IT WASN'T EXACTLY the five stages of grief, but it was close. Listening to Saturday's opening-night Seattle Opera performance of Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra (at McCaw Hall through Saturday, Nov. 1, 206-389-7676), I cycled through shock, astonishment, admiration, exhilaration, and finally, after the curtain fell, angerthat an opera this magnificent had been ignored for decades.
Electra was written for the Met's first season in Lincoln Center, but after its starry 1967 premiere and one German follow-up production, Electra fell victim to the opera world's endemic conservatism, lying fallow and becoming classical music's quintessential "where are they now?" story. Then a 1998 resurrection by the Chicago Lyric Opera impressed SO's Speight Jenkins, who co-commissioned a new production with the New York City Opera.
Eugene O'Neill's 1931 stage trilogy brought Aeschylus' tales of the dysfunctional House of Atreus into the American Civil War era. Agamemnon was reimagined as Ezra Mannon, just back from fighting the Rebs to discover his wife Christine's affair with his bastard nephew (who's been romancing his daughter Lavinia, too). Later we meet the unhinged son, Orin, and things degenerate from there.
Levy and librettist Henry Butler have skillfully condensed the trilogy, retaining all the juicy events while converting page after page of O'Neill's dialogue into a few lines of trenchant poetry. Yet the tight-knit reworking is almost too tight; at times, Electra feels like highlights from a longer opera. O'Neill's leisurely, wordy expositions allow time to build tension, but the opera operates at such relentlessly high intensityadultery, murder, suicide, insanity, incest, one over-the-top scene after anotherthat you miss moments of relaxation, dramatic valleys that might set off the peaks. And the paring sometimes creates confusion. In the play, it's clear Ezra's a monster and that his and Christine's marriage is a nightmare; in the opera, he's only onstage 10 minutes, and he doesn't seem like such a bad guy. What's Christine's problem? To clarify her motivation, future productions may have to cast someone less vocally and physically attractive than Gabor Andrasy, commandingly patriarchal in the best sense.
Lauren Flanigan, stunning as Christine, was last heard here with the Seattle Symphony in Deems Taylor's Peter Ibbetson, an opulent but dopey opera that even in a concert performance she enlivened with theatricality. She's one of a breed of sopranos, like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson or Dawn Upshaw, who connect with audiences through go-for-the-gut directness: Having grown up on movies, they seem more inspired by a naturalistic film style of acting than the queenly, lofty allure of a Renée Fleming or a Kathleen Battle. Flanigan has full dramatic command of every millimeter of her voice; soft notes at the bottom of her range were just as resonant and compelling as the 3,000 loud, high ones that this challenging role requires. Nina Warren was flat-out frightening as the morbidly, stonily Puritan Lavinia; the youthful-voiced Kurt Ollmann properly creepy as Orin.
Levy tinkered with Electra for both the Chicago and Seattle productions; ours is billed as "the world premiere of the final version." He's said in interviews that his original 1960s draft of the score was less lush and more academically modernistic than he might have liked, out of fear of the "serial-killer" atmosphere that then prevailed, in which composers were ready to swoop down contemptuously on any hint of tune or tonality in a colleague's work. But in reworking the opera, Levy hasn't backpedaled; he's expanded his sonic palette. He freely and unself-consciously uses just about every 20th-century musical and stylistic device available: string smears, lots of percussion, glimmers of electric guitar and synthesizer. The music is Sousa-ish when it needs to be or Penderecki-ish when it needs to be, yet without ever sounding derivative, dated, or focuslessly eclectica miracle. Levy's musical ideas not only live up to but truly enhance the jaw-dropping events they underscore. The vocal lines fit the text naturally, never sounding arbitrary or superfluous. This may seem like Opera 101, but all too few contemporary theater composers have mastered the lesson.
Michael Yeargan's set is a stark, stylized imagining of the Mannon mansion, pillars and shutters the color of bone against which the shrieking shades of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes leap out: scarlet, purple, peacock blue, lime-sherbet green. Richard Buckley conducts the Seattle Symphony, fearless as usual in modern music. The Intiman Theatre's Bartlett Sher, making his opera-directing debut, has brought it all together triumphantly. Electra's just the second production of Seattle Opera's McCaw Hall era, but I'm confident that both it and last August's Parsifal are destined to be remembered as landmarks in the company's history.