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Enemies, A Love Story
WEST PALM BEACH
Palm Beach Opera
Okulitch and Sandel-Pantaleo in Palm Beach Opera’s Enemies
Courtesy Palm Beach Opera
On February 20, Palm Beach Opera presented the first world premiere in its fifty-three-year history — Ben Moore’s Enemies, A Love Story, based on the 1966 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Set in 1948 New York, Singer’s story examines lives in the post-World War II Jewish community — refugees who survived the Holocaust and American Jews who are sympathetic but may not fully comprehend what the experience has done to the souls of the survivors. Herman Broder, the protagonist, spent two years hiding in a hayloft in Poland while the war tore apart everything he knew. Believing his first wife to be dead, Herman married Yadwiga, the Polish farmer’s daughter who hid him, and immigrated with her to New York. Now he hides from everyone around him and from himself. Herman has constructed multiple realities in order not to disappoint anyone who cares about him. He expends great energy keeping each world separate. He wants to make Yadwiga happy: she provides a clean, comfortable home where he is only bothered by his dreams and by nosy neighbors. He wants to make his girlfriend, the volatile divorcée Masha, happy: she draws emotions from him that remind him of the life-force within, and she convinces him to marry her. He wants to make his employer, Rabbi Lampert, happy: the work exercises his intellectual gifts and pays for Herman’s complex lifestyle. However, when Tamara, Herman’s first wife, turns up alive, the threads begin to unravel. Tamara is a realist, tortured by memories of her dead children; but she is stronger than Herman and prepared to accept whatever life now offers her. Herman tries to juggle his commitments to each of his wives but is unable to make hard decisions, because he no longer knows who he is. Ultimately, Herman disappears from their lives, Masha overdoses in despair when she realizes Herman has abandoned her, and Tamara becomes the survivor who will take care of the pregnant Yadwiga.
Librettist Nahma Sandrow tightened the story and kept the action confined to the boroughs of New York. This allowed stage director Sam Helfrich, scenic designer Allen Moyer, lighting designer Aaron Black and projection designer Greg Emetaz to move the action along cinematically, keeping the focus on the characters. Costumer Kaye Voyce captured the era and the social strata remarkably well.
Composer Moore, known for beautiful song-settings, devoted his melodic gifts to an immediately accessible score. The words emerge clearly (the projected texts are hardly needed except in ensembles) against a colorful, sensitive orchestration. Each of the three women in Herman’s life has a musically distinctive language. Yadwiga (soprano Caitlin Lynch) expresses herself simply, directly and honestly. Masha (soprano Danielle Pastin) is at the other extreme, with a tense, electric sexual energy infusing everything she sings. Tamara (mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo) starts with nervous jitters when she first encounters Herman, but her practicality and humor soon assert themselves; her narration of her wartime experiences seems all the more tragic because of her control. The trio at the beginning of Act II is particularly impressive, becoming an elegy for Holocaust victims. Herman’s music, consistent with his character, tends to match the circumstances rather than project a strong personality. Rabbi Lampert (well sung and played by baritone David Kravitz) reflects the more secular aspects of a religious leader’s personality; the Hanukkah celebration could be mistaken for a social cocktail party. Masha’s mother (the excellent Jennifer Roderer) reveals the weight of her grief in every utterance.
Baritone Daniel Okulitch rose to the challenge of creating the operatic Herman Broder. Struggling with conflicted and shifting intentions, losing his identity, purpose and faith until he becomes a nonentity, another victim of the Holocaust, the character is difficult to make sympathetic. Nevertheless, just as Herman wins over each of his wives, Okulitch persuaded the audience to care about Herman despite his inability to be honest.
The weaknesses in the score became apparent only at moments of greatest conflict and drama. Two instances when greater dynamic tension and bigger outbursts would have been more satisfying were Masha’s realization that her marriage was a deliberate sham and the moment when Masha’s ex-husband reveals her past.
David Stern conducted the Palm Beach Opera orchestra sensitively, bringing out the score’s lyric quality, which highlighted solo instruments and subtly reflected the period’s jazz and Eastern European influences. Greg Ritchey’s Palm Beach Opera chorus made a strong contribution to the success of the performance.
KARL W. HESSER
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