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Scenes from Jewish Operas - Volume 2
David SCHIFF (b. 1945) Gimpel the Fool (1979) (excerpts):
1. Scene 10: Lullaby [3:59]
2. Scene 11: Pantomime [1:39]
3. Scene 11a: Bread Song [3:24]
4. Scene 11b: Night Music [2:41]
5. Scene 11c: Gimpel and the Goat [2:17]
6. Scene 11d: Elka’s “Gvald” [1:32]
7. Scene 11e: The Divorce [3:09]
8. Scene 11f: Gimpel’s Second Monologue [1:24]
Gary Moss (baritone) – Gimpel; Megan Besley (soprano) – Elka; Alissa Mercurio (soprano) – Goat; Michael Gallant (tenor) – Apprentice; Nicholas Phan (tenor) – Rabbi; Theodore Bikel (speaker) – Badkhn
University of Michigan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Kenneth Kiesler
Elie SIEGMEISTER (1909–1991)
Lady of the Lake (1985) (excerpts):
9. Scene 5 [9:15]
10. Interlude [1:25]
11. Scene 6 [2:18]
12. Scene 7 [4:38]
Carol Meyer (soprano) – Isabella; Robert McPherson (tenor) – Blumberg; Marcus DeLoach (baritone) – Ernesto
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
Hugo WEISGALL (1912–1997)
Esther (1993) (excerpts):
13. Act I, Scene 8 (excerpt) [3:45]
14. Act III, Scene 2 [3:54]
15. Act III, Scene 10 [7:28]
Juliana Gondek (soprano) – Esther; Ted Christopher (baritone) – Xerxes
Seattle Symphony/Gerald Schwarz
rec. Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, January 2001 (Schiff); Batsyr University Chapel, Seattle, May 2000 (Siegmeister); Benaroya Hall, Seattle, May 1999 (Weisgall). DDD
NAXOS 8.559450 [53:22]

Naxos have already issued an earlier volume of excerpts from Jewish operas (8.559424), which I haven’t heard, but the excerpts from the three operas on this volume 2 certainly whetted the appetite for more. My familiarity with Jewish music has been fairly limited and of the composers represented here only Siegmeister was a well-known quantity. What struck me when I first listened through the disc some weeks ago, without taking any notes, was the communicative ambition of all three composers. Stylistically they may be worlds apart but they all want to convey a message and they do this not through letting their hair down and become populistic but through inventive and lively use of their musical means. This does not exclude references to both jazz and traditional opera but neither do they fight shy of harsh harmonies, atonal even, and daring orchestration.
The most immediately accessible is no doubt David Schiff, by far also the youngest. Based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and with the author also the librettist, Gimpel the Fool is a kind of chamber opera. The ‘symphony orchestra’ employed is a group of thirteen players: a string quartet, a double bass, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and tuba, two percussionists and a harpsichord. For this ensemble Schiff has created colourful, rhythmic and melodic music, remotely related to Kurt Weill, though more sophisticated. It is expertly orchestrated and the instruments often make individual comments to the action. Jazz influences are especially noticeable in the divorce scene (tr. 7). The opera was premiered in 1979, the year after Singer’s Nobel Prize, but work on it had begun much earlier. Besides Badkhn, which is a speaking part, excellently done by Theodore Bikel, there are spoken lines also for the singers and the chorus plays an important part as townspeople. All the singers are good and well inside their roles.
Bernard Malamud never got the Nobel Prize but he figured in the preliminary discussions. Elie Siegmeister wrote two operas, based on Malamud stories; Angel Levine and Lady of the Lake not to be confused with the Rossini opera of the same title. For this tale he composed dissonant music for a large orchestra, somewhat in a Bergian tonal language, even though it isn’t 12-tone music. The orchestra is very often powerful and overwhelming but never to such a degree that the singers are over-parted. There are no ‘numbers’; the drama flows on in a long recitative, where the vocal lines very often are quite melodic and there are even outbreaks of grand singing. Good voices used expressively.
Hugo Weisgall has to be counted as one of the foremost American opera composers. He wrote ten operas and Esther was his last and greatest opera, with a libretto by Charles Kondek, based on the biblical book of Esther. This is even more dissonant music than Siegmeister’s, but over this web of often harsh sonorities the solo singing can soar in expressive cantilenas – not exactly melodies that one walks away humming but still attractive, not least in Esther’s act 1 monologue (tr. 13), where Juliana Gondek delivers the best singing on this disc.
Excerpts can hardly give a ‘wall-to-wall’ picture of what the full opera is like, but one gets at least a hint and we probably have to make do with these excerpts, since there is probably little hope for a complete recording of any of these works.
Playing and singing is good, we get the sung texts and there are uncommonly rich and informative liner-notes on both the composers and the operas.
This series with music from the Milken Archive is a goldmine for everyone interested in Jewish music, and opera enthusiasts who want to widen their knowledge should give this disc a try.
Göran Forsling




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