"Dance of Death"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 12 and 19, 2013
A mother and daughter are sitting on rough-hewn blocks of white stone, such as one might find on the estate of a wealthy modern family that aspires to classical grandeur. Their backs are turned to each other, their heads are bowed. Some years ago, a terrible crime was committed in the house. The mother, dressed in black, with her hair cut short, avoids mention of her dead husband but says that she is suffering from nightmares—“I have no good nights”—and asks whether anything can be done to stop the dreams, because there is a remedy for everything. In a low voice, she speaks of a nameless something that is eating away at her, like moths in old fabric. The daughter, dressed in tattered workout clothes, is a knot of rage and hate, her mind fixated on the crime. After that fearful plea for help, there is a moment of tenderness between the two, but when the daughter speaks of her absent brother the atmosphere freezes again. The mother, her voice now coolly imperious, will not hear of it. She simply wishes to know the cure for dreaming. The daughter, her eyes blazing, her arms flung down in a gymnast's stance, declares that only when her brother comes home, swinging an axe, will the dreams end. Aghast, the mother retreats, refusing the assistance of her cowed, clinging servants.
This is the great scene between Electra and Clytemnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra, as staged by Patrice Chéreau, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, in July. Evelyn Herlitzius played the daughter, Waltraud Meier the mother; Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Orchestre de Paris. Chéreau has pulled off many feats in his opera-directing career—notably, his monumental 1976 production of the Ring, at Bayreuth, and his glamorous and sordid presentation of the three-act version of Berg’s Lulu, in 1979. His work finally reached New York in 2009, when the Met mounted his stark, raw staging of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Yet this Elektra, which can currently be seen on the Arte channel’s Web site and will arrive at the Met in 2016, occupies a special place in Chéreau’s output, because his signature attention to nuances of character humanizes a masterpiece that often seems grimly relentless. Clytemnestra has been killed thousands of times over the millennia; here, her death registers as a shock, because we have come to see her not as a monster but as a woman shadowed by a monstrous deed.
One issue with Elektra is that, for all its splendid ferocity, it lacks a degree of internal tension. The libretto, derived from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Sophocles, has a whiff of Grand Guignol, and the score hammers away indiscriminately at dissonances and disconnected triads. In Aix, Salonen, who has replaced Pierre Boulez as Chéreau's chief musical collaborator, restored dynamic balance. In the opening bars, a bass-clarinet note had equal weight with the titanic D-minor chord that sets the work in motion. Frail lyricism in the violins, flickering chords in the violas, spidery cadenzas in the flute—all came through clearly, instead of being lost in the melee. So, too, did the voices. Here was an Elektra you could listen to without flinching.
The action is placed more or less in the present; the sets, by Richard Peduzzi, suggest the exterior of a grand bourgeois home, though nothing is too specific. We have no idea whether the late Agamemnon was a king, a president, or a C.E.O. What matters, as Chéreau said in an interview, is that this well-to-do household has been “completely disordered” by the crime. Clytemnestra is attempting total repression. Orestes, when he arrives, is a blank-faced instrument of violence; Mikhail Petrenko plays him as a block of basso ice. Chrysothemis, sung with opulent, room-filling tone by Adrianne Pieczonka, seems the most human, but there is an obliviousness in her determination to go on living. Only Electra feels the full extent of the trauma.
Herlitzius, a German soprano who has been singing Wagnerian roles in Europe since the nineties, gave a tremendous, never-to-be-forgotten account of the title role. She has the vocal power to make herself heard above Strauss’s one-hundred-eleven-piece orchestra, and though a few of her high Bs and Cs went astray, her pitches usually hit the mark. A riveting physical performer, she flung her body about with a dancer’s abandon. What came through, above all, was the character’s desperate urge to make her family to confront the truth. Yet Electra has no idea what she is getting into: neither she nor anyone around her is prepared for the aftermath of vengeance.
Meier, as Clytemnestra, displayed eerie restraint, declining all opportunities to chew the scenery. Admittedly, such chewing can give pleasure, especially when executed by a legendary singer in a late-career, to-hell-with-it phase. One of the most thrilling things I’ve seen in a theatre was Leonie Rysanek’s turn as Clytemnestra at the Met, in 1994; the line “Lichter! Mehr Lichter!”—“Lights! More lights!”—was hollered with such delirious intensity that it’s a wonder some stagehand didn’t switch on the house lights in a fright. No such hysterics were seen in Aix; indeed, the “Lichter!” line was cut. (It appears in the stage directions, though not in the vocal part.) Passages that are routinely barked, or rasped, were sung straight out, with acute expression. There was no witchy cackling at the false report of Orestes’s death. What affected me most was the sense that Meier’s Clytemnestra is not only scared of her daughter but also worried about her. It is not just for her own sake that she wants the subject of the murder dropped.
As in other Chéreau productions, the smaller parts received exacting attention. Aegisthus, the stepfather, was not the usual grotesque neurotic; Tom Randle made him disconcertingly stylish. Roberta Alexander found glowing sympathy in the Fifth Maid, the one who takes Electra’s side. Donald McIntyre, Chéreau’s Wotan in 1976, embodied an otherworldly old servant, and the eighty-nine-year-old Franz Mazura, Dr. Schön in the director’s Lulu, glowered as Orestes’s guardian. Silent movements registered as strongly as sung lines. When Orestes kills Clytemnestra, the servants’ helpless stares show that the act is anything but cathartic: a new horror has been piled upon the old. Electra’s dance of triumph abruptly stops, although she does not fall dead, as the libretto demands. And in the final bars, with the orchestra thundering the blackest C-major chords in history, Orestes walks from the back of the stage to a door on the left, like Death out for an evening stroll.