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Every summer, in the course of Bard College’s Summerscape, the expansive net of entertainment, education, and enlightenment Leon Botstein and his cohorts cast about the Bard Music Festival, we get an opportunity to enjoy a rare opera, which has either fallen out of, or never entered, the basic repertory of the art form—an opera you will never see at the Met. In many cases the reasons these works disappeared is either straightforward or practical: tastes change, or the management of mainstream opera houses ceased to find it workable to engage a cast of six or eight lead singers when the most popular operas required only two. In other cases the reasons are mysterious, complex, or otherwise fascinating. This might include Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a delight for Bard audiences last season, which owed much of its undeserved obscurity to the composer’s bad luck and bad health—and perhaps the qualities that made Chabrier a genius were too eccentric for popularity. For the story, click here.
Since I didn’t get a chance to speak my piece about this brilliant production of a brilliant work, I may begin with that, since it concerns the director of this season’s opera as well, Thaddeus Strassberger, who will be directing his fourth Bard opera in a row, following a turn by no less than Kasper Holten, Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House today. Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui was first produced at the Opéra Comique, after he made thoroughgoing revisions to adapt it from a yet lighter form of opera. It was clear enough, as the work took its course on the Fisher Center stage, that this adaptation set it into a higher orbit from whatever it was before. One could hear what it had in common with Bizet’s Carmen, one of the very few opéras comiques still in the repertoire. Along with the farce and the burlesque, there was a strand of seriousness. It was this, as well as Chabrier’s wit, irony, and poignant harmony that made it almost great. Over the course of less than a year, Le roi was framed by Bizet’s Djamileh and Félicien David’s Lalla Roukh, two more enchanting tributes to the gifts of the Opéra Comique composers and librettists for keeping the old boy meets girl story fresh and alive—and even at times moving. This was Strassberger’s first comic opera with Bard. Previously he had done a very serious works, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and a story of ironic decadence, Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang. While I admired both of these productions, especially Les Huguenots, I was surprised and delighted to find how he flourished in the comic realm. He was able to take all sorts of imaginative flights and risks because his work was so well grounded in the spirit of the Comique tradition. His refrigerators, televised media events, well-populated hotel rooms, and bon bourgeois polonais watching television all worked brilliantly for that reason—not to mention that the ideas were original, intelligent, and funny.
This year Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev’s Oresteia brings Strassberger back to a graver world, a most solemn one, that of Attic tragedy—no less than a nineteenth-century Russian adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Richard Taruskin believes that the static nature of Taneyev’s conception of his work was as much a pageant as an opera.1 It is hard to believe that Mr. Strassberger will accept that without a good fight, but even if he has decided to recreate something of the original aesthetic, it is sure to be transformed in some stimulating way. Since some press photos of the costumes and sets have been released, I believe it is legitimate to mention that Taneyev’s Oresteia is costumed in the style of his own time.
Dr. Botstein and Bard are renowned for their productions of so-called forgotten operas, but Les Huguenots and Der ferne Klang were extremely popular for certain periods of time and made a mark on the culture of their times. Less so Schumann’s
Genoveva and Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui. Of the operas Bard has presented in ecent years, Taneyev’s Oresteia is the most truly deserving of the epithet “obscure.” Performances of the opera, now to receive its American staged premiere, have been undeniably scarce, beginning in the composer’s own lifetime. What could have been the reason this excellent work remained hidden in a dark cave like the Eumenides themselves? First to blame are the director and conductor of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, who insisted on mutilating cuts at the first performance. Second, that the work doesn’t fit anyone’s preconceptions of Russian opera—either among Russians or Westerners. Russian composers chose Russian subjects, either from history (Boris Godunov), literary classics (Evgeny Onegin, War and Peace), or folklore or early epic (The Snow Maiden, Prince Igor). Taneyev’s Oresteia was the only Russian opera written on a subject from classical mythology, or, in this case, more precisely, literature.
The composer sought to adapt Aeschylus’ trilogy to the Russian operatic stage of his time. He and his librettist, Aleksey Venkstern, accomplished this by compressing the original down to a little over three hours, with each act corresponding to one of Aeschylus’ plays: I. Agamemnon, in which the king returns home from the Trojan War to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for his sacrificial killing of their daughter Iphigeneia. II. The Libation Bearers, in which their son, Orestes, aided by their daughter, returns from exile to kill his mother in retribution for her crime. III. The Eumenides, in which Orestes, plagued by the Erinyes, spirits of vengeance, has sought protection at the Oracle of Delphi. The god of the sanctuary, Apollo, responds favorably by instructing Orestes to go to Athens to seek acquittal and purification. There, he is tried by the Areopagites, and the tutelary goddess, Athena, works out a compromise, whereby the Athenians welcome the Erinyes, “those whose names cannot be mentioned,” into their society and transform them into the Eumenides, the “kindly ones.” In adapting this final play Taneyev and Venkstern modified its religious and moral framework into accord with the common notions of contemporary Russia, Christianizing them, as Michael Ewans believes.2
At this point one should stress that some contemporary Russian scholars take a different view of Oresteia‘s fate. While the American, Richard Taruskin, stresses its lack of success on stage, the theatrical historian, Dmitry Trubotchkin, has pointed out that, even if it was performed only once (1895) during the composer’s lifetime, and brutally cut, then again shortly after his death, in 1915 and 1917, it was the primary form in which Russian audiences knew Aeschylus’ Oresteia, so few were professional productions of Greek tragedy before the 1920s.3 A classical education, as Anastasia Belina relates,4 played a major part in nineteenth century Russian education, especially for people like Taneyev, who enjoyed an intensive exposure to the Classics, even as a small child, thanks to his father’s fanatical cultivation of Greek civilization, even to the point of giving his serfs Greek names and having his very young children perform scenes from Greek tragedies. After playing a scene from Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus at the age of eight, Sergey’s brother suffered many sleepless nights, fearing that he was destined to murder his father and marry his mother! Taneyev’s upbringing was particularly eurocentric, and he developed into one of the most western of the Russian composers—and not least for his choice of a subject in his only opera.
However, as central as the study of Greek has been in European and American education, or at least in the best of it, productions of Greek tragedies have been few, beyond the performances, often in the original Greek, once fraquently staged by colleges and universities. Harvard’s 1906 spectacular open air production of Agamemnon at the stadium attracted a large and enthusiastic general public. Bard can be proud of having offered a splendid professional production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in Ted Hughes’ translation only a few years ago as part of Summerscape. This was superior in many ways to Peter Stein’s great Berlin production. Greek tragedy has been more readily adopted in Germany from the eighteenth century on, it was particularly antipathetic to English taste and, after some early essays in Henry VII’s time, flourished only in the universities. The French of the Grand Siècle showed particular intelligence in assimilating it into their own theater. Contemporary Americans and Europeans, even Greeks, have never been at ease with this contemporary theater. I stress this as a reminder of just how brave Taneyev was in devoting seven years of his life to the creation of what most, including his mentor Tchaikovsky, assured him would be an unpopular work, because audiences couldn’t takes the same interest in ancient Greeks that they would in Russians, contemporary, historical, or legendary. Yet it was Tchaikovsky who recommended the opera to the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, putting Taneyev in the position of having to finish it within a few months. This put him under tremendous pressure, down to the final copying. Then his delight in seeing his work performed was undermined by the extensive cuts demanded by the conductor. He had written the opera using an organic technique of his own, whereby he left individual passages and details fluid, while he worked on the whole. The opera was not finished until the global and the particular elements were both in their final state. Needless to say, he was not happy with the production.
The period of Oresteia‘s gestation, completion and first performance—1887-1895—came at the very end of the great period of nineteenth century Russian opera. Mussorgsky’s posthumous Khovanshchina, also completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, in 1886. Borodin’s Prince Igor was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov in the years following the composer’s death in 1887 and premiered in 1890. Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was produced in 1890. Rimsky-Korsakov’s revised version of The Snow Maiden was first performed in 1895, and his Sadko premiered in 1896. When Igor Stravinsky first began to come to the fore some ten years later, he followed the prevailing wisdom and confined himself to Russian material in the earlier part of his career. Only in the later 1920’s did he take up ancient Greek subjects for stage works, beginning a series, which continued for over twenty years. By then, after years in France and his eventual emigration to the United States, Stravinsky’s Russianness was encased in several capsules of cosmopolitanism, like the proverbial Russian doll. Taneyev, who cultivated his westernizing tendencies from within Russia, was a cosmopolitan of a very different sort. But what could be more enlightening from the broader point of view of the history of Russian music than to experience Taneyev’s only opera in the context of Bard’s Stravinsky Festival?
I did manage to spend a few minutes with Thaddeus Strassberger before a rehearsal. We discussed some of his other productions at Bard. He was pleased to get some outside confirmation that Le roi malgré lui was indeed funny. It was very funny, and I don’t believe I have ever laughed quite as much in an opera. I was struck by the contrast between the lurid tableau of topless crucified nuns in Les Huguenots, and the much tamer brothel scene in Der ferne Klang, wondering if he had had to respond to some backlash over the former. He responded that this was not at all the case. Rather, he believes that religious fanatics create their own prurience, and the routine of sex for sale creates its own atmosphere of boredom. The brothel was packed with people going through the motions of enjoying themselves, in the fashion of a casino. As for Oresteia, I was interested in whether he had to decided to follow the view stated in some of the scholarly literature about the static character of Taneyev and Venkstern’s treatment, that it was more like a pageant than a play. Strassberger said that secondary literature interested him relatively little. He has the primary source, the libretto and music, in his hands (my own wording, not his), and he approaches it by directing it on the stage. If a human situation calls for movement, then there is action. In other words his treatment is based on the humanity in the work, and not on any historical or critical concept of it. There is also the question of the Christianizing of the conclusion in the Eumenides. Strassberger described Athena’s words about forgiveness of sins to be rather pseudo-Christian, presumably notions more at home in the opera house than the church or seminary.
Of equal interest was the quiet, but intense activity going on around us, as preparations for the rehearsal came together. Before the director’s arrival I spoke with a few members of the team—Marjorie Folkman, Choreographer. Yelena Kurdina, Coach and Pianist, Emily Cuk, Assistant Director, and Roza Tulyaganova, Assistant Drector/Translator—who work in tight communication to keep track of the countless changes and adjustments that occur, as this extremely complex production takes shape. Strassberger was keeping on top of it all as we spoke, and in seconds made a seamless transition back to the rehearsal, which was to begin in seconds. Clearly he flourishes in this sort of massive effort, with its scores of moving parts and shifting situations.
This production will not end at Bard. Valery Gergiev has selected it to be performed in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theater.