Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"And the Rat Laughed" - Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff

“And the Rat Laughed”, an opera in Hebrew composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff , with a libretto created by Nava Semel together with Milch-Sheriff based on Semel’s book of the same name (published 2001), was premiered April 9th 2005. It has been performed widely in Israel, Romania, Warsaw and, most recently, in Toronto. This writer attended a performance as part of the Isra-Drama Symposium at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv December 3rd 2009. It was directed by Oded Kotler, Ori Leshman conducted the Israel Chamber Orchestra, featuring solo singers and the Moran Intermediate Children’s Choir (musical director Naomi Faran.) Surtitles were in Hebrew and Russian.

Nava Semel’s book deals with Holocaust memory, with each section of the book taking a different approach – from that of legend, poetry, futuristic fantasy and the diary of a small girl hidden in a potato cellar in a Polish village, her only source of company being a rat. Semel and Sheriff took the decision of presenting past, present and future on the stage, constantly moving backwards and forwards through time, indeed typical of the broken sequence of human memory. For, indeed, the subject of the book and the opera is memory – both the remembering and the importance of preserving memory, issues tying in with the background, emotional involvement and mission of the “second generation”; Semel and Milch-Sheriff are both daughters of Holocaust survivors.

The stage (Adrian Vaux – stage and costume design) gives space to the entire dramatic situation, with the orchestra and Maestro Leshman placed on the left (there is no orchestra pit in the hall), a video screen in the centre, a round, elevated platform to its right and, to further to the right, two chairs to seat Lima Energely – an anthropologist in the year 2099 and her partner Stash (who bears the same name as the rat) – who sit there when not involved in the action…or are they observers? Sixty years after the horrific events, the victim, now a grandmother seated in a wheelchair, endeavors to piece together the sequence of events for her 12-year-old granddaughter.

The opera opens with a contemporary-style overture. Conductor Ori Leshman’s conducting is crisp and accurate. Mouthing the words, he presents every last detail of the musical text. The ICO’s performance is clean and rich, with some fine woodwind playing. Ella Milch-Sheriff’s score is a constantly interesting musical kaleidoscope, moving from atonal- to tonal music, from dancelike pieces to Jewish motifs, to sacred Catholic music. Her choral writing is profound, inviting her young choir to savor its every harmony. Milch-Sheriff is a brilliant orchestrator; her instrumental writing, brimming with interest and color, no less inviting than her vocal text.

The opera itself begins with Lima and Stash appearing on the screen and emerging. As of the very first moment, the audience is actively involved in the multi-faceted presentation, a witness not only to the story of the child and the grandmother’s shards of memory but to the very pertinent questions as to the importance and durability of Holocaust memory as posed by Semel. Another dimension is that of religious belief, with the priest’s own religious conviction shaken and thrown into doubt resulting from the horrific facts he had faced when saving the child.. It is an opera spanning much time, from so many angles, all, however, presented in one act, with the stage showing all aspects. It never lags.

Soloists were well cast. May Israeli, in her role as Lima, enchanted the audience with the wink of an eye and much vocal versatility. Gabriel Loewenheim’s voice is rich and pleasing; singing the role of Stash he poses the question of why we need to broach the subject of the Holocaust. Or Ben-Nathan - the farmer - and Anat Iny, as his wife, clearly brought home the behavior and attitude of Polish peasants during the Holocaust. Bavat Marom, as the pathetic grandmother, was convincing and articulate, summing up each fragmented memory with “I loved and lost”. Yael Levita played her granddaughter. Baritone Alexey Kanunikof ‘s large and highly seasoned voice was a match to the challenging emotional message of the priest – Father Stanislaw - bringing to a head the subject of religious belief with the spine-chilling Mass performed by him and the girls’ choir. The girls of the Moran Choir, dressed as Polish schoolgirls and, later, as nuns, gave a first class choral performance, one of utter stage competence and musical excellence; Naomi Faran’s work with her young singers does not compromise onstandards. Einat Aronstein, playing the part of the abused and hungry child groveling in the potato cellar, gave an outstanding, heart-wrenching and profound performance; her involvement in the tragic role defies her young age, as does her vocal ability.

“And the Rat Laughed” is a unique work, original and daring. The Cameri Theatre production has done it and the two admirable women who created it justice. Opera repertoire is much the richer for its existence.

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