Levy’s “Mourning” proves an electrifying season opener for FGO

By David Fleshler

Lauren Flanigan as Christine Mannon in Marvin David Levy's "Mourning Becomes Electra," which opened Florida Grand Opera's season Thursday night at the Broward Center.

Lauren Flanigan as Christine Mannon in Marvin David Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” which opened Florida Grand Opera’s season Thursday night at the Broward Center. Photo: Lorne Grandison

Few opera performances in South Florida have been as eagerly anticipated as Florida Grand Opera’s chillingly effective production of Mourning Becomes Electra, which opened the company’s season Thursday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Yet the performance of this neglected American opera seemed to bear out the fears of opera companies about venturing too far from mainstream repertoire; there was a heavy sprinkling of empty seats at the Broward Center and more seats unoccupied after intermission.

Composed by Marvin David Levy, a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale who was in the audience Thursday, the work opened at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967 to favorable reviews. But despite well-received revivals and an extensive reworking by the composer, Mourning has never secured the position in the standard repertoire that many opera lovers felt it deserved.

A strong cast, a stellar performance by the orchestra under conductor Ramón Tebar and Levy’s eerie, richly textured score made for a draining, cathartic evening of opera. There are operas in which the plot is the least important element, a scaffolding on which are hung the beautiful arias, duets and quartets. Not this one. This opera is all drama, with the surging music intensifying a plot that turns darker with every scene.

The libretto by Henry Butler is an adaptation of a three-part drama by Eugene O’Neill, which is itself based on the Oresteia by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. O’Neill shifts the action from ancient Argos to a coastal town in New England. The opera opens as the Mannon family prepares for the return of the family patriarch, Ezra, from service as a general in the Civil War. But what should have been the joyous homecoming of a victorious commander turns into a nightmare of infidelity, murder, madness and suicide, with the members of the Mannon family turning on each other and ultimately destroying themselves.

The music is Wagnerian in its relentless seriousness and in the great weight given to the orchestra. Levy took some of the atonal edges off the score in his revisions, and the result is music that’s full of thumping drama, gleaming orchestration and ominous mutterings in winds and strings. Some of the scenes are brilliant: the confrontation between Ezra and his wife Christine on their four-poster bed, a horrifying portrait of a marriage that became a bleak brew of desperation, indifference, illness and murder. An abrupt suicide elicited gasps from the audience.

The crucial role of Ezra’s wife Christine went to the soprano Lauren Flanigan, who sang the role in an acclaimed 1998 Lyric Opera of Chicago production, as well as later revivals in Seattle and New York. This role is one of those showy star vehicles that would be easy to overdo in a Joan Crawford sort of way, but Flanigan brought to it a New England reserve, playing the role for maximum tension, so that her outbursts of passion, grief and madness came with that much more force. She brought a stellar voice to the difficult, wide-ranging part, effortlessly negotiating quick ascents in tone, as in her desperate cry of “Hold me, Adam,” with a dizzying leap up the scale.

As her daughter Lavinia, the soprano Rayanne Dupuis gave an equally compelling performance, with a voice that could quickly shift from sweet lyricism to dramatic fire to ghostly pianissimo at the top of her range. Her embrace of her own doom at the end was as grim a scene as you’ll ever see on the opera stage.

The highly effective staging used projections on giant screens—trees, tombstones, Greek columns – but most often portraits of the Mannon family, an appropriate and powerful device in an opera in which the characters are haunted by what they’ve done to others.

There was something of a false note at the start, where the projection of a giant snake crawled up the image of a giant Mannon family tree, eliciting chuckles from the audience. It was the last time anyone laughed, and these sets were a model of imagination in service of drama. There was excellent work by stage director Kevin Newbury, set designer Anya Klepikov, lighting designer Robert M. Wierzel and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington.

As General Ezra Mannon, Kevin Langan painted a convincing portrait of a dying warrior who somehow retained his patriarchal dignity even when at his most desperate.

Morgan Smith was a vocal standout as the sea captain Adam Brant, with whom Christine (and possibly Lavinia), is in love. Smith’s terrific second-act aria, with ship’s rigging in the background, about giving up the sea and his bewilderment at his predicament was a highlight of the evening.

An equally strong performance was given by Keith Phares as Ezra’s son Orin, whose vigorous, youthful voice darkened as his character became more twisted.

As Peter and Helen Niles, who were unaccountably considering marrying into this ghastly family, Thomas Lehman and Riley Svatos both sang with fresh, vocal purity that expressed the relative innocence of their roles. Svatos provided a nice turn in a brief aria that was one of the opera’s few moments of tension-free lyricism. As the servant Jed, Nelson Martinez delivered a solid portrayal of faithful service, no matter how dubious the orders.

The opera is sung in English. There were supertitles projected above the stage in English and Spanish, and unfortunately, even the English ones were necessary for following the plot, since the words often couldn’t be understood through the swooping vocal writing and raging orchestra.

At the end, as the singers took their bows, the 81-year-old composer was brought on stage in a wheelchair to share in the applause. Levy waved to the audience and applauded the cast.

Mourning Becomes Electra opens the first season planned by FGO’s new general director and CEO, Susan Danis, and she deserves enormous credit—not only for her courage in programming this unjustly neglected work but for bringing South Florida a production that did it justice.

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra will be performed 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. The production moves to the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami November 16-23. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.

Posted in Performances, Reviews


25 Responses to “Levy’s “Mourning” proves an electrifying season opener for FGO”

  1. Posted Nov 08, 2013 at 12:30 pm by Dave R.

    The staging itself was the finest I’ve seen at FGO in a long time…as far back as I can remember. It was intelligent, appropriate and thought-provoking. I felt like I was watching a Euro regie production. This was not run-of-the-mill FGO crap at all.

    The casting was solid from top-to-bottom, and I was sad when Adam was murdered because I wanted to hear more of Morgan Smith. There were none of the usual FGO casting missteps.

    The opera is compelling for two acts and then drags in the third act. It’s at least 20 minutes too long. I would’ve ended it at Lavinia telling Jed to close the shutters. The End. There’s nothing more to be said.

    But the opera itself was secondary to what the overall production says about the future of FGO. Susan Danis’ arrival gave us hope, but now there’s tangible reason for optimism.

  2. Posted Nov 08, 2013 at 7:32 pm by R. Bontempo/R. Mersitz

    The “term” opera should not be applied to this performance. To be fair it would maybe be a reasonable stage play, but with all the other staging of this theme, it would find it hard to sell.

    As an opera for a “big time” opera company it was a failure. This is the second (2nd) opera in the last 25 years my wife and I have walked out on during the first intermission.

    The second one at the FGO, this was the 30′s Jewish “junk” that the previous music director received $ 500k from the composer’s daughter to produce.

    We believe it was terrible business and artistic decision to produce “this thing” for “Opening” night!

    It brings back memories of the Palm Beach Opera producing a very poor “Hansel and Gretel” for opening night.

    This is our tenth year with both the FGO and PBO operas, the PBO hasn’t produce a “bomb” in the last five, FGO is two for seven.

    We were subscribers to the MET and Philadelphia operas prior to Florida, how can we recommend the FGO (maybe too arty for us, then we don’t make a living in show business and can be more objective).

    Thank you, Rebecca Bontempo and Richard Mersitz, Boca Raton, Fl

  3. Posted Nov 08, 2013 at 9:30 pm by Trish Vidal

    I have never walked out of an opera before last night. It was very difficult to sit through a performance where the orchestra drowned out the performers’ singing, made worse by technical glitches in the captioning that prevented the audience from being able to follow the dialogue, which ironically, was in English. I go to the Opera to hear talented performers sing and I wasn’t able to enjoy any of that. Also at one point, the background image rebooted reminding us that we were all still in 2013 and not the civil war era. Because I was straining to hear the singing, the performance did not engage me. Perhaps this was due to technical issues with the audio, which would be a real shame for the artists who, no doubt, deserved better than being placed in a position where their efforts could not be discerned, much less appreciated.

  4. Posted Nov 08, 2013 at 10:18 pm by Dave Rosenbaum

    Trish Vidal, how could there have been audio problems? Nobody was miked.

    Also, where you sitting? I started out in front upper orchestra, moved to rear lower orchestra and was impressed by how sensitive the conductor seemed to be to the singers, taking pains never to drown them out. That being said, the Broward Center is pretty bad acoustically unless you’re sitting downstairs away from the overhang.

    Also, how many surtitle glitches were there, really? A few.

  5. Posted Nov 09, 2013 at 6:42 am by Anonymous

    Besides the dull, derivative sound of this music as well as the interminably long stretches of slow playing in act two, speaking as a member of the orchestra, what seems never to be addressed is the vapid artistic leadership of Ramon Tebar. Audiences and frankly management as well seem unaware how terrible a conductor he is.

    Tebar is, at best, a student, considering that he happily admits never having studied conducting and conducts in just that way – showing no tempo, completely unaware of the necessity of giving a cue from time to time so that there are often passages when parts of the orchestra either don’t play at all or guess at the tempo. Then there are the pages of notes he typically emails since he’s not clear or efficient enough to address musical or technical issues in rehearsal as legitimate professional conductors do. I can’t count the number of times the orchestra has collapsed in performance or been compelled to go it alone. Of the countless conductors under whom I’ve played, Tebar’s skills are among the very worst, and this doesn’t even begin to address his condescending and abrasive attitude, the sort of thing which would never be tolerated in any other professional situation.

    Local musicians and opera-goers have long lamented the fact that FGO is, despite its status as an ‘A’ house by budget, a rudderless ship, a company without overall artistic standards or real leadership. The hiring of Susan Danis has most certainly been a step in the right direction, especially given her considerable success in Sarasota. But when will FGO have a music director of similar quality as opposed to an essentially amateur musician masquerading as a conductor?

  6. Posted Nov 09, 2013 at 8:32 am by Kate Connor

    I had problems with the orchestra drowning out the singers too. I was in the front mezzanine and really had to strain to hear the singers. At times they were completely drowned out. But overall I enjoyed the opera and recommend it. I especially liked the set design.

  7. Posted Nov 09, 2013 at 11:46 am by Jeremy

    Finally something different and GOOD!. We had enough of Barbieres, Elisir, Bohemes and Don Pasquales. This is a departure and a good one, bravo Susan Danis and Ramon Tebar!. Ok, not perfect, not the greatest modern opera – Wozzeck? Frosch? – but a good one and well done! This is like Obamacare, not perfect but at least something!. Bravo FGO.

  8. Posted Nov 09, 2013 at 6:33 pm by Jeremy Ross

    Mr. or Mrs. Anonymus, what you wrote about Maestro Ramon Tebar is absolutely unprofessional, full of resentment and hate. At least, have the courage to write your name. You know he doesn’t deserve it, shame on you. What kind of musician are you?

    ps, I never ever do this type of things, but in this case..this is simply too much, an absurd and obnoxious lack of respect for a professional musician.

  9. Posted Nov 09, 2013 at 10:46 pm by Dan Satterwhite

    Anonymous:

    Until you have the courage to post your name, you should keep your unprofessional comments to yourself.

    Dan Satterwhite
    FGO Orchestra

  10. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 8:29 am by James Gensel

    Bravo to everyone and especially FGO for “sticking their neck out” and doing something innovative and engaging. To those of us who hunger to hear at least one new Opera a year. Bravo! There’s so much to be heard other than the standard repertoire.

  11. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 11:36 am by Mark Schubert, FGO Orchestra

    Anonymous:
    vapid? amateur ? condescending and abrasive ?!?- look in the mirror!

  12. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 2:26 pm by Isabel Thompson

    Anonymous,

    Your comment is wrong. Please do not speak as a member of this orchestra when you jeopardize the rest of us with your negativity. Thank you,

    Isabel Thompson
    clarinetist – FGO orchestra

  13. Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 10:13 am by Robert Grey

    It wasn’t good, I’m not sure of any other way to put it, and I believe half the place clearing out at intermission is a sure sign of that. It took everything I had to stay until the end. It was my first Opera, however the three people I was with agreed, and asked that I please not judge going to future performances based on what we had just seen.

  14. Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm by Dave R.

    Robert, the reaction of any FGO audience is a sure sign of nothing.

  15. Posted Nov 12, 2013 at 9:44 pm by Richard Fleischman

    Congratulations to FGO for mounting one of the greatest 20th-century operas with outstanding performances by singers and orchestra and a first-rate production. I went to the first 2 performances. Kudos to Ms Danis for bringing this great work to South Florida audiences.
    Richard Fleischman
    (Santa Fe Opera/Delray String Quartet/New World School of the Arts.)

  16. Posted Nov 17, 2013 at 10:53 pm by Jarred

    I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. Of course, it was a risk. But I believe Susan Danis made a fabulous first impression on southern Florida. Not to mention the magnificent Maestro Ramon Tebar. What a blessing to have such a fabulous and prestigious conductor in Miami. Just look at his conducting schedule! Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, with top-notch orchestras from all over the world. As an accomplished musician myself, listening and seeing the way Tebar organizes all of Levy’s musical ideas is truly fascinating. Definitely something I have only seen in some of the most prestigious conductors of the time (never before in my hometown). I think the production was wonderful, the set was impressive, and the casting was great. My props to Maestro Tebar, I hope you stick around Miami! FGO, keep a close grip on him.

  17. Posted Nov 20, 2013 at 12:09 am by dan

    truly and easily the worst opera production i have ever had the misfortune to witness. let alone, pay for. there was no melody, just words mis set to music. the acting was poor and the stage direction, as far as the performers are concerned, was worse. the set design was the only redeeming feature, and it was no where near enough. this performance will drive dollars away from the art form. a tragedy, indeed

  18. Posted Nov 20, 2013 at 7:54 am by Ed

    I attended the November 19th performance at the Arsht Center. It was the first opera in 35 years that I walked out during the first intermission. The orchestra was loud…. both the orchestra and the performers produced more dissonant sounds than I have ever heard. And, like me, a large percentage of the audience left during the first intermission. I agree the FGO and other opera companies need to be innovative and I applaud them for trying but in the end the music and voice need to be attractive to the people buying the tickets. Without us there is no orchestra and there are no performers. Sometime that fact gets lost on the Artsy folk.

  19. Posted Nov 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm by Jack

    Clearly Dan and Ed must have heard a different opera than I attended last night. Further, they must not have frequented much opera in Miami over the last several decades.

    With one of the most thoughtfully and best matched casts presented by FGO in many seasons, this imaginative production pleased a lot of those who cared enough to listen with open ears and enjoy a compelling production of an American operatic masterpiece.

    Kudos to FGO for mounting such a satisfying evening of opera.

  20. Posted Nov 20, 2013 at 3:35 pm by Dave R.

    I’m not going to sit here and claim that “Mourning” is a masterpiece because I don’t think it is. The opera has plenty of weaknesses. And I can understand why a person might dislike “Mourning,” especially if they give it only one (or half of one) listen.

    But I think if you’re going to go into an opera expecting pretty melodies that go hand in hand with the libretto, you’re going to wipe out a pretty good portion of operatic music from 1850 on. For me, the orchestral music in “Mourning” expresses the psychological undertone of the opera and its characters, which is not an uncommon feature of many operas from Wagner on. To me, it’s a more textured, more multi-faceted way of presenting a story. I’m not saying I don’t love Boheme and Tosca. I do, and I’m not going to say “Mourning” compares to either of them musically. But I also think “Mourning” is a lot more interesting on other levels. It is possible to go to opera to think as well as to feel.

    I also think that if FGO’s goal were only to keep catering to its core audience, it would die a quick (and thankful, from my perspective) death. Have you taken a look at FGO’s operating deficit? FGO is attempting to become relevant operatically and expand its audience, and this was a step in the right direction.

  21. Posted Nov 21, 2013 at 12:35 am by dan

    to be sure, tastes in art vary, and viva most differences. equally obviously, mourning electra differs greatly from classic opera. but it says something when a good part of a paying audience abandons a performance after the first act, and the production collapses the 2d and 3d acts into one unit (to avoid the second stage of audience flight?). these performers also seemed lost on the stage at many times, waiting for cues that weren’t forthcoming. classical music at best expresses emotion, and opera at best enhances those emotions, enlarges those expressions. these performances, and their stage management, didn’t begin to touch what an opera ought be about.

  22. Posted Nov 21, 2013 at 4:37 pm by Dave R.

    Again, Dan, I would say the reaction of the average FGO crowd says absolutely nothing. This is the audience that thought Leah Partridge was a star. If the “Mourning” crowds have been a case of old audience out, new audience in, that can only be good news for FGO.

  23. Posted Nov 25, 2013 at 10:47 pm by Juan Morales

    Let me start by saying that I am not a huge fan of “modern” opera so I went to this performance with trepidation. That said, I must congratulate FGO in what I felt was one of the best operas they have produced lately.

    To start off Mourning is a huge play (about 5 hours long) which is seldom performed. Even the 1947 movie with Rosalind Russell as Lavinia Mannon was not a huge success, so I was pleasantly surprised how they were able to “shrink” this down to 2 acts without hurting the drama.

    The production was one of the best!! The sets were incredible, a perfect example of how you can accomplish a lot with little (as opposed to a certain team a few seasons ago, which like Don Quijote, I would rather not remember their names). The singing was INCREDIBLE!! Mr Smith (in the role of Brant) was amazing and I could only wish to hear/see him in a production of Billy Budd at some point.

    The fact that some of the audience walked out and there were a lot of empty seats does not mean much for Miami audiences. This is a community that needs to be taught!! With such a short opera season, we can not have Boheme, Carmen, Traviata & Barbiere done every season. Hopefully that is about to change!! I was very upset (and vocal) about the crappy season we had last year, all I can say now is: FGO KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

  24. Posted Nov 26, 2013 at 10:22 am by Dan S.

    While the artistic merits of “Mourning” can be debated, its business and financial implications are very clear. If this trend continues, FGO will lose the “old” and is very unlikely to rapidly (if ever) gain sufficient number of “new” patrons to survive. There is no evidence to support the notion that the elusive “new” audience isn’t coming now because they don’t like traditional opera, but will fall in love with FGO because of the likes of “Mourning”.

    When an organization dissatisfies the large majority of its core customers, its future is at risk. Those “average” patrons may not be “sophisticated” enough for some of the experts on this site, but they pay the bills. New World Symphony went through a similar experience realizing that rather than force its core subscribers to listen to contemporary music, it would be better financially to offer such music as a separate series (Sound of the times).

    FGO might not have the luxury of doing same, but alienating the large majority of its patrons, is not the solution. Other creative ways to expand the audience, need to be explored.

  25. Posted Nov 26, 2013 at 12:49 pm by Kristian Toimil

    I attended the Saturday performance at the Arsht Center, sitting in the Third Tier. I consider myself a serious lover of opera, and I can embrace newer operas, but “Mourning Becomes Electra” was a hard sell. Having said that, I don’t regret FGO staging it. It was a new experience, and I think myself better for having experienced it.

    The staging was beautiful, and the direction was dramatic. Christine’s suicide caught me completely by surprise, such is the power of the stage direction. The story was very compelling and the time flew by as I followed along. The music propels the story forward, even if it doesn’t stand out on its own.

    The highlight of the evening was the “Talk-Back” after the opera. Its rare that one is able to ask a composer about his work, but FGO provided us the opportunity to ask Maestro Levy, the cast, the directors and even Ms. Danis questions.

    I had purchased tickets only for this opera, but not for the other three operas of the season, but after this experience and based on the care FGO is placing on creating a new operatic experience, I’m considering subscribing to the rest of the season.

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