By: David Sheward
Sergey Taneyev’s Oresteia is unfamiliar territory for the average operagoer. Rarely performed in its entirety since its 1895 premiere in Russia, the mammoth work is in its North American premiere, at Bard College’s SummerScape Festival. Unlike many other Russian works of the same period, this opera’s source material is Aeschylus’s Greek trilogy on the doomed House of Atreus rather than traditional Slavic tales.
(Stravinsky and Strauss tackled the same legend several years later.) But given the stunning and invigorating staging by Thaddeus Strassberger, it’s surprising that no other company has taken up the challenge in more than a century.
Strassberger sets the action at the time of the opera’s composition and in the composer’s native land, drawing parallels between the interfamily murders of King Agamemnon’s bloodthirsty clan and the oppressive reign of the tsars. You’ll recall the basic plot from Classic 101: Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, only to be slaughtered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Then her son, Orestes, goaded by his sister Electra, murders his mother and her cohort in revenge. Orestes is hounded by the demonic Furies for this matricide and seeks aid from Apollo. The opera ends with a trial presided over by the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena.
Madeleine Boyd’s nightmarish set is crowded with a huge chorus of heavily babushkaed serfs, some of whom later morph into the zombie-like Furies. An ornately bejeweled Queen Clytemnestra (dazzling costumes by Mattie Ullrich) rules over them with an iron fist. When her son, Orestes, returns from exile to kill her, the servants rise up on his side-one of them even spits on her. Though the Communist revolution took place several decades after the opera’s completion, the production references to that cataclysmic event. In the climactic third act, Athena emerges like a beacon of socialist justice to declare an end to the cycle of violence and calls for an administration devoted to compassion as the Furies untwist themselves and become human comrades.
There are dozens of memorable touches, such as the maid constantly sleeping the corner and occasionally sipping from a flask, later to be shot as collateral damage in Orestes’s fury; Agamemnon’s ghost appearing in a mirror that his guilt-wracked wife smashes with a brick; and servants calmly serving breakfast to the doomed Clytemnestra as she chain smokes nervously.
All but one of the principal singers are native Russians; their facility with the language and powerful voices gives vibrant passion to the weighty material. Especially moving is Liuba Sokolova’s imperious Clytemnestra. Her dark, Slavic mezzo and detailed acting conveys this fiend-like queen’s journey from volcanic rage to hysterical psychosis. Mikhail Vekua displays an impressive tenor in the demanding role of Orestes. The silver-voiced Olga Tolkmit makes Electra into an impulsive teenager who quickly descends into madness. Maria Litke memorably doubles as the desperate Cassandra, Agamemnon’s trophy mistress, and Athena, the regal goddess who resolves all the loose ends of this enormous opera.
July 26-Aug. 4. Festival schedule. Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Running time 3 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions. $30-90. (845) 758-7900. www.fishercenter.bard.edu
Photos: Cory Weaver