OP3308. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (Marvin David Levy), Live Performance, 1 April, 1967, w.Mehta Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Marie Collier, Evelyn Lear, Sherrill Milnes, John Reardon, John Macurdy, etc. [World Premiere Cast, plus Collier's & Lear's Met Opera debut roles; Based on the play cycle by Eugene O'Neill, this mythic tale is set in Massachusetts shortly after the Civil War. Beneath the veneer of the prim and proper Mannon family are seething passions of bitterness, infidelity, incest, and even murder. The magnificently powerful music, written by Marvin David Levy, is completely original. Leonard Bernstein called Marvin David Levy's opera ‘a tremendous achievement, a remarkable work’….this opera received a 25-minute standing ovation on its opening night at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967.] (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-865. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Marvin David Levy (1932–2015) spent years fulfilling a Metropolitan Opera commission, an opera for the first season in its new Lincoln Center home. It was more fortunate than the other such commission, Samuel Barber’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, which was sabotaged by a malfunctioning set on opening night. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA generated more favorable revues than ANTONY, earning a second run of performances the following season. All were agreed that Henry Butler’s reduction of Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy was a success, losing none of the play’s dramatic power. Harold C. Schonberg, chief critic of THE NEW YORK TIMES (an ultra-conservative who disparaged everything new) summed up: ‘In short, everything about the opera was convincing except the music’.
I hear glorious music where Schonberg heard none. Yes, it is dissonant, but no more so than the operas of Bartók, Berg, and Janácek (none of which had been accepted by Met audiences in 1967), and less harsh than that of Richard Strauss’ own ELEKTRA. It matches them in thrilling lyricism as well as dramatic excitement. The music is not pretty, of course; it is dark, cold, and sometimes ugly, as in Strauss’ opera, for this is a dark, cold, ugly tale. Yet at the end of Act I, the audience immediately bursts into frenzied applause. In the magnificent scene on the pier, O’Neill, Butler, and Levy pull off an astonishing feat: They make us feel sympathy for Adam and Christine, the murderous lovers.
Was it Schonberg who killed Levy’s opera? A successful production in Germany was followed by a 30-year dearth of performances. During that time, Levy reduced the orchestration and simplified the harmonic language for several successive productions, including one for Chicago Lyric Opera in 1998, leading to a coproduction with the Seattle Opera that New York City Opera presented in 2004. Each revision softened the score; the paradoxical result was greater audience and critical acceptance but the watering down of a great work. As this St. Laurent release of the original Met production shows us, the composer was right, his critics wrong: The ‘Eroica’, Bruckner, ‘Le sacre du printemps’. Will we never learn?
O’Neill’s (and Butler’s) Mannon family corresponds to that of Aeschylus: Agamemnon = Ezra; Clytemnestra = Christine; Electra = Lavinia; Orestes = Orin. Modern psychology encourages us all to speak up, to express our feelings. It doesn’t work for the Mannons, who are at each others’ throats from the beginning, Oedipus and Electra complexes in full swing. With murder, sex, incest, and vengeance, this is perfect opera material. Like Erika in Barber’s VANESSA, Lavinia becomes her mother:
Take the flowers out of the house.
Nail the shutters fast.
I do not want to see the sun.
The singing is magnificent, from top to bottom. Evelyn Lear and Marie Collier produce glorious tones while managing difficult vocal lines, and both are dramatically overpowering. Sherrill Milnes’ voice was not to my taste, but he is most impressive as Adam. John Reardon as Orin has a few awkward moments before he gets warmed up but gets better and better; he is superb in Act III. Even Raymond Michalski’s Jed is solid and potent. The Metropolitan Chorus has little to do. The Met orchestra was not in great shape (before James Levine appeared) and has a few problems in the horns and brass.
This is an opera in which you must hang on every word. I have the Metropolitan Opera libretto, but it’s not a necessity, as both the vocal writing and the singers’ clean elocution make almost every word clear - except in the second-act quartet, where Lavinia, Christine, Orin, and Adam all sing separate lines. St. Laurent Studio’s stereo sound is excellent; there is a low level of background noise and sometimes hum, but not enough to distract from the drama. St. Laurent Studio’s date was the Saturday matinee of the broadcast, so its source was probably stereo FM radio. That was the fourth of six performances that season, and the opera received five more the next.”
- James H. North, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2019
“The new opera by Marvin David Levy received a pulverizing performance, thanks to the effort of two sopranos – Marie Collier from Australia and Evelyn Lear….One shudders to think of what would have happened had not these two brilliant singing-actresses been cast as Christine and Lavinia….an impact that hits the psyches of all of us….It should be said that the other members of the cast were almost on this level. The Metropolitan Opera, going all out in its production, selected the best of the singing-actors on its staff. John Reardon and Sherrill Milnes were entirely believable figures.”
- Harold C. Schoenberg, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18 March, 1967
“Adapted from Eugene O'Neill's sprawling 1931 play of the same name, this opera focuses on a tormented family in a coastal New England town after the Civil War. A friend in New York helped Levy convince O'Neill's widow, Carlotta Monterey, to adapt MOURNING into an opera. But Levy never dreamed his opera would court interest from the Met, until he encountered the opera house's general manager, Rudolf Bing, at a Manhattan bar. ‘It wasn't my aim to get in the Met, not that I was going to turn it down’, recalls Levy, ‘It's also a burden, being so young, thrown into the spotlight, with no great deal of material behind you yet’. The Met's mounting of MOURNING wowed critics; but then the Opera, to Levy's dismay languished in obscurity for 31 years. He wrote few operas in the interim, and taught music history and orchestration at Brooklyn College, until the Lyric Opera of Chicago revived the much revised opera in 1998. More re-tweaking followed before presentations by the Seattle Opera in 2003 and the New York City Opera in 2004.”
- Phillip Valys, 5 Nov., 2013
“For most of Levy’s quicksilver career, his constant companion was his best-known composition, the Opera MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. That work, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera when he was still in his 20s, would become both a source of his dissolution and, in the end, his salvation. Making its debut at the Met in 1967, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA was the last full-length opera Levy ever wrote. Its history - from highly touted prospect to object of obscurity to recipient of late-life acclaim - parallels his own, illuminating the trajectory of a composer who found himself under immense pressure to cleave to musical fashions that were inimical to his art. ‘There wasn’t a taste for romantic contemporary music’, Levy told the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES in 1998, recalling the climate of draconian atonality in which he had composed the opera. The Met rarely commissions operas, and its selection of Levy was a signal honor.”
- PIONEER PRESS, 13 Feb., 2015
“John Macurdy, an American bass who belonged to a select group of solo singers who have tallied more than 1,000 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, was admired for his rich, firm voice and poised, dignified stage presence. He sang 62 roles in works of wide stylistic diversity, including notable world premieres.
Though he achieved success in key roles like Gurnemanz in Wagner’s PARSIFAL, King Marke in TRISTAN UND ISOLDE and Sarastro in Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE, Mr. Macurdy proved essential to the house for his standout performances of supporting roles.
Mr. Macurdy said in a 2005 interview with OPERA NEWS that these small parts would be ‘added to your contract, even though you might be singing so-called leading roles at the time’. But his willingness to take them on, his skill at learning a new role quickly and his vocal consistently made him indispensable to the Met for years. Critics often singled out his performances even when his stage time was limited. During his prime years he appeared with the Paris Opéra, La Scala and other international houses. He studied voice privately with Avery Crew, whom he credited as his one and only voice teacher, and who provided the grounding for his solid technique.
The NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE critic Alan Rich, reviewing a 1964 production of Saint-Saëns’s SAMSON ET DALILA, wrote that Mr. Macurdy ‘sang the few lines of the Old Hebrew with powerful resonance’. In Mr. McCurdy’s 1976 performance as the jailer Rocco in Beethoven’s FIDELIO, a meaty role, his intonation was ‘rock-firm’, the critic Andrew Porter wrote in THE NEW YORKER. A ‘magnificent voic’, Mr. Porter commented, ‘was kept within the bounds of character’. Mr. Macurdy took part in some historic evenings at the Met, including the gala farewell to the old house in April of 1966 and the inauguration of its Lincoln Center home five months later, at which he sang Agrippa in the world premiere of Barber’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, starring Leontyne Price. He created the role of Ezra Mannon in Marvin David Levy’s MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, the company’s second world premiere of that inaugural season. He gained attention beyond the opera world for portraying the Commendatore in Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of DON GIOVANNI. A major break came in 1959 when he made his New York City Opera debut as Dr. Wilson in the company’s first performance of Kurt Weill’s STREET SCENE. He appeared with City Opera regularly for three years in familiar roles like Colline in Puccini’s LA BOHÈME, as well as in contemporary works, notably the 1959 premiere of Hugo Weisgall’s SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR. He took part the next year in a live television broadcast of DON GIOVANNI, singing the Commendatore in a cast including Leontyne Price and Cesare Siepi. His Met debut came in 1962 with the small role of Tom in Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. His final performance, in 2000, was as Hagen in Wagner’s GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, conducted by James Levine. Others like him in the 1,000-plus Met solo singer performance club include the bass Paul Plishka (more than 1,600), the bass-baritone James Morris (1,100 and counting) and the tenor Charles Anthony, the record-holder at 2,928.
Mr. Macurdy always emphasized that while many of the bass parts he sang involved limited stage time, parts like Hunding, Fafner and Hagen in Wagner’s RING were vocally substantive and dramatically crucial. These old roles felt ‘like a good suit of clothes’, he said in a 1980 interview with Bruce Duffie for the Chicago radio station WNIB. ‘The ones that fit, fit very, very well,” he said, “and the other ones just hang in the closet. I look at how Wagner wrote’, he added, ‘and every one of the bass roles fits my voice like the day it was made’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23 May, 2020