April 2004

A Tale of Three Operas

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

New Yorkers are fortunate to boast two world-class opera companies. The much younger of the two, the New York City Opera, is itself assuming venerable status, as it celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Throughout its history--most of the time in close proximity to its rival, the more staid Metropolitan Opera--NYCO has remained true to its founding mission, which was to provide audiences with access (reasonably priced, I might add) to "the widest possible range of exciting musical drama, with particular focus on rare repertory of diverse eras and styles, refreshing vistas on beloved classics, and America's finest contributions to the lyric theatre," as noted in its 2003-2004 souvenir program.

Having seen most of the productions in NYCO's Director's Choice series during this year's fall and spring seasons, I have had a good opportunity to sample the more esoteric of the company's offerings. What follows is a cursory overview of that experience, through an account of three vastly different productions this spring. Representing three successive centuries of operatic tradition, they were a revival, in a brilliant new adaptation, of Handel's Xerxes ; the New York premiere in a fully staged version of Rossini's Ermione, and a revival of a twentieth-century work, Mourning Becomes Electra by Marvin David Levy, in a version considerably revised from the original that premiered in 1967.

Perhaps the most remarkable revelation was Rossini's long-neglected tragic opera Ermione--based on the eighteenth-century French dramatist Racine's classic play Andromaque, about the widow of the Trojan hero Hector. First performed in Naples in 1819, the Rossini work was not well received and was soon forgotten, not to be performed again until 1987. As New York Times music critic Anne Midgette observed in her review of the present NYCO production, however, "Forgotten works of music are not infrequently exhumed with great fanfare, only to demonstrate the reason they were forgotten in the first place." Ermione, she went on to say, is clearly an exception. "This is the best rediscovery to cross the radar in a long time. Anyone who likes nineteenth-century opera--from Donizetti to Verdi--should see City Opera's Ermione." I agree.

If you think of Rossini merely as a composer of popular comic operas such as The Barber of Seville and of stirring overtures such as William Tell (haplessly forever identified in the minds of an older generation with the theme music for the radio series The Lone Ranger), you are in for a great surprise. And if you think of the bel canto style as all ornament and no heart, wrong again. Ermione has one of the most powerfully dramatic musical scores I have ever heard, and the opera as a whole is a tautly constructed, emotionally riveting piece of musical theater. Its psychological depth and range is all the more remarkable when one considers that its composer was barely twenty-seven years old! For the production of this masterly work, NYCO teamed up with the Dallas Opera to give it tastefully sumptuous sets and costumes, fittingly setting the stage for the larger-than-life characters that inhabit it.

Almost as surprising as Ermione, but in a lighter vein, was the new production of Handel's Xerxes, in a version originally designed for and created by the Santa Fe Opera. For those of us who know Handel mainly as the composer of Messiah and other magisterial oratorios, or of stately suites of music for the royal court, this romantic semi-comic opera presents an entirely unfamiliar yet welcome side of him. Though first performed in 1738, Xerxes (which has only its name in common with the history of the king of Persia who invaded Greece--coincidentally the subject of Aeschylus's Persians, also discussed in this issue of Aristos) is veritably Mozartean in its musical exploration of the movements of the heart. Mingling humor and pathos with occasionally darker expressions, Handel spins out a seemingly endless stream of gorgeous melodies that portray, in essentially musical terms, a diverse group of characters, all striving to obtain the object of their desire. Though I am not generally a fan of directorial mucking about with traditional works by transposing them to a different time and place, Stephen Wadsworth's translation and adaptation of the original libretto for Xerxes (which Handel had borrowed and simplifed from a version set by the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Cavalli) struck me as nothing less than inspired. Wadsworth, who directed as well as adapted this production, wisely chose to abandon the ancient Persian setting, which was at best incidental to the theme and story. Instead, he adapted the work to suggest the London and the royal family of Handel's day--a move which lends far greater immediacy and credibility to the emotional intrigues and offers wonderful opportunities for comic invention. Like Ermione (and the City Opera's work in general), Xerxes was performed by a talented cast that can act as well as sing--including the handsome countertenor David Walker. Hearing him gives one some idea of why eighteenth-century music lovers thrilled to the sound of the great castrati of the time. In sum, Xerxes was a thoroughly enchanting production.

Unfortunately, I have not saved the best for the last. Even in a greatly abridged version, cut by forty-five minutes from the original, Marvin Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra seemed interminable--in contrast with the other two works, which one might have wished could go on all night. Not one of the tormented characters in Levy's musical version of the stiflingly funereal play by Eugene O'Neill (based in turn on Aeschylus' re-telling of the story of the House of Atreus--oh, those Greeks!) managed to arouse my sympathy--perhaps, in large measure, because I searched in vain for a melody I could wrap my heart and mind around. Ironically, during one of the interesting pre-performance talks that are offered as a bonus to Director's Choice subscribers, Levy characterized himself as a "tonal, lyrical composer" who bucked the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde musical tide in creating this "basically romantic piece." That, it turned out, was perhaps unwitting testimony to just how bad things had gotten. Lyricism seemed painfully lacking in this work, even in moments that cried out for it--such as the innocent little song offered by Helen to cheer the mournful household, or the impassioned duet between Christine Mannon (Clytemnestra) and her illicit lover, Adam Brant (Aegisthus). Surely this was a case of a forgotten work that might best be left forgotten, for it only serves as a painful reminder of how much has been lost musically since the days of Handel and Rossini.