|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.