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Transformation And Reincarnation

New York
Miller Theatre, Columbia University
09/13/2008 -  & Sept. 16*, 17, 18
Iannis Xenakis: Oresteïa, based upon the trilogy by Aeschylus
Wilbur Pauley (Baritone), Olivia Ancona, Kristi Capps, Frances Chiaverini, Matthew Branham, R. Colby Damon, and Stephan Laks (Dancers)
David Schotzko (Percussion), Oresteïa Chorus, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Osgood (Conductor)
Luca Veggetti (Director and Choreographer), Roderick Murray (Lighting design), Luca Veggetti and Roderick Murray (Stage design), Deanna Lynn Berg and Luca Veggetti (Costume design) Sage Marie Carter (Projections design), Pascal Delcey (Original artwork)

(© Richard Termine)

First, I don’t believe that Iannis Xenakis actually composed this gorgeous mélange of drama/opera/oratorio/cantata/ritual/complete Theatre. But we shall get to that later.

More specifically, the opening presentation of Miller Theatre, in its mere 80 minutes, presented something so visually and musically stunning, with the most singular forces, that it qualifies as one of the great theatre experiences of 2008. The staging, dancing, chorus and solo singer had to pursue the most difficult gymnastics, that the stage became a living, thriving organism by itself.

Hanging on the upper right of the stage was a screen with changing semi-abstract pictures, in glowing Mediterranean colors. Sometimes they resembled mosaics or microscopic forms, sometimes they were almost literally Van Gogh-like cypresses or imaginative maps. On the rafters to the back was an orchestra of winds, brass and acoustic cello. But none of these instruments sounded the way they should. (Again, more explanation later.) Below them was the chorus, sometimes singing, sometimes clapping, or clacking instruments.

On the side was percussionist David Schotzko, a virtual orchestra in himself with a massive battery of Aboriginal-style whistles, a marimba and all the drums needed. At the maximum, he and the baritone soloist played duet for about 20 minutes, and even at the least, he kept his tools prominent, not for rhythm, but for color.

On the stage were two or three of the six dancers. They were sinuous, they had the postures of contortionists, but were the opposite of contortionists in that they were constantly moving, twisting upon the stage, lighted from beneath. At times, the prosceniums led into the audience, at the climax, two groups of white-robed children—in contrast to the all-black-dressed chorus, dancers etc—came down the aisles and up to the stage.

I referred to the “baritone” William Pauley, but his singing or declamations were half baritone, half falsetto. Playing both Agamemnon and Cassandra, it was so seamless that it became the ritual as well as the voice. At the climax, Pauley was the voice of Athena, both high and low, declaiming above the chorus, the children’s choir, the orchestra and all the musical apparatus exploding into sounds which filled the Miller Theatre, leaving the audience….well, shattered.

But now back to the original proposition about the late Rumanian-born Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. This was his only complete theatre piece, but his other works, while always complex, transcend compartments. His piano pieces are delicate, picturesque (a storm, the wind) and after a single hearing, very beautiful. His orchestral works are dense, difficult, involving schemes of improvisation and mathematical complexity.

For Oresteïa, I was originally puzzled. Nothing was “modern” here. The chorus sung in “empty fifths” like a 13th Century motet. The soloist was declaiming rather than singing. The percussion was and dancers were, yes, of this century. But the orchestra didn’t sound like our orchestras at all. The flutes sounded like the old Greek aulus (or what we suppose to be an ancient flute). The lower brass growled and farted like the ancient Roman buccina, meant to frighten enemies.

Something was right…and then wrong. And then I saw it. Xenakis didn’t have to compose this music. It was composed for him, channeled or transmitted through some kind of ether through his mind as the closest thing to ancient Greek theatre music. Mind you, I have not the slightest belief in anything which can’t be—at least potentially—explained by science. But in this case, I am ready to make an exception.

Opera began with what 16th Century Florentine composers believed was Greek music, but they were clueless. (Even Greek modes are fictional representations.) Xenakis, through his genius, his DNA, possibly through his Jungian memory, managed to reproduce, with spare counterpoint and harmonies (except toward the end), with musical symbols (falsetto and baritone in one body), with aural tones that may have been composed 50 years ago, but seem to have come from the bones of the Aegean.

I must plead now with the Miller Theatre powers-that-be to make a DVD of this performance. The opera has been recorded, but that is of no importance. What Miller Theatre presented was complete theatre the way it could have been presented as a municipal offering in Athens, with a final paean to Athene herself. We have only scraps of how that looked. But we have its reproduction here, and its miracle for nearly all the senses needs a permanent monument . To original tragedy, to production, to the elemental soul of Xenakis himself.

Harry Rolnick



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