Monday, November 24, 2008

My Year of Opera (I): Iannis Xenakis, "Oresteia"

A bit ironically (given that I live only a short subway ride from the Metropolitan Opera House), the first opera I attended was not at the Met, but at the tiny Miller Theater at Columbia University. There, at the beginning of September, I saw the American premiere of Iannis Xenakis' bizarre, terrifying, intense opera, Oresteia. While the Greek tragedies on which Xenakis's work is based are complex, Xenakis instead focuses on a few key portions of the narrative, mainly, Cassandra's challenge in being clairvoyant but having nobody believe her, the guilt Orestes feels before and after murdering his mother, and Athena's decree and the turning of the Furies into the Eumenides. To tell this story, Xenakis used primarily percussive instruments (with a few woodwinds and one cello mixed in), a men's, a women's, and a children's chorus, and one soloist (a bass). Additionally, this particular production included ballet dancers providing interpretive dance for some of the key narrative passages, and a large screen hovering over the right side of the stage, with random abstract images occupying it throughout the performance.

I had never heard any recordings of the opera, and it was remarkable and unlike anything I'd ever heard before (which is saying something). The real highlight was the second "movement," "Kassandra," composed strictly of a solo percussionist and bass Wilbur Pauley providing narration both as the leader of the Greek chorus in his natural bass, as well as the dialog of Cassandra, offered in a falsetto, leading to the bizarre-but-captivating effect of one man dialoguing two narrative voices with himself. Pauley's delivery of that mono-dialogue was extremely absolutely spellbinding (he would also do this later on as he took on the role of Athena decreeing the fate of Orestes and the Furies), and its intensity was matched only by the solo percussionist behind him. While a men's chorus and a women's chorus also provided narration and vocal context, it was really Pauley who had the meat of the material, and who stole the show.

In between Pauley's two solos, the men's and the women's chorus took turns furthering the narrative, with the men doing so in the first part of the opera and the women taking over halfway through. The men's chorus was very good, but it was the women's chorus that had the most memorable part of the whole opera. As Orestes is dealing with the torment of the Furies, the 25-30 female voices all sang different, conflicting, discordant notes, shrilly, at the top of their lungs, all at once, in a cacophony so terrifying that I thought to myself (without hyperbole), "Combine this sound with actual feelings of guilt, and this is what hell feels like, right here." I had goosebumps all over my body. I don't know how, but in that one bit alone, Xenakis hit the rawest, most terrifying, most emotional music I've ever heard in my life (and fortunately, that moment is recorded on the 50-minute CD version of the opera).

And that wasn't the only instant of such intensity. Throughout, the percussive music gave the opera a cutting edge that made everything tenser, and as the opera came to a close, the combination of percussion, winds, the men's, women's, and children's chorus (the latter portraying the Eumenides), all joining together at their loudest, resulted in a wash of sound again like any I heard, one that made me want it to never end, so intense, so raw, so emotional, and so unlike anything else I'd ever heard was it. Without question, the music was what made the spectacle such an event, so amazing.

That said, the other portions of the opera were none too shabby, either. I really enjoyed the dance, which surprised me somewhat. The thought of interpretive dance never seemed like it would be that interesting to me. Admitedly, I'd never seen any interpretive dance (save for the Dude's landlord, Marty, and his cycle in The Big Lebowski), and I was amazed by how fit and fluid the dancers were. In some other musical or theatrical contexts, their movements may have seemed ridiculous, but it fit the mood and music perfectly.

As for the (translated) libretto, it was sufficient enough to move forward the narrative in an understandable way. It wasn't particularly poetic in the traditional sense, but it didn't need to be, and Xenakis did a great job of keeping a sense of the Greek poetics of their tragedies in tact. Due to the length of the opera vs. the original plays, there were obvious gaps, but they weren't a detraction; indeed, the flowing, ephemeral, abstract narrative actually went quite well with the visual and musical components of the show, as did the abstract (and apparently completely unrelated) images projected on the screen.

If there was one complaint I had for the opera, it was the space. Miller was amazingly intimate, and so in that regard, it was great - even though I was in the last row of the balcony, the seats were way better than anything I could afford somewhere like the met. Still, part of the choreography called for the dancers to move out into the audience on the first level, and so they were out of my line of sight. Additionally, Miller's balcony is layered in such a way that an elderly woman directly in my line of sight in the first row of the balcony kept leaning forward for a better view, often times obstructing my view with her (unusually large for New York) hair. Still, this wasn't a total loss, as the fact that there was so much going on to watch (the televised images, the choruses, Paulley, the dancers, and the musicians) that I didn't lose any major component of the opera for too long. Still, ground level seats probably would have been much better.

In all, my first opera was a rousing success. Of course, there are few out there (at least that I'm aware of) that are like "Oresteia" in instrumentation, length, or presentation, but I don't really know what they are, so it was something totally new for me. It was hands-down an amazing spectacle and one of the best productions of any medium I've ever seen, period. After the show ended, it was clear that, while the "modernism" of the opera satisfied many (like myself), many others were of the persuasion of "what the hell was that?" or even "ugh - who could like that?!" But I was definitely impressed, and thought all the performers did a great job, especially Paulley and the musicians.

And for those who are interested in some other views (generally by people who know what they are talking about much more than I do), the Times, Opera Today, and this blog all had pieces on the Miller Theater performance.