The ballet La création du monde won Darius Milhaud acclaim for incorporating jazz elements into a classical work, while his membership of the 1920s coterie known as Les Six associated him with musical wit and cleverness. Greater familiarity with his vast output, which includes about a dozen full-length operas, might suggest these are relatively minor traits of his music. At least that is the impression made by Oresteia, his vast oratorio-like treatment of Aeschylus’s trilogy with a text by Paul Claudel, which received its US premiere in a University Musical Society presentation with orchestral and choral forces of the University of Michigan and guest soloists conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Some 450 performers participated in the performance, which marked the centennial of the university’s cherished concert hall, Hill Auditorium.
Oresteia, composed between 1913 and 1924, consists of three independent works of disproportionate length. It came early in Milhaud’s career, but the composer William Bolcom, an emeritus professor here, who was a Milhaud student and the impetus behind the performance, calls it Milhaud’s “magnum opus”. It is indeed a rich trove of orchestral and choral bravura, with much melodic appeal, and in its finest moments makes considerable visceral impact. Claudel’s text, however, skirts the main events of Aeschylus’s drama in favour of detached discourse that inhibits the build-up of tension, possibly in reaction to operatic tenets of the day. For instance, Orestes (handsomely sung by the baritone Dan Kempson) comes off as an almost well-balanced fellow, untroubled by guilt pangs. Also, the three constituent works treat the subject in an unbalanced way. The first, L’Agamemnon, limps to a close after little more than 15 minutes, its title character never seen, while the 100-minute Les Euménides deals mainly with Orestes’ trial before Athena.
Thus, the music is the main thing, in particular, its harmonic richness, often the product of polytonality; the resourcefulness of the choral writing; its orchestral colour, heavy with innovative percussion effects; and its rhythmical spoken passages, especially in the second work, Les Choéphores (performed by Sophie Delphis). Grandeur is often achieved through the constant reiteration of phrases, a technique overused at the triumphant close. The fine soloists also included Tamara Mumford, Brenda Rae and Julianna Di Giacomo. Drawing fine performances from his massive forces, conductor Kiesler held things together admirably, but did not prevent Oresteia from seeming amorphous.