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Reviews

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02 Feb 2010

Shohat’s The Child Dreams — A mature work

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

Click here for cast information.

 

“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 Child Dream.

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 — comments:

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
departing neck.

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 suffering.

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.

Wes Blomster

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