Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra -- New York City Opera

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer


Mourning Becomes Electra. New York City Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, New York, March 21-April 13, 2004.

Having enjoyed the opera The Emperor Jones in Manhattan recently, I was eager to see this almost unknown opera based on an O'Neill play. It was a handsomely mounted production, well-directed, and performed by excellent singers and actors. The large house was nearly full and at the conclusion the response was very positive. There many bravos during the curtain calls with sustained applause. It must have been very gratifying for the 84 year-old composer, Martin David Levy who watched the opera and was cheered when he took a curtain call.

In 1961, Levy began work on the opera with librettist Henry Butler--work which lasted for six years. In the years since, he has continued working on the opera and for this production (which began at the Seattle Opera) he restructured the music. The 1967 premiere was at the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, with the young Sherrill Milne as Adam Brant. Levy wrote, “After two seasons there and two in Europe it vanished.” It really is unfortunate that it has not been produced more often, because it is one of the most accessible modern operas and, generally speaking, true to O'Neill’s play.

The opera is brief compared to the play, but follows the action O'Neill set up. It is in three acts, but has only two scenes in each. I am glad I didn’t read the author’s program note before the play as it might have prejudiced me against him. He stated, “The principal flaw in O'Neill’s work is its suffocating wordiness. . . . The late librettist Henry Butler and I abandoned the play’s repetitive hyperbole, supplanting its verbal excesses with direct, minimal language. The libretto became the play paraphrased, reduced to its essence. The excluded text was replaced in another way. It would become the dimension that eluded O'Neill: musical poetry.” Well, one must consider that he probably had never seen this wonderful play performed.

In fact, his statement pretty well describes what the opera is—the essence of the play. It retains the exciting climaxes to the action, beautifully staged by Bartlett Sher. His staging was perfectly complemented by the setting of Michael Yeargan and the lighting by Jennifer Tipton. The conclusions of two scenes exemplify this. The setting was a set of shuttered doors about twenty feet high which surrounded the stage. For the setting of the ship, a bridge was lowered down to meet stairs pushed in from the sides. Near the end Orin and Lavinia watched Brant and Christine in the cabin below. The guilty pair cast giant shadows on the walls. All four characters sang of their concerns in a moving quartet. When the watchers went down to kill Brant, Ezra Mannon and other departed Mannons appeared and sat in chairs at the back. (This was one of the few additions made to the text.) As Brant lay dying, the two climbed the stairs and fled across the bridge accompanied by very impressive music. The end of the scene in which Christine kills Mannon was also altered slightly but retained the power of the play. Mannon’s body was downstage right, Christine, in a red velvet robe was upstage of him, and Lavinia, having found the poison on the floor held it out tauntingly toward her mother as they both sang most of the dialogue concluding the scene.

While these scenes were effective, I was disturbed by the treatment of the characters’ final exits into the house of death. A great black door was lowered onto the stage and the character approached it and went through. For one thing, one could see them scurrying offstage, especially Christine in her gorgeous violet (second mourning) hoop-skirted dress. More importantly, the effect seemed somewhat precious and attracted attention to itself. It reminded me of the difference between this and the original setting by Robert Edmond Jones, the designer who never wanted to distract from the action of the play with special effects or overwhelming settings. I was reminded of pictures of his wonderful setting and descriptions of the heart-wrenching exits of Nazimova (as Christine) and Alice Brady (as Lavinia). I also wished I could once more see the stunning production of the play directed by Michael Kahn at the American Shakespeare Theatre with Jane Alexander and Sada Thompson in the early 1970s. (He later directed it at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. with equally great success.)

Reviews tend to focus on the performers enacting the tremendous roles of Christine and Lavinia. However, the other roles are very demanding and exciting, particularly that of Orin. Earle Larimore played the role originally and O'Neill wrote that his acting was the finest in the play. A critic wrote that Larimore’s Orin, “was so flawless that you felt Orin in person was appearing on the stage.” I still remember the power of Peter Thompson in the role in Michael Kahn’s first production of the play. The American singer Kurt Ollmann performed Orin. Like many of the present-day opera singers, he is an excellent actor. We first saw the tall, thin performer in silhouette at the back of the stage as he returned from the war. His movement and emotional qualities are very effective. Such moments as his kneeling on the floor, his bandaged head in Christine’s lap and the later scene in which he tried force sexual attentions on Lavinia were unforgettable. His performance represents the excellence of the total cast.

An obvious interest is how Levy’s music complemented the play. I found it very exciting and appropriate. The overtures to the scenes were dramatic and utilized unusual instruments and ominous sounds. I believe O'Neill would have liked it (as we know he was immensely fond of music). I missed the emphasis on the traditional music O'Neill called for in the play. There were two spots in which old military songs were woven into the score, but nothing else Ultimately one’s view of the music depends on taste. Naturally, if the viewer doesn’t like contemporary opera music, the event cannot please. An opera buff sitting near me confided that he enjoyed the evening, but that he preferred melody to the music of Levy.

I anticipated this production with pleasure, although I knew nothing about the opera ahead of time. I felt that the conclusion Butler and Levy created was very interesting. Christine appeared in tattered clothing and a white make-up mask, singing for Orin to join her. Then, as the black door lowered, he walked through carrying his gun. When Lavinia made her final exit, the several departed Mannons appeared and sat in chairs in two rows at the side of the stage. Lavinia moved past her mother, father, and brother and took her place with the dead, singing “How mourning becomes the Mannons.” I think this conclusion is theatrically effective, but less so than O'Neill’s ending with Lavinia left alone onstage, facing a long, lonely life, and making her final dramatic exit.

Mourning Becomes Electra clearly pleased the audience. The stunning costumes, ranging in color from the light green of Christine’s first dress, later copied by Lavinia, to the bright blue of Orin’s uniform and the black military looking robe worn by Mannon in the bedroom scene, were brilliant. The chiaroscuro lighting mirrored the dark, ominous quality of the music. The whole conveyed a strong sense of O'Neill’s concept of guilt expressed by Lavinia in song, “I know I will live a long time. I takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born!” The gentleman to my left expressed pleasure about the opera, but added, “This really made me want to see the play!”

Yvonne Shafer is Professor of Speech, Communication Sciences and Theatre at St. John's University, and author of Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors.


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