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Opera Review: (Bard College, NY): ‘Oresteia’ by Sergey Taneyev

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Taken from the program of Oresteia presented at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

From the program for ‘Oresteia’ at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

This summer at the 24th annual Bard Music Festival, the new production of Sergey Taneyev’s opera Oresteia was premiered at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Performed for the first time ever in the U.S. and sung in the original Russian with English surtitles, it ran from July 26 to August 4. The production by the Fisher Center will be going next to the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg, as part of a co-production agreement.

Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915) was a protégé of Tchaikovsky and one of Russia’s most influential music theorists, teaching at the Moscow Conservatory where his students included Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Igor Stravinsky praised Taneyev’s writings on counterpoint, and Taneyev’s own music earned him the nickname of the “Russian Brahms” from later Russian critics.

Certainly, Taneyev’s main achievement is his opera Oresteia (1887-94). In selecting the story, Taneyev moved from Russian operatic tradition to Greek antiquity, basing his libretto on the epic Aeschylus trilogy. The dramas of the cursed House of Atreus (Agamemnon, Choephori {The Libation Bearers}, and Eumenides {The Kindly Ones}) show how family blood curses produce extremes of violence, from the father’s blood sacrifice of his daughter, to a wife’s adultery and murder of her husband and king, to a son’s murder of his mother and her husband (his second cousin and stepfather) the new king.

Since its Russian opening in 1895 the opera has rarely been performed in its entirety and has never been staged in its complete form outside of Russia. The Fisher Center was proud to produce this beautiful work, and a renowned director of Bard’s previous SummerScape opera productions, Thaddeus Strassberger, was thrilled to add it to his repertoire of success stories, one of which was Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.

This production of the Oresteia was an incredible musical experience. The American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Music Director Leon Botstein was flawless. The chorus was thrilling and the lead singers from the international cast, primarily from Russia, were exceptional. Considering the fact that the performance ran almost four hours with two intermissions, the cast’s masterful voices exceeded in quality, artistry and resonance those of some singers I have seen perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I was rapt, engaged by the beauty of their work and the preparation and effort they displayed.

Musically, this is a magnificent and unforgettable opera. However, it is understandable why it is rarely performed in its entirety. It is difficult to stage logistically with the appropriate action infusing and inspiring the singing. Though this is the problem for all opera – how to create a production where the singers do not just “park and bark” – it is doubly difficult when the size of the stage hampers the conceivable action and cramps the performers. Unfortunately, the relatively small stage at the Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College was not up to the task necessary for this particular opera.

This is an epic tragedy and it requires an epic scope and reach. The production logic was skewed regarding the placement of props and sets, most likely because of the stage size. For example, in Act 1, when the Watchman sees the fires announcing Agamemnon’s homecoming from the Trojan War, we were to imagine the lights on the floor of the stage (positioned near the Watchman) as the fires. Projections on a screen at the back of the stage would have been more logical. Even no fires at all would have made sense, the fires conjured instead by the singer-actor looking offstage, pointing, or gesturing in reference to what the Watchman sees. This and other examples of miscued staging harmed the opera’s dynamic and diminished its production values.

For the most part, the singers attempted their best acting, but the direction to this end was obviously spare, the result being the usual operatic “park and bark.” The most sterling direction occurred when the singers faced each other and expressed the emotions of the moment. Those scenes (there were far too few of them) appeared more authentic, the gorgeous music springing from the passions of the characters. This did occur, for one memorable example, in the scene between Orestes and his sister Electra (the Act 2 reunion scene) and in the scene between Clytemnestra and her paramour and cousin Aegisthus (Act 1).

In other scenes, for example Cassandra’s prophesying the doom to come, the singer with her acting talents was able to convey the horrifying vision of her death and Agamemnon’s. Could this have been directed and staged to elicit even more reality from her obvious acting technique? Yes. Even the direction and staging of Agamemnon treading the pathway of glory into his home (which the audience knows is to his death) was pro forma, as was the end of Act 1, Clytemnestra’s running out with the bloodied axe with the dead bodies of Cassandra and Agamemnon brought out afterwards to reveal her murderous triumph. Opera staging is always problematic; this production proved the rule and not the exception.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent, 1921.

‘Orestes Pursued by the Furies’ by John Singer Sargent, 1921.

The most powerful and interesting direction came in Act 3 when the Furies, appropriately costumed to evoke hellish damnation, crawled and writhed onstage at the opening of the act. Their positioning didn’t appear cramped; they were believable and frightening. It was the finest use of the chorus (in the other acts, they stood as if not knowing what to do with themselves). The direction and costuming were purposeful to the scene and logical, conveying the twisted, painful, psychic torment the Furies use to drive Orestes into near insanity and into Apollo’s temple for relief and final judgment.

What was most appreciated is the fortitude, innovation and courage to bring this work to the U.S. and present its musical greatness to those who might never have heard it. The music suits the majestic subject matter and the epic themes of revenge and redemption. As it is being performed again in Russia, other opera houses will most likely be inspired to undertake productions of their own, grappling with the same problems and learning how to navigate around them.

This was a bold and celebrated attempt. Kudos go to all who worked tirelessly on it. Those who coached the singers in the original Russian and helped prepare them musically also deserve high praise. Bravo.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.