is the second volume of Jewish operas from the Naxos Milken
Archive. For this disc we get excerpts from three 20th
century operas each with distinctly literary origins.
Schiff studied in New
York with John Corigliano and Elliott Carter. Though he is
one of Carter’s most prominent students, his music bears few
resemblances to his teacher’s style. Schiff’s Jewish heritage
has had a strong influence on many of his works and the first
opera represented here is Gimpel the Fool which
is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story. Originally
the work was almost entirely performed in Yiddish. It has had
quite a long gestation, starting out life as more of a cabaret
piece premiered in 1975. Finally, for performances in 1985 of
a significantly expanded work, Schiff decided to do an English
opera concerns Gimpel, the town baker and fool, in a village
somewhere in Russian Poland in the 19th or early
20th century. Gimpel is the constant butt of the
townspeople’s practical jokes and pranks. Gimpel is persuaded
by the townspeople to marry Elka, the town strumpet. She is
repeatedly unfaithful to him and none of the children she bears
are his. In the excerpt that we hear on the disc she has just
borne their 1st child, 4 months after the wedding.
Gimpel thinks he sees her in bed with his apprentice and consults
the Rabbi who tells him to divorce Elka, but Gimpel can’t because
of his love for his children.
of the narrative thrust is borne by the spoken role of Badhkin.
The libretto is presented in a series of short scenes mixing
speaking and singing. The instrumental ensemble is just 14 players,
including a harpsichord. The whole piece seems to be lightly
and attractively orchestrated with instrumental interludes between
the scenes. Schiff’s vocal lines are expressive and can be quite
lyrical, though he uses quite a bit of chromaticism in the orchestra.
The orchestral sound at times hints at Klezmer and other traditional
is well sung by Gary Moss, who possesses an attractive lyrical
baritone. His wife Elka, is sung by Megan Beesley, though in
these excerpts her biggest number is in fact a curse, she does
not get to sing much that is lyrical. The Rabbi is a high tenor,
much given to rhapsodic melisma, and well taken by Nicholas
Phan. Alissa Mercurio has the interesting and effective role
of Gimpel’s goat!
the intention of this recording is to whet your appetite for
a full version of the opera, then these excerpts succeed very
well. I loved the flexible feel of the piece, which the University of Michigan Opera
Orchestra and chorus catch
Siegmeister is remembered today for his mission to create a
distinctive American compositional idiom consistent with his
unwavering political and social commitment. Throughout his life
Siegmeister remained an emblem of artistic social consciousness
and an advocate of making art music accessible to common folk.
the 1980s Siegmeister wrote a pair of one-act operas based on
short stories by Bernard Malamud. This was the first time that
Siegmeister had seriously explored his Jewish heritage in his
music. The Lady of the Lake, whose text is taken
from a Malamud story in the collection The Magic Barrel,
explores Jewish identity and the tensions between acknowledgement
and gain. In the opera Blumberg (Robert McPherson, tenor) is
an American visiting Europe; though
Jewish he is pretending not to be. He meets Isabella (Carol
Meyer, soprano) who is apparently a princess living in a fabulous
palace on an island. In the first scene of the excerpts, Isabella
reveals to Blumberg that she is not the princess, just the caretaker’s
daughter and that the palace’s treasures are mainly copies.
She also tries to hint about her own Jewish heritage.
runs off, horrified at her deception. The second scene consists
of an interlude plus a monologue for Blumberg in which he decides
he loves Isabella, no matter what. In the final scene, he returns
and declares his love. But Isabella presses him about his Jewishness
and reveals that she and her father are both Jews. Blumberg
hesitates to affirm his Jewishness and Isabella disappears.
from these excerpts, the orchestra is a serious protagonist
in the opera as it provides a commentary running under and around
the vocal lines. These vocal lines can be expressive, but I
am afraid that I did not really find them anything like interesting
enough. Carol Meyer’s Isabella is expressively rich-voiced but
in these excerpts she never really gets a big number. Robert
McPherson’s Blumberg is admirably straightforward and direct,
not particularly subtle. His big monologue is a powerful expression
of Blumberg’s state of mind, but still I found the vocal line
lacked sufficient interest.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz perform admirably
and give a convincing account of the luminous orchestral writing.
Weisgall is perhaps the best known of the three composers on
the disc. He wrote ten operas in all and Esther
was his last and grandest. Originally commissioned by San Francisco
Opera it was dropped by them and finally taken up by New York
City Opera in 1993. The opera is written for significant forces,
requiring eleven major roles, two choruses with much challenging
music. The premiere was a popular and critical success.
opera is a re-telling of the biblical tale of Esther, though
the librettist Charles Kondek, made a number of changes to the
biblical story. These excerpts consist of a solo for Esther
from Act I, a dance from Act II and a duet for Esther and Xerxes
from Act III. Weisgall’s style is expressionist, perhaps serial
with lyrical but angular vocal lines. As in the Siegmeister
opera, I did not feel that Weisgall had completely solved the
problem of writing interesting and rewarding vocal lines.
excerpts from Esther did not really make me want to run
off and find a complete performance, but I think that more substantial
and varied samples of the opera might have helped to give a
feel for its atmosphere. The Seattle Symphony play well for
Gerard Schwarz and Juliana Gondek and Ted Christopher admirably
make what they can of Weisgall’s rather ungrateful vocal lines.
is a fascinating disc, one that is well worth exploring if you
are interested in 20th century opera. My only real
complaint was that it was too short and could have been twice
See also Review
by Göran Forsling