Teatro Grattacielo, the sturdy little company that has presented Italian verismo rarities in concert for twenty-two years, always gives us something to ponder plus a couple of young singers we’re thrilled to encounter. The works themselves have varied, from once-popular antiques of faded, fragrant charm like Zazá, Iris and L’Oracolo to obscurities that seem impressively ready for a proper staging, like La Nave, Siberia and (you were waiting for it, weren’t you?) I Cavalieri d’Ekebù.
This year’s treat was Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra, completed around 1905, a piece with a checkered past, recently disarchived. A couple of remarkable recent presentations can be found on youtube, but this appears to be the work’s first American performance since Rosa Raisa sang it in Philadelphia in 1914. Ergo, a New York premiere! With all that that entails.
The place: Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College, down the street from Lincoln Center, which acoustically puzzling facility does have a balcony from which the chorus can declaim, portraying a horrified crowd, in the evening’s finale. This is in accordance with the hopes of the composer and the librettist, the great Luigi Illica, to give audiences an Ancient Greek sense of being part of the action themselves. The New Jersey and Connecticut Choral Societies served nobly.
Rumor at the time of Cassandra’s 1909 appearances implied that Gnecchi had plagiarized certain effects, even certain themes, from the contemporary successes of Richard Strauss. The comparison was more likely to be made in that, fortuitously (he composed his opera before Strauss ever encountered von Hofmannsthal’s version of Sophocles’ Elektra and decided to make use of it), the libretto Gnecchi set was taken, loosely, from the first play of Aeschylus’ House of Atreus trilogy.
That play, usually called Agamemnon, presents the surly king returning home from the Trojan War with his concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, only to be murdered the same day by his adulterous consort, Clytemnestra. In short, this is the backstory of Strauss’s Elektra, in which the same family are presented from the point of view of their vengeful daughter, who makes a brief, mute appearance in Cassandra, aged (presumably) about fourteen.
On this occasion, there was a bit of sitting up straight when we heard Strauss’s Orestes motif distinctly sounding at just the sort of moment in the action where Strauss would have placed it. Did Gnecchi send Strauss his unpublished score, and did Strauss later absent-mindedly recall the tune as Elektra recognized her brother? Or are such moments coincidences of two men under the influence of Wagner and everything else that was going on at the century’s turn? There is no way to be certain.
Many journalists (scurrilous breed!) accused Gnecchi of stealing from Strauss; Strauss never spoke on the subject at all. But he was the world’s leading opera composer, Puccini aside. You were far more likely, even then, to hear Elektra than one of the rare performances of Cassandra, and to know of the blazing Strauss than the obscure Gnecchi. Gnecchi was already rich (by family), so he did not starve. His later operas are even more obscure.
What does seem clear from this encounter is that however unjustly overlooked, however able its orchestral fabric and vocal lines, Cassandra breaks no new ground. It is a typical if rather sedate Italian melodrama, not shabby but no shocker, in no way comparable to the shattering Expressionist masterpiece that is Elektra.
Gnecchi’s own retiring personality—he was new to opera composition and less than thirty—probably accounts for his opera’s shunning of risk. Strauss, twelve years older and a very experienced composer (all those tone poems!), knew just how many taboos he could assault. Elektra shocked the world—which lapped it up and begged for more. Cassandra has some impressive stage effects—lurid lighting and choral scene-settings are called for—but the pretty music does not challenge our ears or wring our hearts, and the orchestration does not illustrate or justify the story’s extremes.
Gnecchi seems afraid to make his characters unsympathetic. Clytemnestra, embittered and forgotten, sings a warm young-lovers duet with Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, who is equally besotted. Agamemnon, whom they have resolved to murder, turns out to be not the impious tyrant of Aeschylus’ play or Homer’s Iliad, but a heckuva nice guy, a doting father, a generous enemy, gracious and polite to the captive Cassandra, whom he does not seem to have raped in this version.
With Cassandra herself, Gnecchi and Illica are more successful: She does not open her mouth till the second part. She then foresees horror but is herself uncertain what she sees, what dreadful fate she anticipates—and therefore cannot predict it and give the game away. The murder is tastefully offstage. (So it is in Strauss, too, but graphically sounded so that we very nearly have seen it.) This may be classical restraint but it sure isn’t Verism. Aeschylus’ brutal force is elided. Hardly anyone screams.
The beginning is clever: An actual Prologo (the reliably sturdy bass-baritone Stefanos Koroneos, a Grattacielo stalwart) provides the backstory to the drama, and this would perhaps bore us no matter who sang it. Or so feared Illica and Gnecchi, who cleverly broke up the phrases with interjections from a chorus of sighing Sirens. The story and the song build, but always egged on, encouraged, as in antique tragedy.
After some muddiness with complicated opening strings, Israel Gursky led the Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra in a forceful, intriguing performance that flew by, the leitmotiven, familiar and unfamiliar, careful not to compete with the sizable voices of the lead singers. For the one small voice, the boy soprano of Nicholas Newman as Orestes, the clear sound rang through the room and both Gnecchi and Gursky conspired to let him be heard. Other small roles were well performed, various handmaidens by the interesting soprano of Meredith Mecum, a couple of sailors by Peter Kendall Clark and Jon Tetelman.
The big roles in the opera are four in number: Clytemnestra (soprano), Aegisthus (baritone), Agamemnon (tenor) and Cassandra herself (mezzo). They are big in the then-current style, brashly forward emotions at high charge, for a time when Italians were enlarging the orchestra and the opera houses. These are the meat that draws Grattacielo’s audiences to the annual banquet.
Elsa O’Connor, slim and alluringly gowned, sang Clitennestra [sic], which, rather than Cassandra, is the big role in this opera. Gnecchi has given her queenly authority, to identify herself with destiny, to rage at the husband who slew their daughter and went off to war—and then, rather in the style of Wagner’s Isolde (a work Gnecchi knew quite well), lurch from rage into passion as Egisto (Aegisthus) appears.
O’Connor took a few minutes to get the breathing apparatus in gear, but then her luminous soprano gleamed in furious majesty, and continued to blaze to the end of Part 1. (She is mostly off stage in Part 2.) O’Connor showed us a queen to be reckoned with before Straussian insomnia and guilt ravaged her. The lady sings Tosca, which would be fun to hear.
In creating the role of Agamennone, Gnecchi seems almost to foresee the great tenor roles of Strauss: Bacchus, Apollo, the Kaiser. The tessitura, in other words, is lofty and remains there, but must also express gently joyful romantic addresses to Clitennestra. The tension and estrangement Aeschylus portrays is not to be found here.
At the Lynch, this role was taken by Arnold Rawls, so impressive in Grattacielo’s Piccolo Marat, a major Pertile part, but also a Bacchus. The height of the part caused him some strain but never broke his command of gracious line. The singing remained beautiful and he had the resources to express the king’s gentler side. Odd it may seem to us, but that’s the part as written and that was how Rawls sang it.
Strauss’s Aegisth is a “heroic character tenor,” an oaf, a fool, Elektra’s view of the man who stole her mother’s love. This is unfair to the mythic story, and Gnecchi rescues him, turning Egisto into a sincere and ardent baritone, his longing for vengeance transformed into love. Eugene O’Neill worked the same line in his Mourning Becomes Electra, but Martin David Levy’s opera did not make that romantic or credible.
At Grattacielo, Shea Owens took complete advantage of one of the rare occasions the lower male voice gets to display his love and have the soprano respond to it. He has a pleasing lyric sound that should do well in the great Verdi roles. Owens and O’Connor burned up the stage.
At last, at the hour mark, mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe made her entrance as Cassandra, in a low-cut sky-blue gown—after all, Cassandra is a votary of Apollo—of course she would wear sky blue. The voice made less contrast to O’Connor’s—Gnecchi has given Cassandra a similar sound and a not widely dissimilar range. Her contrast with Clitennestra is more emotional and strophic: the Queen declaims great monologues about past and present, Cassandra, in short phrases, attempts to see the future through clouds of neurotic confusion, to make sense of her anticipatory dread.
This is a brilliant idea, but Gnecchi has not set it so as to awaken our anticipatory dread. Volpe sang the role clearly, with forceful authority, but the shadows that Strauss so easily and eerily implied around the haunted House of Atreus did not make their appearance in the Gnecchi’s score.
One should not dismiss, unheard, a work like Cassandra that demonstrates theatrical genius on so many levels approaching a story so many eras have found fascinating. It is very good to hear it, and my gratitude to Teatro Grattacielo is great. But this is not, I believe, one of their resuscitations that will travel well or widely.