[Met Performance] CID:209770
World Premiere

In the presence of the composer
Mourning Becomes Electra {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 03/17/1967.
 (World Premiere)
(Debuts: Evelyn Lear, Marie Collier, Michael Cacoyannis, Boris Aronson


Metropolitan Opera House
March 17, 1967

World Premiere
In the presence of the composer

Marvin David Levy-Henry Butler

Lavinia.................Evelyn Lear [Debut]
Orin....................John Reardon
Christine...............Marie Collier [Debut]
Adam....................Sherrill Milnes
Ezra....................John Macurdy
Peter...................Ron Bottcher
Helen...................Lilian Sukis
Jed.....................Raymond Michalski

Conductor...............Zubin Mehta

Production..............Michael Cacoyannis [Debut]
Designer................Boris Aronson [Debut]

Production a gift of the Metropolitan Opera National Council

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera through the generosity of the Ford Foundation, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Mrs. Henry L. Moses and Mr. Christian Humann have also contributed to make the creation of this opera possible.

[MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA received eleven performances in two seasons.]

Review of Irving Kolodin in the April 1, 1967 issue of the Saturday Review

O'Neill's Mannons Musicalized

MARVIN DAVID LEVY may have lost the gamble he took on the proposition that Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" could be successfully made into an opera, but in putting the results on its stage the Metropolitan has found a composer who should have a productive part in its future. This is no paradox at all but a conclusion based on two simple facts that emerged from its first performance anywhere: the magnitude of the problem Levy confronted at thirty-four and the competence, rising at some moments to distinction and beauty, of the results he has achieved in his first try at a full-length opera.

Magnitude is, indeed, a feeble word to suggest the order of undertaking required to present in three acts what O'Neill set forth in thirteen - the corrupt core of the Mannons of Massachusetts, whose family tree was afflicted by a blight which spread through every limb and branch of it. One by one, the offshoots crumble and die. The analogy ceases there, for in no instance are the four deaths a result of nature's will. They are, rather, induced by a series of man- and woman-made circumstances which O'Neill shaped to the symbols and values of Aeschylus's "The Oresteia." The parallels extend from Ezra Mannon (Agamemnon) and Christine (Clytemnestra) to Lavinia (Electra) and Orin ( Orestes).

The solution proposed by librettist Henry Butler and participated in by sundry others (including, no doubt, the Greek director Michael Cacoyannis, whose staging is a model of concision and purpose) is to convert each of O'Neill's plays into an act of the opera. Few lines survive as O'Neill wrote them, but further to the problematic point is that the action moves so swiftly that tragedy follows upon tragedy in terms of minutes rather than stage hours or chronological days. There is hardly a strange interlude of lightness or gaiety to suggest that the Mannons had anything on their minds other than aggressions and antagonisms.

The mirror image of Levy presented in his score is oddly inverted. His real gift, without doubt, is a lyric one, the kind of singing impulse that defines the truly gifted. It becomes conspicuous in Act II when Orin, returned from the Civil War, soliloquizes over his dead father (poisoned by his wife) with the words, "How death becomes the Mannons!" But the nature of the aggressions and antagonism launched in Act I - such as father-love, mother-hatred - demand a constant tightening of dramatic tensions at which Levy is much less adept. It is done with conscience and care but not, to my taste, with real spine-tingling (or, to reverse the image, gut-gripping) intensity. Recurrently in the act and a half that follows Orin's expression, the latent warmth of lyric feeling is fanned from a flicker to a glow, as in the beautifully composed quartet, in which the mother and her lover are spied upon by her son and daughter aboard a clipper ship in Boston harbor. Unlike such classic quartets as those of "Rigoletto" and "La Bohème" in which duets in opposition are combined in a quartet, this one amounts to separate soliloquies musically reconciled. It is brilliantly written and sumptuously sung by the work's principals.

The pace of rapidly unfolding happenings, however, calls ever and again for verbal exposition through song-speech over orchestral commentary. This is, at best, a difficult kind of expression to make interesting and all but impossible for a composer with the experience perimeter of Levy. In Act I, for example (it was rewritten three times), much of his effort is concentrated on finding a solution to this problem. It tends to be over-explosive, heavy with percussion, more sound really than fury. Levy has a natural feeling for the theater which enables him to set a suitable pace for the open*ing dialogue, but the skips and leaps and octave jumps lose their effect after awhile. As he gets closer to the heart of the problem, however - which is to say, to the hearts of his characters - more and more of the commitment gets into the singing line. In Act III this rises to considerable distinction.

This may be, at bottom, because it is in Act III that the drama settles down to an exposition of Lavinia and her urges -psychological as well as sexual-and the part they play in the decaying roots of the Mannon family tree. Lavinia clearly is the character who means the most to Levy, which is as it should be. She is the Electra whom mourning becomes. That the composer is acutely aware of this and, finally, makes her the best realized of his characters is perhaps the soundest reason to regard his operatic future with confidence rather than merely hope.

Stylistically, the score moves freely in what is likely to be called a conservatively contemporary idiom but which strikes me as a reasoned outgrowth of the subject matter. Verbal values are not so steadily well reasoned, but Levy has the good judgment to make clarity paramount when a statement indispensable to the drama is involved. Sometimes an echo of "Salome" or "Elektra" intrudes, but a composer who can invent a blending of electrified guitar and harp figurations (to support a little arioso charmingly delivered by Lilian Sukis) hardly needs rely on predecessors. Occasionally Levy repeats such a formulation as soprano voice echoed by oboe, or the baritone line supported by cellos, but this is well within the range of the expectable in a first effort. The substantial fact of Levy's fledgling flight is that, for all the burden his self-chosen subject puts upon him, he is capable of developing the impetus to make it more than momentarily airborne.

This related more than a little to such additional motive power as Cacoyannis's direction and the decor of Boris Aronson. The latter, in particular, has used the resources of the new Met stage with practiced theatrical skill to give fluidity and atmosphere to the scenes and their changes (the longer ones clearly outran Levy's ability to sustain an instrumental interlude). Within this frame Cacoyannis has developed a scheme of action that strips the participants of commonplace operatic attitudes and gesture in favor of an economic, naturalistic action which would be absorbing were there no musical context. The latter, however, has been shaped to a kind of cloak upon the body of the visual pattern by Zubin Mehta, whose conducting far exceeded anything he has previously done at the Metropolitan. In intelligence, concentration, and productivity, it earns the high compliment of suggesting what the late Dimitri Mitropoulos might have done.

Of the essence in the final outcome is the finely matched group of performers he had to work with. Included were two new to this stage: the Ameircan-born Evelyn Lear, who vivified the dilemmas of Lavinia in a consistently credible way vocally and with absorbing dramatic power (considering that she is, physically, somewhat slight for the best pictorial advantage); and the Australian-born Marie Collier, who gave Christine the exact kind of hard exterior over a lingering suggestion of physical attractiveness to make her actions believable. Both women have vocal instruments of uncommon beauty and responsiveness, and when they sang together it was an enriching experience. Miss Sukis in the smallish role of Helen, gave promise of finer things to come.

Of the men, John Macurdy was excellent in the relatively brief role of the first Mannon (Ezra) to expire, Sherrill Milnes sang well but acted rather stiffly as the Adam Brant who fed the flame of Christine's desire, and John Reardon proved the wisdom of converting the part of Orin from tenor (as it was first written) to baritone with an affecting kind of pliance (vocally) and vacillation (dramatically). Ron Bottcher had just the eager air to suggest the Peter who was spared the fate of becoming Lavinia's husband, and Raymond Michalski's Jed was servile in action but masterful in sound.

That the Metropolitan could put forth such an effort as conclusion to a first season at Lincoln Center which included the complex "Frau ohne Schatten," the colorful "Lohengrin," the potent "Peter Grimes" and the imaginative "Zauberflöte" is a testimonial to the will and determination of Rudolf Bing who organized it.

Review of Douglas Watt in the New York Daily News

The "Mourning Becomes Electra" that had its world premiere Friday evening at the Met is a tellingly staged melodrama, handsomely mounted. The question is, is it an opera?

I'm inclined to think not. True, most of the dialogue is sung, and there is a busy orchestra, and these factors should qualify it as an opera. But the nagging fact remains that it is the Electra legend and Eugene O'Neill's adventurous use of it and, finally, librettist Henry Butler's admirable concentration of O'Neill that engross us. We are, almost without pause, in the presence of pure theater.

Marvin David Levy's score merely supports this impression. It is like shrewd background music for a film thriller, written after witnessing the rushes in a projection room. Except. of course, that he had to provide a vocal line. But that hardly matters.

Levy has engaged in a flirtation with a possible duet in a situation calling for just that in the first act. but it isn't until we are well into the second, aboard Boris Aronson's marvelous quayside scene of Adam Brant's clipper ship, that an interestingly divided quartet (akin to the "Rigoletto" one) arranges itself. Great. We're ready for it. But Levy lets us down again by stylishly avoiding the full emotional expression the scene cries out for.

The lack of heady set pieces is one of two major reasons for doubting that this "Mourning Becomes Electra" is an opera. The other is that Levy has not defined his characters musically, except for showing their present emotional states from time to time by having them shuffle and quaver a vocal line. In the main, he has contributed spook music - rattles, groans, rasps, tintinnabulations and such. There is even a taped section, before the ship-board scene, of lapping water and other harbor sounds. Sounded pretty good, by the way. Elsewhere, the between-scenes music is just noodling to keep us engaged. The work, running to almost four hours, with intermissions, is divided into three acts, one for each of the plays making up the O'Neill trilogy.

Zubin Mehta conducted the whole affair brilliantly and Michael Cacoyannis directed his singers as if they were simply actors, giving them steadily meaningful gestures, movements and even facial expressions to keep the play alive.

The cast is first-rate. Marie Collier, an Australian soprano making her Met debut as Christine (Clytemnestra) Mannon, is a fine figure of a brunette woman with a strong, clean and imperious voice. And Evelyn Lear, an American soprano cast as Lavinia (Electra) and also making her debut, is equally effective as the obsessed daughter. The two stalk each other beautifully. John Reardon is the Orin (Orestes) and an extremely appealing one. And Sherrill Milnes is excellent as Christine's lover, Adam Brant.
So another Electra, certainly not Richard Strauss', commands our attention once again through O'Neill's vision and Butler's poetic instincts (very little of the dialogue is pure O'Neill). But much more a woman of the theater than of opera.

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