Marvin David Levy's newly revised "Mourning Becomes Electra" makes a number of convincing arguments, not the least of which is this: Eugene O'Neill's play, based on Aeschylus' "Oresteia," is better suited to opera than to drama.
Marvin David Levy’s newly revised “Mourning Becomes Electra” makes a number of convincing arguments, not the least of which is this: Eugene O’Neill’s play, based on Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” is better suited to opera than to drama.
Consider its plot: Wronged servant casts curse upon House of Mannon. Mother Mannon commits adultery, kills husband. Daughter goads son to kill mother’s lover. Mother, despondent, commits suicide and son, wracked by guilt, follows. Daughter is condemned to live forever with ghosts of the damned. (All set against backdrop of the Civil War.)
It’s high melodrama, too histrionic — at least by today’s standards — to be simply acted out. But transport it to the opera stage and suddenly it clicks. The story is perfectly at home in this world where extremes of emotion are given voice and sound communicates more than words. (It helps, too, that in the opera version, relationships between the characters are spelled out more quickly than in the play, so the audience doesn’t have to wait for key plot points to be laboriously revealed.)
How interesting, then, that it would be a theater director who could get the most out of this play-that-would-be-an-opera. Seattle Opera’s production was nearly perfectly cast, staged and acted, in large part, no doubt, thanks to the direction of Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theater.
The ensemble looked its parts, sang its parts and acted its parts: the passionately fierce Christine (Lauren Flanigan), her handsome lover Adam (Jason Howard) and her aged soldier-husband (Gabor Andrasy); the beautiful, rigid Lavinia (Nina Warren) and her dashing but broken brother Orin (Kurt Ollmann).
From the opening act, when traitorous Christine squares off with the accusatory Lavinia, the tension is high and the singing exquisite. Flanigan and Warren, far from being defeated by the difficult, atonal score, use it to ratchet up the antagonism between mother and daughter.
In this interpretation, the story becomes largely about the destructive power of human attachment. Love here is never about tenderness, caring or sacrifice, but about possessiveness, jealousy and catastrophic need.
The staging drives home this theme, as the characters circle and stalk each other across a nearly empty expanse, edged all around by tall, white columns and louvered doors. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Jennifer Tipton’s autumnal lighting (which sometimes peeks through the louvers, as if the house has shut itself off from the natural world) add to the sense of foreboding and danger.
In addition to being a kind of twisted love story, “Electra” is a ghost story. Levy and Sher bring spectral apparitions into the proceedings as if to make the point. As characters are killed off, one after another, they reappear on the periphery, watching, waiting for the next doomed soul to join them.
The addition of these ghosts was one of Levy’s major changes for the current production, his second revision. He wrote his first “Electra” in 1967 and it found great favor at the Metropolitan Opera. But — perhaps because the fad for atonality ebbed — it never gained a foothold in the operatic repertory.
He revived it in 1998 at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, and then at the urging of Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins, made further changes for this production. Each successive version has become more melodic, Levy has explained, though it still very much sounds like a “modern” opera, full of dissonance and strife.
Three brief passages dally with lyricism: Orin’s meditation “How Death Becomes the Mannons,” which he sings at his father’s bier; a sweet song delivered by Orin’s acquaintance Helen, as she tries to win his love; and a quartet sung by Christine, Adam, Lavinia and Orin in a quiet moment before Adam’s murder.
These passages are fleeting respites between scenes of rage and keening, and that’s perhaps the one shortcoming of this production. More melody, more shading would modulate the opera, giving the audience the stamina it needs to get through 3½ hours of Greek tragedy.
Levy has said the Seattle Opera version is his final version, but … might he be coaxed to revisit it just once more before it travels to New York City Opera in March?