Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra: The Coming to Desire

Elektra by StraussHoffmannsthal (Sophocles), a 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival production in coproduction with La Scala, The Met, Finnish National, Liceu, Unter den Linden. Director Patrice Chéreau, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with Orchestre de Paris & Coro Gulbenkian. Complete info + a trailer and photos HERE


By now you may be tired of hearing how good this Elektra is, but I’m afraid I am about to say the same thing. The recording of the last piece of theatre ever to be directed by Patrice Chéreau is bound to become a reference work.

First off, a lot of thought was put into the filming of the performance (director Stéphane Metge). The final edit is the combination of shots taken during two live performances, the on-stage takes with a hand-held camera, and the tracking shots recorded during dress rehearsals. Why doesn’t this kind of approach occur to the video directors more frequently? The inventiveness and cinematic quality of the camera work is immediately felt.

Chéreau questioned and changed a number of recurring (by now) tropes in the directing of Elektra. The colours of the set and the shape of the house do not scream tragedy—the house, in its earthy tones, is more sedate than foreboding, and its neutrality provide a usefully contrasting backdrop to the tragic proceedings.

The servants get a prominent role in the production (“Strauss didn’t really know how to do servants. He much preferred the heroic mode. And that poses a problem for the director,” says Chéreau in the bonus interview). They are mixed races and ages, with oldest servants acquiring the most prominent roles in the action. The Fifth Maid who defends Elektra in the early scenes, and gets beaten for it, is also one of the oldest (played by Roberta Alexander). First people to recognize Orestes when he arrives are the old servants—who recall his features before his sister does.

The directors tend to trust Elektra on her word and largely adopt her perspective, particularly on Klytaemnestra and Chrysothemis, but Chéreau argues we shouldn’t. Thus, Elektra’s mother is not a grotesque creature but a beautiful older woman who has behaved fairly logically (that nobody ever mentions Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia as the reason for her marital murder is a kind of dramatic injustice). Her sister is not an idiot who will marry anybody and have children for the sake of having children, but a rational, strong character who wants out of the situation in which they’re all held hostage by Elektra. The tussle between the sisters is one of the more intriguing scenes in the opera, and it shows an obvious sexual undercurrent. Is the fact that both her mother and her sister seem to be accepting the fact of desire that horrifies Elektra? Chéreau hints at this at many a turn.

To try to understand Elektra, he also looked at Hamlet and found family ties. Both are modern heroes assigned the task of revenge, and both are incapable of carrying it out because the moral intuitions of the age have put into question the blood feud and are envisioning a more legalistic, universal frame of justice.

The music and the drama – and the camerawork — blend just about seamlessly (note the I-will-dance-on-their-graves waltz, or the tracking shot when Elektra calls out Agameeeemnon.) Even though Chéreau says in the interview that the noise is at times so intense that you have to wait for it to pass and then continue with the drama, you won’t notice anything resembling any kind of pausing.

It’s rather boring having to say The singers are uniformly good, but here goes: the singers are uniformly good, musically and dramatically, from the petite but uber-menschy Herlitzius via Pieczonka and Maier to Petrenko and the maids.

If there’s one problem with the DVD, it would be this: the archaic English subtitles. Why BelAir thought it a good idea to use the translation to a sort of Elizabethan English is beyond me. There are also Italian, French, Spanish and German subtitles, so those who use any of those languages will have more luck. This plants a considerable side annoyance into this otherwise excellent testament of an excellent performance.

The photo is a screen grab showing Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis).


5 thoughts on “Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra: The Coming to Desire

      1. Lazy but cheap. Anyway it’s the only reason I could think of, unless their English translator has a mode-of-address fetish and/or Hofmannsthal made it a Thing.

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