During the second scene of Oresteia, baritone Holger Falk vacillated wildly between his deep, low range and a higher falsetto, flinging his voice to the edges of human possibility in his portrayal of Kassandra who, in spurning the Greek god Apollo, has acquired the gift of fortune-telling simultaneous with the curse of never being believed. Greek composer Iannis Xenakis composed and revised Oresteia, his only stage work, throughout the 1960s and 1980s. The rarely-performed opera was here presented in its Czech première in a stunning production directed by Jiří Nekvasil and with stage design by David Bazika. With visuals that were contemporary without being distracting, as well as expert performers lending expression and depth to Xenakis' mathematical score, Aeschylus's ancient Greek tragedy was brought to life onstage at the Jiřího Myrona theater on the final night of New Opera Days Ostrava. Despite the fact that few (if any) of the audience could understand the sung ancient Greek, the emotions of the characters, and particularly the desperation of Mr Falk's Kassandra, came through with astonishing intensity.

Holger Falk (Cassandra) © New Opera Days Ostrava
Holger Falk (Cassandra)
© New Opera Days Ostrava

As the audience filed into their seats, the flickering heads of various characters of the myth – Agamemnon, Kassandra, a Bowie-esque Pallas Athena – were projected onto the walls and ceiling of the space, complete with the sort of captions one might see on the nightly news. As they spoke, the sound of waves provided a sonic undercurrent. The male singers of the Canticum Ostrava (led by Jurij Galatenko) stood wearing all black in a row on the stage. As the orchestra dove into its quibbling melodies, the Canticum sang metrically complex lines that marched along with all the rigor and exactitude of Trojan soldiers. The Ostravská Banda were conducted by Petr Kotík in their most taut performance – their fifth in four nights – of the festival. The woodwinds in particular sounded superb, with oboe and piccolo themes shining through even as they got battered by bongo drums and other percussion effects.

The male singers were joined by the women of the Canticum Ostrava, and by the children's choir Permoníček Karviná, as the opera progressed. Although their singing, chanting, and chattering fizzled with dramatic charge, it was the soloists, Mr Falk and Tamás Schlanger, who stood out. After the opening scene Mr Falk stupefied us with his seismographic serenade; Mr Schlanger hammered out interludes and almost conversational interjections on the drums. The virtuosity of Mr Schlanger's thunderous percussion solos was almost incomprehensible. And although I could not tell which precise words Mr Falk was communicating, the contortions of his voice and facial expressions spoke for themselves. By the time the 70-minute opera drew to a close, I was exhausted from such a tumultuous exploration of ancient myth, and from an awe-inspiring week of contemporary opera.

Iannis Xenakis: <i>Oresteia</i> © New Opera Days Ostrava
Iannis Xenakis: Oresteia
© New Opera Days Ostrava

In a press conference following the third night of performances, Mr Kotík provided a glimpse into the economic and artistic mindset lying behind NODO. He explained that although many of us journalists might think we were attending “just another festival”, this one was truly unique because of the devotion not only of the innovators and staff but of the audiences. Ostrava having been devastated throughout the 20th century, along with much of Eastern Europe, the funding for the six operas heard at NODO was only a fraction of what the Met Opera spends on a single night of their season. (NODO can afford only one full-time employee.) Even considering these limitations, the biennial manages not only to shine, but to attract diverse crowds of open-minded listeners, the sort of audience Mr Kotík describes as “unimaginable in America”. NODO should be considered a triumph not only because of its financial thriftiness but because of its programming. After one hundred years of hardship it would be tempting to look to the past, to the relics of 18th- and 19th-century opera on which so many other opera companies have fixated. And yet NODO sets its eyes (and ears) on the present and future, commissioning new compositions and new productions, giving music-makers and audiences the imperative room to grow.