dance so wonderful in his recording of the work. The Orchestre de Paris played extremely well. There was real weight to the tone and some spectacular brass playing.

Make no mistake, this was an exceptional evening in the theatre crowned by two inspirational performances by Herlitzius and Pieczonka. Both were incredible and certainly made the journey worthwhile. It was also a bold reimagining of the work and if it didn’t quite work for me this time, I have no doubt that it is certainly worth seeing again as it travels around the world.

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