Hot Ticket: Klytemnestra

The set-up:

Spring Street Studio was packed Saturday night for the second, and final, performance of Klytemnestra, a world-premiere opera produced by Divergence Vocal Theater. Friday night was equally S.R.O.

What brings all these opera queens, wannabes, and probably-ares to this hot First Ward venue for a brand new chamber work? Provenance, that's what, and the "cool factor," as the woman sitting next to me said with satisfaction. And then she added with a mysterious whisper, "People follow her. She knows."

The she is Misha Penton, soprano and artistic director of DVT, who regally sang the title role and wrote the libretto for the "sung words," based upon John Harvey's translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, the first play of the great Oresteia, Aeschylus's triptych about the extremely dysfunctional royal House of Atreus. Harvey wrote the "spoken words." (More on that, later.) The composer is young Dominick DiOrio, noted choral composer and conductor, and his viola-and-piano orchestration hit upon Bach, Berg and Berio. Musicians Meredith Harris, viola, and Kyle Evans, piano, played with rich insight and emotional wallop.

The story of Agamemnon: Klytemnestra is married to powerhouse Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, with daughters Electra and Iphigenia and son Orestes (who appears in full vengeance mode in the next play of the trilogy). Becalmed at Aulis with the Greek armada anxious to sail for Troy, Agamemnon sacrifices daughter Iphigenia in a bargain with the gods for favorable winds. Clytemnestra never forgives the "monster who slit my girl's throat." In revenge, she will take a lover while hubby's away at war. When he returns ten years later, with Cassandra, King of Troy's daughter, in tow as mistress, Clytemnestra kills both of them.

The execution:

For all the violence and terrible fury in the original tale, there's precious little to get upset about in this skimpy version. They talk a good game, but the tragedy seems far, far away -- no Agamemnon, no Cassandra, only lonely Klytemnestra moping around her palace with very bad memories. The big mistake is that the role of Klytemnestra has been broken into three characters.

Klytemnestra I, played by Penton, is the mature queen of Mycenae. She sings. Klytemnestra II is the virginal, girly Grace. She dances (Meg Brooker, who's also the work's choreographer). Klytemnestra III is the queen as young mother. She acts (Miranda Herbert). To confuse us further, both II and III could easily be mistaken for sacrificial lamb Iphegenia and vengeful Electra, who will later kill her mother. It's like a Greek vase set spinning -- all the figures whirl by in a blur. The iconic story's impact is lessened times three. One powerful Klytemnestra is worth a stage full of avatars.

This can't be what the creators intended, not with all the thought that went into the physical production, albeit intimate and scaled-down to fit inside Spring Street's handsome studio space. The lighting by Frank Vela, antiqued honey or passion red, was always sculptural and brought out the best in the figures. Sarah Mosher's redolent costumes (and the sumptuous hair dressing by Serret Jensen) conjured an opulent ancient Greece. In her flowing mid-thigh chiton and loose long hair, Brooker (K II) stepped right off the Acropolis's Erechtheum.

DiOrio's musical treatment of barbarous Mycenae is appropriately spiky and obtuse, an amalgam of contemporary opera sounds, and his writing for voice is accomplished, if not terribly distinguished or powerful, but it's possible he was diluted, too, because of the fragmented nature of the storytelling. Penton is a powerful interpreter, though, and her Queen of Mycenae is shot through with ardor and intensity, whether inhaling with breathy rapture or assailing the gods full throat. She elicited the missing romance in the prickly score.

The quiet ending was splendidly affecting. If I understood what was happening because of the tripartite Klytemnestras, K I awaits philandering husband Agamemnon. Iphigenia has been butchered, but the decade-long memory seers her as if the deed had just happened. She stands against the brick wall of the studio, etched in side light like a Greek frieze -- the last of the work's monumental poses -- and echoes the lines she sang at the beginning, "I light the candle and with its flame...I keep night from its darkness." She backs against the wall and waits for her husband. The strings of the piano are strummed like a lyre. It's a sound both eerie and absolutely right to depict her shivery moment of repose before murder. It's the best effect of the evening.

The verdict:

A more direct, simple treatment would mean major reworking, and I don't know if any of the team's in the mood for something so drastic. An easier solution might be to turn K II and K III directly into Clytemnestra's daughters, Iphigenia and Electra. They're already here in spirit, and Mom needs to deal directly with them for the story to work with appropriate flair. They're just waiting to pop off the vase to tell their story and wreak their vengeance.

Divergence Vocal Theater's Kyltemnestra ran this weekend at Spring Street Studios.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover