Tuesday, July 23, 2013


James Karas

***** (out of five)

The year’s grand production by the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the aptly named Grand Théâtre de Provence is Richard Strauss’s Elektra. The Orchestre de Paris is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the production is directed by Patrice Chereau. The result is a simply outstanding production of a great opera.   

Elektra strikes me as an extended Mad Scene for its main character. The rest of the cast has to work under two impediments: Strauss’s powerful, sometimes overpowering music and the dominance of the performance by Electra.

German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius has the lung-power, acting ability and the extraordinary voice to dominate the performance. In the opening scene, she is released from a pen and stumbles onto the stage where there is a hole for her in the centre. She is at least unbalanced if not completely deranged and wears slacks and a blouse. She is no princess. There are moments of lucidity, psychotic glee, frenzied dancing and vocal prowess that add up to a stupendous performance by Herlitzius.

Electra, of course, is the daughter of Agamemnon who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his return from Troy. Electra is full of rage and hatred and she is reliving her father’s murder every day as she waits to wreak vengeance by killing her mother.

Chrysothemis does not share her sister’s maniacal desire for revenge. She wants vengeance but she also wants life. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gave a dramatic and well-balanced performance but like the rest of the cast with the exception of Herlitzius on occasion she faced the problem of the lack of balance between pit and stage.

Strauss’s music is powerful and only singers with steel-plated lungs need to apply for most of the roles in Elektra. That being said, the conductor needs to balance the orchestra and the singers. Pieczonka can more than stand her ground vocally but much of Chrysothemis’s singing is not done at full throttle and there were times that the orchestra almost overpowered her. This holds true for most of the other singers as well.

Mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier was the pleading, haunted Clytemnestra. Like Electra, she is haunted by her husband’s murder and is seeking a means of purging her nightmares. A sacrifice to the gods is the only solution – her sacrifice! Meier captures the conflicting personality and sheer evil in a fine performance.

Russian bass Michail Petrenko sang Orestes, a role that is a foil for Electra and American tenor Tom Randle sang Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover. They did well.

In passing, I want to mention Sir Donald McIntyre’s appearance as an Old Servant. From Wotan in the 1976 Ring directed by Chereau at Bayreuth to a servant in Elektra is quite a distance. But Sir Donald, at 78, looked good and it was a treat to see him.

Subject to my comments about the need for better balance between pit and stage on occasion, the performance of the Orchestre de Paris was simply incomparable. Elektra is as much a full concert as an opera and Salonen brings out the thunder and the maniacal nuances of Strauss’s score.

Chereau and his designer Richard Peduzzi (the same one who designed the 1976 Bayreuth Ring, if you will), use a stark, monochromatic set for the production. Chereau adds his own touches.  Orestes brings out his mother’s body after he kills her with a hatchet and leaves it on stage. Aegisthus is normally murdered behind the scenes, but in this production he meets his end on stage by Electra.

A final touch of directorial finesse comes at the end when Orestes leaves the stage and goes into the same pen from which Electra emerged at the beginning of the opera.

A great and memorable night at the opera.
Elektra by Richard Strauss (music), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) opened on July 10 and will be performed five times until July 22, 2013 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

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