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Lowell House Opera

Yossele Solovey: work of genius

Yossele Solovey

World Premiere of a new opera by

Noam Elkies, libretto by Jeremy Dauber

Conducted by Joel Bard

Dax Kiger, Stage Director

Lowell House Opera

Lowell House, Harvard University

March 10, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 21 at 8pm.

$10 general admission, $6 for students.

Tickets available through BOSTIX

or call 496-2222 for reservations.

By Jonathan Richmond

Websearch “Noam Elkies” and you’ll come to the site of Harvard undergraduate Zachary Shrier and this: “Who is Harvard’s most powerful mind? Those in the know say it’s Noam Elkies.” But those who might think that the cranium of Harvard’s youngest ever -- tenured-at-26 -- full professor of mathematics contains no more than one of the world’s most productive human computing machines should take a trip to view Yossele Solovey.

Elkies’ new opera, which opened Wednesday night at Lowell House, Harvard, provides extraordinary insight into the human condition through music at once powerful, sensitive, and subtle. It is a work of genius that not so much bridges the genres of musical theatre and opera as moves beyond the expressive limits of so much music written for Broadway while providing an audience accessibility lacking in the work of so many “serious” music composers of the twentieth century. Yossele has the potential to join the international repertory as one of the great works of our age. The impassioned performances to be found at Lowell House, with the composer himself at the piano, provide yet more reasons why this production is not to be missed.

The Sholom Aleichem story on which the opera is based is wonderful. It tells of a cantor besotted by music and the power of his own voice to produce it. It follows a tragic path as Yossele leaves the insular life of his community for a life of fame that turns out to be a catalog of loss: disconnection from the woman who loves him, from family, from tradition and, ultimately, from sanity.

Characterization is superb and manages to be at once larger-than-life yet profoundly compelling on a human scale. There’s Yossele the dreamer who rises and falls, Esther his anemic yet tender lover, Gedalye Bass the creepy-crawly impresario who leads him to fame, Perele the calculating society widow who seduces him, and Shmulik the father -- a figure out of Greek tragedy who is the first to spot Yossele’s talent and who both foresees and experiences the suffering that is to result from it.

Elkies says he found inspiration in Mozart, yet the link is not immediately obvious. The music does not sound Mozartian. Reacting to the action in progress, however, it becomes apparent that Elkies has adopted Mozart’s unusual gift for using music to reveal truth. Mozart’s CosÌ fan Tutte sets off two pairs of lovers and through sublime music goes past their lies to provide access to the truth in their hearts. Elkies’ music also penetrates to the heart of alternative relationships and underlines the God-given legato of one in contrast to the inevitable discord of the other. How the music sighs as Esther reflects on the loss of Yossele, its transcendent beauty making the pain yet more pointed. A solo cello plays an important role in bringing out grief while miraculously reaffirming faith in a higher authority. Does the cello provide a voice for the silent yearnings of the human soul or does it, indeed, reveal the presence of God?

The piano also plays an essential role -- playing solo for many of the darker and most critical moments. The wicked Perele seduces the naive Yossele with music on the piano, in a magical passage that has parallels with the emotional transitions of another famous aria where emotional loyalties change, Mozart’s Il core vi dono. Yet the love exchange seems more than from one human to another. Yossele begins singing solo in the form of a niggun -- a song without words that shows delight in the love of God, yet moves to join in wordless song with his temptress, their words and heartbeats fusing with the passion that rightly belongs not only to Esther but also to the Heavens.

Once Yossele is snared, it is also the piano that hurls contempt at him as Perele demands money for her hats and dresses. The cello comes in here, acting the part of Yossele’s anguished soul and begging for pity as if separated from and urgently trying to redeem the flesh-and-blood character on stage. The piano hits like a hammer; Perele tells Yossele “if I can’t have your love [equated with his money], I’ll make your life hell.” The cello replies with such gentle poignancy that one can almost hear the angels sobbing.

Shmulik the father comes on stage, asking “where is my little boy?” with extraordinary pain. The solo piano here spells an intense loneliness. The music becomes deeply disturbing as the father pleads “hear my prayer,” the rawness of his torment bringing to mind the tortured biblical Jephtha and the unworldly music Handel wrote for his oratorio of that name.

Shmulik, however, has yet to have the most startling music of all in this opera, for he is asked to give the blessing on the arranged marriage of Esther and Reb Alter, the ill-matched groom taking the place and promise of the cantor’s son. Yes, Shmulik can bring himself to utter the words of benediction, but Elkies’ music will not allow any lies and there seems no alternative but to hear the sound of lamentations.

Elkies music also evokes the essence of Klezmer -- and there are brilliantly spirited sounds of celebration -- yet the hearty brass oom-pah for this tragic wedding only makes the agony deeper. Esther stands frigidly, while bass pizzicato depicts disturbance, a solitary heaven-sent flute siddling up to offer what at first seems like the legato of solace but is perhaps no less than the presence of the Angel of Death.

Elkies sets the Kaddish -- the prayer for the dead -- with profundity. Yossele appears in a vision to Esther to sing Kaddish at her wedding to deathly disembodied violin music illuminated with one of the evening’s most ravishing cello settings. Heartbeats seem audible in this scene of horror.

The other religious settings, from a choral singing of Ein Kelohainu to Yossele’s intense rendition of the Mussaf service, combine splendor with depth. Perhaps, just as Yossele can’t resist absorbing the music of an off-limits church (the act that gets him into trouble in the first place), Elkies has informed his intensely intimate depiction of timeless Jewish melodies with his knowledge of church choral traditions.

Elkies score is amazingly complex. This is a deeply intellectual work, yet one with a human scale that gives it ready appeal and with a spiritual dimension that manages to leave the audience revitalized after watching scenes of deepest suffering. As Mozart’s operas can be appreciated on different levels, Yossele is a work for all audiences -- one that will reward a casual approach, but which also has multiple layers of depth to be explored for those who care to seek them out.

The libretto is written by Jeremy Dauber -- like Elkies, a former resident of Lowell House. The text has punch and wit, even if we are ever aware that it’s main purpose is to be the vehicle for the music.

Cast and orchestra on opening night were excellent -- the best I’ve ever heard at a Lowell House production. Anne Harley was simply rivetting in the part of Yossele (a woman was chosen to sing the part because a male with a sufficiently high-pitched voice could not be found), her singing pure and affecting and her acting dramatic. While her whole performance was glorious, it was in the rendition of the Kaddish that she especially shone.

Perhaps the light she cast was frightening -- that of someone who has sold his soul to the Devil yet is singing God’s praise -- yet the beauty of sound gave repose. Heidi Clark’s Esther was fabulously sung too and Clark’s acting turned this simple love-lost-lass into a tragic heroine by opera’s end. She clearly felt as well as understood the part and the result was powerful.

Paul Soper’s Shmulik was exceptional. The deep cantorial voice and traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation was entirely authentic, making his religious singing a wonder. Yet Soper’s greatness lay in his depiction of the soul’s torment, which became increasingly vivid as the opera progresses. His singing -- along with that of Heidi Clark -- was very intense as Shmulik stands with Esther pondering the impending loss of his son in “Yossele, Dream of Me,” close to the start. Yet, as Shmulik prays for the return of his son later on -- when it is too late -- Soper sings with an inner passion that makes the pain his character suffers fathomless.

Meara McIntyre was a deliciously evil Perele. What a malicious twinkle in the eye of another of the evening’s singers who knows how to wondrously act the part as well as she sings it. Her singing in Perele’s wordless seduction song was dreamily blissful (as was Harley’s), making us wonder if this shrewish character does indeed really love Yossele. Her pure stacato-nastiness to her husband once the marriage vows are sealed and settled was vivid. Jennifer Harney did a nice job of Perele’s maid, Leahtzi, singing with great clarity as well as character and drawing some nice laughs. Perele’s servant, Berl-Isaac was brightly sung and smartly acted by Jesse Hawkes.

John Whittlesey played the part of Gedalye Bass, the impresario. His depiction of this small-time essay in human greed was well-studied and entertaining, gestures of voice as well as of body giving a distinct impression that this wouldn’t be the sort of person from whom to purchase a second-hand car. Perhaps it’s just as well they didn’t have any at the time. Whittlesey also sang the part of the cantor Pitzi -- whose choir Yossele joins before attaching himself to Bass -- and I loved the way he showed Pitzi’s self-adoring reveling in his own voice as the cantor leads his choir. David Howse nicely depicted the unfeeling Reb Alter, underscoring the cruelty with which Alter strikes out at Shmulik as the latter suffers on account of his son.

Joel Bard -- who recently completed his Phd in Molecular and Cellular Biology -- was the evening’s Music Director and achieved astonishing success in preparing a student orchestra for an intense and difficult new work. He was doubtless helped in his task by the presence of some wonderful musicians, with no sign of weakness in any parts of the orchestra. String playing was rapturous, with none more so than that of Sarah Siska whose cello part was so important to the development of the opera. Siska’s tone was very special and her handling of every nuance profound.

Woodwind scoring is often dark and dense, but the flute is allowed on occasion to float free and the solo playing of Denise Gaz was a delight. The brass section not only performed demanding music with great accuracy but was full of spirit. And Noam Elkies held command of the piano -- playing his own music with a knowingness as well as vigor that comes from a special sense of ownership.

Dax Kiger provides taut and well-managed stage direction that shows a keen understanding of the necessary link between music and action -- and of the fact that much of the action is in fact within the music. Stephanie Richardson has supplied terrifically evocative costumes. Mathew Myhrum’s set is possibly a trifle minimalist, perhaps reflecting the constrained level of resources available to pay for it, but his use of a series of tumbledown houses supported on sticks as if children’s lollipops successfully evokes the spirit of the Shtetl.

The last time we hear Yossele sing Kaddish he is alone in the cemetary. Kaddish may not be sung alone, however, for mourning requires a minyan of ten. Such is the unworldly beauty of the music, however, that we can only imagine that Yossele was not really alone, but that the angels in their great grief had come down from the Heavens to silently join him in invoking the glory of God’s name even in the face of distress. It is in the essence of our humanity that we can find balm amidst impossible suffering and it is Noam Elkies’ great achievement to have composed a work that finds revelation in its exploration of humanity, and of the relationships of human souls not just one to another but with God, their creator.