Oresteia, Iannis Xenakis

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

12th September, 2014

So Percussion

"What? Iannis Xenakis wrote an opera?  Is it all percussion?  Will the singers just be making percussion noises?"  Yes, yes, and yes.  The Deutsche Oper's presentation of Xenakis' 1966 work, Oresteia, is an admirable and partially successful choice, featuring an effective use of an unconventional space and some vivid instrumental writing.  The vocal writing, however, feels willfully un-vocal, and in so constraining the human instrument, I felt that Xenakis also undermined his goal of creating a vivid, raw piece of theater. 

Director David Hermann staged the work concisely and creatively, having transformed the opera house's parking garage into something evoking an ancient Greek theater (stairs, benches, grey walls, open sky).  The central theme of the story, that of the primitive "Law of Revenge" being replaced by a democratic system of justice, was demonstrated through the encounter of the lurching, Morlock-like male chorus with gleaming emblems of future technology (such as a gold-plated excavator).  Although their costumes were visually arresting (by Christof Hetzer), with grotesque Pan masks, their music (sloppily sung) was mostly a dead kind of monosyllabic chanting — at times rather like soccer fans in a stadium — that developed interest only occasionally, when the choruses were layered over each other.

Xenakis' program notes might explain the source of the problem, which was his over-deference to the textual material: he believed that a great text is diminished by a musical setting, and admitted that he "made no attempt to reconstruct the tone and prosody of ancient Greek."  This is a strange and very limiting starting point for writing something you are calling an opera.  The result was that the vocal writing, both choral and solo, seemed monochromatic, stiff, and ultimately uninteresting.


The orchestral music, however, was in fact thrilling, evoking an organic, pagan world of clanging strings, squealing woodwinds and pounded drums (sharply organized by Maestro Moritz Gnann).  Xenakis ironically allows the timpani to "speak" much more eloquently than the singers.  (Bravo to percussionist Björn Matthiessen for his dynamic performance.)

Cassandra (overtly staged as a Christ-figure) was sung with physical commitment but what can only be called vocal recklessness by Seth Carico, a bass-baritone who was asked to sing an overly-long, strophic aria, full of jagged leaps in and out of his falsetto range.  Perhaps this was Xenakis' attempt at communicating Cassandra's impotence, but surely this could have been expressed without rendering the singer's instrument impotent as well.

With vocal writing so unvocal, it is no wonder that perhaps the most compelling device of the piece was that many of the main characters were not portrayed by singers at all, but by masked dancers.  The surreal costume design featured such wonderful oddities as the dancers' heads concealed in what looked like giant chunks of basalt: the characters of myth as hardened volcanic figures.  Other surreal elements, such as the (literal) deus ex macchina of Athena's gleaming Mercedes interrupting the otherwise primitive landscape, were effective at communicating the gap between the ancient and modern worlds.

Michael Hofmeister, a countertenor portraying Athena as a type of Madame President (or Kanzlerin), sang with clarity, though he could not avoid the farcical aspects of his costume (rendering him something like Will Ferrell in his legendary Janet Reno's Dance Party skit).  And although I was not entirely convinced of the composer's choice to have both of these female lead roles sung by men, in this case the awkwardness enhanced the sense that the reign of order Athena establishes is essentially unnatural.

The sterile, alien world that she heralds (attendants in Hazmat suits) contrasted with the passion of the bulbous, hairy Furies, who attempt to tear Athena's sedan to pieces with their wrath, but fail to leave a dent.  This was an effective and witty direction by Hermann, demonstrating the victory of the modern Law of the State over the archaic Law of Revenge.

Today's news headlines tell a somewhat different story.  Aeschylus's 2500-year-old tragedy has perhaps never seemed more relevant, even in this compromised telling from 50 years ago.

Bottom line: an "opera" without singing, but the drums tell the tale


Georges Briscot



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