Though Aeschylus’s triptych of tragedies has influenced opera composers from Wagner to Birtwistle, relatively few of them have been tempted to fashion a stage work of their own from the Oresteia plays. There is Sergei Taneyev’s ambitious, evening-long version, while Iannis Xenakis’s Oresteia compresses the whole drama into just 50 minutes, with a single baritone protagonist and children and adult choruses. Neither, though, is on anything like the scale of Darius Milhaud’s L’Orestie d’Eschyle, which emerged over the course of a decade, when the composer was in his 20s.
Milhaud’s starting point was a French translation of Aeschylus by his lifelong collaborator, the playwright Paul Claudel. He began in 1913 by setting just a single scene of the first play, Agamemnon, as a relatively conventional musical interlude for soprano and chorus as part of a spoken stage performance. His treatment of the second part of the triptych, Les Choéphores (The Libation Bearers), which emerged three years later, is much more ambitious; it requires an orchestra supplemented by 15 percussionists, and alongside the complex, multi-layered choruses and solo numbers, it incorporates rhythmically notated speech that at times weirdly anticipates the style of Peter Hall’s famous National Theatre staging of the Oresteia of the 1980s. The third part, Les Euménides (The Furies), which Milhaud completed in 1923, is on a different scale entirely – its three acts last more than twice as long as the first two parts put together, and it requires an even bigger orchestra, including quartets of saxophones and saxhorns – for music that, in its way, is sometimes as strikingly original as anything by Stravinsky from the same period.
Any performance of the whole of L’Orestie, then, is a daunting undertaking. But in April last year, prompted by the composer William Bolcom, who studied with Milhaud, the music department of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor assembled more than 350 performers, a mix of professionals, students and amateurs, for a concert performance conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. This recording is taken from that extraordinary event, and it may well be the first time Milhaud’s complete score has been available on disc, though Leonard Bernstein, of all people, recorded Les Choéphores in the early 1960s. The soloists, led by soprano Lori Phillips as Clytemnestra and baritone Dan Kempton as Orestes, seem heroically committed; the multiple choruses and myriad instrumentalists work immensely hard. With the libretto and an English translation available on the Naxos website [www.naxos.com], it’s an operatic curiosity well worth investigating, and musically it often turns out to be much more than that.