This show from the Aix festival turned out to be Patrice Chéreau’s very last: he died only a few weeks later. It was lauded in many quarters. It’s an open question as to whether it serves as a fitting testament to the director, but I found it a very mixed success.
To begin with the singing: Evelyn Herlitzius’ Elektra is perfectly fine. She gets all the notes and she mostly sounds confident, but it sounds like hard work at times. There is a shrillness to her tone that isn’t inappropriate for this quasi-hysterical character, but she has none of the searing confidence that you find in the great performances by the likes of Birgit Nilsson or Iréne Theorin, or the lyrical beauty of Leonie Rysanek - albeit that her only performance was captured in the studio. Just as in her Dutch performance with Marc Albrecht, I found Herlitzius powerful and interesting, but never beautiful and not quite managing to make the performance searing. I repeat, though, that she manages all the notes, which is more than can be said for many sopranos. Opposite her, the lyrical beauty of Adrianne Pieczonka’s Chrysothemis is a welcome contrast, and her portrayal does a great job of capturing this character’s conflicted nature, her yearning for release battling with her weakness. Waltraud Meier brings a star touch to Klytämnestra, if anything even finer than her Salzburg performance with Gatti because it is more understated, even naturalistic in places. She holds you spellbound for the half hour in which she is on stage, even though for a chunk of that time she sits stock still recounting her nightmares. Her voice still has all the equipment for the role, too, and she is magnetic musically as well as dramatically. Tom Randle squawks his way convincingly through Aegisthus, and Mikhail Petrenko is a marvellous Orestes; rich, authoritative, boomingly resonant and always musically involving. The gaggle of servants are all extremely well sung, and there is even a cameo from Donald McIntyre, Chéreau’s Wotan from his famous Bayreuth Ring: the two had not met in thirty years.
The orchestral playing is superb, too, the Parisians giving us both muscular strength and delicate flexibility. Salonen’s vision of the piece is hugely successful, unfolding in a huge arc of inevitability. I loved the way the voices were so carefully balanced against the orchestra: how many performances of Elektra have come a cropper because too little attention was given to this?
The production, on the other hand, is difficult to get excited about, and more than once I found myself asking whether Chéreau has simply lost his touch, a thought that afflicted me several times as I watched his Tristan und Isolde from La Scala a few years back. For a start, the set is just plain dull; bare walls with a few steps and a couple of doors. Where are the stunning tableaux that he conjured up for the Bayreuth Ring in 1976? Furthermore, his direction of the characters, one of his key strengths, is often totally lacking. The maids, for example, don’t have much interesting to do, and the finale, after the murders, is almost entirely static. Elektra’s dance is naff, and the arrival of the news of Orestes’ death is strangely muted, too. Only in the scene where Elektra tries to convince Chrysothemis to take part in the murder did some of the old magic return, the closeness between the two sisters taking on an almost erotic tinge. Otherwise, I found myself greeting the production with a shrug, and at times I was even a little bored. It doesn’t help that much of the stage is shrouded in Stygian darkness for much of the time, meaning that it’s difficult to make out much in the very opening scene and the whole swathe between the recognition scene and the end. Chéreau gives an interview as a bonus feature, but he gives few insights into either the work or his thoughts, and I didn’t buy his justifications of his choices.
Technically speaking, both the visual and auditory aspects of the DVD are very good. The sound balance in 5.1 is excellent, everything coming to life brilliantly, and nothing is ever at risk of being drowned out. The violin solo in the early part of the Klytämnestra scene, for example, can rarely have sounded clearer, and the low brass for Orestes’ entrance will send shivers down your spine. The picture is admirably clear, but the cameras are very reluctant to settle on one image or angle for very long, and that gets a little wearing after a time. The English subtitles are terrible, though, using an archaic, unidiomatic translation of the text which is very off-putting. They often disappear from the screen before you’ve even had time to scan the words. Try these for some examples: “Soon in a tow’r thou wilt be caged … Always stay we twain, e’en as on perches stand captive birds in cages … Wherefore must all my strength in me be palsied?” Shame on BelAir for such poor attention to detail.
I wonder very much whether Chéreau knew that this would be his final stage work, and whether he would have done something more striking if he did? There are plenty of good things musically here, but I’m afraid I found it hard to get excited about this film as a whole. It certainly doesn’t challenge what Gatti’s Salzburg performance, which I rate more and more highly as time goes by. It’s more theatrical and is hugely exciting, as well as brilliantly sung, and it probably now stands at least on a par with the Böhm/Friedrich set I recommended in 2011.
Will this staging go down as one of the great monuments in Chéreau’s career, however? I doubt it.