Greek Tragedy Retold With Music, Dance

-------------- Theater review --------------

"Agamemnon," 8 o'clock tonight and tomorrow, Nippon Kan Theater, 628 S. Washington, Seattle; $10-$12, 206-860-1826.

Those ancient Greeks really knew how to tell a story. Agamemnon kills his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to the gods in exchange for a good wind to go to war. When he comes back 10 years later, his wife, Clytemnestra, still mad, is sharpening the knives.

Garrett Fisher's opera, "Agamemnon" - which retells Aeschylus' great tragedy using song, Taiko percussion, dance and masks - sticks to the simplest, starkest elements of this story. When Deeji Killian, standing in a red robe, sings in her warm, passionate, soprano, "What can truly drive a man to war, and how could he leave me - leave me stained with the blood of my child?" it is deeply moving.

Fisher casts the same dancer, Teresa Mathern, as both the murdered daughter, Iphigenia, and as Cassandra, whom Agamemnon has brought back to be his concubine. It's a clever stroke. Mathern, who has a beautiful, angular face and body (think young Ingrid Bergman) projects an intense vulnerability. Both Clytemnestra and Agamemnon turn to her briefly as a replacement for their long-lost daughter, which has a creepy psychological resonance.

Sculptor and mask-maker Louise McCagg has created a "death mask" of Mathern's face that Mathern wears above her forehead like a raised visor. Its expression is eerie, calm and quiet. It puts both Iphigenia and Cassandra at a remove from the passions of the story, leaving the anger and pain to the tormented husband and wife.

Baritone Robert Tangney, as Agamemnon, hit some verbal rough patches last night but he was able to convey the self-deluded doggedness of the character. He repeatedly defends the sacrifice of his daughter by saying, "What's done is done." It's a thrilling finale when Clytemnestra takes the knife (handed to her by Sandra Fann as Fate) and answers him: "No, what's done will be done."

She follows him offstage where, as in all good Greek tragedy, the execution takes place. But instead of the usual offstage scream we are given a quiet, dignified dance by Fate.

Fisher's music is as controlled, narrowly focused and dramatic as his libretto. He uses oboe, English horn, piano and harmonium as well as Taiko drums for his varied effects.

The choreography is by New York-based Christy Fisher, his sister. The evening opened with her short dance, "Eva and the Language of Things." In it we hear the recorded voice of Eva Zeisel, a ceramist who was born in Budapest in 1906 and had the first one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Zeisel lovingly talks about the pull of simple objects. Her careful and well-chosen words in a rather quavery voice were the most compelling part of the dance.

A second curtain-opener, "Versus," a solo danced and choreographed by Mathern to the abrasive fog-horn notes of Terry Riley's music for saxophones, felt overlong.