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MILHAUD: L’Orestie d’Eschyle

spacer DiGiacomo, Phillips, Eder, Delphis; Outlaw, Kempson; University of Michigan Choirs, Percussion Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra, Kiesler. No texts or translations. Naxos 8.660349-51

Recordings Milhaud Cover 315

Nowadays, we are as apt to hear the name of Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) mentioned as the teacher of William Bolcom as we are to hear it in conjunction with a performance of his own music. But it turns out that the current picture of Milhaud has been formed without knowledge of his magnum opus, and perhaps this recording will prompt a re-evaluation. L’Orestie d’Eschyle, with a French libretto by Paul Claudel, offers two hours and twenty minutes of music in three parts. The brief first part, “L’Agamemnon,” centers on Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon and her justification for it. The second part, “Les Choéphores,” is the only familiar music, famously recorded by Igor Markevitch in 1957, and it tells the same segment of the story as Strauss’s Elektra. The third part, “Les Euménides,” is a huge work in three acts lasting an hour and a half. The performing forces required are enormous too, with four choirs shouldering the burden in this recording from the University of Michigan. There are four saxhorns (a valved instrument not to be confused with the saxophone, though there are four of those too) and a large percussion contingent, all in support of a slate of soloists who have difficult tasks as well, some of it un-pitched rhythmic speech, some of it cranky sung lines. 

Milhaud’s musical textures are odd and effective. He tends to activate only certain registers of the orchestra, which is heavily biased toward winds and brass, at any one time. Yet there is plenty of eerier, vigorous power when needed. There is plenty of drama. Part two of “Les Euménides,” which concerns the journey of Orestes to the statue of Athena, is a wondrous musical depiction of the noose of the plot tightening. Little trial balloons of piccolo music early in the work turn into a substantial solo later. Trombone and horn, played with polish, are prominent. Percussion music, prominent especially in “Les Choéphores,” is always played with dramatic intent under conductor Kenneth Kiesler. The endings of each part are particularly well done, with “Les Choéphores” leaving a definite “to be continued” quality in the air. In the grand procession constituting the finale of “Les Euménides,” both Milhaud and Kiesler capture the ambiguity of Claudel’s ending, where everybody wins, sort of, and doesn’t sort of. 

The largest role is spectacularly undertaken by the women of the chorus, who portray slave women in “Les Choéphores” and, relentlessly characterized by Milhaud, Furies in “Les Euménides.” Indeed, women’s voices carry much of the musical expression, with Kristin Eder’s Elektra slicing the air unassailably and the Clytemnestra of Lori Phillips even more dramatically engaged when she returns as a ghost than she was when alive. The voice of Athena is made of three intertwined solo lines, here Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Lane. Milhaud could never have thought that any of the text would be intelligible, but a sonority where the three women sing the same melody in three different octaves is striking. Julianna DiGiacomo as Pythia moves from heightened speech to such a pitch of suppressed excitement that we can’t wait to hear her tell a story we already know. The Apollo of Sidney Outlaw perhaps needs a more incantatory quality, but then there’s no one to compare him to. Orestes, something of an Art Deco version of Debussy’s Golaud, pleads his case to Athena with the certainty of the just in the voice of Dan Kempson, while the orchestra weaves a web of oddities. There’s nothing else like this work out there (well, maybe Enesco’s Oedipe). Milhaud also has operas on Orpheus, Ariadne and Medea; what other remarkable music are we not getting a chance to hear? spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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