Enlightening, Electrifying Elektra at Aix

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France; July 16, 2013—In 40 years of opera-going, I have seen wild, spontaneous, hysterically approving reactions from audiences a handful of times: Jon Vickers’ Otello and Peter Grimes; Birgit Nilsson’s Salome; Joan Sutherland’s Amina and Lucia; Pavarotti’s Rodolfo and Tonio. Add to these the new Elektra, staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival.

This opera rarely fails to make its point, and most productions stick with the obvious: Elektra is insanely bent on revenge, which kills her when it finally arrives; Klytemnestra is a monster, deranged by her actions and her dreams; Chrysothemis is the weak sister who is interested only in the possibility of her own happiness in the future. The audience is rarely permitted empathy, except of the ugliest  sort. The brilliant Chéreau has dug deeper and so has the equally brilliant Salonen.

Here it is a tale of three women—the only men are Agamemnon, a ghost who looms over the story, Aegisth, barely a man and present only to die, and Orest (Orestes), who was a boy when he left and returns for one purpose only. The women are trapped in their unadorned, box-like, grey palace (not Greek, not Roman, not-of-any-time sets by Richard Pedruzzi). Elektra self-punishingly lives in filth, clawing at walls with the dogs in a courtyard, eternally both angry and sad; Klytemnestra, once potent and still physically attractive, is a recluse who no longer has the strength to shout or hate (she does not laugh when she hears of Orest’s death), and she seems genuinely stung by her daughter’s horrible words to her; the sister is desperate to escape the murder, misery, and thirst for vengeance that pervades every move around her but revels in the actual act of the murder of her mother.

When rage breaks out, the slaughter is terrifying: Orest strangles his mother on stage and Aegisth also is killed in full view; Elektra’s dance is ugly and verging on the autistic. And at the opera’s end Elektra is not dead: seemingly in a state of paralysis, she stares into a void as Orest, hardly the returning hero, walks slowly and in silence, away from the scene as Chrysothemis calls his name. Their catastrophic lives will go on, just as horrifically and sadly; this is a family tragedy. And Salonen and the brilliant Orchestre de Paris play the tender moments for real pathos—ravishing legato from the strings, sweet and cajoling as Elektra tries to convince her sister to join her, quiet and nervous during the mother/daughter confrontation, and devastatingly cathartic during the Orest/Elektra meeting. But when hell breaks loose, it’s Peckinpah/Tarantino time; the orchestra screams. Salonen, Chéreau, and the cast were as one.

From the opening moments, Evelyn Herlitzius, in dirty men’s clothing (unforgiving costumes by Caroline de Vivoise), is wild, slim, and spasmodic. The voice is magnificent—focused à la Nilsson but in pain à la Behrens—riding easily over the orchestra of 100-plus players. The voice’s center can be lovely and caressing; her every note is tied to the text. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis is emotionally wide open, her singing and acting huge, exciting, and pitch-perfect—she wants the nightmare to be over as well. Waltraud Meier as Klytemnestra, finally singing back in her mezzo-fach, offers an exhausted figure, unable to cope with being hated anymore. The voice is mostly intact, her interpretive skills still splendid.

Mikhail Petrenko’s Orest is rock solid, but he knows he is a pawn—he has one purpose in his family’s life and that is to commit murder. Tom Randle’s Aegisth is unlikeable as ever, but we can’t see his villainy; he is just another victim. Franz Mazura, at 89 years of age, sings the role of Orest’s servant amazingly well; ditto for the 79-year-old Donald McIntyre. The maids, who are seen working silently in the courtyard for three minutes before the music begins (Salonen enters the pit without being seen), are real individuals, also in a maddening situation.

Fifteen minutes of wild applause, stamping, and yelling from the audience seemed paltry. The horrible beauty of this production and performance is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Congratulations to all, and thank you to the Festival.