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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Opera Review: This House Aches

Bard SummerScape presents Taneyev's Oresteia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Detail from The Remorse of Orestes by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862.)
Image from Project Gutenberg, used under license through Wikimedia Commons.
A summer visit to the Fisher Center, that Frank Gehry-designed theater plunked down in the rolling greens of Bard College means that the average opera-lover is going to hear something that they've never heard before. On Friday night, Bard President (and Bard SummerScape music director) Leon Botstein offered up the United States stage premiere of Oresteia, by forgotten Russian composer Sergei Taneyev. Dr. Botstein conducted the American Symphony Orchestra, who played this sumptuous music at their usual high standard of execution.

Taneyev's opera owes its obscurity to a failed 1896 premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. This opening night revealed this setting of Aeschylus' tragic triptych as a powerhouse opera, packed with brilliant vocal writing and inventive orchestration. As a composer who falls clearly into the urbane Tchaikovskyan camp of late Romantic Russian composers, Taneyev clearly owes a debt to Richard Wagner's work. In Oresteia, he succeeds in combining the ideas of music drama and leitmotiv with rich, memorable melodies inspired by his own country's musical legacy.

Aeschylus is the father of Greek drama. The Oresteia (written in 458 B.C.) is the oldest surviving dramatization of the grim fate suffered by the House of Atreus after the Trojan War. It's also the earliest surviving example of three plays being presented as a trilogy. Taneyev sets each of the three plays a separate acts. The staging (by director Thaddeus Strassberger) is mounted on a unit set (by Madeleine Boyd) that is modified and rebuilt to serve as the House of Atreus and later, various relevant locations around mythic Mycenae. The costumes and props of acts implied that the action was taking place in 20th century Russia. The show seemed to travel backward--to an ornate, Romantic period in Act II and a neo-classical, 18th century vision of Greek "antiquity" in the finale.

The first act (the play Agamemnon) chronicles the return of the titular Greek king from Troy and his murder at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisth. Taneyev sets this as a punchy, shocking first act, with a brisk, energetic exposition in the opening pages and a lighting of the beacons that counts as the score's first orchestral highlight. Central to this act is the extramarital affair between Clytemnestra (contralto Lluba Soklova) and Aegisth (baritone Andrey Borisenko), which results in conspiracy and murder. You know things are going to be heavy from the Queen's first action: the bloody onstage sacrifice of a white ram. These Greeks play hard.

The arrival of Agamemnon (Maxi Kuzmin-Karavaev) and the Trojan princess Cassandra (Maria Litke), taken as a spoil of war by the Greek king sets the stage for the tragedy to unfold. Cassandra's big aria, in which she foretells the events to come makes for a riveting highlight, built as a standard slow-fast number but on an enormous architectural scale that presented opportunity for Ms. Litke to demonstrate her sweet tone and smooth legato. The murder is offstage, but its bloody aftermath is seen as the mutilated bodies are dragged in on plastic drop-cloths. At this point, the chorus plays a key role, vocal witnesses to these horrific events in a manner that recalls Mussorgsky's use of the common people in Boris Godunov.

Act II (The Libation Bearers) brings the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra to the forefront as they avenge their father's death. Aeschylus emphasizes the heroic nature of Orestes and his innocent (if potentially incestuous) love for Electra--as well as the latter's difficult relationship with her murderous mother and new step-dad. Tenor Mikhail Vekua energized the opera from his entrance, singing Orestes' difficult music with ringing tone and heroic presence. The role has a very high, exposed tessitura and its difficulty might be one reason for this opera's relative obscurity. Soprano Olga Tolkmit played Electra into a not-so-innocent, going slowly mad as the bloody events unfolded. After the murders, Orestes takes flight. The Furies burst from all corners of the set to start their pursuit.

Taneyev brings all of his gifts of orchestral color to bear on Act III, a setting of the last play: The Eumenides. ("The Kindly Ones.")  The opening Prelude is a sort of Russian Ride of the Valkyries, chronicling Orestes' flight from the blood-sucking Furies and his desperate search for shelter. With most of the other characters dead or mad (Electra has vanished from the story) Mr. Vekua is left to carry the opera, singing more difficult music as he runs from a fate that is clearly worse than death. At one point, he considers suicide but is stopped by the Furies--they're not done torturing him yet.

While the tenor's performance was impressive, The Euminides consists mostly of extended onstage chases by robed Furies and repeated pilgrimages across Greece as Orestes visits the temples of Apollo and Athena to try to get rid of his tormentors. (A long entre'acte procession of pilgrims cribs from Wagner again, as one cannot help but think of Tannhäuser.) Act III lacks the excitement and narrative drive that made Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers work so well. Musically, it is saved in the last scene by the return of Ms. Litke, now in the role of Athena. She led the closing chorus depicting Orestes' acquittal. As Dr. Botstein summoned the strings and winds, Ms. Litke's last aria elevated the texture of the heavy events through the grace of divine intervention and some equally divine singing.

Oresteia continues its run with 3pm mtatinee performances on Sunday, July 28, Wednesday July 31 and Sunday, Aug. 4. There is one remaining evening performance on Friday Aug. 6 at 7pm.

Visit the official site of Bard SummerScape for program details and ticket prices.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.