Florida Grand Opera opens season with Levy’s electrifying “Mourning”
Few opera performances in South Florida have been as eagerly anticipated as Florida Grand Opera’s chillingly effective production of Mourning Becomes Electra, which opened the company’s season Thursday night in Fort Lauderdale.
Yet the performance of this neglected American opera seemed to bear out the fears of opera companies about venturing too far from mainstream repertoire; there was a heavy sprinkling of empty seats at the Broward Center and more seats unoccupied after intermission.
Composed by Marvin David Levy, a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale who was in the audience Thursday, the work opened at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 to favorable reviews. But despite well-received revivals and an extensive reworking by the composer, Mourning has never secured the position in the standard repertoire that many opera lovers felt it deserved.
A strong cast, a stellar performance by the orchestra under conductor Ramón Tebar and Levy’s eerie, richly textured score made for a draining, cathartic evening of opera. There are operas in which the plot is the least important element, a scaffolding on which are hung the beautiful arias, duets and quartets. Not this one. This opera is all drama, with the surging music intensifying a plot that turns darker with every scene.
The libretto by Henry Butler is an adaptation of a three-part drama by Eugene O’Neill, which is itself based on the Oresteia by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. O’Neill shifts the action from ancient Argos to a coastal town in New England. The opera opens as the Mannon family prepares for the return of the family patriarch, Ezra, from service as a general in the Civil War. But what should have been the joyous homecoming of a victorious commander turns into a nightmare of infidelity, murder, madness and suicide, with the members of the Mannon family turning on each other and ultimately destroying themselves.
The music is Wagnerian in its relentless seriousness and in the great weight given to the orchestra. Levy took some of the atonal edges off the score in his revisions, and the result is music that’s full of thumping drama, gleaming orchestration and ominous mutterings in winds and strings. Some of the scenes are brilliant: the confrontation between Ezra and his wife Christine on their four-poster bed, a horrifying portrait of a marriage that became a bleak brew of desperation, indifference, illness and murder. An abrupt suicide elicited gasps from the audience.
The crucial role of Ezra’s wife Christine went to the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who sang the role in an acclaimed 1998 Lyric Opera of Chicago production, as well as later revivals in Seattle and New York. This role is one of those showy star vehicles that would be easy to overdo in a Joan Crawford sort of way, but Flanigan brought to it a New England reserve, playing the role for maximum tension, so that her outbursts of passion, grief and madness came with that much more force. She brought a stellar voice to the difficult, wide-ranging part, effortlessly negotiating quick ascents in tone, as in her desperate cry of “Hold me, Adam,” with a dizzying leap up the scale.
As her daughter Lavinia, the soprano Rayanne Dupuis gave an equally compelling performance, with a voice that could quickly shift from sweet lyricism to dramatic fire to ghostly pianissimo at the top of her range. Her embrace of her own doom at the end was as grim a scene as you’ll ever see on the opera stage.
The highly effective staging used projections on giant screens—trees, tombstones, Greek columns – but most often portraits of the Mannon family, an appropriate and powerful device in an opera in which the characters are haunted by what they’ve done to others.
There was something of a false note at the start, where the projection of a giant snake crawled up the image of a giant Mannon family tree, eliciting chuckles from the audience. It was the last time anyone laughed, and these sets were a model of imagination in service of drama. There was excellent work by stage director Kevin Newbury, set designer Anya Klepikov, lighting designer Robert M. Wierzel and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington.
As General Ezra Mannon, Kevin Langan painted a convincing portrait of a dying warrior who somehow retained his patriarchal dignity even when at his most desperate.
Morgan Smith was a vocal standout as the sea captain Adam Brant, with whom Christine (and possibly Lavinia), is in love. Smith’s terrific second-act aria, with ship’s rigging in the background, about giving up the sea and his bewilderment at his predicament was a highlight of the evening.
An equally strong performance was given by Keith Phares as Ezra’s son Orin, whose vigorous, youthful voice darkened as his character became more twisted.
As Peter and Helen Niles, who were unaccountably considering marrying into this ghastly family, Thomas Lehman and Riley Svatos both sang with fresh, vocal purity that expressed the relative innocence of their roles. Svatos provided a nice turn in a brief aria that was one of the opera’s few moments of tension-free lyricism. As the servant Jed, Nelson Martinez delivered a solid portrayal of faithful service, no matter how dubious the orders.
The opera is sung in English. There were supertitles projected above the stage in English and Spanish, and unfortunately, even the English ones were necessary for following the plot, since the words often couldn’t be understood through the swooping vocal writing and raging orchestra.
At the end, as the singers took their bows, the 81-year-old composer was brought on stage in a wheelchair to share in the applause. Levy waved to the audience and applauded the cast.
Mourning Becomes Electra opens the first season planned by FGO’s new general director and CEO, Susan Danis, and she deserves enormous credit—not only for her courage in programming this unjustly neglected work but for bringing South Florida a production that did it justice.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra will be performed 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. The production moves to the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami November 16-23. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.