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S & H International Opera Review

OPERA SCANDAL 1920s: Three Hindemith Operas
, Soloists, American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, Friday, March 5, 2004 (BH)

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Op. 12 (1919), Text by Oskar Kokoschka
Cast (in order of appearance):
Die Frau: Marjorie Elinor Dix, Soprano
Erstes Mädchen: Tamara Mesic, Soprano
Erster Krieger: Vale Rideout, Tenor
Zweites Mädchen: Jessie Hinkle, Mezzo-soprano
Der Mann: Mel Ulrich, Baritone
Drittes Mädchen: Amanda Pabyan, Soprano
Zweiter Krieger: Jonathan Hays, Bass-Baritone
Concert Chorale of New York; James Bagwell, Director

Sancta Susanna,
Op. 21 (1921), Text by August Stramm
Cast (in order of appearance):
Klementia: Jennifer Roderer, Mezzo-soprano
Susanna: Paula Delligatti, Soprano
Eine Magd: Teresa Buchholz, Mezzo-soprano
Ein Knecht: Roderick Gomez, Baritone
Alte Nonne: Ory Brown, Mezzo-soprano
Concert Chorale of New York; James Bagwell, Director

Das Nusch-Nuschi,
Op. 20 (1920), Text by Franz Blei (U.S. Premiere)
Cast (in order of appearance):
Tum-Tum: Eric Shaw, Tenor
Erste Bajadere: Marjorie Elinor Dix, Soprano
Zweite Bajadere: Teresa Buchholz, Mezzo-soprano
Ein Bettler/Erster Herold/Zweiter Dichter: Jonathan Hays, Baritone
Bangsa/Erstes Mädchen: Malinda Haslett, Soprano
Osasa: Amanda Pabyan, Soprano
Twaise/Zweites Mädchen: Jessie Hinkle, Mezzo-Soprano
Ratasata/Drittes Mädchen: Tamara Mesic, Soprano
Feldgeneral Kyce Wiang: Marc Embree, Bass
Kamadewa/Erster Dichter/Ragweng, der Kronprinz: Trey Cassels, Tenor
Der Zeremonienmeister: Matthew Burns, Bass
Susulü, der Eunuch des Kaisers: Drew Minter, Counter-tenor
Mung Tha Bÿa, Kaiser von Burma: Mel Ulrich, Baritone
Der Henker: Roderick Gomez, Baritone
Visual Design and Direction: Anne Patterson

Who would have thought that a large spider, depicted by the clarinet – here the ASO’s excellent Laura Flax – would have a critical part in Sancta Susanna, the second of three operas in an exhilaratingly strange evening of obscure Hindemith titled Opera Scandal 1920s, dreamed up by the tireless Leon Botstein. The plot involves two nuns skulking around a church, when that spider "as large as a fist, crawls out of the darkness behind the altar" and startles them. If this isn’t opera destined for cinematic treatment, I don’t know what is.

As Susanna, Paula Delligatti did a beautiful job with a character defined by rising intensity, her anxiety mirrored by Hindemith’s use of a sputtering flute figure to represent the night wind. In one of the work’s shocking moments, as she rips the loincloth from the large Crucifix, the words Then let my savior help me against yours! are given a huge burst in the orchestra. Then quieting things down somewhat, the chorus of nuns appears, and here entered from the back of the hall, walking slowly, single-file toward the stage. As Susanna is pressed to confess, she continues to refuse as the crowd cries Satan! and the orchestra finishes in a brass-fueled blaze.

The first work uses a libretto by the artist Oskar Kokoschka, and at the risk of being lengthy, I offer the following synopsis verbatim from the program: The warriors and their leader, the Man, besiege the tower of the Woman and her maids. In a highly symbolic exchange, the Man and Woman express their instincts of fear and attraction. The Man brands the woman with his mark; she retaliates by stabbing him. She allows him into the tower, where he revives and kills everyone.

The piece opens with a striking, dissonant brass chord, continues with typical Hindemith heft and color, and ends with three rooster crows before The Man approaches the maidens and warriors and "kills them like flies." As The Man, Mel Ulrich lent a scary, deep gravity to a part that is almost too odd to believe. Marjorie Elinor Dix, ably rising above the raging orchestra, gave serious vocal prowess to The Woman.

In the third opera, Das Nusch-Nuschi, the title character is a sort of humorously fearsome monster that is quickly subjected to the indignity of being squashed when one of the characters, the drunken field general Kyce Waing, accidentally sits on it. The story, "for Burmese Marionettes in one act," has something to do with one Lord Zatwai, apparently sexually insatiable, whose exploits eventually result in the departure of his servant, Tum-Tum, who then becomes servant to Waing, but the new master’s luck runs out and he is ordered to be castrated. (Please don’t ask me to describe the story again.) Amusingly semi-staged by Anne Patterson, the cast wore basic black with colorful headdresses that helped to identify the huge roster of characters trooping back and forth from backstage, where presumably all sorts of sexual shenanigans were occurring. The nusch-nuschi – okay, I just love writing that word – was here depicted with what appeared to be a green inflatable pool toy with an animal head.

Standouts in the enormous cast included counter-tenor Drew Minter as Susulü, the Emperor’s eunuch, Eric Shaw as Tum-Tum, and Ms. Dix and Teresa Buchholz as the First and Second Dancers, respectively. Also excellent were two (unidentified) gentlemen as Trained Monkeys, each wearing a curled brown "tail" headpiece, who did a nice job with a part that only asks them to periodically call out, "Rai! Rai!"

Leon Botstein’s continuing dedication to presenting little-known repertoire – and doing it right – is just short of amazing. After leaving this performance, I thought, I may never hear – much less see a performance of – any of these works again, and there is plenty of music in all three that can be savored more often than "never." If Botstein’s interpretations of these works weren’t the most bitingly dramatic, it hardly matters when encountering rarities like these. Hindemith’s language is overwhelmingly imaginative, with much of the rhythmic bite and glittering detail that would surface later in Mathis der Maler (1930), Symphony in E Flat (1940) and Symphonic Metamorphosis (1943). The middle of Das Nusch Nuschi contains an orchestral interlude of Three Dances that would be perfectly plausible excerpted on its own, and the score is filled with the composer’s typical forceful and piquant brass, with some fun work for solo bassoon, violin, celesta and others. If Botstein’s enthusiasm translated into an aural river that occasionally overflowed its banks, drowning out the singers, in all fairness some of the blame could probably be directed at Hindemith’s dense orchestration.

A murderous rampage worthy of Steven Seagal, a giant arachnid running amok among some nuns, and a crowd of people and animals celebrating an unfortunate castration – you could have duller evenings in the concert hall.


Bruce Hodges

Here is a link to the notes on the evening prepared by Leon Botstein:



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