Mad Queen Butchers Innocent Ram, Horrible Husband: Music

The tone for Sergey Taneyev’s “Oresteia” is set soon after the curtain goes up, when Queen Clytemnestra, dressed in a white bathrobe and surrounded by joyous servants, slits a ram’s throat to honor her husband Agamemnon’s return from Troy.

Soon after, she does the same thing to him and his concubine Cassandra. Their mangled bodies are dragged onstage on blood-soaked tarps.

The body count builds from there at Bard College’s SummerScape festival, in a sensational staging conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger.

If you’re not familiar with Taneyev or his opera don’t beat yourself up. Bard president Botstein likes overseeing unusual exhumations at his Frank Gehry-designed music palace on the Hudson.

This is the U.S. premiere of the “Oresteia” (1895). The most recent recording was made in 1966 by the Belorussian State Opera.

Director’s Ascent

It doesn’t hurt that Bard’s production is as lush and monumental as the music, which includes a sweeping overture and gorgeous, monumental choruses.

Strassberger, an increasingly important American director in his mid-thirties, has presided over other Bard revivals, most importantly, “Les Huguenots,” another epic where the usual clods in costumes gave way to animated crowds. He knows how to move people along, especially in long operas that could use Clytemnestra’s axe.

He convincingly mingles the houses of Atreus and Romanov. Designs (sets by Madeleine Boyd, costumes by Mattie Ullrich) place the story in the declining days of imperial Russia, with faded walls, broken furniture and defaced paintings.

Crowds of prim, uniformed servants were juxtaposed by their choral counterparts -- a horde of unkempt future Bolsheviks waiting at the gates. The contrast was the only sure way to tell the action was set in a palace.

Liuba Sokolova dominated as Clytemnestra, singing with a steely but rich, imperious mezzo even when balancing a headdress that might have made Busby Berkeley weep with joy. By the time son Orestes slits her throat, she’d smoldered in a variety of sultry costumes (accessorized at one point with a fire extinguisher).

Tolstoi’s Rage

It made sense that the other female leads were a bit more toned down.

Maria Litke, who doubled as Cassandra and Pallas Athena, was occasionally shrill, though consistently captivating as she glided across the stage. In the minor role of Elektra, Olga Tokmit’s voice sparkled as it rose above the chorus.

The men didn’t fare as well. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev was an underpowered Agamemnon. Mikhail Vekua seemed to find Orestes an exhausting sing. Andrey Borisenko, also double cast as Aegisthus and Apollo, found the god more congenial.

Is “Oresteia” a great opera? It’s certainly a piece I’d happily hear again, by a composer who wrote a lot of beautiful chamber music and ticked off Tolstoy. Taneyev (1856-1915) liked visiting with Mrs. Tolstoy, which drove the author so nuts he wrote a novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” in which the jealous husband shoots the violinist.

SummerScape runs through Aug. 18 at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Dinner and post-performance entertainment are available in the Spiegeltent. Transportation by bus from Manhattan is available for certain performances. Information: +1-845-758-7900; Rating: *****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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