CULTURE & THE ARTS:
New Meditations on the Holocaust:
[The Dreyfus Affair, Dayenu, and Sabina] AUFBAU 62:8 Apr. 12, 1996 p13
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
April 8, 1996 (1900 words)
Just in time for Passover this year, three deserving new works premiered on New York stages, each in its way a meditation on the Holocaust: The Dreyfus Affair by George Whyte & Jost Meier; Dayenu by Paul Alan Levi; and Sabina by Willy Holtzman.
The most widely publicized, ambitious, and in some ways scandalous of the three was New York City Opera's production of The Dreyfus Affair in its English-language premiere. Actually, the work was originally conceived in English by businessman-administratorlibrettist George Whyte, a Hungarian Jewish emigre to England who heads a number of committees commemorating the Dreyfus centennial internationally, and who cheerfully admits to an "obsession" with the case.
It is in fact part of a trilogy of his, consisting of: a one-act Musical Satire called Rage and Outrage, which premiered on French, German, and British television in 1994, starring chanteuse Ute Lemper, with orchestrations by Luciano Berio; a two-act Danced Drama called Dreyfus - J'Accuse, which premiered in September 1994 in Bonn, with music by Alfred Schnittke, choreographed by Valery Panov; and The Dreyfus Affair, called an Opera, which premiered (in German) in Berlin in May and in Basel in October, 1994, starring the Canadian tenor Paul Frey and conducted at the premiere by the late Christopher Keene (through whom NYCO inherited the production) with some performances conducted by the work's Swiss composer, Jost Meier.
[Jost Meier's Music]
Except for a 1990 Carnegie Hall performance of his "Musique concertante" by Armin Jordan and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Basel-based Meier's music is virtually unknown in America. But he is a gifted musician - I had the great pleasure of working with him, and Paul Frey, on a number of productions in Basel fifteen years ago - and, since 1982, the composer of no fewer than six operas: the first four (1.Sonnentunschi, 1982, Freiburg; 2. Der Drache, 1984 Basel; 3. Der Zoobaer, 1985, Zuerich Opernstudio; 4. Der Augustin, 1986, Basel) were written with and staged by the Basler Theater's Oberspielleiter Martin Markun, in each case based on a previous work by Hans-Joerg Schneider (#1 & 4), Yevgeni Shvarts (#2) or Kurt Schwitters (#3). Meier's most recent opera, for children, Pilger und Fuchs, is based directly on a text by Schneider.
The Dreyfus collaboration with Whyte was unique - in many ways. In fact not since the eighteenth century has a work been billed as an "opera by" a librettist "with music by" a composer. Meier was commissioned by Whyte to set to music Whyte's words in a German translation; the text was then, for this production, translated by the librettist back into English, to go with the music - more or (sometimes) less. The arch of too many musical phrases did not correspond with that of the text; this may have been a result of the composer's having been rather scandalously excluded from collaborating on this production.
George Whyte's The Accused
At a Goethe House (New York) book party for his stunning new tome, The Accused (published by Inter Nationes in Bonn), which includes the texts of all three works and many valuable documents and fruits of his research, Whyte was asked how it felt having his words "translated into music." "Not translated," he corrected his interlocutor; "supported by the music!"
His description was, for better or for worse, accurate. At nearly every dramatic moment the music (conducted at the April 2 premiere here by Robert Duerr) remains silent or provides only an undercurrent for spoken, monotonic, or relatively atonal declamation. Chopin's C#-minor Waltz makes a brief incongruous appearance, as does the Yiddish lullaby "Rozhinkes mit Mandeln," in a not terribly sensitive treatment - though he enjoys "a good relationship" with many Jews, Meier is not Jewish; still, one quails to think of what the composer Krzysztof Penderecki (Whyte's initial choice, but the collaboration fizzled) might have done with this material.
There are also authentic anti-Dreyfusard songs of the period, including an anti-Semitic Marseillaise parody, led by the prostitute Marie Pays (a sort of heartless imitation of the Maries in Wozzeck and Die Soldaten, sung mostly in French by Melanie Sonnenberg), and some extended vocal solos for Dreyfus and his wife Lucie (Nina Warren). The title role was essayed by tenor Jean Daniecki.
I say "essayed" because, knowing Paul Frey and his voice as I do, I can honestly attribute whatever success this piece enjoyed in Europe largely to the work of Paul Frey, for whom the role was written, emphasizing the strengths he has, namely the ability to pack both power and lyricism, shifting rapidly from one to the other, into an extremely short time frame, convincingly - which proved beyond Daniecki's capabilities. Indeed, in the second trial scene, where the libretto calls for him to cry out "in the voice of a wounded animal," the quickness and high register of the American tenor's singing tittered on the edge of (unintentional) anti-Semitic caricature.
Shon Sims shone briefly as the Rabbi; but all the other major characters also came across as little more than caricatures, including Ned Butikoffer as Dreyfus' brother (whose request that Dreyfus be permitted to kiss his wife seemed meaningless with NYCO's open-bar sets; in the European productions wire nets formed part of the cell's cage), Stephen Powell as Esterhazy (the real traitor for whom the Jew Alfred Dreyfus was scapegoated), and even the able Joseph Coreggiano as Zola. [(For a real Zola, watch Paul Muni in the 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola, arguably his greatest role.)
Goetz Friedrich, Opera & Anti-Semitism
Even with a strong center as provided in Europe by Frey, however,] the question remains whether The Dreyfus Affair is really an opera. Deutsche Oper Berlin's Generalintendant Goetz Friedrich, who lauded the work as important in the battle against anti-Semitism, yet ten years ago refused to meet with the only Jewish operetta conductor in his employ except on Yom Kippur(!), called it a "protocol," which George Whyte interprets as a "testament," in which every word is authentic, nothing fictionalized. That may be, but to these eyes and ears it seemed more like a pageant, worthily meant, and only occasionally misguided in execution.
Still, I'd rather sit through a good performance of a work like this than a paean to anti-Semites like Richard Nixon or the assassins of Leon Klinghoffer. And I look forward to the opportunity to experience George Whyte's other works, including his forthcoming musical J'accuse and a monologue based on the life and death of Dreyfus' granddaughter Madeleine, who was killed in Auschwitz.
The whole Dreyfus affair may be, and has been, seen as a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. More power to those who sincerely want to do something about keeping the memory of that history alive today. For these new works, Whyte has chosen to write his own music. Why not before? "Lack of experience." Why now? "I learned something!" Let's hope so, including how to let a work soar through its music.
Paul Alan Levi's oratorio Dayenu is a work which really does soar through its music, and was given a sumptuous Carnegie Hall premiere April 6 by the New York Choral Society, which co-commissioned it along with Central Synagogue, where it will also be performed. (The concert opened with a Handel Overture arranged by Elgar, including an amusingly anachronistic snare drum part.) Music Director John Daly Goodwin conducted, with soloists Adam Klein, tenor, and (Central Synagogue's) Cantor Richard Botton, baritone. The two are a generation apart, and maintained very different distances from their microphones, creating a sound engineer's nightmare. (Klein mistakenly eschewed a mike completely in the opening Psalmus Hungaricus of Kodaly and was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra.)
But that problem aside, all sang beautifully and with conviction. The text, assembled by the composer, couples the Exodus from Egypt in Part I with the first-person tale of an escapee from Theresienstadt, Evzen Hilar, in Part II. The music is mostly tonally traditional, with some effective quasi-aleatory sections comprised of individual "Furtive Prayers" in indeterminate rhythms. The "Hal'luyah; Y'hi Shem" in Part I is a delightful choral piece that ought to be performed separately - in every synagogue!
Part II's Double Chorus "Smoke"/"We got used to..." is particularly effective in depicting the horrors of Auschwitz, setting words by Jacob Glatstein, Peter Fischl (1929-1944) and Nelly Sachs. The exultant "Dayenu" chorus is a gigue that almost feels Irish in its gaiety. The concluding "May 1945" is almost anti-climactic in its lush 6th- and 9th-chord harmonization to a poem by Dagmar Hilarova (who married Evzen Hilar after the war). But the net result is a work of power, sweetness, and definitely good feeling. One looks forward to becoming acquainted with the other works of Mr. Levi's, especially his four-movement Mark Twain Suite, also commissioned by the New York Choral Society and released on Centaur, including the marvelous text "That Dreadful German Language"!
Willy Holtzman's two-act four-character play, Sabina, is a tantalizing look into the life of a relatively unsung female pioneer in early psychoanalytic theory, Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jew who was analyzed by both Jung and Freud and may have had an affair with the former. Traumatized by a 1906 pogrom in her native Rostov, she selects Jung - and is selected by him - to be cured of her catatonia by the use of a myth of her own choosing: Siegfried.
The play (based on letters to and from her which were only discovered and published in 1977) shows how even before dying with her two daughters at the hands of the Germans in her native Rostov in 1942, her fate was manipulated by both Jung and Freud for their own opportunistic ends: Jung published her case history and his Freudian analysis of her without her permission in order to gain favor with Freud; Freud then took Jung to America as his protege but warned him that bringing Spielrein along might provoke a scandal.
Ample opportunity is provided to expose Jung's ignorance of Jewish culture and Freud's fear that psychoanalysis would be branded "a Jewish science." He takes Jung on as his "son" and "heir," or, as Spielrein points out, his "shabbes goy." We watch as Jung appropriates her mythological interpretations for his own, while Freud pooh-poohs all but the Oedipal, and both men insist her father raped her when in fact he rescued her from the pogrom.
After Freud breaks with Jung, the play shows Jung sending Freud money to help leave post-Anschluss Austria, money which Freud proudly refuses. We never learn the details of Spielrein's subsequent marriage, nor of Jung's embrace of Nazism. The last words of the play are hers, to him, almost reminiscent of the sad singer of the Brecht-Weill "Surabaya Johnny": "I love you."
The director, Melia Bensussen, of Sephardic Jewish descent, first came to attention through her inventively staged reading at the Public Theater of Brecht's Rundkoepfe und Spitzkoepfe (unfortunately in the awful N. Goold-Vershoyle translation). She has grasped the Holtzman play's essence brilliantly and staged it in a constantly absorbing, taut manner, helped along by David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design and Dan Kotlowitz's lighting. Marin Hinkle is excellent in the title role; George Bartenieff, Kenneth L. Marks, and David Adkins are fine as Freud, Jung, and Binswanger (the catalytic role of another doctor in the clinic). First workshopped in Pittsburgh last July, the play is being presented in New York by Primary Stages in a run that has been deservedly extended.
© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 8/1/02