OPERA NEWS - The Lady and the Peddler & Schitz
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The Lady and the Peddler & Schitz

TEL AVIV
Israel Opera
7/3/15

ISRAELI OPERA has climaxed its thirtieth season with an exciting double bill of two newly commissioned Israeli operas, continuing its blessed initiative of enriching the still limited repertory of operas in the Hebrew language. One hopes for an increase in such commissions so that the Israeli opera become a living, innovative theater, alongside its regular function as a museum of masterpieces.

The Lady and the Peddler by Haim Permont (b. 1950), one of Israel’s foremost composers, has a libretto by Tzruya Lahav based on a short story by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, one of Israel's greatest authors and a Nobel prize laureate (1887-1970). The Lady and the Peddler belongs to the large literary category of Romantic, Gothic tales, yet transferred to the Polish Jewish world: a poor Jewish peddler knocks at the door of a rich lady, named Heleni, in the midst of a horrible snow storm in the forest, asking for temporary shelter. The lady, who at first chases him away as an unwanted Jew, suddenly softens and allows him to sleep at her home. She gradually changes her attitude, invites him to stay and takes him to her bed. The peddler forgets all his Jewish dietary laws and becomes obsessed with the pretty Christian Heleni. When he inquires why she never eats with him, she openly answers that she eats human meat and drinks blood. The peddler ignores her hidden warning until something in her look frightens him and he goes out to the snow, but cannot leave her. When he returns she reaches to his throat, but finds his blood cold like ice water. The lady dies of starvation and the peddler returns to his old way of life. 

The opera is modeled after Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, with one female and one male singing role, and three mute figures representing Heleni's dead husbands. Permont’s writing is Romantic, communicative and very expressive. His first opera, Dear Son of Mine (2000), also commissioned by the Israeli Opera, was a painful, veristic opera that touched on the most sensitive Israeli subjects, chief among them bereavement and Arab-Jewish relations. The new opera is removed from the immediate sensitivities of Israelis, yet its origin in Agnon's much admired writing and its dominating Jewish aspects make it very close to the audience. The vocal parts are expressionistic, expressive recitatives, in the long tradition dating back to Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Alban Berg. The orchestra plays a continuous counterpoint interpreting the plot, such as imitating the shrieking storm in the first scene. The tubular bell sounds throughout the opera, stressing the Christian context of the Lady's home; when Heleni dies the orchestra quotes the Gregorian Dies irae, andtowards the end, when the Peddler returns to his miserable trade (and to observing Jewish law) the orchestra plays Klezmer music. The opera maintains constant tension and rich expression. It is a wonderful dramatic work that should reach the international stage.

The performance was superb. Soprano Edit Zamir as the Lady and baritone Guy Mannheim as the Peddler offered warm, rich voices and excellent acting. Director Ido Riklin kept the two singers and the three silent actors in constant motion, thus avoiding the danger of static action. The minimal sets by Alexander Lisiansky and the beautiful lighting by Avi Yona Bueno were very effective. The opera orchestra, conducted by Ethan Schmeisser, was powerful and highly expressive.

Playwright Hanokh Levin (1943–99) was one of Israel's most powerful and most original and prolific playwrights. Composer Yoni Rechter (b. 1951) set his Schitz to a libretto based on a Levin's play, edited by Mulli Meltzer. Levin’s sixty-two (!) plays are outspoken, bitter criticism of Israeli society and militaristic policy, using low language full of swearing and biting expressions. Schitz was written in 1974, immediately after the shocking trauma of the October 1973 war against Egypt and Syria, in which more than 2,400 young Israelis were killed in a painful national awakening from the illusion of unlimited power. The play consists of two parts. The first is a bitter satire of Israeli society represented by a family—father, mother and daughter whose sole interest is money, food (lots of it) and the obsessive search for a husband for the fat, ugly daughter. Finally found, the young husband does not love the daughter but wants to get the father's money. In the midst of the disgusting wedding ceremony the siren announces the outbreak of the war. The fresh bride immediately becomes a widow. Yet the ghost of the husband returns from the dead and joins the contractors who made a fortune from the war. 

The two sections of the play strongly distinguished the musical style. The first part was strongly dominated by Rechter's melodic gifts and influenced by the cabaret's style of Kurt Weill and certain American musicals, and by operatic devices such as a mock love duet that was humorous if a bit too long. The sound of the siren marked a sudden change in the music, which acquired tragic operatic traits, reaching a moving peak with the ensemble describing the messenger arriving at 6 P.M. and relating to the young bride that her husband had been just killed. This powerful scene represented the nightmare of the young wives during the October war.

With the appearance of the husband’s ghost the cabaret style resumes, and the opera ends suddenly with the sarcastic comment of the mother: "If I did not know we were living history/ I would not be able to hold on.” The four Israeli singers were excellent. Soprano Ira Bertman, a regular at the Israeli opera, beautifully represented the mother with her rich, expressive lyrical soprano. Yael Levitas excelled as the daughter with her resonating, powerful dramatic soprano and fine acting, dominating the tragic 6 P.M. ensemble. Noah Briger as the father and Oded Reich as the husband were perfectly match. Conductor Ethan Schmeisser led the fine opera orchestra with full control.

I was deeply impressed with the reactions of the audience. The auditorium was full, and the audience was clearly moved and involved, with loud laughter in the cabaret scenes of Schitz and applause at key points in both operas. The two composers and the performers received prolonged standing ovations at the end of the evening, and the marked left-wing tinge of Schitz did not incite any objections. —Jehoash Hirshberg

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