1 THE OPERA JOURNAL 28:3 Sept. 1995 pp.45-47
Two New Operas at Long Island Universities That Look Forward and Backward:
Deutsch's Dorian at Hofstra
Mandelbaum's Village at Queens
Reviewed by Leonard Lehrman
Two senior faculty composers at the summit of their careers presented full-length operas at Long Island universities this past spring. The one, based on a classic, pointed the way toward the future. The other combined musical languages of the past to express a poignant contemporary perspective on the Holocaust.
Herbert Deutsch's opera, Dorian has a libretto by Robert Kastenbaum based initially on Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, but with a liberal dose of the same author's "Ballad of Reading Gaol," and with names, characters, objects and relationships changed in an effort to propel the story into the recent past and not-so-distant future: 1985 in Acts I & II and 2005 in Act III, to be exact. Instead of a painting, the central device is a computer program for music - a natural for Deutsch who co-designed and presented the first performance with the Moog synthesizer nearly a generation ago.
Lord Henry Wotton has become Henry Lord, a college professor who begins the opera with an obscure lecture on Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" - too obscure in fact: the libretto and its dense musical setting were so murky that even the imaginative visuals could not rescue Act I Scene 1 from a numbing lack of clarity. (The composer and librettist are planning to revise the first act for future productions.) The part was sung by "guest artist" (and Hofstra alumnus) Jan Wilgenkamp, a fine, resonant bass-baritone, but an unfortunately relatively wooden actor. All the rest of the cast, remarkably, were students.
The painter Basil Hallward has become the computer music professor Rick Shannon - a dodecaphonic role sung relatively automatonously by Eric Damon Smith. Dorian's heterosexual love interest, Sybil Vane, has become "Sunbeam", Soprano Donnamarie Demeglio, and was the most successfully drawn character and portrayal. (The Hofstra senior also played the character's daughter, "Stellar," in the third act.) Her second act soliloquy contained the most sustained and interesting vocal writing, along with her first act mixolydian love duet with Dorian; both were beautifully sung. Her brother Jim, however, has now become "her brotherly friend," and seemed confused in his murderous motivation, as sung by Christopher P. Crosby.
Another weakness of the libretto is the treatment of the homosexual seduction of Dorian by the Henry character which in the original novel is both more subtle and more erotic. Also missing from the libretto are some of Wilde's best witticisms, sprinkled liberally throughout the novel: "Punctuality is the thief of time." "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." And "men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious: both are disappointed." Perhaps the librettist and composer will consider including some of these in their revisions of the future.
Dorian himself has become a Candide-like figure and was well sung by the sweet-voiced tenor Kevin O'Connell. The murders he commits are quick and strange. But his last act fight with his own video image is a musical tour de force, and could be videographically even more so in a more elaborate production using morphing and other techniques that could only be hinted at in the Hofstra production's six performances, February 3-12. Edgar Dittemore staged and conducted the 18-member cast and 21-member professional orchestra, which excelled especially in the wonderfully imaginative futuristic dance music of Act II.
While Dorian was a first opera for Deutsch and his gerontologist librettist, and could have an interesting future, The Village is Joel Mandelbaum's fourth opera and is firmly rooted in the past. It is based on a well-researched and deeply-felt poetic libretto by Queens College English professor Susan Fox, whose poems Mandelbaum has set before, and who drew on her husband's experience as a child survivor of the Holocaust in France.
The central child, David Cohen, beautifully sung by 9-year-old Zachary Wissner-Gross and costumed (by G.W. Mercier) and directed (by Susan Einhorn) to resemble the famous photograph of the young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, is a Parisian Jew hidden with the Catholic Bernaud family in the French countryside from November 1942 thru August 1944. Letters from his mother in Paris (powerfully sung by dramatic soprano Mary Beth Cunningham) frame the action and provide perspective on the madness of the world at war outside the village.
In a subplot, Mme. Bernaud (warmly evoked by mezzo-soprano Korby Myrick) is tempted but resistant to the attentions of the German captain billeted at their house (a surprisingly sympathetic and even tender portrayal by baritone Arizeder Urreiztieta), while her daughter Sophie (lyric soprano Gina Jones, whose artistry compelled one to set aside reservations re non-traditional casting across racial lines) trysts with the baker's son Antoine (tenor Sean Banayan, substituting for an ailing Philip Anderson March 25) and eventually saves the village from being blown up by the Germans, at the cost of his life.
Musically, the most interesting and effective scene is Act II Scene 2, where an Easter gradual, complete with incense seeping into the audience, is combined with a Kaddish sung overhead by David's mother in Paris. Though it may look hokey on paper, it was well prepared for in Mandelbaum's second opera of 38 years ago, Four Chaplains - in which one of them is Jewish - and it works! It is also the only scene to employ microtonality, a technique which has made Mandelbaum's name academically (especially in his only other fulllength opera, The Dybbuk, of twenty years ago), but has in general alienated more audiences than it has attracted. In this case, however, the deviation from the nineteenth-century (and earlier) harmony that permeates the rest of the opera is barely if at all noticeable.
Dramatically, the most fascinating scene is the finale of Act I, in which the baker (sung by Arthur Francesco) and a villager named Francois Corday (shades of Charlotte in Marat/Sade?) (sung by Robert Campbell) advocate denouncing David as a Jew and turning him over in order to curry favor with the occupying Germans. All sides of the question are explored by individual villagers, with the beautifully impassioned baritone of Eric Thomas as The Mayor and soaring tenor of Rufus Hallmark as the Priest especially prominent. (Now all Hallmark, a wonderful concert singer, has to learn is how to use his hands independently of each other.)
The 27-member student chorus, prepared by Harold Rosenbaum and conductor Doris Lang Kosloff, sang with conviction, though perhaps overconfidently opening night when some got a little lost in the "As we are innocent" fugue. Speaking of which, I felt honored to be among the composers quoted (even if only subconsciously and not credited in the program the way Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Rouget de Lisle and Pierre Degeyter were) - Mandelbaum had attended a performance of my Rosenberg Cantata "We Are Innocent" five and a half years ago, and opening night acknowledged his debt!
The (largely student) Queens College Orchestra of 43 provided excellent support for the big scenes, lapsing only occasionally into embarrassingly poor string intonation in some of the quick, tricky interludes. All four performances at the Queens College Theatre March 25-April 2 were sold out and received standing ovations.
Excerpts from each of these operas were heard on Long Island Composers Alliance concerts in 1994. Now that they have been presented fully staged, they deserve to be heard again - especially the Sophie-Bernaud-David trio from Act I Scene 5 of The Village: "When the war is over."
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