Rest in peace and burn in Hell! That pretty much sums up the ethos of the opera Mourning Becomes Electra, which appropriately enough electrified the senses of an audience at the Broward Center on Nov. 7.
Some patrons who felt singed by the first act did not return for the second - some just left while others waited outside for their compatriots who sat through the second act. It was one of those productions you either loved or hated.
Even seasoned opera-goers told me they found the opera, by composer Martin Levy, to be "challenging." But if the opera was to be performed anywhere it had to be here: Levy is a resident of Ft. Lauderdale. The Florida Grand Opera is only the fifth company in the United States to stage this work, which premiered at the Met in New York in 1967. Levy has revised the opera several times since then, so we may regard this version as definitive. It is sung in English, but proves yet again that it is not the language best suited to opera.
My opening line to this review is actually part of the libretto, which was created by Henry Butler from the play by Eugene O'Neill. That play, in turn, was based on the ancient Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus. The complex antecedents of the opera on stage now are important, for without an understanding of the ancient tragedy a full appreciation of this production is impossible. With regard to its more recent inspiration, the libretto of the opera loses some of the power of the O'Neill play. This was evidenced by some giggles at certain points in the opera, which were certainly not appropriate to the action.
Mourning Becomes Electra falls into the same genre as two other American-created operas - Vanessa by Samuel Barber (1958) and The Crucible by Robert Ward (1961). All three pack an emotional charge. But for many in the audience, the voltage level was too high.
One lady I know who attends opera regularly said she was not sure if the opera was worth the price she paid for the ticket. She, like others, was expecting at least one rousing aria from the Mother figure of the production played by Lauren Flanigan. She is a veteran of this opera, having performed it in Chicago in 1998. This is not an opera replete with lyricism. You won't be replaying any tunes in your head afterwards. The music is errily portentous throughout, and would actually make a great Halloween-night event. Like Hamlet, a good proportion of the cast dies before the sombre conclusion. "How death becomes the Mannons!" says the son figure, played by Keith Phares.
While the stage design, complete with two large screens upon which were projected various images, was superb, the same can't be said for the stage direction. The acting appeared stilted, but this may be due to the fact that the characters are under-developed. There seems little time for such development as Act 1 begins in chaos and ends in chaos. It did not build to that pitch of emotional play, and it did not let up in Act 2, which features an excellent quartet near the beginning.
The tone of the work is set early on by the daughter figure, played by Rayanne Dupuis. Speaking to her mother, she says another character in the play "will not need God's help, he will have mine." The appropriation of the rights of God by this central figure in the play is what it chaotically revolves around.
This is the sort of innovative production that one might expect from Seattle, New York or Chicago. That the Florida Grand Opera has chosen to venture into this realm is due largely to its new General Director, Susan Danis. She is to be heartily congratulated for adding this work to the FGO repertoire. While it is always nice to see an old chestunt on the roster of operas (Tosca is coming up early in 2014), audiences need to be challenged by rarely-performed works.
The next performance of Mourning Becomes Electra is Nov. 9 at the Broward Center. Audiences in Miami can see it on Nov. 16, 17, 19 and 23. Visit the website for details: www.fgo.org.