Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Bald Soprano", a chamber opera, plays at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Israel Sharon’s chamber opera “The Bald Soprano” played at the Jerusalem Music Centre November 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2009. It is based on Eugene Ionesco’s (1909-1994) first play of that name (also known as “The Bald Prima Donna”) which premiered in Paris in 1950. Originally titled “English Without Pain”, Ionesco wrote it in Romanian, then translating it into French. Ada Ben-Nachum translated the play into Hebrew from the French;Sharon’s opera, the libretto created from Ben-Nachum’s translation,premiered in Tel Aviv in 2008. Ionesco’s script is the result of the disturbing effect of his attempt to learn English from a primer, whereby the clichés and truisms of the various language drills lose meaning and deteriorate into meaningless chatter. Not well received initially, Ionesco’s play eventually became an important seminal work of the theatre of the absurd.

Israel Sharon (b.1966) completed music studies at the Tel Aviv Buchmann-Mehta Academy of Music and at Rice University, Houston, Texas. He has been a member of the Kaprisma Ensemble since 1992 in the capacity of composer, pianist and conductor. The ensemble, founded in 1991, aims to free modern music from its isolation from classical repertoire and to give it rights equal to those of other performed music. Kaprisma places importance on promoting Israeli works, on performance of works of young Israeli composers and makes a point of employing young Israeli performers. The ensemble has premiered more than 200 works of Israeli- and other composers and invests much energy in working in education, with the aim of introducing young listeners to classical- and, in particular,to modern classical music.

The auditorium of the JMC was set up as the Smiths’ living room – the props were minimal but tasteful. The six Kaprisma Ensemble players, with Sharon conducting, were placed to the left. The intimacy of the space makes for maximal audience involvement, as does the fine acoustic of the JMC. The Smiths, a London couple, have invited another couple – the Martins – to visit. They are joined by Mary, the Smiths’ maid, and the local fire chief, who is Mary’s lover. The two families engage in meaningless banter, the Martins conversing as if they were strangers, with the text eventually becoming a series of non sequiturs. Conversations prove to be non-communicative and banal. Ionesco had intended the play to be in the form of a “loop”: the playwright gave stage instructions for the play to start over again, but with the Martins taking the Smiths’ former role and vice-versa.

The Smiths were played by Yair Polishook and Karin Shifrin, the Martins were Assif Am-David and Zohar Agmon, Mary was played by Leanne Aharoni and the fire chief was Eitan Drori. All singers contended well with the largely atonal musical score, all were convincing, their performance boasted accuracy and diction was good; they somehow managed to make the libretto sound humorously British, despite its being in Hebrew. Shifrin’s fine voice and stage presence are outstanding and Polishook carried off the stick-in-the-mud Englishman well. Drori was articulate and Aharoni was coquettish and appealing. Am-David, navigated around the stage by the doting (or controlling) Mrs. Martin (Agmon), is familiar to many of us from his roles in Baroque music; in this role, however, he proved to be every bit of a comedian and at home in a very different genre.

Israel Sharon’s music is sophisticated and witty; his ensemble writing is transparent and crisp, as is his conducting. On occasions, the instruments were a little too strong for the singers, whose very word was important. The score is peppered with pleasing and quirky effects and colors, Sharon, however, never overstepping the limits of good taste. His fine, young players bring the score to life, contributing to the general excellence of the performance. Whether Ionesco had intended writing a serious play or a parody has never been clear. What is clear is that “The Bald Soprano” offers food for thought. We were very well entertained.

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