LIVE EVENTS by Barry L. Cohen (v.6 #3, p.6):
Leonard Lehrman: The Birthday of the Bank (opera after Chekhov's Yubilei, translated by Lehrman). Ronald Edwards, Janis Sabatino Hills, Peter Ludwig, others; Mr. Lehrman, conductor & pianist. Semi-staged at NYU Loewe Theater, NYC. Also, an EastEuroFest [also at Adelphi and Glenwood Presbyterian Church, Glen Cove], presented by Dinu Ghezzo, June 22, 1998.
The question continues to arise as to whether composers are sensing a growing urge to set some wonderful words to music, or whether it's a matter of opportunism, propelled by some economic, literary or political rationale. We have noted how often exalted poetry is brought down to earth by lackluster music. Perhaps it's even a greater sin to turn an earthy and foreboding clash of social classes - comical, yes, but not farcical - into a comic opera in eight scenes and 28 numbers, with great farcical overtones but disappointing music.
In this first full reading of this Lehrman work (commissioned by Opera America for the Lake George Opera Festival in 1983 [sic: 1988], an undoubtedly sincere effort on his part to dedicate something of worth to members of his own family) we were given what was referred to as a "semi-staged" performance. The singers were costumed properly but read their parts from hand-held scores. If we were strict adherents to the rule of reviewing only finished works, we would have passed up this event, but we realize how difficult it is for composers these days to get anything performed, let alone an opera, and so we've given Mr. Lehrman the benefit of the doubt. Semi-staged reading or not, the performers appeared to be all but ready to strut their stuff for the money, so to speak. They knew the nuances of their roles well. Ronald Edwards, as Andrei Shipootchin, the manager of a mutual credit bank celebrating an anniversary with a banquet in progress, played the perfect self-deluded, overly pompous wimp. Perhaps tenor Edwards, a one-time baritone, had some difficulties negotiating the higher notes of Lehrman's intricate score, but he knows how to cover his limitations, and he can act. Janis Sabatino Hills was charmingly scatter-brained as Tatyana, Andrei's wife, and Peter Ludwig, as Kheerin, was a terrifically grouchy old bookkeeper, overworked to the breaking point. Elana Polin was an aptly seedy, slightly deranged Nastasya, a shabbily dressed woman who disrupts the party with please of poverty and charges of theft (regarding her dead husband's account). Ben Spierman was also amusing in the brief role of the banquet spokesman.
The problem is in the music. Lehrman's essential structural design - giving each character a different meter based on personality - did not hold up for an hour here as it did in his recent Suppose a Wedding. It all comes down to something like one long recitative with monologues vainly marked arioso, with duos and trios strictly noted, and certain injected themes duly credited in the program notes. Even Tatyana's "Happy Birthday to the Bank" is noted, but it gets lost in the complexity of notes. Where is the contour, where are the lyrical moments? (Is not lyricism as word in Mr. Lehrman's richly intellectual vocabulary?) The opera ends with the main four characters in a "quartet" of recalled motives. But no matter how one slices it, "Birthday" still sounds like one long and unremitting recitative.
The play parallels this quartet with everyone's being zonked out by the unceremonious presence of the disgusting Nastasya (foreshadowing the defeat of the czarist rule by the great unwashed proletariat?). The spokesman is so drunk (like the oblivious Tsar Nicholas II?) he scarcely notices the "carnage." (By the way, when he sings "the bank's reputation now has been raised by you [Andrei] to such enormous heights," Mr. Lehrman misses the opportunity to give him a falsetto octave leap to reinforce the farcicality; but let us not tell professionals how to compose.) So, perhaps it is this political idea that has prompted Mr. Lehrman to find such an opera in Chekhov.
If nothing else and notwithstanding the farce element, Mr. Lehrman, with his impressive knowledge of the Russian language, has accomplished one thing. He has awakened us to the genius of Anton Chekhov.
The performance was preceded by a program of six works by as many composers. Unfortunately, we were late and only caught Dinu Ghezzo's Parallel Rituals, an earthy and evocative rendering of two poems by Christine Ghezzo, sung by Lia Lunger, accompanied by a tape and Dinu at the synthesizer. The other five composers were Natalia Jitomirskaia (who also had a small part in "Birthday"), Mr. Lehrman, Vladimir Polezhayev and Andre Hosza. Mr. Lehrman offered some background and explanation of his opera before it went on.