Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for
major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards
of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen
gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of
the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.
Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half
century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some
conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere
of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing:
William Christie conducting some Charpentier.
That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.
This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
Gil Shohat, now 35 and Israeli’s top classical composer, was 15 when
in the ‘80s he saw Hanoch Levin’s The Child Dream on stage in his native Tel Aviv. Shohat, of course, knew Levin’s work well, for throughout early decades in the history of Israel he — its outstanding dramatist — had served somewhat as the conscience of a nation tormented defining itself within its pain-wrought beginnings.
Gil Shohat: The Child Dreams Libretto based on a play by Hanoch Levin
“I knew then that I would compose Dream, said Shohat in a post-performance interview in the Tel Aviv Opera House, where
the premiere of the opera had taken place on January 18. Shohat’s plans
were seconded by Israeli Opera general director Hanna Munitz, who had also
sensed the operatic potential of drama when she saw it on stage.
Touched by the deep despair of the story and the genuine poetry of the text,
Munitz commissioned Dream for her company. It is the first opera
composed on any Levin text. Point of departure for Levin was the 1977 film
Voyage of the Damned, the story of the St. Louis, the ship unable
to attain landing rights for its fleeing refugees during World War II. But
this, it must be stressed, is no more than raw material for what is now
True, the opera underscores the degree to which the Holocaust remains today
a defining experience for the Israeli consciousness, yet the local critic who
placed the new opera “among the most depressing and despair-radiating
operas of the repertoire” missed the point of the transformation of the
story through music achieved by Shohat and his director Omri Nizan. (Nizan, an
old hand at the Cameri Theater, helped Shohat with minor changes in the text
— nothing was added — and then served in the vastly more important
role as director of the production.)
For through music the child at the center of the drama becomes much more
than a single child and his story is far greater than the tale of one
individual example of injustice. The Child is now a young Everyman with hopes
for a better and more just world. That this world is closed to him — and
not just by the near-criminality of captain of the ship that might have brought
salvation — elevates Dream to the level of mythic
universality. The story is quickly told. The Mother hopes to escape with her
son on the ship. The Captain demands payment “in the flesh.” The
ship reaches a ghost-like island, but passengers are not allowed to disembark
by the despotic governor, the second evil figure in the story.
In one of the most moving moments in the score — 2 hours and 30
minutes with one intermission — a crippled child — mezzo Shira Raz
I’m a poet.
I write about you who come out of the fog
and return and disappear in it. I weep over your fate
and sketch it.
your faces approaching tell the tale of delusion;
but all human failure is stamped on the back of your
The Crippled Child speaks above and across the play for Levin himself who
sees little but frustration and failure in the attempted escape.
The final act — an apotheosis of sorts — breaks with the seeming
realism of the earlier three acts (and it was wise, therefore, to insert the
intermission at this point). Dozens of “dead” children suspended
above the stage whisper of their fate while the female nonet that opened the
opera sings again of their sorry situation.
There is a Straussian sadness about this conclusion; it its muted melancholy
it recalls the elder composer’s Metamorphosen, the
“mourning for Munich” that he wrote after the destruction of his
native city. It is deeply felt and moving music that might well become a
concert piece in its own right.
And as the many who visit the memorial to children victims of the Holocaust
in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem experience not consolation but rather the hope
beyond hopelessness so essential in any confrontation with the vast inhumanity
of the 20th century, here too there is an elevation beyond meaningless
Child Dream is an ambitious work calling for a cast
of 20, all drawn from the roster of the resident company. Outstanding among
them were Larissa Tetuev as the Mother, a role she shared later with Ira
Bertman, Hila Baggio as the child and Noah Briger as the Captain.
In only his second season as IO music director, David Stern extracted
exemplary playing from the Rishon Le-Zion Orchestra, the company’s pit
band. Sets and costumes were effectively designed by Austrian-born Gottried
Helnwein. Lighting by Avi Yonah Bueno contributes to making this a colorful
show engaging to the eye.
Shohat has documented his superlative command of the composer’s craft
in an incredible long and diverse catalgue. In Dream, however, he
travels on no new turf, but concentrates rather on giving musical meaning to an
unusually demanding text.
Dream is written for reduced orchestra, and outstanding is the
manner in which Shohat has woven the piano into the ensemble to achieve unusual
effects. (The composer is a concretizing pianist as well.)
It is unavoidable that some find the opera with its focus on the death of
children depressing and even morbid. In so doing, they overlook the strong
element of empathy that Shohat’s music brings to Levin’s turgid
story. In the final analysis, Child Dream is an
affirmative work that deserves to be seen outside Israel.
The production celebrates the 35th anniversary of Israeli Opera; it further
marks the 10th anniversary of Hanoch Levin’s death and the centennial of
the founding of Tel Aviv.