Mourning Becomes Electra, New York

At last, an all-American gut wrencher
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The Independent Culture

The big event in the New York spring season was City Opera's production of Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra based on Eugene O'Neill's epic New England transposition of Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy.

The big event in the New York spring season was City Opera's production of Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra based on Eugene O'Neill's epic New England transposition of Aeschylus's Oresteia Trilogy.

Levy, now 71, wrote it in 1967 for the Met in the style he felt obligatory to gain credibility as a "modern" composer. As one critic put it, he felt he had to "force-feed his score a diet of tone rows". Not surprisingly it failed, but he revised the score, restoring the inherent lyricism he had originally intended. It was successfully revived in Chicago in 1998. He has since revised it again for this, one trusts, final version.

Having sat through the National Theatre's recent five-hour version I was amazed to see how skilfully Levy and his librettist Henry Butler managed, in an opera that lasts only three hours (including intervals), to embrace virtually every scene and theme of the play, considerably tightening the screws of this claustrophobic tragedy to create an utterly convincing and gut-wrenching musical drama.

The music is, rather like Berg's Lulu, simultaneously savage and lyrical, brutal and elegiac, and carries the heavy freight of O'Neill's emotional exposé with ease. The vast City Opera auditorium was packed and totally gripped throughout. The composer took a bow and warmly applauded the performers who had given him, at last, a perfect realisation not only of his score but also of his musical and dramatic intentions (with an austere set by Michael Yeargan and a tightly controlled production by Bartlett Sher). The cast was virtually flawless, with fine performances from Stephen West as Ezra Mannon and Emily Pulley as Lavinia, the character who immolates her soul by opting for the house and its unbearable ghosts. But the truly memorable performance was that of Lauren Flannigan, (seen here at Glyndebourne last year in Theodora) as Christine Mannon. A superb, regal acting presence and a beautiful, perfectly articulated soprano voice merged to create a defining performance of this great role.

Mourning Becomes Electra is, at long last (and I'm fully aware of John Adams's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer), a great American opera, the first since Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in 1935. It's not expensive - one simple set and only eight characters - and some enterprising company should do it here soon.

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