Liebestod

The Dybbuk: A Review of Opera in Concert

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 here. 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.

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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

 

 

 

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Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.