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Another revelation thanks to Bard Summerscape

The Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center
07/26/2013 -  & July 28*, 31, August 2, 4, 2013
Sergey Taneyev: Oresteia
Liuba Sokolova (Clytemnestra), Mikhail Vekua (Orestes), Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev (Agamemnon), Andrey Borisenko (Aegisthus, Apollo Loxias), Maria Litke (Cassandra, Pallas Athena), Olga Tolkmit (Elektra), Andrew Funk (Watchman, Servant, Gatekeeper), Michael Riley (First Areopagite)
Festival Chorus, James Bagwell (chorus master), American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)
Thaddeus Strassberger (director), Madeleine Boyd (set designer), Mattie Ulrich (costume designer), JAX Messenger (lighting designer), Marjorie Folkman (choreographer)

M. Kuzmin-Karavaev, L. Sokolova (© Cory Weaver)

Well, this was certainly an experience – and, on the whole, a rewarding one.

Sergey Taneyev’s only opera, based on Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy (Agamemnon, Choephori, Eumenides) was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1895. It had taken him seven years to compose and the opening of what turned out to be a truncated version of the work was not a happy experience. It has never achieved a place in the repertory, despite a production of the complete work in St. Petersburg in 1916, the year following Tanayev’s death. This Bard Summerscape production is the first complete production outside Russia. It is a major coup for the festival that it will also be presented at the Mariinsky.

Those of us attending on July 28 were lucky to have the chance to hear Leon Botstein’s informative and entertaining pre-performance talk. He stressed what is perhaps the main point about Tanayev – namely that he deliberately avoided “Russianness” in his music, and in fact was nicknamed the “Russian Brahms”. Given this, it seems perverse that the style of this production emphasizes an array of Russian references, especially in Act I where we are treated to what appears to be a conflation of The Tsar’s Bride, the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra (see photo above), with the chorus a huddled mass à la Boris Godunov. Furthermore, the unit set replicates a room in a semi-derelict St. Petersburg palace which Bard College has acquired for the study program it operates in that city, so is hardly evocative of the drama’s setting. There are also present-day elements, such as when a fire extinguisher has a brief but dramatic moment.

Taneyev’s orchestral approach is varied, expressive and wonderfully well-crafted. The many grand moments are exceedingly well handled; a few quieter stretches seem overly attenuated, especially in Act II. The chorus gets a lot of work, some of it very grand indeed (kudos to James Bagwell and his 57-member group). The skilful orchestration never overwhelms the solo voices. Overall the work has a quasi-ritualistic aspect in keeping with its source.

The total running time with two intervals is just under four hours, which is about the same length as the three spoken plays. Act I lasts 80 minutes, its length justified by the fact that it contains explanations (much like in Wagner’s Ring) of what has gone on before. We learn of the approach of King Agamemnon, returning from the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, intends to murder him in retribution for his sacrificing of their daughter, Iphigenia. She has taken up with Agamemnon’s cousin, Aegisthus, who has a narration explaining the reason for the curse on the house of Atreus. Agamemnon returns with a captive concubine, the Trojan princess Cassandra, who foretells the tragedies to come. His daughter Elektra silently watches all this. Clytemnestra kills both Agamemnon and Cassandra off-stage (as in classical drama) and their bodies are dragged back on stage. The second act (just under 70 minutes long) recounts the same plot as Richard Strauss’s Elektra, but in a very different way. Taneyev’s Elektra is obsessed with her father’s death and desires vengeance, but she is a much more youthful figure than the commanding larger-than-life creation of Hofmannsthal and Strauss. (At moments in this production she acts like a petulant child.) The focus is on the returning Orestes, who first kills Aegisthus (and a maidservant, at least in this production) then his mother. He is instantly stricken with remorse. (Tanayev and his librettist, A. A. Venkstern, deviate from Aeschylus in this act by omitting the role of Orestes’s friend, Pylades). In Act III, Orestes is tormented by the vengeful Furies. He asks help from Apollo, who sends him to Athens where, under the influence of Athena, a juried trial is held. Their decision is a tie and Athena pronounces in his favour; she proclaims the end of retributive justice and a new era of compassion. The Furies are convinced to become the Eumenides (“kindly ones”).

The two central roles are Clytemnestra and Orestes. Liuba Sokolova is billed as a mezzo-soprano but seems more a true contralto; her voice is thrillingly doom-laden. Tenor Mikhail Vekua has a brilliant cutting-edge voice (the Slavic sound not to everyone’s taste, however). Orestes doesn’t appear until the second act, but from then on he dominates the piece. Vekua flagged a bit toward the end, but overall gave a commanding performance.

Soprano Maria Litke ably handled two contrasting roles: the death-haunted Cassandra (hampered by an inappropriately festive gown) and the transcendental goddess Pallas Athena. Her costume (below) in this scene is derived from the statue of Athena in the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, itself an imaginative recreation of the statue that stood in the Parthenon in Athens. The whole production could have benefited by more of this approach.

M. Litke (© Cory Weaver)

Baritone Maxim Kazmin-Karvaev has an attractive voice but is simply too youthful in appearance and voice to be convince as the returning Agamemnon. He is effective, however, in Act II as Agamemnon’s ghost. Tenor Andrey Borisenko ably performs dual roles - first as Aegisthus, then in the brief role of Apollo. Soprano Olga Tolkmit does what she can with the ambivalent role of Elektra.

Despite the “cosmopolitan” sound of the music the fact that it is sung in Russian seems downright odd. We are used to the ancient Greeks singing in Italian (Handel, Mozart, Cherubini), French (Charpentier, Gluck, Berlioz), German (Strauss) or Latin (Stravinsky), so now we simply have to get used to Russian as well.

It is hard to predict just what the future of this rediscovered opera will be. A production more evocative of and pertinent to its stated setting would definitely help it along. It is most certainly a worthy treatment of an immortal classical drama. A recording is sure to come - either of Dr. Botstein’s production or the upcoming Mariinsky production. At the very least it deserves a place in the repertory not unlike that of, say, Pfitzner’s Palestrina, a work produced somewhere every couple of years by a venturesome, well-funded company. Bone up on your Greek mythology (it’s not all that complicated) and take advantage of any chance to see it.

Once again Bard Summerscape has given us a thought-provoking production of a rather daunting work that for whatever reason(s) has been overlooked. We look forward to next year’s rarity, Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe.

Michael Johnson



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