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Benjamin Ivry
The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), June 2009

AMRAM: Songs of the Soul / Shir L’erev Shabbat / The Final Ingredient 8.559420
JEWISH OPERAS, Vol. 2 8.559450

Tenors are a breed apart, and one of the rarest categories of vocal mastery is the tenore di grazia (“tenor of grace”), which, unlike the stand-and-deliver bellowing of Verdi or Wagner, specializes in nuance, elegance, and maintaining a seemingly infinite vocal line. In music from Mozart to Rossini, this kind of singer can charm and move audiences, and the up-and-coming young sensation Nicholas Phan, now 30, has delighted audiences from Chicago to Lille with his easy high notes and warm personality. British maestro William Lacey, who conducted Phan in last year’s Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio, praises Phan’s “distinctive quality, both as a singer and as an actor. In an era when the music schools churn out polished and rather similar singers in great quantities, Nicholas is blessed with a really individual timbre. And besides the beauty of his voice, he has the flexibility and musical intelligence to sing many different kinds of music, both on the opera stage and in the concert hall.” Even jaded critics are churning out fanzine prose about Phan.

Reviewing the same Houston production, opera critic Gary N. Reese terms Phan a “natural theatrical animal—poised, lithe, acrobatic, and supremely musical in attuning the motion of his movements to the measure of the music. Of comic opera, he appears to the manner born, with a light tenor voice inflected with subtle expression.” The website San Francisco Classical Voice concurs, describing Phan as a “remarkably relaxed young man with a voice of arresting beauty.” Indeed, listening to Phan we immediately notice how tonal beauty and subtle emotional expression are of paramount importance to his singing, the antithesis of the showy tenors who hold forth with splatteringly screamed high C’s.

At a New York bistro, Phan explains the sources of his inspiration, while sipping steaming tea. Son of a Chinese pathologist and a Greek-American housewife, Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father still works as a lung specialist. He developed into a friendly Midwesterner with powerful lungs indeed. With penetrating dark eyes from his mother’s Mediterranean side and delicate features from his father’s Asian background, Phan also has a yoga-trained, slim body. Whether singing Berlioz, Donizetti, Handel, Monteverdi, Offenbach, or Britten, Phan possesses a chameleon-like ability to inhabit different musical universes. Defying the moribund classical recording industry, Phan popped up recently as a coloratura rabbi in a recording of David Schiff’s opera Gimpel the Fool and as a prisoner in David Amram’s The Final Ingredient: An Opera of the Holocaust, both from Naxos.

Phan himself is no fool, despite the old joke that tenors’ heads must be vacant for them to produce sufficient vocal resonance. He has brought along to our meeting a copy of Dan Savage’s The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, which he calls a “really interesting take on what it is to be gay and be fighting for our rights to get married and for gay men or anyone to have a relationship now in a political context.” He maintains a bright, personable blog, Grecchinois, in which he unaffectedly describes his life: “I sing. I travel. I live a pseudo-nomadic existence. I am half Greek and half Chinese—thus the blog’s name, a combination of the two nationalities in French.”

Grecchinois also includes accounts of mishaps such as when Phan knelt onstage at the Lille Opera during a 2007 performance of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, only to be impaled by the world’s largest splinter from the ancient wooden stage. Undaunted, he bravely finished the performance without any fuss, although he later required several gory medical treatments. One blog reader consoled Phan with the comment, “Pavarotti always picked up a bent nail from backstage for luck. Maybe picking up a sliver of the stage before you sing will bring you luck! (But preferably carry it outside your body.)”

There are also details—expressed in direct, earnest prose—about his marriage last September to pianist Jeremy Frank: “People like me are second-class citizens in the place that I call home. If this is the land of the free, why am I still denied such basic civil rights?” This sort of question has never before been asked so publicly in the stifled world of American opera. Readers of the blog react in an overwhelmingly positive way, one from a “young man who is still silently grappling with his sexuality” who assures Phan he is a “natural poet full of beauty.” Another reader comments, after Phan announces his marriage, “Just from seeing you two perform together at your recital, it’s clear that you belong with each other.”

Considering all the gushing online about “barihunks” and “hunkentenors,” it is surprising how closeted the world of opera remains. Phan may be the only out gay opera tenor besides the ancient Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, born in 1902 (in 2007, Cuénod made headlines by marrying his longtime boyfriend). Who cares about the sexuality of opera singers? Since opera tenors routinely have to win the soprano’s heart, notoriously conservative opera casting directors treat them as if they are Hollywood action film stars and, consciously or not, participate in this absurdly repressive atmosphere. Yet all signs suggest that Phan’s star will continue to rise on the quality of his vocal artistry…

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, June 2007

This is the second volume of Jewish operas from the Naxos Milken Archive. For this disc we get excerpts from three 20th century operas each with distinctly literary origins.

David Schiff studied in New York with John Corigliano and Elliott Carter. Though he is one of Carter’s most prominent students, his music bears few resemblances to his teacher’s style. Schiff’s Jewish heritage has had a strong influence on many of his works and the first opera represented here is Gimpel the Fool which is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story. Originally the work was almost entirely performed in Yiddish. It has had quite a long gestation, starting out life as more of a cabaret piece premiered in 1975. Finally, for performances in 1985 of a significantly expanded work, Schiff decided to do an English version.

The opera concerns Gimpel, the town baker and fool, in a village somewhere in Russian Poland in the 19th or early 20th century. Gimpel is the constant butt of the townspeople’s practical jokes and pranks. Gimpel is persuaded by the townspeople to marry Elka, the town strumpet. She is repeatedly unfaithful to him and none of the children she bears are his. In the excerpt that we hear on the disc she has just borne their 1st child, 4 months after the wedding. Gimpel thinks he sees her in bed with his apprentice and consults the Rabbi who tells him to divorce Elka, but Gimpel can’t because of his love for his children.

Much of the narrative thrust is borne by the spoken role of Badhkin. The libretto is presented in a series of short scenes mixing speaking and singing. The instrumental ensemble is just 14 players, including a harpsichord. The whole piece seems to be lightly and attractively orchestrated with instrumental interludes between the scenes. Schiff’s vocal lines are expressive and can be quite lyrical, though he uses quite a bit of chromaticism in the orchestra. The orchestral sound at times hints at Klezmer and other traditional musical genres.

Gimpel is well sung by Gary Moss, who possesses an attractive lyrical baritone. His wife Elka, is sung by Megan Beesley, though in these excerpts her biggest number is in fact a curse, she does not get to sing much that is lyrical. The Rabbi is a high tenor, much given to rhapsodic melisma, and well taken by Nicholas Phan. Alissa Mercurio has the interesting and effective role of Gimpel’s goat!

If the intention of this recording is to whet your appetite for a full version of the opera, then these excerpts succeed very well. I loved the flexible feel of the piece, which the University of Michigan Opera Orchestra and chorus catch admirably.

Elie Siegmeister is remembered today for his mission to create a distinctive American compositional idiom consistent with his unwavering political and social commitment. Throughout his life Siegmeister remained an emblem of artistic social consciousness and an advocate of making art music accessible to common folk.

In the 1980s Siegmeister wrote a pair of one-act operas based on short stories by Bernard Malamud. This was the first time that Siegmeister had seriously explored his Jewish heritage in his music. The Lady of the Lake, whose text is taken from a Malamud story in the collection The Magic Barrel, explores Jewish identity and the tensions between acknowledgement and gain. In the opera Blumberg (Robert McPherson, tenor) is an American visiting Europe; though Jewish he is pretending not to be. He meets Isabella (Carol Meyer, soprano) who is apparently a princess living in a fabulous palace on an island. In the first scene of the excerpts, Isabella reveals to Blumberg that she is not the princess, just the caretaker’s daughter and that the palace’s treasures are mainly copies. She also tries to hint about her own Jewish heritage.

Blumberg runs off, horrified at her deception. The second scene consists of an interlude plus a monologue for Blumberg in which he decides he loves Isabella, no matter what. In the final scene, he returns and declares his love. But Isabella presses him about his Jewishness and reveals that she and her father are both Jews. Blumberg hesitates to affirm his Jewishness and Isabella disappears.

Judging from these excerpts, the orchestra is a serious protagonist in the opera as it provides a commentary running under and around the vocal lines. These vocal lines can be expressive, but I am afraid that I did not really find them anything like interesting enough. Carol Meyer’s Isabella is expressively rich-voiced but in these excerpts she never really gets a big number. Robert McPherson’s Blumberg is admirably straightforward and direct, not particularly subtle. His big monologue is a powerful expression of Blumberg’s state of mind, but still I found the vocal line lacked sufficient interest.

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz perform admirably and give a convincing account of the luminous orchestral writing.

Hugo Weisgall is perhaps the best known of the three composers on the disc. He wrote ten operas in all and Esther was his last and grandest. Originally commissioned by San Francisco Opera it was dropped by them and finally taken up by New York City Opera in 1993. The opera is written for significant forces, requiring eleven major roles, two choruses with much challenging music. The premiere was a popular and critical success.

The opera is a re-telling of the biblical tale of Esther, though the librettist Charles Kondek, made a number of changes to the biblical story. These excerpts consist of a solo for Esther from Act I, a dance from Act II and a duet for Esther and Xerxes from Act III. Weisgall’s style is expressionist, perhaps serial with lyrical but angular vocal lines. As in the Siegmeister opera, I did not feel that Weisgall had completely solved the problem of writing interesting and rewarding vocal lines.

The excerpts from Esther did not really make me want to run off and find a complete performance, but I think that more substantial and varied samples of the opera might have helped to give a feel for its atmosphere. The Seattle Symphony play well for Gerard Schwarz and Juliana Gondek and Ted Christopher admirably make what they can of Weisgall’s rather ungrateful vocal lines.

This is a fascinating disc, one that is well worth exploring if you are interested in 20th century opera.…

Goran Forsling
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Naxos have already issued an earlier volume of excerpts from Jewish operas (8.559424), which I haven’t heard, but the excerpts from the three operas on this volume 2 certainly whetted the appetite for more. My familiarity with Jewish music has been fairly limited and of the composers represented here only Siegmeister was a well-known quantity. What struck me when I first listened through the disc some weeks ago, without taking any notes, was the communicative ambition of all three composers. Stylistically they may be worlds apart but they all want to convey a message and they do this not through letting their hair down and become populistic but through inventive and lively use of their musical means. This does not exclude references to both jazz and traditional opera but neither do they fight shy of harsh harmonies, atonal even, and daring orchestration.

The most immediately accessible is no doubt David Schiff, by far also the youngest. Based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and with the author also the librettist, Gimpel the Fool is a kind of chamber opera. The ‘symphony orchestra’ employed is a group of thirteen players: a string quartet, a double bass, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and tuba, two percussionists and a harpsichord. For this ensemble Schiff has created colourful, rhythmic and melodic music, remotely related to Kurt Weill, though more sophisticated. It is expertly orchestrated and the instruments often make individual comments to the action. Jazz influences are especially noticeable in the divorce scene (tr. 7). The opera was premiered in 1979, the year after Singer’s Nobel Prize, but work on it had begun much earlier. Besides Badkhn, which is a speaking part, excellently done by Theodore Bikel, there are spoken lines also for the singers and the chorus plays an important part as townspeople. All the singers are good and well inside their roles.

Bernard Malamud never got the Nobel Prize but he figured in the preliminary discussions. Elie Siegmeister wrote two operas, based on Malamud stories; Angel Levine and Lady of the Lake not to be confused with the Rossini opera of the same title. For this tale he composed dissonant music for a large orchestra, somewhat in a Bergian tonal language, even though it isn’t 12-tone music. The orchestra is very often powerful and overwhelming but never to such a degree that the singers are over-parted. There are no ‘numbers’; the drama flows on in a long recitative, where the vocal lines very often are quite melodic and there are even outbreaks of grand singing. Good voices used expressively.

Hugo Weisgall has to be counted as one of the foremost American opera composers. He wrote ten operas and Esther was his last and greatest opera, with a libretto by Charles Kondek, based on the biblical book of Esther. This is even more dissonant music than Siegmeister’s, but over this web of often harsh sonorities the solo singing can soar in expressive cantilenas—not exactly melodies that one walks away humming but still attractive, not least in Esther’s act 1 monologue (tr 13), where Juliana Gondek delivers the best singing on this disc.

Excerpts can hardly give a ‘wall-to-wall’ picture of what the full opera is like, but one gets at least a hint and we probably have to make do with these excerpts, since there is probably little hope for a complete recording of any of these works.

Playing and singing is good, we get the sung texts and there are uncommonly rich and informative liner-notes on both the composers and the operas.

This series with music from the Milken Archive is a goldmine for everyone interested in Jewish music, and opera enthusiasts who want to widen their knowledge should give this disc a try.

Fanfare, February 2007

“Scenes from Jewish Operas, Vol. 2” is the companion to Volume I (8.559524) reviewed in 28:2. That disc, to save you the time of looking it up, contained excerpts from operas by Abraham Ellstein (The Golem), Robert Strassburg (Chelm), and David Tamkin (The Dybbuk).

David Schiff’s bio-blurb gave me momentary pause. Bom in 1945, he came under the influence of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, pioneers in electronic tape music at Columbia University, and later the influence of Elliott Carter at Juilliard, where Schiff earned his doctorate in composition. I imagined serialized singing accompanied by an orchestra of synthesizers. I needn’t have worried; the dictum to judge the man by the company he keeps is here proved false. Schiff’s opera, Gimpel the Fool-at least what is given of it here on this sampler-is in a style not too far removed from Berg’s Lulu. It had its first performance in completed form in 1979 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The libretto is based on the famous short story of the same name by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The action takes place in the fictional Russian Polish town of Frampol, and tells of a hapless baker, Gimpel, who is married to an unfaithful and shrewish wife and is the laughingstock of the village townsfolk, who subject him to ceaseless practical jokes and ruses. Trusting though he may be, he is not stupid and knows he is being played for a fool, but his gentle, kind-hearted nature keeps him from striking back. Eventually, he seeks the advice of the local rabbi who tells him that in treating him cruelly it is the townsfolk who are the fools, for “As it is written,” the rabbi reminds him, “it is better to be a fool all your days than to be evil for one hour. For he who causes his fellowmen to be shamed loses paradise for himself.” The moral of the story seems simple and direct enough on the surface-a variation on the “do unto others” theme-but it contains a good deal of richly textured, if nuanced, biblical and religious symbolism, which Neil Levin takes the time to delve into in his usual comprehensive notes. If you’re looking for the tuneful arias of Donizetti or Verdi, Schiff’s opera will not much appeal to you, but accepting its style for what it is, the music strikes me as appropriate to the subject, and it is sung and played sympathetically and most effectively by all involved.

Another product of Columbia University, New York-native Elie Siegmeister (1909–1991) is a composer whose ambitions may have exceeded his grasp. Much of his music reflects a folk and jazz influence. He studied for a while with Boulanger in Paris, and then under Stoessel at Juilliard. Perhaps it was his leftist leanings and seeming sympathy for communist causes, or perhaps it was just his mod­est talent that resulted in Siegmeister never really achieving much recognition. His two one-act operas, Angel Levine and The Lady of the Lake, are certainly rarities. Siegmeister’s Lady is not the same lady oflegend on which Walter Scott based his famous poem. on which Rossini based his opera La donnG dellago, and from which Schubert drew inspiration for his three songs titled Ellens Gesang, of which the third is the world famous Ave Maria. No, Siegmeister chose a short story of the same title by Jewish writer Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), and turned it over to his librettist and collaborator, Edward Mabley. The theme of the story is denial of one’s own identity-in this case, of one’s Jewishness, for imagined social, economic, and /or political gain, and the tragic consequences it can have on self and loved ones. Though obviously by a lesser hand than that of Schiff’s Gimpel, one might not immediately realize at the beginning of track 9 that he or she is listening to another piece. The general style is quite similar. Only as the work progresses does one begin to notice certain changes in the musical landscape-a somewhat slighter instrumentation, a more speechified approach to the setting ofthe text in some places, and a more soaring lyricism akin to a Broadway musical style in other places. It may be that the full work hangs together and makes a bit more sense than the selected excerpts, but overall, neither the work nor the performance of it held my full attention.

Hugo Weisgall (1912–1997) was born in Moravia, at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today, the Czech Republic. A student at Peabody, he studied privately with Roger Sessions; and then, at Curtis, he studied conducting under Fritz Reiner. Though he maintained a lifelong interest in liturgical music of the synagogue (he came from a family of several generations of cantors), he is best known for a number of operas and large scale choral works, many of which are based on Jewish themes and subjects. Here, we have excerpts from his opera, Esther, the Purim festival story. Esther is Weisgall’s 10th, last, largest, and most impressive opera. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in the 1980s, a planned production was canceled due to the cost and enormity of the undertaking. Weisgall had to wait until 1993 for the opera to be presented by the New York City Opera. The libretto is as unfaithful to the story as the original story most likely is to history. A number of subplots and counterplots are introduced, as well as one or two political messages not entertained in the official version. One of them, as it happens, has about it the sting of truth: Weisgall has Esther blame herself for the killing rampage and the deaths of innocent civilians, even if it meant saving her people. Unfortunately, the two brief excerpts presented here do not really give us enough of a feeling for what in its entirety is probably a magnificent work. Though I’ve not heard the entire opera myself, its public and critical reception at its first performance was overwhelmingly positive. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times wrote that the opera “might well go down as a masterpiece of the American stage.” What is heard on this CD certainly makes me want to hear more, but it’s not enough to reach a sweeping conclusion. The musical style, not unlike that of the Schiff and Siegmeister, is fully in and of the 20th century, employing modem techniques of text-setting and dramatization through a more speechified than lyrical approach to vocalization. The orchestration gives evidence of a sure hand expeiienced and seasoned in writing for the stage. Juliana Gondek and Ted Christopher are both secure and comfortable in their roles as Esther and the King.

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