19 Sep 2008

Oresteia at Miller Theatre

Iannis Xenakis once stood among the leading composers of the avant-garde, mentioned in a (long, drawn-out, amelodic, taped and fed back) breath with Babbitt, Berio, Boulez, Henze, Penderecki and Stockhausen: internationally famous among academics, ignored or deplored by the concert-going public.

Now they are all grand old (mostly dead) men, and the public, which is as curious about new sounds in concert music as in popular music, having heard such sounds in the background of a hundred films, is no longer afraid of what they do not immediately understand. They are no longer being told that they should like it, or should ignore this or that from the past; they are freer to select and explore. We live in an atmosphere where the new no longer means just one sort of new (it never did, but it had that reputation); we have come to expect the unexpected, and appreciate it when it shows up.

Nowhere is this change in audience expectations and interest more startling than among the opera audience. This is good news for opera companies and for composers, though it may not be great news for traditional singers (few modern composers have their specific training or methods of expressivity in mind) and for the audience who loves the old-fashioned vocal style.

These reflections came to me after a spring whose chief Met Opera delight was Satyagraha, whose chief summer festival interest was Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, and an autumn opera season commencing with Xenakis’s Oresteia. None of these are traditional operas performed in a traditional manner. None of them could easily fit into a typical opera house repertory season. And the audience, immensely various in age and style and attitude, has been tremendously enthusiastic for all three. Vocally they represent differing poles: Satyagraha provided some of the loveliest traditional opera singing of the year, showing that living composers can do this if they wish to, though some may carp that this particular drama was hardly of a traditional variety. (You could say the same about Parsifal, and Cosima Wagner did, come to think of it.)

Xenakis – like his fellows other than Henze – would have been reluctant to try to compose an opera of the traditional type, for performance by any traditional company. His setting of Aeschylus’s trilogy began life as incidental music for a performance of the three plays. Over the years, he set other sections of the play, responding to certain characters and situations within it. Only his death in 2001, at the age of 79, stopped his tinkering – who knows? Another twenty years and he might have completed an opera score. Most of the work as we have it is percussive background to scenes of the drama, or else settings of the choruses – there is only one solo singer, who declaims several roles.

To the ancient Greeks, of course, the chorus were always a principal character – indeed, the original one, chanting religious ritual and story, to which soloists enacting it were subsequently added. Many Greek plays take their titles from the chorus, who it represents (Suppliants, Bacchantes, Phoenicians, Knights, Wasps), and the puzzle over how they are to present the chorus, how their message is to be displayed to modern audiences more interested in the individual conflicts, is a stumbling block for modern revivals of the plays. It is less of a stumbling block when the plays are sung, as we are accustomed to choral singing, even drama in choral song, in ways we have ceased to accept choral chant.

In the performance of Oresteia that opened the thirty-fifth season of the Miller Theater at Columbia (an awkward place to stage any sort of theater, as the building was devised as a lecture hall, and sight lines for the stage – and, nowadays, surtitles – are not good), the chorus sat around the central stage with the orchestra high above them on three sides of it as well, and the central space was occupied by six dancers and one singer. In concert, as composed, this Oresteia might have been numbing to watch, but the acting out of the various legends under discussion by the six agile dancers held attention – as did the highly theatrical performance of the chief player of percussion on a tower stage right.

The actors, presumably, were giving us representations of the tales of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Agamemnon’s homecoming and murder by his wife, Orestes’s vengeful homecoming and murder of his mother, and the Athenian compromise that allowed Orestes to escape the Furies aroused by his matricide – an Athenian mythic explanation of the replacement of primitive feud law (each murder causing another) with the rule of impersonal justice, and the sleep of blood lust sanctified by ritual remembrance and euphemism. Euphemism empowers what is too fearful to name, and in calling the Furies “the Kindly Ones” and libating to them on the family hearth, the Athenians paid tribute to the terror that remains below the surface, theoretically concealed and forgotten by the new dispensation.

When Ariane Mnouchkine staged the trilogy in Brooklyn a dozen years ago, she was asked why the chorus of feral dogs, representing unsatisfied blood lust, remained after the three Furies had departed, leading to an unforgettable final image as they leaped for the throat of their enemy, the defiant goddess of civilization, Athene herself, Mnouchkine replied, “Because they are always there.” Indeed, under the surface, the yearning for bloody personal vengeance does continue to lurk, unsatisfied by the artificial decrees of justice and the state. And in some places not far from Aeschylus’s Athens today, blood feud (after brief suppression in Communist times) has returned, and innocent sons of killers are forced to spend their lives in hiding rather than risk what their society still sees as necessary murder.


So Aeschylus’s tales are still relevant, and probably will remain so while the species endures. It is good to see them effectively staged, even if the staging was a bit of a puzzle. (There are operatic settings of portions – or all – of the trilogy; I have never seen Pizzetti’s Clytemnestra or all of Taneyev’s Oresteia.) At the Miller, I could never quite figure out which dancer was portraying which character, though I think the short, wiry, balding guy who did manic pirouettes was Orestes – perhaps if I’d been able to read the titles while the chorus chanted, this would have been clearer. In any case, their gyrations kept one rapt while incomprehensible sounds filled the air.

The singer was bass Wilbur Pauley, whom I have heard over the years in works of Handel, Kurt Weill, Meredith Monk and John Corigliano – Oresteia does not call on him for Handelian orotundity; more often he was obliged to leap between deep Agamemnon sounds to falsetto for Cassandra’s prophecies, and when he sang the lines of the goddess, he alternated both extreme registers. This was the third of three performances, and his falsetto was in trouble by the end of it, but his urgency and passion were always in evidence.

I did wonder if the men’s choruses (not the women’s shocking ululations, which burst in later, I think at Clytemnestra’s death) resembled the sound of the chants of the Greek Orthodox Church (which Xenakis would have known quite well), and in turn if that fabric derived from the ritual chant common to pre-Christian religions all around the Eastern Mediterranean, and then in turn if these bore any relation at all to the sounds Aeschylus heard at the premier of his trilogy. There is no way to know; my classicist and Orthodox friends do not think so – when the Christian liturgy was put together in Byzantine times, there was a conscious desire to break any link with the pagan past, and by that time the Greek tragedies were no longer performed; they had become a literary tradition. By the time the Renaissance intellectuals of Mantua attempted to reconstruct ancient tragedy, accidentally inventing opera in the process, they were over a thousand years removed from any memory of the sounds of tragedy, and two thousand years from the Oresteia. Like them, Xenakis invented his own style of play, and also like them, we can devise our own ways to make it theatrical for our sort of audience.

John Yohalem