Carrying On at the Atreus Motel

The House of Atreus, immortalized by Sophocles some 2,400 years back, has become a beachfront motel complete with pool, perhaps in latter-day Long Beach. Elektra, her sister Chrysothemis, their mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, have rooms there, in the care of five chamber-maids and their boss. Elektra has it in for Clytemnestra, whom she suspects of having killed her father as he relaxed in his Jacuzzi 10 years before. She has spent those years sulking in her messy bedroom, nuzzling her stuffed Snoopy. Later her long-lost brother, Orestes, turns up, a beach bum. When Orestes’ pal hands him a switchblade, he knows what it‘s for. He goes up to Clytemnestra’s room and exacts filial revenge on both Mom and her paramour. Meanwhile, Chrysothemis, who‘s been cowering in her room with her stuffed panda, has slipped into a baby-blue nightie; when Orestes emerges, his T-shirt a bloody mess, she delivers a sisterly hug and they go off for some post-opera hanky-panky. Elektra, meanwhile, has returned to her room. She crams some stuff (including Snoopy) into a suitcase and strolls off -- possibly in search of more close relatives to hate.

Not much of this is in the libretto Hugo von Hofmannsthal furnished Richard Strauss for his Elektra, but -- as Roy Rallo’s staging for the Long Beach Opera proved beyond doubt two weeks ago -- it should be. (Hofmannsthal, and Sophocles before him, have Elektra dancing herself to death, but I‘ve never understood how a girl healthy enough to handle the vocal lines in the opera could then drop dead, done in by a trashy Viennese waltz celebrating the one happy event that’s come her way in the last 10 years.)

You‘ve heard this from me before, I know, but it happened again: The Long Beach Opera remains the blithest of all local innovative spirits. It put on a terrific Elektra in its splendid home in the Carpenter Center of CSULB. Andreas Mitisek’s pit orchestra may have been on the small side for a Straussian blockbuster, but the playing was resonant and nicely balanced -- far better, for example, than the coarse roars and groans at the Music Center‘s recent Tosca. The cast looked great and sounded equally great, with the icy daggers of Susan Marie Pierson’s Elektra pinning the crowd to its collective seats and John Packard‘s remarkably young-sounding Orestes investing that role with a whole ’nother dimension that aging baritones with other companies seldom attain.

And yes, there were some liberties with the visuals. Overtones of incest and lesbianism, which may or may not be embedded among the howls of the Straussian orchestration, were made specific in Rallo‘s staging; Mama Clytemnestra’s imagined demons were epitomized in her clutched bourbon bottle. That‘s typical Long Beach Opera, after all: high on concept, and realities be damned. It has been that way since 1983, when the company emerged from just another provincial purveyor of Butterflys and Traviatas and started taking chances -- daring chances, crackpot chances, but always interesting chances. It serves the local operatic scene as a conscience, the way the New York City Opera served the Met in its early days. And -- gas prices or no -- its audiences include Los Angeles loyalists as well as proud locals. Settling into the agreeably intimate (1,079-seat) Carpenter Center was a smart move; the hall has good sound and no sightline problems.

Its performing space is, however, small, and demands high imagination. Elektra really banged on those walls. Marsha Ginsberg’s set extended out to the stage apron; the action was all out front: loud in sound and in color range as well. For its two-hour duration, the production screamed forth the notion that opera can‘t get any better. And for those two hours, at least, it might have been right.

In my last column I wrote with high praise about the composer Osvaldo Golijov and his recent oratorio Passion According to St. Mark, one of four large-scale works setting the Gospel retellings of the Passion and Crucifixion, commissioned by the International Bach Academy and performed and recorded in Stuttgart during the summer of 2000, each lasting something close to 90 minutes. The composers were chosen to represent diverse cultures, with the idea that these backgrounds would represent the universality of religious faith. Wolfgang Rihm fashions his setting of the St. Luke Gospel from his German background as a latter-day Bach; Sofia Gubaidulina’s St. John setting is deeply rooted in her Russian Orthodox faith; Golijov‘s work draws upon his own eclectic background -- Russian, Jewish, Argentine, sometime minimalist; Tan Dun’s Water Passion After Saint Matthew sets that text -- familiar from Bach‘s timeless masterpiece -- into an all-inclusive, mystical aura. All four works will be available on disc: Tan Dun’s on Sony, the others on Germany‘s Hanssler. Wolfgang Rihm’s Deus Passus is at hand; the Golijov is due in September.

Rihm, born in 1952, is the least known of the four; the Kronos used to play one of his quartets, and the Arditti has recorded three. The new work is strong and dense, dark and spellbinding, not easy but rewarding listening. As its big choruses unwind, they pass by points of correspondence with Bach‘s great Passion oratorios; the effect is like a heavily clouded sky with intermittent shafts of colored light. The text tells of the Crucifixion in straightforward terms, but Rihm has woven in other poetic material -- the medieval “Stabat Mater” poem as well as contemporary words by Paul Celan. Helmuth Rilling, the guiding light behind the Passions project and many other noble achievements in the name and spirit of Bach, conducts his Gachinger Chorus and Bach Collegium; the soloists include the marvelous soprano Juliane Banse, with whom I first fell in love at Rilling’s Oregon Bach Festival last summer.

What do we make of this sudden surge of large-scale choral composition -- these oratorios and John Adams‘ El Niño (whose recording, by the way, is also due in September, from Nonesuch)? Perhaps it’s just that composers who want to write serious, original, dramatic music have to stand by helpless while opera houses put on Jake Heggie and Carlisle Floyd. Whatever the reason, we are greatly enriched by this new work of Wolfgang Rihm, and the others on the way. Just pray that the record industry -- manufacturing and retail both -- holds together long enough to get these treasures onto its shelves, and yours.


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