Sunday, November 08, 2009

Atonal Purim Spiel Presented

The New York City Opera put on a work featuring Mordechai, Esther, Haman, and 12 of your favorite tones!
. . . the company opened its season Saturday night by reviving an atonal opera that it premiered back in 1993 — Hugo Weisgall's "Esther."

A bold move, but far from a foolhardy one. "Esther," based on the biblical story of the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation, is an impressive piece of work.

Its strength begins with a powerful English-language libretto by Charles Kondek, which retells the story in a series of short scenes spread over three acts. Within the acts, each scene melts into the next in cinematic style, creating a sense of headlong momentum toward catastrophe — or catastrophe narrowly averted. Kondek admirably avoids sentimentality in his treatment of Esther and the plight of the Jews, and there's a minimum of Cecil B. DeMille-like biblical pageantry.

Weisgall's music, though challenging for an audience accustomed to hearing conventional tunes and harmonies, is grand and ambitious. There are arias, duets, choruses — even a ballet. And Weisgall, in what would be the last opera he completed before his death in 1997, displays a striking ability to define characters by their musical accompaniment and vocal line.

Esther's progression from dreamy-eyed young girl to concubine and wife to Xerxes and finally to heroic savior of her people is charted in music filled with yearning and uncertainty. Vashti, the wife Xerxes banished because she refused to dance naked before his followers, sings to rhythms that pulsate with her sense of injustice and self-pity. And Haman and his wife, Zeresh, spin their evil plot against the Jews to music that is scherzo-like in its ebullience. [...]
From a Jewish-standpoint it wasn't very time-of-year appropriate, but nobody who cares probably went to see it anyway. And I'm glad to hear that Vashti projects "self-pity" rather than something that panders to the Vashti-cult.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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