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Near Myth

Marvin David Levy’s attempt to bring O’Neill’s Americanized Greeks to the opera stage is still a victim of sixties classical conventions.

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Mother's Day: Lauren Flanigan (left) and Emily Pulley in Mourning.  

When the Metropolitan Opera opened its new Lincoln Center home in 1966, two American operas based on famous plays were commissioned to celebrate the occasion. Both got a sheaf of bad reviews and promptly disappeared, both were later drastically revised by their composers, and both have recently come back to haunt us. Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra was last heard not long ago in a concert performance presented by the American Composers Orchestra, and now Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra has returned in a co-production of the New York City and Seattle opera companies.

Barber was one of the country’s senior composers at the time and took his debacle very hard, but Levy, at the age of 34, was a comparative unknown and possibly more resilient; he waited more than 30 years to overhaul his opera. He has made the convoluted progress of Eugene O’Neill’s three-part epic tauter, softening the dissonant fabric of the score somewhat (like many young composers in the sixties, Levy felt self-conscious about writing tunes) and bringing the whole evening in at under three hours. Looking back at my review of Mourning Becomes Electra’s debut, I notice that I complained of the opera’s uncertain dramatic pacing and the music’s phlegmatic, anonymous character. I fear it still sounds that way to me, even in this simpler version, which retains all the sweaty climaxes and empty posturing of the original, musical features that make the play’s overcooked melodramatics even harder to take. How singers can even memorize music so utterly faceless continues to amaze me.

“This simpler version of Mourning Becomes Electra retains all the sweaty climaxes and empty posturing of the original.”

No doubt another composer could make something truly thrilling out of the pitched Freudian battles between daughter Lavinia and mother Christine (Richard Strauss did precisely that when he called these characters Elektra and Klytemnestra). Emily Pulley and Lauren Flanigan bar no holds nonetheless, extracting every drop of theatrical trauma from the material and giving the music better than it deserves. The men become even more shadowy figures in this reduction, and it was surely a mistake for the composer to make them all baritones: Kurt Ollmann (Orin Mannon), Jason Howard (Adam Brant), and Richard Byrne (Peter Niles). Michael Yeargan’s set suggests a roofless southern plantation rather than an elegant New England mansion, although autumn leaves do occasionally drop from above to cover the living-room floor. Don’t ask why. Bartlett Sher is the efficient stage director, while George Manahan keeps the score in motion as best he can.


Deconstructing the standard operatic repertory is a more popular game in Europe than America—in Germany these days, a production that dares follow the letter of the score and libretto is routinely greeted with boos—since our financially hard-pressed companies are unlikely to risk alienating their conservative core audiences with such radical reinterpretations of the classics. Nevertheless, the Eos Orchestra has set its sights on nothing less than Wagner’s mighty Ring of the Nibelungen with a pocket-size edition of the epic’s second opera, The Valkyrie, given in English at NYU’s Skirball Center. Although I missed the first installment two years ago, descriptions of Eos’s Das Rheingold production make it sound viable and intriguing: The special character of that long one-act opera can plausibly be interpreted as an intimate drama of a squabbling family. But the approach poses problems when applied to The Valkyrie. As directed by Christopher Alden, the action takes place entirely in a kitchen that apparently belongs to Wotan, who has sired two families: the Valkyries, who live with him and stepmother Fricka in this domestic Valhalla, and the mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, whom the chief god has abandoned.

Alden gets good capital out of Wotan’s almost unbearable stress as he juggles this impossible arrangement, but the human conflicts that make the opera so moving are constantly undermined by irritating smart-ass touches: Siegmund stripping down and impregnating his sister against the kitchen wall, Sieglinde appearing great with child in Act II (not even a day has passed), Siegmund’s body dumped in the fridge after Hunding slays him, Fricka setting out pies on the windowsill, Brünnhilde hiding from her father under the kitchen table. My least favorite moment came when Wotan collapsed on his butt while telling Brünnhilde of the hero who will one day waken her from her magic slumber, an unbelievable trivialization of a gloriously cathartic moment.

It’s to Sanford Sylvan’s credit that his vocalization of Wotan’s music was eloquent even here, especially since his light lyric baritone could never manage the role in a regular opera house. Meryl Richardson, on the other hand, might develop into a true Brünnhilde one day, while Charles Hens (Siegmund) and Michal Shamir (Sieglinde) at least made a game stab. A Wagner opera trimmed by about a quarter and played by an orchestra of eighteen is not something I’d care to hear very often, but Jonathan Dove’s reduced arrangement of the score is nothing if not clever, and Jonathan Sheffer carefully conducted what was left. 


The nine circles chamber Theatre offered an even more radical reinterpretation of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. In this hour-long, two-character condensation retitled When Samson Met Delilah, the notorious biblical seductress (Klara Uleman) gets to sing her three big arias accompanied by pianist Cristina Stanescu, but Samson is transformed into a violinist (Gil Morgenstern) who plays mostly original music composed by Bruce Saylor. Perhaps the purpose of this odd concoction was to emphasize the otherness of the two people, Delilah’s vocal perfidy contrasted with Samson’s instrumental purity. If so, it didn’t work. The theatrical potential of the idea seemed thin: The two musical styles never fit together comfortably, and the whole bizarre enterprise, staged by Dutch opera director Corina van Eijk, came off looking like a tentative experiment.


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