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  •  REVIEW: ORESTEIA

    Oresteia
    Photo by Richard Termine

    Greek to Me

    Famed choreographer Luca Veggetti takes on Iannis Xenakis's brilliant, daunting "Oresteia," with spectacular but mixed results.

    By REESE THOMPSON
    Offoffoff.com

    Early in Iannis Xenakis's "Oresteia," Cassandra has a graphic vision of Agamemnon's murder, which the Chorus dismisses as madness. Xenakis, the late Greek modernist, composes it as an extended set piece for percussionist and bass. In Luca Veggetti's staging, which played three performances at the Miller Theatre in September, Wilbur Pauley had the unenviable job of playing both Cassandra and the Chorus, a role that required him to switch from a cooing falsetto to a baritone register at the turn of a hat, all while strumming on a psaltery. I suppose it's sort of like crossing the street while texting your fav five all at the same time. The real drama in the scene is between the percussionist and the vocalist, who is like a satellite extension of the life-giving throb of the percussion. The undulating rise and fall of Mr. Pauley's vocal line, set against the continuo of wood blocks and skin drums, had the distinct feel of Chinese Opera. As a theatrical conceit, it is fascinating. It's like watching a ventriloquist without a puppet, or like watching a medium channel voices.

      
    ORESTEIA
    Directed by: Luca Veggetti.
    Based on The Oresteia by: Aeschylus.
    Cast: Wilbur Pauley, baritone dancers: Olivia Ancona, Kristi Capps, Frances Chiaverini, Matthew Branham, R. Colby Damon, and Stephan Laks Oresteia Chorus Young People’s Chorus of New York City International Contemporary Ensemble.
    Set design by: Luca Veggetti and Roderick Murray.
    Costumes by: Deanna Lynn Berg and Luca Veggetti.
    Lighting design by: Roderick Murray.
    Conductor: Steven Osgood.
    Projections Design: Sage Marie Carter.
    Original Artwork: Pascal Delcey.
     SCHEDULE
    Miller Theatre at Columbia University
    2960 Broadway (at 116th Street); MC 1801
    Sept. 13-17, 2008

    At its best, Xenakis's music is an intensely physical, psychically disconcerting, and even ritualistic experience. It asks of its listener nothing short of complete confidence, if not some level of devotion. I stop short of using the word "spiritual" not only to avoid hyperbole but also because the Xenakis devotee is nothing like the typical zealot, much less the capricious fan. There is an implied sense among his followers of having been initiated, and therefore having attained that third ear of understanding. The gulf between his music and the ability of words to describe it is so great because it requires a more steady concentration.

    His music is not only mind-expanding in the superficial, shamanistic sense, but the philosophical implications of his method and theory make a compelling aesthetic argument. By tossing out the tools and conventions of music making, and in doing so question the million pre-conceived notions that build the foundation upon which every choice, judgment, and decision is made every day, we come closer to recognizing how suspect are the institutions into which we invest our faith, whatever they may be. Moreover, his music throws into stark relief our relationship to sound and our receptivity to it. One doesn't simply listen to his music the way one listens to Mozart or Led Zeppelin. One breathes into his percussion. One sees into his orchestral and chamber works. Listening to Xenakis is often a physical sensation, perhaps elicited in part by the screaming discordance. In this way, Xenakis may resemble Wagner, though I can think of no two composers whose aesthetics are so diametrically opposed.

    Oresteia  
    Photo by Richard Termine  
    How exactly to stage this kind of music in a way that allows all elements to collaborate and cohere doesn't seem to be a question for Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti. Veggetti is a choreographer who seems truly at home choreographing difficult music. He understands the visceral intensity of Xenakis's version of the story, and is well suited at picking out paragraphs within the architectonic sound-scape, into which he inserts his dancers to shape the scale. There's an energy to these dances that I can only describe as elemental. The energy is dramatic and instinctual rather than emotional. Veggetti has a particular genius for creating calligraphy through the combination of bodies moving together, or passing each other in the line of vision. Moreover, his choreography gives his dancers a unique authority on the stage. Because of the nature of Xenakis's composition, there is really not practical way for the dancers to take their cues entirely out of the music. Choreographing this music is certainly no small feat. There is no doubt that Veggetti is a fabulous choreographer.

      
      At its best, Xenakis's music is an intensely physical, psychically disconcerting, and even ritualistic experience.
      
    However, the work is an opera, and if it did not require (in addition to the six dancers) a chorus, a handful of soloists, a children's choir, a lead vocalist, and an inexplicable Asian child who haunts the proceedings as though it were all just a sequel to "The Grudge" then I would say that Veggetti successfully pulled off a terrifically ambitious project of total theater. Unfortunately, he didn't. And the people waiting on the cancellation line, as well as those begging for tickets in the front should not lose sleep thinking that they missed the musical/theatrical event of the season.

    Oresteia  
    Photo by Richard Termine  
    Even when they are occasionally superfluous, Veggetti's dance pieces are solid, as one would expect. He is less assured however at delineating the dramatic beats of the story, and even worse at figuring out where to place everyone on the often crowded stage. His handling of Orestes' murder of Clytemnestra was the one place where some semblance of cohesion between the singers, the dancers and the music seemed to take shape. Classical singers, by the way, should rarely ever share a stage with dancers; it only highlights the differences in these two species of performer. Elsewhere, Veggetti's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach made me scratch my head at the sheer volume of it all. That is, until the inevitable deux ex machina Young People's Chorus of New York, who came out dressed for a Karate tournament and sang the Ancient Greek text like the pros they were. It was hard to keep from wondering what these preteen New Yorkers thought of it all.

      
      [I]f it did not require (in addition to the six dancers) a chorus, a handful of soloists, a children's choir, a lead vocalist, and an inexplicable Asian child who haunts the proceedings as though it were all just a sequel to "The Grudge" then I would say that Veggetti successfully pulled off a terrifically ambitious project of total theater. Unfortunately, he didn't.
      
    The one indisputably great performance of the evening came from the percussionist, David Schotzko, who seemed at times to single-handedly hold all the disparate elements together. And while none of the individual performances by any of the singers, dancers, or musicians were anything less than stellar, the sum total of it all was less elegant than the music demands.

    In Xenakis's music, it is possible at times to glimpse the very atom of the music, the initial primitive inkling of the idea of sound, that is does more than merely please, but appeals to the very elemental ear within us. No doubt those who came for the musical performance left the hall happy indeed.

    SEPTEMBER 25, 2008
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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