Monday, June 22, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Michael Ewans, Opera from the Greek: Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation. Aldershot/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. i, 216. ISBN 978-0-7546-6099-6. $99.95.
Reviewed by Mary-Kay Gamel, University of California, Santa Cruz

[The reviewer apologizes to the author and the editors for the delay in submitting this review.]

Michael Ewans is one of very few performance studies scholars worldwide who are also theatrical practitioners. He is, moreover, a gifted translator who produces actable translations accompanied by excellent, detailed theatrical commentaries. He stages productions of Greek drama as a means of understanding ancient performance conditions. Not least, he works on opera, and his latest book brings these two areas together to excellent effect.

Opera from the Greek includes eight case studies of operas based on Greek epic or drama: Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, 1640 (based on the Odyssey); Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, 1779 (based on Euripides' Iphigenia among the Taurians); Cherubini's Medée, 1797 (based on Euripides' Medea); Strauss' Elektra, 1909 (based on Sophocles' Elektra); Enesco's Oedipe, 1936 (based on Sophocles' King Oedipus); Tippett's King Priam, 1962 (based primarily on the Iliad); Henze's The Bassarids, 1966 (based on Euripides' Bacchae); and Turnage's Greek, 1988 (based on Steven Berkoff's adaptation of King Oedipus). The case studies stand on their own; the introduction is very brief, there are no cross-references between the chapters, and--oddly--there is no conclusion. Some of the operas are familiar, others (especially the last three) much less so. As the choice of operas suggests, Greek models were popular subjects for operas in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries. Ewans has chosen to discuss operas which raise "a major research question in the poetics of appropriation" (5), and he clearly prefers comparisons with definite source texts rather than with Greek myth more broadly defined.

Ewans begins each of his case studies by discussing the Greek model(s) involved, then the libretto (Ewans credits both composer and librettist in the title of each chapter) and the music of each opera. At times he draws good connections between the dramatic and musical works and their historical and artistic contexts, such as Charpentier's opera in the context of Louis XIV'S court (64); the influence of Freud on Enesco's librettist (115); the 1960s as "Dionysus' decade" (154).

The book is aimed at both classicists and musicologists, which is appropriate as each group has much to learn from the comparisons offered. Fortunately, the "classical tradition" approach, whereby classicists felt entitled to decide whether a later work was worthy of its ancient antecedents, is waning. More information, however, about the operatic conventions prevalent in the era of each opera would have been helpful. Although Ewans argues that adaptors must not create "incongruities between the Greek material and the meanings implicit in the new version" (29) he is admirably open to radical changes made in the operas, such as Eddy's joyous acceptance of incest with his mother in Berkoff/Turnage's Greek.

Opera has an especially important role in the reception of ancient drama since music, song and dance were crucial elements of ancient performances. Musicians of the Florentine Camerata (1577-82) felt that returning to the forms and style of the ancient Greeks would improve music, and the first musical composition which fits the term "opera" (that is, singers enacting an entire drama with music throughout) had a classical subject--Jacopo Peri's Dafne, performed at Florence in 1597. Studying opera can help classicists understand what and how music contributed to ancient Greek drama in performance, yet these significant connections are all too often ignored both by researchers and performers. Since few classicists have the musical training required, studies of the operatic reception of classical texts have been mostly limited to dissertations, chapters in books, and brief mentions in larger studies. Ewans, who does have the necessary training (he is Associate Professor of Drama and Music at the University of Newcastle; his first book was on Janaçek), has been a pioneer among those writing in English. His groundbreaking comparison of Aeschylus and Wagner1 established him as an authority; M. Owen Lee's later volume2 pales in comparison. Marianne McDonald has published several articles and a book3 which discusses eight operas from the sixteenth to the twentieth century including both Greek and Roman subjects. Robert Ketterer's fine book4 concentrates on Roman subjects set by Baroque composers.

Opera from the Greek has many strengths. The focus is clear, the choice of operas good, the research solid, the bibliography of primary and secondary sources and recommended recordings excellent. Most important, throughout there are strong, exciting readings and ideas, both about the individual works and the connections between them. Ewans's convictions about the nature of tragedy are well defined: "a combination of highly emotional subject matter and rigorous formal shaping" (4). He is especially adept at bringing out important differences between the classical scripts and the operas, for example contrasting Jason and Créuse's celebration of "imperious Love" with the fervent pleas of Euripides' chorus to avoid love's dangers (64); noting the inconsistent conceptions of Fleg/Enesco's 'Oedipe'--"one a homage to ancient Greek culture, the other an attempt to overlay it with the gentler teachings of Christianity" (127); and in Tippett's depiction of Achilles and Priam's meeting (145), "stark, almost nihilistic resignation" in place of reconciliation. As he has argued elsewhere,5 Ewans believes that Sophocles portrays Elektra and her brother as ruthless, amoral assassins, and here he argues that this portrayal is what appealed to Strauss' librettist Hofmannsthal, who "develops with the new insights of psychology Sophocles' portrait of a woman corroded and destroyed by her years of waiting and obsessive brooding" (86). I found the five essays on twentieth-century opera the most compelling, partly because I was less familiar with the last four, but also because Ewans has more historical and biographical material on which to draw; his discussion of the disagreement between the composer and librettists of The Bassarids is especially effective.

The book's single most important contribution is the discussions of the music. Ewans argues that the modern masters of operatic tragedy "use music in exactly the same way as the Greeks used poetry . . . paralleling the dramatic development of their libretti with a musical development which illuminates the psychology of their characters" (150). Again and again Ewans provides vivid analyses of the dramatic impact of musical passages: "Medée begins with light textures and non-threatening harmony, but becomes a dark and terrifying nightmare in the final scenes. With such devices as the angst-ridden suspensions, sudden tutti outburts and lengthy tremolandi in the third act, Cherubini was the first composer to develop a musical vocabulary which could successfully recreate in operatic drama the psychological intensity of the most anguished myths in Greek tragedy" (71). "The triumphant revenge of the matricides should leave a nasty taste in the mouths of the audience. The horrible lurch of the fff brass and string tutti away from a glowing, triumphant C major back for a moment to distant E flat minor, in the penultimate semiquaver, achieves just that" (102). "One of the greatest coups de théâtre in all opera is the end of Act II, when Achilles' amplified, ululating triple war cry obtrudes on and destroys the victorious trio in which Paris, Priam and Hector celebrate the death of Patroclus . . . the orchestra conveys ferociously the power of the destiny that is causing their downfall, with an ominous rhythm in piano, percussion and lower brass" (143). Ewans's discussion of the music in The Bassarids (170-181), especially the contrast between the music associated with Dionysus and Pentheus, is especially full and powerful. Since Bacchae is arguably the extant Greek drama to which music is most crucial, this case study is the high point of the volume.

The one major problem of the volume is not Ewans's fault: print is not a sufficient medium for performance studies. I read music, but I can't hear the effects Ewans describes from the musical examples on the page. One solution is offered by Rob Kapilow, who created a website to accompany his book on understanding music.6

I do have some quibbles. Ewans sees little irony in IT: "at the end the Greeks prove worthy to be freed from their captivity among the inferior, cowardly, but more numerous barbarians" (34). I question his assumptions of a monolithic response from audiences ancient and modern: Medea's story "was deeply disturbing to the ancient Athenian audience" (55); "Cherubini obliges the audience, by the power of his music, to sympathize against its will with Medée's agonized decision" (79); "the spectators' sympathy for Klytämnestra is muted, and they enjoy the luring of Ägisth, and see his murder as cause for nothing but rejoicing" (95). The introduction could be fuller, and a conclusion which addresses larger issues would be desirable. Finally, there are no references at all to performances either theoretical or actual; it seems strange that a theater practitioner takes so little account of the difference staging choices can make to the effect of drama and opera. In his "Endnote" Ewans explains that he has not included Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex because of its remoteness from the spectator, "impersonal neo-Handelian mood" and "preference for the supremacy of rationality over emotion" (201). Yet a composer's intentions need not always be followed in performance, as Julie Taymor's powerful and moving 1993 staging (available on video) of the Stravinsky "opera-oratorio" demonstrates, and in the version performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April 2009 Peter Sellars obviously went much further.7 Overall, I wish that Ewans's book were longer and more expansive--and that wish is a sign of its achievement.

The abundance of operas based on Greek material offers many more opportunities for comparative studies. Braunfels' Die Vögel, phenomenally successful after its 1920 premiere, then banned by the Third Reich, was staged by Los Angeles Opera in April 2009. Handel's operas are now being staged and recorded frequently, and works such as Teseo (1713), Oreste (1734), Giove in Argo (1739), and Deidamia (1741)--to mention only Greek examples--deserve attention. Comparative studies of different operas based on the same model, such as Handel's Admeto, Re di Tessaglia (1727) and Gluck's Alceste (1776), would be fruitful. Operas such as Taneyev's Oresteia (1895), Gnecchi's Cassandra (1905), Glanville-Hicks' Nausicaa (1961), Xenakis' Oresteia (1966), Dallapiccola's Ulisse (1968), and Picker's Emmeline (1996) are available in audio recordings, while others including Cavalli's La Calisto (1651-2), Lully's Persée (1682), Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte (1723), Rameau's Castor et Pollux (1737), and Offenbach's La Belle Hélène (1864) have been recorded on video. I hope that Ewans's book will provide a model for more such excellent studies of the operatic reception of ancient texts and themes.


1.   Michael Ewans, Wagner and Aeschylus: the Ring and the Oresteia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
2.   M. Owen Lee, Athena Sings: Wagner and the Greeks. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
3.   Marianne McDonald, Sing Sorrow: Classics, History, and Heroines in Opera. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
4.   Robert C. Ketter, Ancient Rome in Early Opera. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
5.   Michael Ewans, "Dominance and Submission, Rhetoric and Sincerity; Insights from a Production of Sophocles' Electra", Helios 27 (2000): 123-136.
6.   Rob Kapilow, All You Have to Do is Listen: Music from the Inside Out. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
7.   Alex Ross, "Adieu," The New Yorker May 4, 2009: 78-79.

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