DARIUS MILHAUD (1892 – 1974): L’Orestie d’Eschyle—Lori Phillips (Clytemnestra), Dan Kempson (Orestes), Sidney Outlaw (Apollo), Sophie Delphis (Leader of the Slave Women), Brenda Rae (Athena, a Slave Woman), Tamara Mumford (Athena), Jennifer Lane (Athena), Julianna Di Giacomo (Pythia), Kristin Eder (Electra); UMS Choral Union, University of Michigan Chamber Choir, University of Michigan University Choir, University of Michigan Orpheus Singers; University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Kiesler, conductor [Recorded in concert and studio sessions in Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, 4 – 7 April 2013; NAXOS 8.660349-51; 3 CD, 161:24; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Poll even a group of conscientious musicians about Darius Milhaud, and the results are apt to divulge that he was a member of Les Six, the namesake of Dave Brubeck’s first-born son, the teacher of Burt Bacharach, and the composer of some nifty music for saxophone. Milhaud is the sort of artist whose reputation compels musical folks to cite him as an important innovator without knowing the reasons for his significance. Brubeck said in a 2010 interview with Marc Myers on JazzWax of his studies with Milhaud that ‘he taught me by osmosis and encouragement. He also taught me by showing me a chart of all the polytonality possibilities.’ This is, in fact, an insightful summation of Milhaud’s work as a composer in general. He absorbed the sounds of his own and previous generations as if by osmosis, and his music encouraged the efforts of future generations of composers by meaningfully charting the possibilities of polytonality and myriad modes of sonic expression and manipulation. To focus on Milhaud’s mutually-beneficial relationship with jazz is to overlook the enormity of his contributions to Twentieth-Century Classical Music, however; and perhaps also to limit the exposure that his compositions deserve. His operatically-scaled triptych L’Orestie d’Eschyle is a Brobdingnagian effort by any standard except that of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and recording the complete work is an extraordinarily daunting proposition. It is an endeavor that almost no label but NAXOS might have contemplated, but in typical NAXOS fashion the artists on all sides of the microphones hold nothing back, and their achievements speak for themselves.
Completed when the composer was barely in his thirties, L’Orestie d’Eschyle is the Marseille-born Milhaud’s ambitious setting of an adaptation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus by Paul Claudel, whose Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher was given music life by Milhaud’s Les Six colleague Arthur Honegger. Recognized as the first playwright known to have presented dramas with interconnected subjects as trilogies, Aeschylus defined theatre in the modern sense: it is also alleged that it was his invention that expanded plays to include numerous characters in pursuit of increased humanistic verisimilitude. The breadth of Milhaud’s vision notwithstanding, L’Orestie d’Eschyle is a flawed, in many ways exasperating work. As recorded here, it is an inconsistent, unbalanced piece that requires special commitment. The first of the three ‘episodes,’ L'Agamemnon, is only eleven minutes long and is followed by the thirty-five minutes of Les Choéphores. Only the third part, Les Euménides, is an evening-length work at ninety minutes, but L’Orestie d’Eschyle as a whole presents an unique set of challenges, not least in the alternation of spoken passages with the harmonically-indecisive music. Perhaps the most daunting demand is that of sustaining dramatic focus, without which the wit of Milhaud’s invention is apt to seem disjointed and sporadic. Performing L’Orestie d’Eschyle is a bold undertaking for any institution, and the sheer numbers of personnel required push Milhaud’s work in its intended form beyond the reach of most organizations. There cannot have been more than a handful of musically-inclined people on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus who were not involved with this performance recorded by NAXOS. All things considered, the level of musical excellence is very high, and the technical attributes of the recording adhere to NAXOS’s industry-leading standards. The most gratifying aspect of this performance is the manner in which every member of the musical team displays dedication to climbing this Everest not merely because it is there but because it deserves to be conquered. As this performance proves, the sonic views from the summit of L’Orestie d’Eschyle are spectacular.
Conductor Kenneth Kiesler cannot be praised too extravagantly for his expert leadership of the batteries of voices and instruments employed in this performance. No conductor can claim to be an authority on L’Orestie d’Eschyle, certainly not in the way in which Sir Thomas Beecham dominated Les Troyens in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but Maestro Kiesler presides over this performance as though it were the summation of his life’s work. His tempi sound inherently right both for the music and for the performers, and he clearly collaborates closely with the directors of the respective choirs, managing their singing with unflappable stamina and an ear for balancing choral lines with the soloists and orchestra. The choristers of the UMS Choral Union, University of Michigan Chamber Choir, University of Michigan University Choir, and University of Michigan Orpheus Singers all sing powerfully and with great involvement. The tasks faced by the sopranos and contraltos are especially fearsome, but the UM ladies brave the difficulties in fine fashion. The instrumentalists are given music of great difficulty with which to contend, too, and the University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble and University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra respond with determined playing. The intricacies of Milhaud’s dissonances and polytonality are not easily mastered, but the talented UM musicians devote themselves to meeting every demand unflinchingly.
From her first note, soprano Lori Phillips takes charge of L'Agamemnon as a Clytemnestre of startling severity. Milhaud’s vocal lines take her on a journey through dangerous vocal territory, and the freedom with which she negotiates excursions into the upper register is fantastic but hardly surprising from a singer whose Seattle Opera performances of Turandot and the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes were acclaimed for her ease on high. In L’Agamemnon, Clytemnestre has just slain her illustrious consort, ostensibly in retribution for the believed sacrifice of their daughter Iphigénie, and Ms. Phillips compelling voices her character’s justification of her actions to the Elders, vigorously portrayed by the men of the chorus in music that bears a distant familial resemblance to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Essentially a dramatic cantata rather than opera, as tacitly acknowledged by the composer, L’Agamemnon is a splendid vehicle for a gifted Jugendlich-dramatischer soprano, and Ms. Phillips accepts the challenge of Milhaud’s music with the requisite vocal fire.
When baritone Dan Kempson’s Orestes is first heard in Les Choéphores, there is no question that he is a man of action. He is a rugged, handsome-voiced presence that any man seeking vengeance would want as an ally, but in Mr. Kempson’s thoughtful performance he is not merely a chest-beating brute. Returning from exile in order to avenge his father’s death, Orestes is welcomed by his sister Electra, voiced with unstinting strength by mezzo-soprano Kristin Eder, and she and Mr. Kempson combine forcefully with the chorus in the grand Incantation, ‘Ô vous, grandes Parques de par Zeus.’ The Choéphore’s Présages, ‘Que de fois la terre a enfanté la terreur,’ and Exhortation, ‘Je te supplie, ô toi, le Père Zeus,’ are assertively sung, and the drive brought to ‘Elle est venue aux Priamides en son temps’ by the ladies of the chorus lures the listener into the drama. Milhaud’s depiction of the reunion between brother and sister lacks the emotional engagement of the similar scene in Richard Strauss’s Elektra, but his robust, forthright performance of Milhaud’s Orestes suggests that, in time, Mr. Kempson might prove a memorable exponent of Strauss’s Orestes, as well.
Les Euménides is Milhaud’s operatic equivalent of courtroom drama, the confrontations among Orestes, the shade of his mother, and their respective motivations inspiring the composer to the most perfervid music of the cycle. Central to the success of this performance of Les Euménides is the characterful enunciation of Sophie Delphis as the leader of the slave women. Her voice is splendidly resonant, and every word that she utters seems torn from the throat of oppressed humanity. Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, one of America’s most talented young Verdians, sings Pythia’s ‘Premièrement la prière’ and ‘Une chose affreuse à dire’ in Act One with ardor, and the quality of her singing is rivaled by baritone Sidney Outlaw’s performance of Apollo’s ‘Je ne te trahirai pas.’ Like Mr. Kempson, who furthers the sensational impression of his performance with his singing of ‘Seigneur Apollon’ and ‘Rappelle-toi,’ Mr. Outlaw is among the ranks of America’s finest young baritones. He joins the chorus in rousing traversals of ‘Éveille, éveille-toi’ and ‘Sortez de ces demeures.’ Ms. Phillips’s ironclad Clytemnestre returns in spirit form to incite the Furies to punish Orestes for her murder, her ‘Vous dormez-là-dedans’ detonated with the fuming intensity of Nisyros, but Apollo intervenes, directing Orestes into the protection of Athena’s temple.
The basic conceit of Act Two is the invocation of Athena to stand in judgment over Orestes. One of Milhaud’s most effective inventions is his employment of three singers for the voice of Athena. It is doubtful that even the fastidious composer could have imagined a more authoritative trio of sub-Athenas than soprano Brenda Rae, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, and contralto Jennifer Lane. The skill with which they blend their very different voices is awesome, and the sheer solemnity—or divinity, as it were—of their delivery of ‘De là-bas où j’étais,’ ‘Si l’on estime que cette cause,’ and Athena’s cross-examinations in Act Three is tremendous. The nobility of Orestes’s responses to Athena’s questioning in ‘Mes malheurs m’ont instruit’ is disclosed by the unfeigned profundity of Mr. Kempson’s singing, and the choristers again acquit themselves terrifically in ‘Formons, lions, un chœur’ and ‘Voici la loi nouvelle.’
Following the orchestra’s suitably acerbic rendition of the Overture, the tripartite voice of Athena launches Act Three bitingly with ‘Crie, crieur, à gorge déployée.’ Athena as adjudicator and Mr. Kempson’s Orestes spar with cinematic timing in ‘A vous autres la parole,’ and Mr. Outlaw’s Apollo offers assertive testimony on Orestes’s behalf in ‘Juges de la grande Cour d’Athénaïa’ and ‘Juges, vous nous avez entendus.’ Ms. Rae, Ms. Mumford, and Ms. Lane surpass their own high standard with the ringing forcefulness of their singing of ‘Cet homme est acquitté du crime de sang,’ and Mr. Kempson brings bronze-toned incisiveness to his brief paean to Athena’s justice, ‘Ô Pallas! ô Salvatrice de ma maison!’ The level-headed goddess’s verdict, though consistent with gender identities in Classical mythology, is surprisingly misogynistic: her exoneration of Orestes for the crime of matricide is predicated upon her assessment that Clytemnestre is not a true parent but merely a vessel for the seed of Agamemnon! Whether the young Milhaud sought to comment allegorically on conditions of the society of his own generation is unclear, but there is no question that the prevalent spirit of the choral interjections ‘Iô, jeunes dieux,’ ‘Iô, jeunes dieux, quoi, les vieilles lois,’ ‘Cela, moi, le supporter, pheu,’ and especially the closing Processional, ‘A cause du bien qui suit’ suggests that the composer sympathized most readily with Orestes, whose persecution for actions that he considered not just right but inevitable might have resonated with a man whose own music—equally felt by its creator to be ineluctable—was criticized, misunderstood, and dismissed.
That L’Orestie d’Eschyle is unlikely to gain a place in the repertories of any of the world’s opera houses or concert organizers is a reality upon which this fantastic recording will almost certainly have little impact. The institution that assembles a team of musicians as expansive and a cast as accomplished as those heard on this recording will devote those resources to performing music more likely to sell tickets. For better or worse, that is an economic truth upon which the survival of Classical Music depends. The future of the Classical recording industry depends upon the efforts of labels like NAXOS, however, and this recording of L’Orestie d’Eschyle is a tribute to both the neglected flair of Darius Milhaud’s music for the stage and the critical rôle played by NAXOS in enriching the collective Classical listening experience. Still, the most triumphant aspect of this recording is the opportunity that it provides to hear several of America’s best singers giving their all to music that demands nothing less.