Florida Grand Opera Takes Risk, Reaps Rewards

The future of opera was hotly disputed long before the New York City Opera (dubbed “The People’s Opera” by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia) declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy this fall after a heralded 70-year history that culminated in a performance of a new work based on the life of model Anna Nicole Smith.

In recent years, faced with aging audiences and shrinking donations, companies have relied on the tried and true favorites of the repertoire: La bohéme, Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, La traviata and the like.

So, it was a daring move for Florida Grand Opera, under the leadership of General Director Susan T. Danis in her second season, to kick off the 2013-14 season with Mourning Becomes Electra, a 1967 work by Fort Lauderdale resident Marvin David Levy that premiered to critical acclaim at the Met.

An update of the Greek myth of Orestes and based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, Levy’s opera vanished from the stage, to be revived 30 years later by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and reimagined in 2003 and 2004 by Seattle and the City Opera before this triumphant staging in its composer’s hometown.

Mourning is a tempestuous tale of adultery, love, betrayal, murder and even incest among a troubled aristocratic family, The Mannons of post-Civil War New England. By the time the curtain falls on Act 1, an adulterous affair between Christine and her husband’s illegitimate nephew is revealed and the only way their love can be freely expressed is through the murder of her husband, an aging war hero.

By Act 2, son Orin stabs Brant, the bastard lover, and Christine commits suicide to rest with her true love. In complicated twists equaled only on the prime time soap operas of the 1980s, Orin attempts to molest his sister Lavinia before killing himself and leaving her alone in their cursed manor house.

With such a convoluted plot, Levy is hobbled by Henry Butler’s burly libretto. Levy’s music is reminiscent of Barber and Bernstein, punctuated by percussive, colorful—yes, masterful—orchestrations but lost in an endless series of through-composed dialogue necessary to propel the story along. There are no melodious arias, there simply no time, and hardly a melody, yet his harmonies are lush and engaging.  Conductor Ramon Tebar leads the orchestra through the challenging, multi-meter score, unfortunately occasionally overshadowing even the most powerful vocal moments from the cast.

The vocal parts demand virtuosity and the cast steps up to the challenge: Lauren Flanigan, who has starred as Christine in all three recent productions, demonstrates gymnastic agility throughout, making the most difficult passages sound easy. Rayanne Dupuis (Lavinia) also excels, as do Nelson Martinez (Jed) and Morgan Smith (Adam Brant) in their FGO debuts.

Levy’s contemporary score is accentuated by a minimalistic set design by Anya Klepikov that features an 8-foot-tall dollhouse modeled after the manse that serves as a symbolic setting for the characters’ movements throughout and is flanked by two large screens that alternately project the scenery around the manor and the stern family portraits that hang throughout the home.

Mourning offers plenty of challenges for the creative team and performers, but it is also a reach for audiences expecting lilting melodies and happy endings. To the credit of the Arsht Center audience, discussion was thoughtful during intermission and few succumbed to the opportunity for retreat, resulting in an undisputed victory for FGO and contemporary opera.

As a reward for the brave, FGO continues its season with more of the favorites of the repertoire: Verdi’s Nabucco (Jan. 25-Feb. 8), Puccini’s Tosca (March 29 – April 12) and Massenet’s Thaïs (May 3 – 17).

If You Go:

Mourning Becomes Electra

by Marvin David Levy

Florida Grand Opera

Saturday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m.

Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Tickets at FGO.org

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