Jewish Operas Vol. 2

Various Artists

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Jewish Operas Vol. 2 Review

by Stephen Eddins

This second volume of excerpts from Jewish operas continues Naxos' Milken Archive of American Jewish Music series, and includes selections from two operas based on contemporary literature, and one derived from the Bible. David Schiff's Gimpel the Fool (1974-1985) is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's most famous story and was originally in Yiddish, but is presented here in an English version. Schiff's eclectic score incorporates Ashkenazi cantorial traditions, as well as klezmer, jazz, and blues influences, and its directness, humor, and melancholy are perfectly suited to the tone of the Singer story. If these brief excerpts are representative of the opera as a whole, it would be a very attractive piece to hear (and see) in its entirety. The excerpts receive assured performances from Kenneth Kiesler leading the University of Michigan Opera Orchestra and Chorus and soloists. Theodore Bikel provides the narration that ties the excerpts together.

Elie Siegmeister's 1985 Lady of the Lake is based on the story by Bernard Malamud, and concerns the disastrous romantic consequences of a man's denial of his Jewishness. Siegmeister's score exemplifies much of what was wrong with American opera in the second half of the twentieth century -- a musical language hovering uneasily between tonality and atonality, unwilling to relax into genuine lyricism, random-sounding text setting that expresses little relationship to the dramatic situation, and ponderously overwrought orchestration.

The New York City Opera premiered Hugo Weisgall's Esther in 1993. Weisgall has the instincts of a theater composer, and while his music is primarily atonal, he writes skillfully for the voice, and his inventive and atmospheric musical gestures aptly express the drama on-stage, drawing the listener into the characters' dilemmas. The intriguing and too-brief excerpts here leave the listener wishing for a complete version of the opera, which would make an ideal project for the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. Gerard Schwarz leads the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and soloists in confident performances of the Siegmeister and Weisgall. Naxos' program booklet includes librettos and extensive notes on the operas.

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