Patrice Chéreau’s Testament

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Last spring I had the opportunity (thanks to a frequent flyer ticket) to head to Milan and Torino for a long weekend of opera. I had planned to go in April because La Scala was presenting Berlioz’s rarely-done Les Troyens, one of my very favorite operas, with a fabulous cast including Anna Caterina Antonacci, Daniela Barcellona and Gregory Kunde, conducted by Antonio Pappano. It seemed an obvious choice until a trusted friend at La Scala encouraged me to come in May to attend Elektra instead.

Elektra is also on my short list of favorite works but I have seen it more frequently, especially during the current celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of its composer, Richard Strauss. Why did I opt for this opera instead of Les Troyens?

This production was by the remarkable French director Patrice Chéreau (Nov. 2, 1944-Oct. 7, 2013) and it was his last work. It premiered at the festival in Aix-en-Provence in July 2013 and, during the long period of preparation and rehearsal in Aix and Milan, the director flew home to Paris every two weeks for chemotherapy in an attempt to forestall his imminent death from lung cancer. Many rehearsals were held in Milan because they offered a more efficient setting.

After the premiere in Aix, this Elektra was supposed to go to Milan and then receive subsequent performances in Barcelona, Helsinki and the Metropolitan Opera (scheduled for 2016). My friend at La Scala, as well as the actress and director Marthe Keller (who was a disciple of Chéreau), both told me that the director had left word in his final will and testament that he only wanted a directorial credit for Aix and Milan because they are the only places he worked and were the only theaters where the singers he directed would appear. It is unlikely that the whole cast will appear in performances after La Scala. I decided, after considerable deliberation, to pass on Les Troyens and opt for the Chéreau Elektra. In the end, I am certain I made the right choice.

The suitability of this decision was further confirmed after receiving a new DVD film version by Stéphane Metge (on BelAir Classics) of the Aix performances from when Chéreau was still alive, though clearly quite ill. 

Patrice Chéreau was one of the few directors equally adept with spoken theater (his specialty in France), as a fascinating and provocative filmmaker, and with opera. All three forms impose different exigencies on a director and very few do them all well. 

He did not direct many opera productions, but each one he did achieved epochal importance. His Ring at Bayreuth in 1976 for the centennial observance of the first cycle is considered by many to be the last fully successful staging of the cycle at the Wagner Festival. It followed, though not slavishly, George Bernard Shaw's thesis that the four operas are an allegory about capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. If you watch it on video, you will see that it is superbly directed and the singers show little trace of operatic acting.

Chéreau directed the first three-act Lulu (Paris, 1979), Wozzeck (Berlin, 1994), Tristan und Isolde (Milan, 2007) and Janáček's From the House of the Dead (at festivals in Austria, France, Holland, plus La Scala and, in 2009, at the Met). I had seen all live except for the Bayreuth Ring. Each production was a triumph of coherence, detail and a faithful though original telling of these masterpieces. They were also intensely musical—clearly Chéreau deemed it essential that music predominate even as he was able to make the singers act with a naturalism and specificity one seldom finds in opera.

My interest in this Elektra production was piqued by the coverage of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross and other writers I respect. Ross conversed with Esa-Pekka Salonen following Chéreau's death and published some of the Finnish conductor's compelling and candid remarks. It is worth reading. Salonen led an amazing performance of Strauss’s glorious orchestral score.

Vincent Huguet staged the production in Milan but almost everyone in the cast had worked directly with Chéreau. While I had been told that the Milan cast would be identical to the one in Aix, there were two changes. One (the young servant) was not consequential, but the other was big. Orest (the title character’s long-lost brother who returns to kill his mother and stepfather) was Mikhail Petrenko in Aix and René Pape at La Scala. Pape is one of opera's greatest artists and I think he closely followed Chéreau’s vision.

The three female leads were the same. The fearless German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius played Elektra, the excellent Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was her sister Chrysothemis and the marvelous German mezzo Waltraud Meier played their mother Klytämnestra. All are wonderful singers and actresses and I had the feeling that Chéreau did not so much direct them as inspire them and awaken ideas they then built on.

Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role of Strauss's 'Elektra'
Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role of Strauss's 'Elektra' (Aix-en-Provence Festival)

While I did not take to every directorial choice (some of which I am still contemplating and did not necessarily embrace), what I found extraordinary in this production was that the smaller roles were so well-cast and performed. It was a Chéreau hallmark to cast every role effectively and he outdid himself here. Some of these parts were taken by singers accustomed to playing leads. Three singers were considerably older and were chosen because their characters are most sympathetic to Elektra and Orest. Their advanced age made sense because they would have known the brother and sister when they were young and royal and their father was still alive. 

Donald McIntyre (age 79), the Wotan in Chéreau’s 1976 Ring, was the Old Servant to Orest and was very moving. The great German bass, 90-year-old Franz Mazura, used his remarkable acting skills and stage presence to register as Orest’s Guardian. American soprano Roberta Alexander (age 65), who has sung starring roles at the Met and in Europe, was the Fifth Maid, the one who most cares about Elektra. These artists and others, including Renate Behle (the Overseer) and Bonita Hyman (the First Maid), each created indelible portraits in roles that are often indistinguishable.

The experience of seeing and hearing this production on a video screen (even with excellent speakers) cannot rival live performance, especially when Strauss’s orchestra has 110 instruments. But it is wonderful to see the details of individual portrayals and the directorial decisions that always feel essential and never like flourishes.  

I feel fortunate to have seen this production live in Milan. I am now able to bring the incomparable memory of sound to the specificity of image the video offers. Perhaps the Met should create a system in the New York area in which people who pay a full-priced ticket to a performance in the opera house can then see that same opera in HD for five or ten dollars. This will boost ticket sales in the theater and create more engagement with opera as it is meant to be seen and then add the benefits that close-up video can provide. What do you think?