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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Opera Review: Three Chords and the Truth

The French Institute: Alliance Français screens Patrice Chéreau's Elektra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Elektra (Evelyn Herlitzus) in her final dance from Patrice Chéreau's production at Aix-en-Provence.
Photo by Pascal Victor © 2013 ArtcomArt.

Patrice Chéreau was one of the most important theater and opera directors of the last half-century. On Tuesday night the French Institute: Alliance Français celebrated the auteur's memory with screenings of his 2013 production of Elektra from the Aix-en-Provence festival. This  setting of Richard Strauss' Greek tragedy was Mr. Chéreau's last project before his death in October of last year. The screening was prefaced by a brief panel featuring production designer Richard Peduzzi and Met general manager Peter Gelb: the impresario is planning on bringing this show to New York in October of 2015.

This Elektra recalls the Bayreuth productions of the 1950s, turning aside theatrical trappings in favor of Richard Peduzzi' simple set. The crumbling House of Atreus is replaced by a spare, Spartan acting space with few features. Instead of implied offstage rivers of blood and gore, Mr. Cheréau throws the action directly at the audience, from the brutal flogging of one of the maids to the murders of Klytaemnestra and Aegisth. This confrontational style extends to the depiction of Elektra--she sinks into catatonia at the opera's end, as Orest simply walks away from the crimes he has committed.

Mr. Peduzzi reimagines the crumbling House of Atreus as a blank, featureless arch forming the main entrance and several side doors for the servants. (These are used at one point for a great and unexpectedly comic effect in the middle of the opera.) The costumes (by Caroline de Viviase) strip away the grand guignol--Elektra and Chrysothemis are in street clothes. Klytaemnestra is adorned with one heavy necklace. In removing the traditional trappings of the libretto (both murders take place onstage) Mr. Chéreau lets his singing actors make their own, statements.

The cast is led by Evelyn Herlitzius as the revenge-obsessed Elektra. Her wide staring eyes and bedraggled appearance belies a powerful instrument with a strong inner core and the all-important low notes that trip up many would-be Elektras. Her upper range is impressive, nailing the big notes at beginning and end of the opera and singing at an impressive level throughout. She is capable of opening up her core to pour oceans of sound over the crazed, thundering orchestra. The only negative: her instrument is somehow "black-and-white" without the depths of color that Strauss demands from his lead.

Ms. Herlitzius is at her best in the Recognition Scene, which includes Strauss' famous "special effect" of having half his viola players suddenly switch to violin, lightening the texture of the orchestra. Supported by Esa-Pekka Salonen's expert conducting, Ms. Herlitzius soars here, in her long slow realization that Orest (Mikhail Petrenko) has returned. Their scene together is tender and intimate, with hints of incest, with some of the most moving, even sentimental singing in this performance. For one brief moment the light shines through the dark forest of notes, only to descend once more into the murk.

Waltraud Meier's Klytaemnestra is the product of the singer's decades-long shift from mezzo to soprano and back again. She still cuts an elegant figure onstage, projecting the essential nobility of Klytaemnestra and putting that quality at perfect odds with the paranoia and terror that haunts the Queen and deprives her of sleep. In her epic confrontation with Ms. Herlitzius, Ms. Meier puts the right amount of slither and crawl into her voice, navigating the difficult, nearly atonal passages with the skills of a lieder singer...or a Kundry. Her dying (offstage) scream recalls that role, as does her spectacular, theatrical collapse onto a piece of moving scenery.

As Chrysothemis, Adrienne Pieczonka manages some lovely tone but is stuck playing a character whom nobody is sure quite what to do with. She and Ms. Herlitzius bring a slowly building, white-hot intensity to their three major scenes together, with Ms. Pieczonka soaring above the stave with a bright, "white" quality to her voice that project her character's inherent decency and inner conflict. They are at their best in that final desperate confrontation before Orest appears, scrabbling on the floor in a near approximization of a sexual act. Ms. Pieczonka sounds exhausted in her final scene, clearly straining at the opera's end.

Mikhail Petrenko is a rock-solid Orest, a tower of strength in his impressive carriage and sonorous bass voice. And he has the all-important chemistry with his sister, bringing an intimacy to their scene together that is simultaneously charming and distasteful. Tom Randle makes the most of the small role of Aegisth, singing with a nobility and brightness of tone that is more than this ignoble character usually gets. In small supporting roles, it is great to see Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura (Wotan and Gunther in Mr. Chereau's 1976 Bayreuth Ring) onstage together in the last days of their respective careers.

This production reunited Mr. Chéreau and Mr. Peduzzi with Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Finnish conductor leads the Orchestre de Paris on a thrilling ride through the kaleidoscopic score, bringing out the rich infinity of detail in Strauss' orchestration. From the first three chords this is a conductor using his experience and firm understanding (he is a composer himself) to enthrall the listener. Certain passages, the duets between sisters, the confrontation with Klytaemnestra play as pure audio theater, and yet the conductor also understands how to bring out the big dramatic climaxes to maximum emotional effect.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.