Mad Elektra Plots Revenge, Chereau Gets Ovation at Aix

Even in Europe, it’s still possible to stage an opera in a way that the composer would recognize.

Patrice Chereau, the French director, is reminding us of that half-forgotten truth. His “Elektra” at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence was greeted with a standing ovation. Chereau has taken small liberties, not enough to turn the story upside down.

Klytamnestra, Elektra’s adulterous mother, is portrayed as a melancholy recluse, not a half-crazed monster. When she learns that her son Orest is dead, she doesn’t burst into the triumphant laughter required by the libretto.

Nor does Elektra die after her frenetic victory dance. She falls into a stupor while Orest, leaving his sisters without saying goodbye, walks off into an uncertain future.

Richard Peduzzi’s atmospheric set, more Oriental than Greek, and Caroline de Vivaise’s modern costumes create the perfect framework for a story that is mythic and timeless.

“Elektra” stands and falls with the singer of the title role who is virtually on stage for the entire opera. Evelyn Herlitzius is simply magnificent, riding the waves of Richard Strauss’s mammoth orchestra with inexhaustible stamina.

Adrianne Pieczonka as her sister Chrysothemis is no less powerful, if a bit bland. Waltraud Meier’s Klytamnestra can’t quite cope with her daughters, no wonder at this advanced stage of her career. Mikhail Petrenko is a sturdy though stiff Orest.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts the Orchestre de Paris, pulls off the not negligible feat of bringing out all the colors of the score without drowning out the singers.

Much of the text is intelligible -- a rare occurrence in an opera that often sounds like a symphonic poem with some singers in the background desperately trying to cut though the pandemonium created by 100 musicians in the pit. Rating: ****.

Verdi Homage

With “Rigoletto,” the festival’s homage to Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial, we’re back to the usual excesses of what the Germans call “Regietheater,” or director’s theater.

The courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace is a notoriously difficult venue. Scene changes are virtually impossible.

Director Robert Carsen and set designer Radu Boruzescu chose to amalgamate Verdi’s four scenes into one, a circus ring.

During the prelude, Rigoletto appears in front of the curtain as a whiteface clown, like Tonio in “I Pagliacci.” Yet instead of singing a prologue, he drags a bag with a lifesize doll behind him -- an omen of the finale when he finds his murdered daughter in the bag.

Ducal Throne

The ducal palace is suggested by a throne in the director’s box. Rigoletto’s house is a trailer, Sparafucile’s tavern a curious mesh of ropes and nets. Someone who has never seen the opera will find it difficult to understand what’s going on.

George Gagnidze, though lacking the bite of a true Verdi baritone, is a solid Rigoletto. Irina Lungu is a lovely Gilda with a somewhat tentative coloratura.

The weak link is Arturo Chacon-Cruz’s bleating Duke. His best attributes are the cute buttocks he bares --another of the director’s ideas -- before raping Gilda in his bedroom.

The hero of the evening is the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. They are precise and stylish, though perhaps not the last word in Italianita. Rating: **.

Surreal Novelty

Last year, George Benjamin’s new opera “Written on Skin” had a sensational success at the festival. This year’s novelty, a 50-minute chamber opera by the young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonca, who studied with Benjamin, is not on the same level.

“The House Taken Over´´ is based on a surrealist short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar.

The siblings Hector and Rosa live in the house of their parents, busying themselves with trivial chores. Although a baby is nowhere in sight, Rosa tirelessly knits babywear.

The idyll is interrupted by strange noises which force the siblings to avoid an increasing number of rooms. In the end, they flee the haunted house.

Mendonca’s music, written for two singers and 13 instrumentalists, is mildly atonal and mostly on the soft side. The singer’s tone is conversational.

Oliver Dunn and Kitty Whately are perfect as the odd couple, and the Asko-Schonberg Ensemble from Amsterdam, conducted by Etienne Siebens, sounds impeccable.

Katie Mitchell, the director, and Alex Eales, the set designer, have created an innocently realistic ambience which makes the events all the more surreal.

It was not the fault of the performers that the work was coolly received when I saw it. Unlike, say, Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” another ghost story, “The House Taken Over” is too thin and too vague to spark our imagination.

What works in a short story doesn’t necessarily work on the stage. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Fantastic
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No star)  Avoid

The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence runs through July 27. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Jorg von Uthmann on French culture, Elin McCoy on wine, Robert Heller on music and Craig Seligman on books.

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