Mourning Becomes Electra

at Lyric Opera, October 22

By Lee Sandlin

Marvin David Levy’s opera Mourning Becomes Electra got its premiere at Lincoln Center 30 years ago, then dropped like a stone into oblivion. It’s always risky to revive a work like this: with so many new operas being written, and so few that audiences like, why bother with one that’s already failed to make the cut? But the Lyric Opera took the chance, and everybody seems to agree that it was worth it. When I finally caught up with one of the last productions, I was delighted to find that its merits hadn’t been oversold by the initial reviews. I was impressed to see a modern opera so inventively composed, so imaginatively staged, and so enthusiastically performed–and received with such unfeigned interest by the notoriously hidebound Lyric crowd.

For this revival, Levy was at pains to make the work more user friendly. He reduced the orchestra from nearly 100 musicians to 70 (not coincidentally, this will put it within the reach of any midsize opera company that wants to give it a shot), and he took out the freaky dissonances that reportedly made the original production so trying. (I’ve heard only a few snatches of that version, but if they were representative, the score made for a pretty harsh evening.) The music now flows easily and approachably. It’s still heavily chromatic, in a way that would strike most people as modernist–I mean, you don’t come out humming the tunes. But it’s never harsh and never perverse. Levy’s biggest strength is that he writes well for the voice: almost all of his settings, however extreme they sometimes get, still stay close to the melodies of normal speech. This means that you can follow some pretty tangled exchanges as you would a play, without recourse to the supertitles–a real asset, given that the thing runs almost three and a half hours.

But that wasn’t the only strength on display. The Lyric’s production was impressive: not only were the sets a lot of fun–a couple of them provoked a few gasps from the audience–but the performers managed to inhabit them convincingly, moving easily through some awfully cluttered mazes. The cast was uniformly good; the standout was Lauren Flanigan as Christine, but Cynthia Lawrence as Lavinia was also fine. (It’s another strength, by the way, that the opera has two big, challenging roles for women.) The male roles are sketchier, but Levy was careful to provide each of them with at least one impressive moment, a death scene or a mad scene or a declaration of love, to compensate for the lack of stage time; the cast made the most of them. The libretto by Henry Butler is a decent job of adaptation and has the merit of moving quickly, at least compared to the glacial pace of most operas; some scenes are so zippy they could be played by Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. The opera is probably too long–though it’s drastically shorter than its source, Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra–but I can honestly say I was never bored.

So does that mean it deserves a permanent place in the operatic repertoire, up there beside Aida and Turandot? Well, maybe. Certainly it’s more entertaining than a lot of works that get put on incessantly, including a couple on this year’s Lyric schedule (Ponchielli’s La Gioconda comes to mind). But everybody I’ve talked to who saw Mourning had roughly the same reaction: that it was worthy but in the end seemed a bit unsatisfying. I’d go even further: what Levy and his librettist have created is enjoyable but hollow–and compared with their source, it’s a travesty.

That material is one of the oldest stories in Western culture, the tragic homecoming of Agamemnon, as told in the “Oresteia” of Aeschylus. For those who managed to skip classical lit: King Agamemnon returns victorious to Argos after the Trojan War, only to be immediately murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, who during his long absence had fallen in love with another man. It’s a kind of pre-Attic tabloid tragedy, which Aeschylus turns into a vast dramatic poem–a combined opera, philosophical debate, and religious rite. Its focus is Agamemnon’s son Orestes, who’s caught in an irresolvable conflict: it is his most sacred duty to avenge his father’s murder, but it would be the foulest possible crime to kill his mother. Almost everything stacks up in favor of his revenge: tradition, society, family loyalty, religious righteousness–Apollo shows up to tell him he must do it. So he does, and then of course his real torment begins.

The murder of Clytemnestra summons up the darkest and most terrifying powers in Greek mythology, the Furies, those who (in the words of one poet) “arise from chaos to deliver vengeance.” They don’t care about Orestes’ reasons; they aren’t even impressed by the patronage of Apollo. Their purpose is to hound Orestes to death, and they pursue him across the world in a mad flight that ends at last in the newly founded city of Athens, where Athena herself intervenes to make peace. Orestes will be judged not by the gods, but by the world’s first jury of impartial citizens (when they deadlock, Athena casts the deciding vote for acquittal). The Furies, meanwhile, will be pacified by being enshrined at the heart of the city, the tutelary gods to whom all Athenians must pray.

This is a fable of origins: it’s about the founding of civilization upon an objective standard of justice instead of the ancient imperative of the blood vendetta and the unappeasable commands of the gods. In the “Oresteia” the world begins to move a little bit out of the occult darkness of the past into the sunlight of rationality–but it’s a precarious victory, a peace founded on the appeasement of the Furies.

Since what survives of the “Oresteia” is essentially a libretto without a score, we can only imagine its original performances. But they must have been weird and overwhelming: the dirgelike chanting of the chorus, the dark prophecies of the seers, the offstage wails of the victims, the anguished songs of the heroes, the mysterious music of the gods–it was probably something like a cross between a Kabuki play and a witches’ coven. No production now can be expected to duplicate this sheer strangeness. But you would think that the core of the story could work for a modern audience: after all, the battle it describes is still going on. You only have to turn on talk radio to hear the “justice system” spoken of with sneering sarcasm and vigilante vengeance praised as a higher religious duty. Yet I’ve never seen a modern adaptation that even tried to capture the essence of the “Oresteia.” The most prominent of them is O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and it’s so perverse and goofy you wonder if O’Neill even bothered to read to the end of his source.

O’Neill shifts the setting from Argos after the Trojan War to New England after the Civil War. Agamemnon is renamed Ezra Mannon, Clytemnestra Christine, and Orestes Orin, the chorus of Argive citizens becomes a crowd of gossiping townspeople, and so on. Most of this is justifiable, and some of it’s witty. The best joke–OK, maybe the only joke–is that Agamemnon’s palace is transmogrified into one of those kitschy early American mansions with a pseudo-Greek facade, all white pillars and ponderous ornamental arches. But some of O’Neill’s ideas for duplicating the spirit of the original are pretty bizarre. He originally wanted all the actors to wear masks, for instance, and when he reluctantly dropped this idea he specified in the stage directions that the faces of the Mannons all share “a strange, life-like mask expression in repose”–not an effect easy to detect from the upper balcony (assuming any actors were ever foolish enough to attempt it).

Still, the story does unfold more or less the same way, at least until the murder of Christine’s lover Aegisthus–excuse me, Captain Adam Brant–about midway through. Then events take a peculiar turn. Orin doesn’t kill his mother; instead he goads her, more or less inadvertently, into committing suicide. He isn’t put on trial; he goes insane and then shoots himself. With everybody else dead, Lavinia/Electra decides to lock herself up in the mansion to appease the ghosts of her family, and she ends the play by prophesying a “long and lonely life” for herself–a loneliness presumably broken by the guy delivering her groceries.

In other words, Aeschylus’s deep and mysterious parable has been turned into a lurid melodrama. There’s no talk of justice and chaos, no dialogue between light and darkness–no interest whatever in abstract ideas. But there are quite a lot of Furies, which have been reimagined solely as various forms of mental disturbance, chiefly suppressed lust and paranoid guilt. Everybody in the Mannon clan is hot for everybody else–that is, when they’re not wishing them dead. Christine hates Ezra but seems overflowing with unmotherly love whenever Orin drifts into the room. Lavinia hates Christine, but also has a lot of unresolved issues with Ezra: when he dies, she clutches his body and cries out (“with anguished beseeching”), “Father! Don’t leave me alone! Come back to me! Tell me what to do!” I’m leaving out that both women also have a thing for Captain Adam. Meanwhile poor Orin is burdened with enough hatred and incestuous desire to stagger Hamlet. You don’t know whether these people need therapy or a guest shot on Jerry Springer.

What could explain such a farrago of kitsch? Despite the reputation O’Neill has–or used to have–for high moral purpose, his heart was really in Victorian melodrama, in hand-wringing, heart-clutching, over-the-top nonsense, with characters forever “turning away guiltily” and “blurting out heavily” and “controlling a wild impulse to burst into derisive laughter” and speaking with “a voice trembling with desire and a feeling of strangeness and awe” (all stage directions picked from a single random page of Mourning). He had no interest in abstract ideas and was indifferent to literary history; his lurid parodies of Freud and Aeschylus served only to give Mourning a tony veneer, an illusion of seriousness, behind which the melodrama could be cranked up to an even more hysterical pitch. He has dated much more conclusively than Aeschylus–there’s no way his Mourning could be played straight now.

That’s the starting point for Levy’s opera, which pares away the Freudian nonsense, except for the occasional dire hint (courteously, the director of this production, Liviu Ciulei, speaks with regret in the program of “those psychological shades which, for operatic purposes, had to be eliminated from O’Neill’s text”). The libretto does follow the play pretty closely, but several of the most absurd moments have been toned down (Lavinia’s speech over her father’s body, for instance), because not even an audience raised on Verdi would find them credible.

But with O’Neill suppressed and Aeschylus a fading memory, what remains? A succession of poisonings, stabbings, deathbed confessions, conspiratorial eavesdroppings, and secret love affairs–in other words, your basic opera. One can’t accuse Levy or librettist Butler of misjudging the genre. Mourning plays like a rip-roaring thrill-o-rama: Ezra is barely cold before Orin and Lavinia are off to kill Adam Brant, and the reverberations of Christine’s suicide are still echoing when the raving Orin makes lewd insinuations about his sister. The most moving passages come in the first act, when Ezra and Orin return home and lament all the carnage they saw in battle–I mean, you can’t help feeling for the guys, given what’s coming. They were safer back at Bull Run.

Still, what exactly is the point? The Lyric production did try to provide a missing subtext (those “psychological shades” Ciulei was talking about). Normally I dislike the current fashion for willfully freaky set design, but here it paid off. The faux-Greek frontage of the mansion was grotesquely distorted, as though seen through a fish-eye lens, and while the interiors were less overtly bizarre, they were still askew enough to give a Caligari-like sense of psychic wrongness. They hinted that the opera was really some kind of thwarted New England horror story, like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or The Haunting of Hill House. Given all the reverberations of supernatural guilt and Puritan damnation, there might as well have been ghosts stalking about the stage.

But for this reading to work, the music would have to cooperate, and here Levy’s score comes up short. It’s always adequate to the individual moment–stridently chromatic for anger, tenderly tonal for a love duet, edgily discordant for Orin’s mad scene–but it lacks resonance. It doesn’t reach back into the sound world of the 19th century–except for one jaunty little Civil War march, which is as jarring amid all the smoothly accessible modernism as it would be in a dentist’s office. The overall effect is so decentered and generic we might as well be watching a Bette Davis soap opera with a score by Max Steiner. The music only underlines the general air of inconsequentiality–the sense that this whole tangled story is being told just for cheap thrills.

To be fair, what’s the matter with that? Aren’t we at the opera to be entertained? Maybe this is just a measure of the distance between Aeschylus’s world and ours: after all, we do compartmentalize experiences differently than he did. For him, life was a mysterious whole; for us, it’s a bunch of polished fragments. We expect each piece to serve its function and don’t worry about the larger reverberations. We don’t go to the opera house for religion, any more than we go to church to admire the costumes. So maybe this opera is simply trying to give us as much Aeschylus as we’re likely to tolerate: no philosophy, no mystery, no moral–just a quaint old horror show with a finger on the fast-forward button.

But if that’s the logic, then surely it’s mistaken–if only because so many people in the audience were left unsatisfied. Appearances to the contrary, we’re not that much more barbaric than the ancient Greeks. We might even be tough enough to stand a little more in our entertainment than cheap thrills. American culture is already thoroughly conversant with the shallows–it’d be nice now and then to get a glimpse of the depths.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Dan Rest-Lyric Opera of Chicago.