A cold and rainy Wednesday evening in Leeds is not usually the setting for lust, betrayal, and murder. I found myself at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall at the University of Leeds ready to experience the UK premiere of Act I of Sergey Taneyev’s masterpiece Oresteia, first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1895. It is a three act musical trilogy that brings to life Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy concerning the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War, his murder, and his son Orestes’s retribution on Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

As centrepiece of Leeds University’s international conference on Russian music, Oresteia was an overwhelming spectacle concerning the darker side of human existence. The ominous and brooding intensity of the opening of the first act permeated the air and flowed from every pore of the soloists, chorus and orchestra.

The director, Anastasia Belina, in staging this production assembled a young and relatively unknown cast that fully embraced her vision for the performance. Soloists Anna Starushkevych (Clytemnestra), Natalia Kompanietz – Joury (Cassandra), Dmitry Yumashev (Aegisthus), and Tim Brown (Agamemnon) generally interacted on stage well and gave an overall confident performance.

Anna’s Starushkevych’s first entry onto the stage was an imposing and utterly unforgettable sight, her body shape reminiscent of a figure I once saw on a Greek vase, or the image in my mind of the goddess Aphrodite walking slowly out of the Aegean and into men’s lives. Anna had a confidence and stage presence that was completely captivating. Her voice, whilst still needing some development, was beguiling, delivering delicacy when required (her duet with Aegisthus before the murder) and climactic emotional drama as she re-enters on stage holding a knife (the aftermath of Agamemnon’s brutal slaying).

Natalia Kompanietz-Joury gave a more measured and polished performance and it was clear that she had the most experience on stage, being a former principal soprano at the Kiev National Opera. Her emotionally charged interpretation of Cassandra’s vision of Agamemnon’s death was touching for a defeated daughter of Troy, her duet with Tim Brown being beautifully phrased throughout with a vocal warmth that held the audience captive.
The duets between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus however lacked a degree of sexual chemistry that lessened the musical impact. Dimitry Yumashev seemed a little too static on stage and I needed to see, as well as hear in his voice, his complete surrender to fulfilling her every wish and desire. For a Russian he seemed to have perfectly mastered classic British reserve in the face of the quintessential alpha-female, a woman who oozes sexuality, a woman who no man can resist.

Mention must be made of the masterful orchestral reduction of the score by Mark Fitzgerald (an in-demand conductor who unfortunately could not be present), the assured orchestral playing of students from the university’s School of Music supplemented by students from Leeds College of Music, and the conducting skill of Jonathan Lo (an RNCM postgraduate student of whom I am sure will hear more of in the future). The rapturous applause that greeted the end of Act I of the trilogy was certainly well deserved, and I for one cannot wait to be immersed again into the seething melting pot of Mycenaean machinations for future performances of Acts II and III.

Aut amat aut odit mulier, nihil est tertium, indeed!