Less is More
John C. Borden Auditorium
Gustav Holst: Savitri
Jessica Miller (Savitri), Kyu Won Han (Death), Simon O'Neill (Satyavan)
Leonard Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti
Elizabeth Shammash (Dinah), Samuel Hepler (Sam)
Manhattan Opera Theater
Glen Cortese (conductor)
When Gustav Holst wrote his one act opera Savitri in 1908 the classical world was going through a period of elephantiasis with Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Strauss' Elektra fresh on the scene. Holst was aiming for a very different sonic universe although his subject matter, the Mahabarata, was itself huge in conception. The story of Savitri's outwitting of Death to save her beloved has been sung about for millennia and is usually a raucous and grandiose part of a Vedic performance but in Holst's masterful hands it becomes an intimate scene, beginning a cappella and, at its most forceful, only accompanied by ten instruments. The music is modally based on olde English folksong and never sung above mezzo forte, except for the remarkably gentle intonation of Death as he introduces himself as an inevitable force of Nature. One howler in musical scholarship is the body of work which states that Holst was influenced by Indian music when he composed the piece, when in actuality he was completely unaware of the idiom until much later in life (although a scholar of the literature). This is not a work like Beni Mora which is actually based on North African chant, but rather a translation of mood from one musical culture to another.
Cortese showed sensitivity in the accompaniment of the singers by always keeping his chamber ensemble in check. Of the trio, Simon O'Neill was by far the strongest and it was thus a shame that he is so quickly killed off (or so we think at the moment). His voice with its promise of Melchiorian sublimity was dormant throughout most of the action as he lay comatose stage left. Kyu Won Han was a convincing and benevolent Death while Ms. Miller was the weakest of the three. The combination of voice and thin orchestration did work to produce a timeless feel and overall the atmosphere was suitably remote and mysterious. This was another in a long string of esoterica presented palpably by this adventurous group of operatic explorers.
Leonard Bernstein had issues with his father. The old man didn't even attend his debut as the soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Boston Public School Orchestra. Lenny got him back in spades however by naming his vacuous and villainous suburban character Sam and even toyed with the idea of naming the wife Jennie after his mother, instead opting to name her Dinah after his own father's mother (what can that mean?) Bernstein was musically obsessed with his father, creating a prolonged dialogue between himself and the paternal godhead in Kaddish and dedicating his Jeremiah Symphony, which includes Hebrew in Sam's Ashkenazic dialect rather than the Sephardic that Lenny learned in Massachusetts, to him. In any case this exploration of the frustrated psyches of a middle class couple was written as an intimate one act and premiered at Brandeis in 1952. Soon thereafter it was presented on television (its 45 minute length is ideal for airing) and it has come down in music history as a made for television set piece, although this was not its original conception. The work has a humorous, jazzy vocal trio that serves the purpose of a Greek chorus and comments ironically on the mores and mannerisms of business and domestic life in mid-century America. The plot centers around Sam's selfish decision to play handball rather than attend Junior's school play but the underlying development is the emergence of Dinah's personality. Elizabeth Shammash was extremely expressive in her acting as well as her singing ability, keeping her reserve in the early scenes of Dinah's repression, beginning to flower on the analyst's couch, and really blossoming in the big number.
"What a movie!!" has a life of its own in the musical world. Although virtually unknown by the public, this amazing song (the best that Bernstein ever wrote) is very familiar to all aspiring mezzo-sopranos and the people who have to audition them for roles in musical comedy or opera. It is a remarkable tour-de-force of singing, acting and characterization and, in the right hands, a true showstopper. Ms. Shammash, fittingly from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, was capable of singing with contagious enthusiasm as she described the worst movie in the world and faithfully recreated the wild sense of excitement that Bernstein so perceptively incorporates into this experience of telling a friend about a bad work of art. She not only imitated the Tahitian characters in the film with just the right nasal twang but even danced the role of the native girls in a supersonic horizontal vector of Balinese court movements which created the illusion that this one woman was an entire chorus line of Polynesian maidens (a truly inspired piece of choreography). Recollecting this moment in tranquility I can still see her seamless movement across the stage and hear her pentatonic whine in my inner ear. She received and deserved an extended ovation for this unforgettable performance.
Samuel Hepler was a strong voiced baritone and he added a third dimension of empathy to this essentially dated two dimensional character spawned from Bernstein's Oedipal frustrations. His steady performance was particularly appreciated as he was a last minute replacement for the scheduled singer. All in all a fine evening of reality existing in the universe of illusion, Savitri in the realm of Maya and Trouble in Tahiti in the blue air between the audience and the silver screen. As always the Manhattan Opera Theater has given us a glimpse into the hidden corners of the operatic world and found some jewels left behind.
Frederick L. Kirshnit