Mourning Becomes Electra
In English with English Captions
Fresh Revelations: The Evolution of Mourning
By Speight Jenkins
The night of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of
Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, March 17, 1967, burns
in my memory. I had not attended the opening night of the first world premiere
that season, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and it was exciting to
see what the Met would do with its second world premiere in only a few months.
What didn’t send me that night was Levy’s music.
It had its moments, but it seemed needlessly dissonant. No one had the chance
to sing a lyrical line, and the whole, while dramatic and very theatrical,
lacked aural satisfaction. I went back later that season, and though the
second time the music was more agreeable—the “Death becomes the Mannons”
theme was memorable—my impression didn’t change. The next season, the Met
revived the opera, and I had a similar reaction.
When it was announced that a new version was being
presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1998, I was reluctant to attend. It
seemed a waste of money to fly to Chicago for an opera that I remembered
with no affection. When it opened there, however, the response of many of
my colleagues was so positive that I thought it was my duty to go, and to
Chicago I went.
The performance was revelatory to me. From the
first rise of the curtain, I was gripped by the music and how it amplified
the strong O’Neill play. Since that first Mourning in New York, there
had been a very fine presentation of the complete, six-hour play on Broadway
to which I had gone. I had enjoyed it a lot, so was quite attuned to the
story. Still, it was the music that did—as it always does for me—the trick: Lauren
Flanigan in a bright green dress knocking out high notes as though they were
in the middle of her voice, while projecting a compellingly driven persona
as Christine; Jason Howard playing Adam Brant as a very sensitive, sympathetic
participant; Kevin Langan as a strong, doomed General Mannon—all these were
important, but I was really floored by how much I liked the music. Before
I went, I had read with some disbelief that Levy had removed many of the
discords originally inserted to please his composer peers in 1967. Whatever
he did, the music now made perfect sense to me. It was not Rigoletto or Pelléas,
nor was it Salome. But it was vibrant, expressive, very individual
music, good to hear, in every case expanding the extraordinary plot. O’Neill’s
original play was discursive; the libretto reduced the text to a very melodramatic
story. Levy’s music added the necessary depth. I was often left in that performance
literally gasping as one event happened after another. Again and again I
thought, “They can’t do that,” just before they did.
That night, I was also more than gratified at the
number of ensembles. The great theatrical strength of opera, Wagner notwithstanding,
is its ability to do what the spoken theater cannot do: namely, to have
people “talking” at the same time. In a play, it would be gibberish. In opera,
we expect it. The problem with many contemporary operas (often adapted from
plays) is that the composer simply sets the play. He or she does not utilize
opera’s unique ability to have two, three, four, or a hundred characters
simultaneously singing different points of view. Levy never failed to insert
ensemble writing whenever he could. His quartet on the ship, for instance,
is one of the most lyrical and expressive moments in contemporary opera.
At the end of Act I, I discovered by chance that
the man sitting next to me was the composer. As I was surprised that I had
enjoyed the act so much, I virtually exploded to Levy when I found out who
he was. He might have been taken aback, but I was so enthusiastic that he
was willing to discuss with me what he had done and why. He also mentioned
then how much the conductor, Richard Buckley, had done to make the piece
I began talking to Levy right then and there about
bringing the opera to Seattle. As the evening progressed, my desire to do
so didn’t lessen, but I did have ideas about further changes that I thought
would help make the opera even better.
I remember walking with Levy down a quiet street
near the opera house in Chicago after the performance, going I know not where,
and talking enthusiastically to him about the opera. He was willing and,
indeed, eager to undertake a further revision, to consider my ideas, and
to see the work presented in a third and, this time, absolutely final version.
This excerpt was taken from Speight Jenkins’
article "Fresh Revelations: The Evolution of Mourning," which first
appeared in Seattle Opera Magazine, Fall 2003.