16 Jun 2018

Na’ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard (world premiere)

Let me begin, like an undergraduate unsure quite what to say at the beginning of an essay: there were many reasons to admire the first performance of Na’ama Zisser’s opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission from the Royal Opera and the Guildhall.

Even though the journey is now a bit of a pain for me, it is always a joy to visit the Hackney Empire, infinitely preferable to the other of Frank Matcham’s London theatres that is sometimes used for opera. The quality is often very high, the location seemingly inciting visiting companies to their best; I am not sure I have ever seen a better Marriage of Figaro than that from the Royal Academy a couple of years ago . Not only bringing opera to Hackney but also taking it out of the West End is a very good thing; it genuinely seemed to have attracted a new, highly appreciative audience, half of which offered a standing ovation (something even Bernard Haitink receives less often in London than he does). The idea of an opera set in the Hasidic Jewish community was enticing too. I had no idea what to expect from any part of it, which always adds to the anticipation. Moreover, performances from all concerned were excellent, the Aurora Orchestra under Jessica Cottis perhaps the greatest stars of all. One had little doubt that one was hearing what one was supposed to hear. Gundula Hintz, too, shone as the mother, Esther: clearly moved and capable of moving.

Then, alas, comes the matter of the opera itself: so tedious that I genuinely feared - hoped? - I might fall asleep. I suspect something could have been made of some of the material (if not necessarily the musical material), given a few years’ hard work, rethinking, and experience. Director Jay Scheib wrote in the programme of the libretto, by Samantha Newton and Rachel C. Zisser, having been ‘written in the form of a screenplay. Transitions took the form of jump cuts,’ and so on. Would that it had come across with any such focus or direction. It jumps around with much confusion: not dramatic confusion, more ‘let’s say a bit about the Holocaust here … let’s stop for a while and have a “meaningful” pause,’ etc., etc.

The lack of focus in the libretto is redolent more of an initial pub sketch of ideas for an opera than anything more thought out. It is not fragmentary; it is certainly not challenging; it is barely a drama. Sub- (very sub-)Katie Mitchell filming - sometimes with an awkward time-lag - did little to help, and perhaps a little to hinder. In Scheib’s words, ‘Cameras have afforded us access to a dynamic vocabulary normally reserved for the visual world of the cinema.’ Quite apart from the ignorance and arrogance of the claim - have you seen any German theatre recently, even ventured so far as the Royal Court? - little is revealed other than occasional, clich├ęd flashes of blinding light: appearing, aptly enough, long after lightning is supposed to have struck.

Collin Shay as Yoel, Steven Page as Stranger.jpg Collin Shay as Yoel, Steven Page as Stranger. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.


Much, though not all, of the music stands on the verge of embarrassing: swathes of vague electronic noise, sound effects, interspersed with cantorial and other trivial melodies, the marriage of word and text in the latter quickly heading for the divorce courts. (As for the former, it is good, perhaps, to learn that the Church of England holds no monopoly on banal liturgical music.) Attempts to define what is and is not opera are most likely bound to fail. That said, surely the idea that it should in some way or other be more than a play with music, that its music itself should be dramatic, seems a reasonable assumption. There are, at the close, a few signs of such a dawning realisation on Na’ama Zisser’s part. Some simple musical figures start to add up to something a little more than themselves, musically and dramatically. For me, however, it was all too late. As I said, a period of revision would have been in order; such progress might then have been read back into what had gone before, far too much of which came across as something akin to a school project: fine for those involved and their proud parents, but for the wider world? Would you want your sixteen-year-old essays on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything published and distributed?

‘Eine Oper ist ein absurdes Ding,’ Strauss’s Capriccio Count tells his sister. In many ways, yes, although not always. It nevertheless takes a great deal of effort and experience to be properly absurd. The artifice in both Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos tell a story, moreover, quite different from that which a superficial reading of their synopses might suggest. Mozart was different, Apollo et Hyacinthus a superior work to half of those in the benighted working ‘repertoire’ of many opera houses. Perhaps if one is not Mozart, one might wait at least a little longer before testing the operatic waters. It has worked - magnificently - for George Benjamin. And yes, this doubtless rests on a view of works, masterpieces, the rest, considered hopelessly outmoded by some. I am not, however, even claiming that a work should necessarily be forever. (Let us leave posterity for another time, as it were.) However, if a work is not for now, or at least not yet ready, then someone ought to have asked questions more searching than the self-congratulatory discussion published in the programme.

Mark Berry

Younger Yoel: Edward Hyde; Yoel: Collin Shay; Stranger: Steven Page; Esther: Gundula Hintz; Menashe: Robert Burt; David: Netanel Hershtik. Director: Jay Scheib; Designer: Madeleine Boyd; Lighting: D.M. Wood; Video: Paulina Jurzec; Soundtrack designer: Yair Elazar Glotman. Aurora Orchestra/Jessica Cottis. Hackney Empire Theatre, London, Thursday 14 June 2018.