Patrice Chéreau’s last major opera production was of Strauss’ Elektra for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival where it was recorded. It later appeared with a different cast at the Met and was broadcast in HD but that performance has not yet been released on disk. It’s a very good example of Chéreau’s work. The towering, blocky sets recall his From the House of the Dead and are equally dark and grey. The interest is all in the characters.
There’s a very interesting interview with Chéreau on the disk which highlights the lengths he goes to to understand the piece and the characters. This is particularly important with a piece like Elektra where the story, in various versions, has been around for 2,500 years and we all know it to some extent at least. Chéreau is particularly interested in what parts of the story von Hofsmannthal and Strauss have chosen to emphasise and which elements they have ignored. For example, there is no mention of Iphigenia in the libretto. Either von Hofsmannthal assumes we don’t need to be told about Clytemnestra’s motivations or he is choosing to make her an apparently motiveless murderess. Equally, there’s the focus on her dreams, which don’t feature at all in Sophocles. Given the time and place von Hofsmannthal was writing that’s a bit of a giveaway. So, the bottom line is that Chéreau chooses to characterize the protagonists in slightly unusual, but to my mind, effective ways. Clytemnestra is not the raddled old hag we often see. She is stately and dignified. Obviously once very beautiful. Very much a queen. Chrysothemis is not a rather pathetic wimp but the one sane person who yearns for a normal life even at a price. All this makes Elektra herself seem even more crazily obsessive than usual and makes a twist at the very end entirely plausible.
The cast seem to totally buy into their characters. Evelyn Herlitzius is magnificent in the title role. It’s a spot on singing performance but it’s the way that she uses her body to convey Elektra’s changing mental states that is really impressive. It’s totally immersive. Waltraud Meier’s Clytemnestra is downright scary. She also sings beautifully. Her’s is not a worn out voice! Again, very impressive. Adrianne Pieczonka, in this context, has a straightforward job to be a foil for the other two. She does this more than adequately. The men too seem somewhat downplayed by this approach but they too are perfectly fine. It’s really all about Elektra and Clytemnestra and that side of things is electric.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is in the pit with the Orchestre de Paris. I found his approach intriguing. I don’t think I have ever heard this score sound so lyrical. The toughness and violence is there too but the lyrical passages are extremely, and rather surprisingly, beautiful.
Stéphane Metge’s video direction is a bit frenetic and close up obsessed but it’s not too, too bad. Picture and sound (DTS-HD) on Blu-ray are very good indeed. The included bonus interview is a must see; preferably before the main feature. Subtitles are Italian, Spanish, German, French and oddly archaic English; “she cleft his flesh in twain” and so on. The packaging is unusual in that it’s a booklet with a disk inside in a pocket rather than the conventional plastic case. It’s quite handsome and contains a track listing, synopsis and essay by Chéreau.
This production made me see Elektra from some new and different angles which is, I think, always one of the signs of a good production. It’s supported by very fine performances from Herlitzius and Meier and illuminating conducting from Salonen. I would say this is probably first choice on video for this piece but I’ll be intrigued to see how it looked and sounded at the Met if and when that performance is released. Plus Lehnhoff’s Salzburg production is also very fine.