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Sokolova and Litke in Oresteia at Bard SummerScape
© Cory Weaver 2013
Bard SummerScape's focus on Stravinsky this year brought an opportunity to experience the American stage premiere of one of the most tantalizingly rare of Russian operas, Sergei Taneyev's Oresteia. Greatly admired by Stravinsky, Taneyev (1856– 1915) was a composer of limited output who spent seven years (1887 to 1894) working on this, his only opera. Rarely performed in its entirety since its original mounting at the Mariinsky in 1895, The Oresteia has long acts and a formalized libretto and requires massive orchestral and choral forces — making it a challenging prospect for opera houses and audiences alike. Conductor Leon Botstein (also the co-artistic director of the festival) and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger made it a powerful musical and theatrical statement, placing it firmly among the most memorable events of the festival's eleven-year history.
One of the few major Russian operas that do not deal with nationalistic themes, it closely follows Aeschylus's telling of the House of Atreus saga, already known to operagoers from Strauss's Elektra. The epic is underpinned by Taneyev's rich scoring, which at times evokes Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Verdi and Wagneryet carries its own strong sonic profile. Despite the somewhat static nature of Greek tragedy, Taneyev admirably maintains tension across the long evening and manages to weave in several moments that shine with melodic inspiration — although he ends each of these very quickly, instead of developing them into truly satisfying scenas.
Director Strassberger has disappointed SummerScape audiences in the past by imposing unnecessary Regie concepts on such relatively unfamiliar works as Der Ferne Klang and Le Roi Malgré Lui. This time, with such well-known source material, his reimagining posed no such problems. Strassberger set the action toward the end of the Russian Empire, on a dramatically tilted unit set by Madeleine Boyd that evoked a crumbling St. Petersburg palace. Mattie Ullrich's costumes contrasted lavish fin-de-siècle gowns for the principals with monochromatic rags for the large chorus, and the lighting design by JAX Messenger emphasized film-noir-style chiaroscuro, relieved by the brightness that flooded the stage in the triumphant final scene. Strassberger's cohesive vision for this production, which included incest, molestation and bloody onstage violence, was searingly powerful, marrying the setting to the Russian language in a manner that seeemed entirely appropriate.
At the performance on August 2, in Sosnoff Theater of Bard's Richard B. Fisher Center, Botstein gave a fine account of the score, marshalling his fifty-seven-member chorus (superbly prepared by James Bagwell) and the forces of the American Symphony Orchestra with firmness and drive. He wisely imported a cast almost entirely comprising native Russian speakers, and their authentic way with the language greatly increased the evening's impact. Taking pride of place was Liuba Sokolova as Clytemnestra, billed as a mezzo but clearly a contralto of near-limitless depth and richness of tone. A glamorous figure, she delivered a Clytemnestra of cruel allure. Her Aegisthus, baritone Andrey Borisenko, did not always have the strong lower register that parts of the role demanded, but he presented an aptly depraved image of this hedonistic character. Later in the evening, he appeared as an oddly reticent Apollo. Agamemnon was bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev, somewhat wooden of presence and shy of pitch in the upper reaches, despite a firm timbre. Orestes was sung by a budding heldentenor, Mikhail Vekua, who wielded an impressively enveloping sound and a charismatic personality that overrode his small stature. Olga Tolkmit was a lyric-soprano Elektra with a voice that was arresting in quality though at times roughly produced. As Cassandra in Act I and Pallas Athena in Act II, Maria Litke distinguished herself with her unique sound, a lyric soprano that was penetrating rather than pretty, and consistently intriguing for that reason. In three important supporting roles, Andrew Funk impressed the listener with his versatility and his huge, cavernous bass voice, despite traces of an American accent.
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