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Esther Before Ahasuenus by Sebastiano Ricci (ca. 1730-1734 [National Gallery, London]
27 Nov 2009

Esther at NYCO

The question that puzzled me when attending Esther was Why.

Hugo Weisgall: Esther

Esther: Lauren Flanigan; Vashti: Beth Clayton; Zeresh: Margaret Thompson; Xerxes: Stephen Kechulius; Haman: Roy Cornelius Smith; Hegai: Gerald Thompson; Gravedigger: Branch Fields. New York City Opera chorus and orchestra conducted by George Manahan. Performance of November 19.

Above: Esther Before Ahasuenus by Sebastiano Ricci (ca. 1730-1734) [National Gallery, London]


Why would Hugo Weisgall, a composer with no instinct for melodrama, want to write opera? And why would he write nine of them? The answer may be that there were many grants for such things in his heyday, the fifties and sixties, and academic prestige to be earned no matter how entirely they failed. And when his climactic work, the hope of his life, Nine Rivers from Jordan, crashed and burned at New York City Opera forty years ago, and he renounced the opera stage, how did he come to be lured back to compose the qualified success that is Esther?

It is less difficult to understand why the City Opera, in its present endangered state and in a truncated season of five operas, chose to revive Esther: The piece was enthusiastically received there at its world premiere in 1993 and it has never been revived. There was an existing production, there was buzz, there were eager customers — among them this writer — and the original star, Lauren Flanigan, a singing actress of formidable energy and ability, is still around to repeat her success. Though her performance is astonishingly youthful, and she plays a 17-year-old girl with conviction and some lovely naïve flutterings (though she had seemed decades older, too old for the role, when she sang the forty-year-old Vanessa a couple of seasons back), even Flanigan, in the nature of things, can’t go on forever; if we are to have Esther at all, sooner was better than later. Too — the consideration must have weighed with the powers that be — the story is Jewish, and that always brings out the culture-vultures in New York. Jews packed the Met revival of La Juive — the only easy ticket was the Friday one.

Too, the Christopher Mattaliano production is very handsome and, consisting mostly of projections that glide seamlessly from scene to scene in Jerome Sirlin’s designs, it’s probably pretty inexpensive to remount — there was hardly anything to build or paint. Persian carpets represent the harem or a courtroom, carvings from Persepolis become alleys and dungeons, and Joseph A. Citarella’s costumes, also, are evocative and colorful. The piece showcases not only the accomplishments of a large cast and a virtuoso orchestra under George Manahan, but also the chorus (of whom more below) and even, briefly, the corps de ballet. George Steel, the company’s manager, was clearly looking for vehicles to put all his (well-paid, unionized) forces on show, and in Esther he had just that.

The City Opera’s logic in reviving Esther is clear enough — it is Weisgall’s logic in sticking to a form for which he had so little gift that puzzles. As it happens, I attended Nine Rivers from Jordan all those years ago and walked out before Act III, which is very unlike me. Even then, tyro though I was, it was apparent that, aside from an ungrateful musical idiom, the composer was afflicted with a tin ear and eye for dramatic moments that cried out for musical exploitation. His foursquare rhythms would be deadening even if he could bring himself to permit melody to heighten his unleavened academic atonalism. With no melody for emotional expression and no rhythm to raise the dramatic pulse, all we have left is interesting combinations of orchestral sounds and voices — tones without point. No matter how beautifully they are made, these things are not opera, which is tones with dramatic point.

One fine scene of Esther shows what Weisgall could have done with more of a knack for operatic reality: a trio in which three contrasting female characters (Esther, Queen Vashti, Haman’s wife Zeresh) with contrasting voices (high soprano, mezzo, alto), offer contrasting soliloquies in a rich, disturbing clash of textures that focuses the voice-loving operagoer’s attention to the crux of the evening’s drama in their rival aspirations. It is a fine, an operatic moment when given, as here, to three fine singers. But it is the one purely vocal touch of operatic drama (other than the splendid chorales) in three acts.

It appears Weisgall hoped to write the great Jewish opera and, like the great American opera, this is not a field with many viable candidates. Halévy’s La Juive has an unpleasant protagonist, curdled by hate, and a titular heroine who is not Jewish by ancestry (though she thinks she is, and is put to death for it). Meyerbeer, who unlike Halévy or Mendelssohn, remained all his life a practicing Jew, wrote no operas on Jewish themes, though his operatic evocations of a Europe wracked by religious prejudice have a universal as well as Jewish validity. Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba is based on Masonic myth. The best candidates, combining sublime music with thrilling drama of Jewish provenance, are such Handel oratorios as Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Jephtha, Belshazzar and Athaliah — he also wrote an Esther — which were not composed for the stage at all (staging Biblical stories being illegal in Britain till after World War I), but have been staged in modern times with great success. But Handel was resolutely Christian — which makes his qualifications at least tendentious. (After all, the Great Spanish Opera, Carmen, was written in French and by a Frenchman.)

In fact, the failure of Nine Rivers drove Weisgall to devote his energies for many years to settings of Jewish liturgical music, including many psalms, and this experience shows in Esther: the most attractive and interesting music of the opera is written for choruses, generally from psalm texts, their many voices and eccentric harmonies superbly performed at NYCO. Handel may well have been among his models, and like Handel, Weisgall learned not to clutter the orchestration in such a way as to cloud the effect of voice, either choral or individual. But since he could not bring himself to indulge in melody to express emotion, individual states of mind of his characters are delineated only in the barest, most elemental and hackneyed ways. Weisgall’s characters are not individuals with personalities, like the great opera characters who can be interpreted again and again, and still present new facets by the medium of a new intelligence. Weisgall’s blustering Haman, the seething Vashti, the simple-minded Xerxes offer very little variety or depth. Only Esther’s state of mind changes, her moods, her resolve, her adventure calls for much in the way of challenge and change, but her moments of reverie, of internal consideration, are not given effective reality by musical means.

Lauren Flanigan gives a star performance. She does not quite look seventeen, but some of her gestures, her attitudes, her flirtations with the saturnine Xerxes bestow a girlish emotional charge on musical situations that might not otherwise possess it. Her voice can be astonishingly girlish, and in higher ranges has a wavery, silvery sheen very like the voice of Beverly Sills in the 1970s — a popular sound to make at NYCO. Loud sustained notes bring out a beat that verges on a wobble, but happily Weisgall, unlike many an atonalist, had learned not to demand long shrill high notes from his singers too often. The other ladies were a forceful but one-dimensional Beth Clayton as the deposed and imprisoned Queen Vashti and Margaret Thompson, a surprisingly interesting presence as Haman’s wife, Zeresh. Since she merely abets her husband and deplores his downfall, you wouldn’t think she’d make much of an impression, but Thompson’s solid, imposing mezzo was always vivid, demanding attention. She’ll be a terrific Amneris someday — soon I hope.

Stephen Kechulius made a meditative if effete King Xerxes, a man (in this telling) born to be ruled — by a woman — but unhappy with the one, Vashti, who has done so hitherto. Roy Cornelius Smith, as Haman, the “wicked wicked man” who gets the show on the road by plotting in a fit of pique to massacre the Jews, had, as one would hope, the most striking and imposing voice of the evening, a roaring basso, and like all the cast decent elocution — in his case marred by a disconcerting lisp. Such a voice and such a figure surely called for a grand cabaletta of despair at his condemnation and destruction, and Verdi or Handel would have given him one, but it doesn’t even cross Weisgall’s mind. James Maddalena makes a pensive Mordecai — the voice never overwhelmed, but the words and emotions were always clear and thoughtfully presented to us.

There has been much discussion of the change in the acoustics of the theater due to the remodeling of the house — now the David Koch Theater. It has certainly greatly improved, more human, more genuine than it was during the era of Paul Kellogg’s “sound enhancement” electronics. Those were “state of the art,” we were always assured — and I’m sure it’s true; I just don’t regard it as much of an art. The sound was a major reason why I seldom attended City Opera offerings during the last ten years, rendering voices unnatural and orchestra tinny — you never knew whether you were hearing an actual voice or not, and if that’s so, why not stay home with a good CD? Only in the seats in the orchestra just in front of the stage did one hear actual singing, and those were too expensive for frequent visits. On the present occasion, just under the overhang in the First Ring, I found the orchestra — admittedly in a percussion-heavy score — clear and forceful but never overwhelming the singers, all of whom were persuasive. Lower tones from both men and women had a particular impact, but nothing seemed to be lost, and the choruses were very fine, especially the lament of the Jews as the day of Haman’s vengeance draws near, “We are afflicted,” which attains a Handelian grandeur.

The opera’s message is humanistic rather than triumphalist, where the Biblical book of Esther is unashamedly the latter. In the opera, Esther, who could easily ignore the fate of her people since she holds the king’s love (and since Haman is mysteriously ignorant of her origins, or relationship to the man he most detests), chooses to risk everything to save her people — but she makes it clear that there is a mutual responsibility among all peoples to care for each other in the face of tyranny or disaster. The nobility of any ethical pronouncement is enhanced the more widely and less tribally it can be applied. Yet Weisgall’s Esther is uneasy — as the Biblical one never is — at the doom pronounced not only on Haman but also on his ten sons, for no known crime but merely for being their father’s flesh and blood and hope for dynasty. Inheriting guilt is not, nowadays, a cozy message, however much it appealed to the original writers of the Book of Esther.

John Yohalem

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