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Heather Green as Bitia and Nathan Guinsinger as Mosheh [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations]
03 Feb 2011

Mosheh, a VideOpera

Yoav Gal, an Israeli-born composer-in-residence at the HERE arts complex in Manhattan’s South Village, calls Mosheh a “VideOpera,” rightly giving as much place to what is seen (electronic projections) as to what is heard (from four sopranos playing the women in the prophet’s life and an orchestra of nine musicians).

Mosheh — A VideOpera, composition and design by Yoav Gal

Miriam: Hai-Ting Chinn; Bitia: Heather Green; Yocheved: Judith Barnes; Zipporah: Beth Anne Hatton; Mosheh: Nathan Guinsinger; Voice of God: Wesley Chinn. At HERE, performance of January 29.

Above: Heather Green as Bita and Nathan Guinsinger as Mosheh [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations]

 

Mosheh contains most of what we’ve come to expect from new operas in the twenty-first century: video and film, of course, and also gamelan-derived percussive scoring, surtitles to obviate the need for a coherent drama, and naked male bodies, in this case the non-singing title role. (Trivia: Name other title characters who do not sing in their own opera. There’s La Muette de Portici, of course.)

What Mosheh has that I seldom expect is respectable melody. Miriam’s serenade to her baby brother as she places him in the Nile is an especially lovely number; Zipporah’s harsh aria about inventing circumcision to save her new husband from the Angel of Death is less immediately attractive. Too, the quartet at the conclusion of the opera when the women narrate the twelve plagues that fall upon Egypt has an eerie harmony that calls Benjamin Britten to mind.

What Mosheh, the opera, did not have was a coherent, stageworthy way of telling its more or less familiar story. Without some Bible reading (or a viewing of The Ten Commandments) and surtitles, I don’t think an audience would find the action at all clear. It is rather a costumed series of individual scenes, all for voices of too striking a sameness. Gal writes well for the voice, without straining the instrument as the atonal opera composers were prone to do—because, unlike them, he has not renounced melody as an expressive tool—also, I suspect, he has studied voice writing and respects the instrument and its capabilities. His four well-chosen soloists had no trouble filling HERE’s admittedly small space with thrilling sound that never made us wince.

But because the vocalism accompanied so little action and no dialogue, the evening never became a dramatic event, that is, an opera. Were sets and costumes (wild costumes!) even necessary? Were the tremendously elaborate and often beautiful projections, which led us, for example, through rows upon rows of columns into Pharaoh’s throne room, or beside the muddy pools of the Nile required? Is Mosheh’s presence called for by the music, or would any naked man (a volunteer from the audience, say) do just as well? Or could we dispense with him too?

Soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, well known among fans of New York’s odder opera scenes (she was the Wooster Group’s splendid Didone Abbandonata), made the most striking impression here as Miriam, acting as well as singing her lovely music.

John Yohalem

GreenHattonBarnesChinn-Cred.gifHeather Green as Bitia, Beth Anne Hatton as Zipporah, Judith Barnes as Yocheved and Hai-Ting Chinn as Miriam [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations]

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