Image ©2017 Gregory Briggler
The biggest, most enthusiastic applause for the night came for the principal cellist before the performance. You see, he was late, and normally being responsible, had all of the music for the rest of the cello players. He realized his reputation for dependability was in peril halfway to the performance. The eighty four year old composer and conductor, Joel Mandelbaum, walked to center stage in his comfortable shoes and explained good-naturedly in his Kissinger voice what the delay was about. As if on cue, the principal cellist rushes in and hands out the parts. The crowd of older opera enthusiasts and younger singers went wild.
Often times classical musicians, even in famous orchestras, can’t be bothered to dress well since black is the only requirement. This orchestra, however, was not only young but also well dressed. The concert master strode out on stage in a lovely, understated horizontal-stripe gown and the concert began. The orchestra held forty five members. There was even a harp poking up near the percussion and a microtonal electronic keyboard sitting in the middle. When I spoke to orchestra members during intermission and after the performance, they were all worried about overpowering the singers. Although I sat near the front, the balance seemed fine. A pit would have been better, of course, but the singers were up to the challenge.
Although I will mention bits and pieces of the plot here, the story is so overwrought and melodramatic that it would be a fool’s errand to try and offer a full summary. The confusing, layered plot set in a 19th century Russian shtetl begins with a love affair set in a synagogue and ends under a marriage canopy with the dead lovers spending eternity together- with an exorcism in between. This opera is not afraid of spiritual thinking. Based on the Yiddish classic “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds” by the Russian playwright S. Ansky, it displays the realistic tension between religion and superstition which is prevalent in communities where God is taken seriously. The odd thing is that the action seems to “bless” superstitious and sacrilegious thinking and not the established faith. Channon, a youth desperately in love with Leah, is the eventual dybbuk of the title, the ghost of a dead person which takes hold of another. He is so desperate to impress the father of his beloved Leah that he gives his soul to the devil (in the synagogue no less), and that vow kills rendering him a ghost. That ghost first possess the body of Leah, and at the close of the opera takes possession of her soul, by her own desire. At first it seemed the main story was that of possession and redemption, it is called “The Dybbuk” after all, but at the end it was a twisted love story instead. The opera was at its best as a story of possession and the spiritual heroics of a uncertain rabbi. Yet Dybbuk is more Liebestod than The Exorcist.
A Ram’s horn, called a shofar, is used even today as a faithful signal call during Rosh Hashana, the most important Jewish holiday of their religious year. In ancient Israel shofars were also used to signal during war. It is very helpful to listen to shofar calls before seeing the opera if you are not familiar with the sound and meaning of the instrument. They sound a fifth, the common interval of a trumpet fanfare, hold steady or then repeat in a kind of rat-a-tat. It helps to listen for these soundmarks (like landmarks) through the opera. The shofar-like blasts from the brass in the exorcism scene invoke the joining of faith and resolve needed for the spiritual battle taking place.
Mr. Mandelbaum mentions in the program notes that he used the notes of shofar calls to create a tone row, albeit a tonic one. In other words, instead of using a traditional scale, he decided to build his own with the notes expressed by the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet. Do not worry, if you were to see the opera, this theory does not get in the way of music comprehension.
The world in which the characters live is very foreign to us and not only from the setting. At the time, it was common for a young woman had very little say in who she was to marry. In the middle of the opera, her new, unseen fiancee is set to arrive once the dybbuk, Channon, has been driven from her. But it is she who longs for her dead love interest which brings him back. Unrequited love has an durable appeal to many audiences. Another idea struck me during the two hour performance. What is it like to live with death all around? I assume Leah is very young, and yet her mother has died. Channon’s father is also dead. The town is centered on the grave of a murdered couple. Death is a major theme in this play upon which the opera is based. Perhaps in the imagination of Ansky, the young lovers receive in death which was unattainable in life.
The evening was enjoyable overall due to the singing displayed by the principal players. The lovers were well matched in voice. Emily Misch sang with beautiful purpose as the young Leah. She looked resplendent in a blue gown a la Grec and completed her look with a turquoise ring on her left hand. She describes herself in her bio as “clear-voiced, versatile, and intellegent…” a description that I am not sure I could improve upon. Singing as Channon, John Ramseyer’s voice was a light tenor which fit his role nicely, but it was hard to understand the words during the first act. Gilad Paz had presence of voice and command of the stage fitting for the rabbi hero. He made strong dramatic choices for the constraints of the staging especially leading up to the exorcism when he removed his coat and then rolled up his sleeves to let us all know that there was work to be done. Playing the grandmother, Amy Maude Helfer also worked nicely within the confines of the concert with her expressive face, but she, of course, is much too young for the role. I would have liked to have seen a more age appropriate woman sing the role to bring some scratchy-voiced wisdom to the scenes in which she appears.
My desire for some timbral excitement does not stop with casting choices. Orchestral colors were at times fresh, but when I heard a chord that blossomed, it always seemed cut off too soon. The orchestra was conducted by the composer which was the only obvious misstep of the evening. When Stephan Fillare stepped to the podium, the orchestra found more vigor and precision. This was necessary so that the composer could sit down to the microtonal keyboard for a scene in the fourth act.
The staging was not of the full four hour opera, thankfully. To fill in the missing pieces the bass Stephan Kirchgraber, in a fine and powerful voice, as the emcee kept us in the loop as far as the story was concerned and as “The Messenger” sang a “parable” about the love between the heart of the earth and a crystal spring on a mountain top. This was a marvelous musical opportunity to unspool this idea into a fantastical microtonal aria as if from a religious vision. Unfortunately, the music of the parable does not stray from the orchestration heard in the rest of the opera.
The writing for all the instruments seemed to sit in their comfortable registers giving the sonic landscape a sameness which made me want those few moments of pizzazz to last a dramatic beat or two longer. The musical concept was a Wagnerian approach to through singing enlivened at times by Broadway style orchestrations. It was tonal, but not tune-al. There was too much bowing and not enough pizzicato. Any rhythmic vigor was as short lived as timbral creativity. Throughout the performance, the percussion seemed to drop things clumsily, I am not sure if that was uncertainty with the score or the result of a tight squeeze on stage.
The text was taken fully from the Ansky play and needed to be pruned badly. Macheted, honestly. The libretto got in the way of the music. It reminded me of a comic book I once saw in which the words crowded out the pictures leaving only a thin strip of images pushed to the side, which is clearly not the point of the comic. It is also not the point of an opera. One singer would sing his soliloquy and then the next would sing hers. There were no music duets to speak of or ensemble singing other than short men’s choruses. The scene between the rabbi and his servant was touching, but they didn’t interact musically. The singers sang their block of words while many instruments played in the orchestra.
There were a few moments of silence to bring attention to important ideas. Leah sings of a couple buried in the center of her town murdered on their wedding day by Cossacks. The orchestra falls silent for the first time and she sings, “They were laid in one grave”. Then the next few lines ruins the moment, to paraphrase, “…where they would be together through the rest of eternity”. The point was already made with the rare moment of silence and the beautiful turn of phrase. No need to belabor the point.
After the musical drama ended, most of the audience stood to offer a warm ovation. Mr. Mandelbaum could not have asked for a better workshop revival of his 1972 opera.
October 26, 2017, 8 p.m. Merkin Hall One Performance Only