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The Song of the Furies Is No Song

Mini-Critic makes a snowman, February 12, 2006

And in a vision, Iphigenia saw her brother, Orestes, who was being chased by the Amenities; and he cried out in anguish: "Oh ye gods, who know what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows. [Runni' runni' runni' runni' nose!]"

P. D. Q. Bach, Iphigenia in Brooklyn
Snow started falling last night and kept falling into the morning. This should never happen on a weekend, however, only on a weekday when we would benefit from a snow day off from school. I was a little worried that the snow would disrupt my weekend concert plans, but as a former Michigander I bravely drive through winter weather here and ask questions later. When I first started graduate school in Washington in the early 1990s, I woke up to the first snowstorm I had experienced here, on a January morning. It was a couple inches of snow, and without really thinking about it, I took the shovel out of the trunk of my car, shoveled myself out, and drove to the campus for my first class that day. Not only were the roads deserted, but the campus was shuttered up as if it were Christmas Day. Not a soul to be seen. It had not even occurred to me to check the television to see if classes had been cancelled, which of course they had been. All in all, it works out to about the same number of snow days per year here as we had back in Michigan, but here they cancel for much less. (After all, on any number of occasions as an undergraduate at Michigan State, I transported myself to distant classes on cross-country skis.) I am proud to say that enough other hardy souls showed up at Catholic University last night with me to fill the tiny recital hall of the School of Music, for the performance of the new opera by Washington composer Andrew Simpson, The Furies.

The Oresteia Project is the grand plan, now realized, of Simpson and his wife, classicist Sarah Brown Ferrario, to make a complete operatic adaptation of the three tragedies of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. In spite of how Peter Schickele's alter ego, P. D. Q. Bach, set the story in his truly awful and funny cantata, these plays deal with crucial issues at the birth of what we think of as modern civilization. Little has changed since the time of the Greeks in terms of what really matters. In the 21st century, we worry about sacrificing family to our work, and the series of calamities in The Oresteia is set off by someone sacrificing family for work, well, in the sense that Agamemnon offers his daughter as a human sacrifice to get a good wind for his fleet. As a result, wife murders husband in his bath, and son slits mother's throat (also featured in Strauss's Elektra), all motivated by revenge. This nuclear family sure had a meltdown.

In the third play, The Eumenides, that vendetta culture is itself put on trial. The primal force of blood revenge in Greek mythology was the Furies, spirits that restlessly hounded the murderer of kin, like the matricide Orestes, through the world, eventually driving him insane and torturing him in eternity. The Furies incarnate the insane lust for revenge, and through Athena's wisdom, the spirits themselves are subjugated to the more civilized concept of a justice system regulated by the Athenian state. Vigilantism became theoretically no longer heroic but dangerous. It is important to remember that ancient Greek tragedies were generally performed as part of religious festivals, and the ending of The Oresteia has the feeling of a sacred history, retelling how the wisdom of the patron of Athens, the goddess of wisdom, had established a civilized society. The most bloodthirsty figures in the Greek pantheon agree to abide by the decision of a jury and descend into the earth under their other name, the title of the play, the Kindly Ones.

Andrew Simpson, The Furies, February 11, 2006All that high-minded justice stuff is great, but the real operatic interest in The Furies is in the crazy characters: Klytemnestra, murdered by Orestes in the second opera, who comes back as a ghost to demand her son's death, and the chorus of the Furies. Why exactly has this story not been popular with opera composers? The Furies have already inspired exciting music in their limited appearances in other operas, like the Iphigenia operas and the Orpheus operas. Simpson's music for them is in a Stravinsky/Bartók idiom, in shifting meters or a driving 4/4 grouped into offbeat patterns, and it pervades the opera. I was a little sad to hear it cede primacy to less interesting sounds as Athena's plan succeeds. There is a reason that Aeschylus named the play after his chorus of Furies: they are the stars of the story, and Simpson has given them pride of musical place, too. His use of a female chorus as the driving force of this opera reminded me immediately of Golijov's use of the women's chorus in Ainadamar. The 18 Furies -- twelve singers and six dancers -- all gave quality performances, more as a group than individually, in all their hissing, scowling, groaning, venemous glory.

Other Reviews:

Mark J. Estren, Tragically Good 'Furies' Premieres at Catholic U. (Washington Post, February 14)
The strongest individual performance came from mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden who teetered at the edge of hysteria as the Ghost of Klytemnestra. Kristin Green, who impressed with comic timing last summer in Cendrillon, here gave a strong performance as the Pythian oracle in the first scene. Tenor Alexander Kugler sang very well as Orestes, a role that is about as uninteresting as could be imagined, which is mostly Aeschylus's doing. Up against the Furies, most characters and Orestes especially fade into the background. As Apollo, James Rogers was strong, although the part's lowest notes seemed just out of range. Simpson created a dramatic soprano role for Athena, with a spectacular entrance aria ("I heard your cry from afar"), sung well, if not with quite the necessary force, by Lisa Edwards-Burrs. We should judge the performances by the standards of a very good collegiate production, which is exactly what this was.

The inventive staging of Michael Scarola was minimal and effective, on the bare set designed by Andrew J. Berry. At times, the lighting effects (Andrew F. Griffin) were clumsy, as in the flash scenes, silent movie style ("OH NO!"), showing Orestes fleeing from the advancing Furies and the colored spots underscoring the two sides of the legal case at the end of the opera. The chamber music accompaniment was generally effective, with strong contributions from flutist Alison La Rosa and oboist Francine Amos. Sadly for me, Robert Novak, scheduled to assault an impressive battery of percussion, was unable to play because of a minor fender-bender earlier in the day. The composer, reading from the full score at the piano, incorporated what he could of the percussion part. Simpson's compositional style is rhythmically activated, basically tonal with a healthy but not overwhelming helping of dissonance. At times, this opera had an almost mesmerizing Minimalist quality to it, which was appropriate especially in the music for the Furies, who sing at one point, "The song of the Furies is no song. / It binds the mind and makes men wither." Other styles creep into the modal melodic mix, like the boogie-woogie bass pattern in the piano during the trial scene ("The mother is not kin to the child") and the sighing bends of the chorus in the eighth scene ("Chairete").

You can watch online streaming video recordings of all three operas in Andrew Simpson's Oresteia Project: Agamemnon (premiered in April 2003, online video), The Libation Bearers (March 2004, online video), and The Furies.

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