Monday, June 18, 2018

Secrets, lies and Star Wars

Curious to see whether Na'ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard actually deserved the vicious drubbing to which other critics have subjected it, I trekked off to the Hackney Empire yesterday for the final performance. The short answer is that it was pretty impressive. This is largely because it has two important qualities that no amount of editing could add and that many other, better-reviewed contemporary operas are lacking: emotional authenticity and a heart.

Edward Hyde and Collin Shay as Yoel, boy and man.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey/ROH

Mamzer Bastard is an original story by librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton. The theme of inheritance and continuity - of names, of traditions and ultimately of traumas - is central. Set in the Hasidic Jewish community of New York, it takes places on the night of the citywide blackout in July 1977. A young man, Yoel, meets a stranger in the darkness, a familiar-looking older individual who describes himself as nothing but a ghost, and shares the name of Yoel.

It turns out that he is Yoel's mother's first husband. Esther married him in Poland. Then came the war, she escaped to America and he was thought to have died in a concentration camp. He survived, came to the US to seek her and finally discovered that, believing him dead, she had married someone else. Her new husband, Menashe, is Yoel's father - but Esther at the last moment named Yoel after her original husband (and implicitly true love) instead. Young Yoel knew nothing of this. Nobody knows, yet the trauma is there and tangible: Menashe bullies his son continually, worried that he might not be his own child; Esther is tetchy and het-up; the relationships are all under constant strain. The effect on Yoel is deep-seated insecurity and a stammer.

Now Yoel realises that the other Yoel's existence means that he, the young man, is a 'mamzer' - inadvertently illegitimate, because under Jewish law Esther's former marriage is still valid, invalidating the later one, which would convey illegitimacy on his own marriage, his children, his grandchildren. Don't tell, the other Yoel advises. No one will know. "I will know," Yoel says. But he goes home and goes through with getting married. The last thing we hear is the wedding, off stage. If this conclusion might risk looking like a cop-out to some, it is actually anything but. It is an implied devastation of the future. It means that Yoel must carry it all on himself. That the next generation will be left to uncover his secrets. The trauma will continue.

These things happened - many, many times - and the Zisser family team has conveyed them with an inner conviction that has genuine power. In so doing, Na'ama has created some fine roles: Yoel is a counter-tenor, an excellent Collin Shay, and the flashbacks to his childhood memories are portrayed wonderfully by a boy soprano, Edward Hyde. Esther is that rare creation, a big role for an older mezzo-soprano, Gundula Hintz in full Susan Bickley mode; and the bullying Menashe (Robert Burt) has his own moments of anguish as he desperately hunts for his son in the chaotic streets of the blacked-out city. The first Yoel is sung by Steven Page, heart-rending as far as the character goes - on the one hand, he is a shadowy figure whom we don't get to know well enough, but on the other hand, neither does our Yoel. And there's another character: the synagogue cantor, David, sung by the real cantor Netanel Hershtik from the Hampton Synagogue in the US, punctuating the action with existing cantorial music.

In the pit, conductor Jessica Cottis commands a tight ship with 12 players from the Aurora Orchestra. The whole is slightly amplified, which I doubt added much to the effect for me in the sixth row - I don't much like amplification in opera unless absolutely necessary - but perhaps it would have made words more immediate for those further back or higher up. The direction by Jay Scheib involves live camera: a cinematographer, Paulina Jurzec, shadows the performers close to and her filming is projected onto a huge wall so that we see the emotions up close. A technical issue, though, means that there's a small time delay between the sound of the singing and the projection, just enough to upset the mouths/words coordination and prove bothersome (though it's no worse than you often find on Youtube). No interval: good for the audience, but it sounded, by the end, as if some of the singers could have used a midway break to recuperate.

Yes, some tightening up wouldn't hurt; the staging would have been better if the filmed coordination of image and voices had been precise and if the cinematographer had worn black sleeves to make her less conspicuous. Some of the repetitions of text are overused; and a little more variety of pace in the music would be a good thing, as - like every other new opera I hear - the whole thing walks along without much changing (when writing Silver Birch Roxanna and I tried to build in lots of variety in tempo because this is a major bug-bear for us both). But Zisser's sound world is far from standard-issue modernism: it is distinctive for its keening strings in quarter-tones, off-centre effects that destabilise the scene as if from within the characters themselves; electronics are seamlessly integrated, uncompromising chunky chords measure out emotions to match, and resonant percussive effects create chilling auras of sound. Above all, there's urgent human warmth at the core of it.

Na'ama Zisser, incidentally, is 29 and has an impressive track-record of commissions in a big range of genres. Her 'doctoral composer in residence' post at the Guildhall was previously held by Philip Venables, who produced 4.48 Psychosis while there. Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton normally work together in film scripts - and Na'ama has previously written a 'horror opera' with Newton.

It's possible, of course, that Mamzer Bastard is simply too niche, too bizarre a world for some Londoners. The alienation from modern life of the Hasidic community is shown when Yoel relates his experience of attempting to go to the cinema. "Star Wars or Annie Hall?" asks the ticket girl, a recorded voice. "One's scary, the other's funny." He has never heard of Star Wars. He goes in, expecting guidance, and doesn't find any (he'd have found Annie Hall much more helpful, but there we go...). But alienation can work two ways. The ongoing impact of Holocaust traumas is by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community; it creates fault-lines in almost every Jewish family in one way or another. If you are familiar with this environment to any degree, you'll recognise elements of it all too clearly. If you're not, though, it could be a steep learning curve.

Let's say I am predisposed in some ways to be sympathetic to this opera because my ancestors shared that world. There but for the grace of God go I. And some Yiddish words I haven't heard in years jumped out and made me smile. I realise this may mean I struggled less with the setting and felt more at ease with the work than perhaps others might. The audience was mostly Jewish - that doesn't make the work 'outreach', as one commentator sniped, but it does mean that it reached an audience that other operas might not. At the same time, it would be nice if that world could also be shown to those who are not part of it, and might emerge understanding it a little bit better.

We have to face up to the fact that the music world of the UK is rooted heavily in the Anglican church. Choir, organ and early music therefore have a natural home here and the most eminent people in the business tend to have had a grounding in that sphere. I remember well that as a Jewish music student in Cambridge, I felt very much a minority; if you don't want to go into a chorus and sing about Jesus, you're on your own. The English choral tradition has produced some glorious music and musicians, but it is also, inevitably, quite limiting; and if that is your world from the start, you may not be encouraged to start looking beyond it until it is, let's say, a bit late. On the other hand, none of that has ever stopped me from loving the Fauré Requiem, the Missa Solemnis, the St Matthew Passion or hundreds of Bach cantatas. Open-mindedness could work two ways, too, given half a chance.

By the way, I have not yet seen any other reviews of Mamzer Bastard by critics who happen to be female.

Yes, Mamzer Bastard has some weaknesses and needs a few tweaks, but it's far from the unmitigated disaster that some would have us believe. You could make cuts, direct it differently and not use amplification. No amount of tweaking, though, can add a heart to a work if it doesn't have one from the start, and this opera does. Unlike many.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My holiday job...


Hello, Townsville! from Jessica Duchen on Vimeo.

I'm off to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland, in late July, where I'll be presenting my new narrated concert Being Mrs Bach, specially commissioned for the event by artistic director Kathryn Stott. My colleagues on stage will include Siobhan Stagg, Roderick Williams, Guy Johnston, the Goldner String Quartet and many more, and it's kind of thrilling. I'll also be giving a talk about women composers for the Winterschool and writing copious quantities of words about the experience of attending the festival.

The other day I spent a happy few hours in the National Theatre's costume hire warehouse, trying on 18th-century garb. I did find something in which I could actually breathe, which was a good start. I hope it'll work. No, it will not be anything like Lucy Worsley. Yes, I really hope we can do some version of it in the UK too.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Who is the Mamzer Bastard?

Had a fantastic interview with the composer Na'ama Zisser and librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton about their new opera, Mamzer Bastard, which is opening at the Hackney Empire tonight under the auspices of the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where Na'ama is doctoral composer in residence). Rachel and Sam are a writing team who normally do horror movies; Na'ama set out to incorporate cantorial music of the Hasidic tradition into her score. It should prove a pretty extraordinary mix. You can read the whole thing in the JC here.

Na'ama Zisser
Taster (from the middle....)
Mamzer Bastard is no horror story, but its filmic qualities are evident as Rachel describes it. The action takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the biggest blackouts in the city’s history. A young man from the Orthodox Jewish community is to get married the next day. Unsure that he is ready, he decides to escape and finds himself lost in the darkened streets of the city, where he is nearly murdered. A stranger saves his life, asking in recompense only that he returns to his family and the wedding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he realises how little he knows about himself.” 
“Mamzer” translates almost as “bastard”, but more precisely as a person born from a relationship forbidden within Jewish religious law. According to Rachel, the story relates, tangentially, to deep roots within the Zisser family. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it in one form or another ever since,” she says. 
“At five or six years old, she was with her father when he ran into an old friend from before the Holocaust, who said ‘How nice to see you  and this is your little daughter?’ He replied, in Yiddish, thinking my aunt couldn’t understand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the original one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted afterwards: ‘Who is the original me?’ 
“When she was 17-18, her father went to testify at one of the Nuremburg trials. He came back with a document of his testimony against one of the Nazis. My grandmother didn’t want her children to know that our grandfather had had another family before the war, so she hid the document  and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daughter and a son before her, so she understood finally why she was not the first. I think the presence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”
Mamzer Bastard is at the Hackney Empire tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Fauré Requiem, up close and personal

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent

I had an extraordinary day a few weeks ago, heading for Paris and the Bibliothèque National with the composer and conductor Bob Chilcott, the presenter Frances Fyfield and the producer Tom Alban to meet the manuscript of the Fauré Requiem. BBC Radio 4's 'Tales from the Stave' is a fascinating series which explores the hidden stories within the composer's handwritten scores, and ours will be on today at 11.30am, and repeated on Sunday.

We found, among other things:
...some coffee stains;
some intriguing corrections;
some elaborate crossings-out;
some later changes and slightly wobbly phrase marks;
a few bits where he'd started writing on the wrong line, probably because he was scribbling too fast or was completely knackered;
in general, a very practical, down-to-earth working score for this other-worldly work of genius.

I was mildly disappointed that he hadn't doodled caricatures of Saint-Saëns in the margins, but needs must.

Hope you enjoy the programme. You can hear it here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MAGIC: Swan Lake

SWAN LAKE. What else?!
Photo: ROH 2018, by Bill Cooper

I thought I could get into the Royal Opera House's new Swan Lake on a press seat, having written a big article about it, but it turned out I couldn't, certainly not at short notice. Tickets for Liam Scarlett's production are like the proverbial gold dust and it seemed that checking back continually for returns was the only way. Therefore by chance I landed one of the best seats I've ever had: possibly not to everyone's taste, but wonderful if you like being almost on the stage, right over the French horns and harp and able to see every detail, including the evil glares of Von Rothbart, without opera glasses. Which I do.

Ballet heaven doesn't even begin to describe what followed.

John Macfarlane's designs are more than just detailed and opulent: they create a whole world that pulls you in and, however fantastical the drama, feels consistent and convincing. The lavishness of the pink marble and glowing gold ballroom scene caused a gasp and applause on curtain-up - not something I've heard at a ballet for a good while - and the parkland and palace gates of Act I similarly balance beauty and a sense of oppression. The lakeside, with lurid moon for act II and dappled clouds for act IV, is suitably gothic. The swan tutus are full of feathery loveliness - and the Hungarian princess, one of the four seductive young royals attempting to snare Siegfried's affections, seems to have half the foyer of the Franz Liszt Academy stitched into hers (quick solution to swan dilemma: go off with her instead?).

Cross Hamlet with Dracula and Giselle: the storytelling of this version leaps into focus. Rothbart is human(ish) by day, demon by night; when we first see him, in a new prologue set to the overture, he captures and transforms the unfortunate Odette, cradling her in his arms à la White Swan pas de deux, but looking as if he's about to sink his teeth into her long white neck. The pose creates resonances around that "iconic" image, normally just a passing (if wonderful) moment in act II. Several times before that when Siegfried tries to fold Odette's wings into an embrace, she resists, and that's probably why. When their cuddle is finally achieved, it has extra meaning.

Next, Rothbart is incarnated into the Queen's adviser, dressed from head to foot in black, exerting sinister control over the court - which he wants to infiltrate and destroy. Siegfried, brooding and mourning, loathes him. What happened to the King? Has the 'adviser' perhaps poured poison in his ear while he slept? Siegfried, refusing his instruction to go back to the palace at the end of act I, could witness Rothbart's twilit transformation if he bothered to turn around at that moment. Given his predatory hold over Odette and her companions, perhaps the creepiest moment of the whole production is when we see him escorting Siegfried's two little sisters into the ballroom. Will they be next?

So to choreography. Scarlett's own additions mostly integrate amid the original without jarring any sensibilities, idiomatically classical with an excellent feel for musical detail and cross-phrase imagination. The Act I Waltz and Polonaise are a huge improvement on the last production (I always felt that waltz was a mess - can't remember who choreographed it), even if I still hanker for the old Frederick Ashton ones from pre-1987. There's a beautiful solo for Siegfried set to the entr'acte - which in a way makes so much sense that one wonders why it wasn't done before. This one wins over the gorgeous Ashton solo, because frankly nobody could ever dance that one as well as Anthony Dowell. National dances are fun and full of "authentic" Czardas and Mazurka touches, though, to sound sour for a second, I found the Spanish number vaguely kitschy; and very glad that Ashton's Neapolitan Dance is still in place, as it's possible there would have been a balletomanes' rebellion had it been chopped.

Act IV is chiefly Scarlett with a centrepiece of a new pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette: it is woven out of a high-classical deconstruction of moves from the White Swan pas de deux as the pair try, hopelessly, to recapture that 'first fine careless rapture'.

Rehearsal of the new pas de deux


And the ending? Odette throws herself off the rock; the swans are saved; Rothbart dies; but Siegfried lives on, cradling the body of the drowned Odette. One can't deny that it prompts tears. But do we feel a sense of redemption? Not really - even though the music tells us it should be there. Siegfried has learned a lesson about love and loss, but he hasn't given his life for it. This matters. Perhaps they could usefully consider revising the idea in a future revival.

Our Odette/Odile on Saturday was Natalia Osipova, demonic and aflame in the Black Swan (no fouettés, mind - instead, a dizzying speedwhirl round the perimeter) and a suitably touching, dramatic Odette. Her prince was Matthew Ball, one of the company's rising stars: a perfect Hamlet-style Siegfried with  notably beautiful control of multiple spins and a meltingly lovely, blended and complementary partnership with Osipova. It's just been announced that he will join Matthew Bourne's New Adventures to dance the Swan in their next tour of that famed version. Meanwhile the mesmerising presence of Gary Avis as Count Dracula, er, Rothbart, just could not have been bettered.

The orchestra, meanwhile, was on splendid form, though Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting smoothed out some of the punchier edges at times and the slowish tempi can be a bit of an issue, but in staged ballet, that's probably inevitable. I do have a mild allergy to that thing where the tempo suddenly changes completely in the middle of a piece so that another dancer has a turn doing something different.

All I wanted to add - other than perhaps a different ending - was slightly deeper characterisation, as everybody is slightly one-dimensional except, intriguingly, Siegfried's mother, the Queen, with Elizabeth McGorian creating a whole wealth of personality and experience with a minimum of gesture. Some neater bows might help to secure the loose ends: what happens to Benno and the little-sister princesses when Rothbart takes the court into dry-ice, black swan-populated meltdown at the end of act III (or maybe something happened to them on the extreme right of the stage, which I couldn't see)? All this can be tweaked, added to, reinterpreted, etc, in due course if Scarlett and company wish to do so. For the moment, it's simply that I want to say something more constructive than merely I loved the whole thing to bits and pieces, it's total magic and I can't wait to see it again, which is also true.

Tomorrow's performance (12 June) is being beamed into cinemas worldwide. Go see.