Some of the most important summer opera experiences in the US are not at the better known festivals but at Bard SummerScape, north of New York City in Annandale-on-Hudson. True to form, the US premiere of Sergei Taneyev’s Oresteia, an opera rarely seen even in Russia, was a revelation.
A student of Tchaikovsky who in turn taught Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Taneyev (1856-1915) is known mainly for his chamber music and wrote only one opera. But Oresteia, an adaptation in three monumental acts of Aeschylus’s Oresteian trilogy, can rightly be called the Russian Les Troyens. Steeped in Meyerbeerian grandeur yet rich in Russian soulfulness, it explores the characters’ psychological convulsions while containing expansive set pieces of striking beauty. As Orestes and Electra wrestle with the enormity of matricide, he places trust in Apollo while singing a transcendent C-major theme; another leitmotif sounds like the fate theme from Carmen. Following a split decision by a tribunal convened by Pallas Athena, Orestes is absolved in the glowing denouement.
Thaddeus Strassberger’s intense staging, with sets by Madeleine Boyd, a co-production with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, begins with a hazy view of the House of Atreus looking resplendently gaudy in late 19th-century Russian fashion. But when the curtain opens, the place is a wreck. A large painting of Agamemnon looking like Tsar Nicholas II is eventually removed to reveal the king of kings and his trophy concubine, Cassandra, back from Troy. Later, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra sit comfortably at an elegant dining table while, chillingly, Orestes and Electra plot their demise. Strassberger digs deep into the opera but, contrary to classical tradition, has murders occur gruesomely on stage. And Orestes and Pallas Athena needlessly have to traverse an irregular stage floor.
Mikhail Vekua, who has one of those aggressive, penetrating tenor voices only Russia can produce, was an exciting Orestes. The mezzo Liuba Sokolova sang with dusky-voiced intensity as Clytemnestra, and the baritone Andrey Borisenko excelled in the dual roles of Aegisthus and Apollo. The largely Russian cast also boasted two resonant, bright-voiced sopranos, Olga Tolkmit (Electra) and Maria Litke (Cassandra and Pallas Athena), and a strong Agamemnon in Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev.
The conductor Leon Botstein elicited fine performances from the American Symphony Orchestra and an excellent chorus. Oresteia had an abbreviated inaugural run, at the Mariinsky Theatre, in 1895 because Taneyev, objecting to cuts inflicted on the score, withdrew it. This time it was performed complete.