|Joshua Jeremiah, Emily Pulley, and Jennifer Zetlan in Morning Star (photo by Pavel Antonov)|
The hardy New Yorkers who braved the "fourth'easter" of the season were rewarded with a resonant evening, some insights into New York history, some fine music, and some very stiff necks. The latter point has to do with one of the hazards of staging works on site, which On Site Opera does very well; the space may be evocative but not comfortable.
Ricky Ian Gordon's Morning Star, originally commissioned by Cincinnati Opera, was staged in the sanctuary of the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, now the Museum at Eldridge Street. General and Artistic Director Eric Einhorn has staged the work using all parts of the sanctuary, including the balcony. This worked dramatically but made viewing uncomfortable since much of the action took place at the rear.
The evocative story concerns a family of immigrants in 1911 and 1932. They came from Riga in Latvia where, we gather, some unspeakable things were done to Jewish folk. But this compelling story could be paralleled in present time with any new immigrant group trying to adjust to a difficult life in a new place. The destructive effects of family secrets and the effects of tragedy on successive generations are both common themes in the theater.
The story concerns the widowed Becky Felderman (performed by the powerful soprano Emily Pulley) who has immigrated to the USA with her three daughters. The eldest, Sadie (affectingly sung by mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert) is the smart one who has never felt loved. The second is Fanny (sweet voiced Jennifer Zetlan) who will marry Irving (terrific tenor Blake Friedman) who will not let her sing.
The youngest girl Esther (performed by soprano Cree Carrico who plays "adorable" very well) captures the love of Sadie's main squeeze, the teacher Harry (fine baritone Andrew Lovato). Poor Esther dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (about which we have more to say further along) on her wedding day.
Important to the family is Aaron Greenspan who never gives up on his romantic pursuit of Becky. . Joshua Jeremiah used his keen dramatic instincts to create a believable character. His powerful baritone matched well with Ms. Pulley's soprano. We particularly liked a song he sang in Yiddish which was mostly understood by this German-speaking reviewer. He was reminiscing about what he missed about Riga. Becky joined in with some not-so-happy memories.
We enjoyed Martin Bakari's sweet tenor in the role of Prince, a street peddler. Smaller roles were taken by mezzos Chrystal E. Williams and Allison Gish. Only David Langan's bass-baritone was stentorian and unattractive as the rabbi.
Music Director Geoffrey McDonald did his customary superlative job conducting the American Modern Ensemble, a dozen fine musicians who made the most of Bruce Coughlin's orchestration for chamber orchestra. The wind section was particularly notable. The chamber orchestra was situated at the rear of the sanctuary and the sound floated forward with ease.
We have nothing but good things to say about the orchestral writing but we have a hard time finding something to praise about Ricky Ian Gordon's writing for the voice. The puzzling part of this is that Mr. Gordon wrote the most beautiful vocal line for Irving--"Oh Morning Star", a love song sung to woo Fanny. Would that all the writing had been this melodic!
We did like the way that arias became duets and duets became ensembles. The voices blended beautifully. We just wanted to hear some melody! We liked Becky's song "Men come, men go, family abides". "Three loving sisters" was an interesting trio evincing a complex collection of emotions.
Of all the sisters, Sadie was the most disagreeable and yet Ms. Gaissert's performance left us with sympathetic feelings. Her jealousy and bitterness clearly came out of feeling unloved. She sang "Smart never won a man's heart". The early 20th c. was not kind to smart ambitious women. Her defensiveness was revealed in "Is it my fault?".
There was a 21 year gap between Act I and Act II; Summer Lee Jack's costumes were appropriate for both periods. Emilia Martin's wigs were as unflattering as wigs usually are. Shawn K. Kaufman's lighting design was splendid, especially for the fire which was so convincing that we nearly forgot it was "theater".
The libretto by the late William M. Hoffman seemed just fine, although a substantial amount could not be understood. Anyone who can rhyme "latkes" with "hot kiss" is OK in my book!
And now we come to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire story, the worst workplace disaster in NYC history until the World Trade Center attack of 2001. The death toll was 146 people; greed and carelessness were to blame. If you seek more information, we refer you to http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/
The pre-opera lecture we attended added a great deal to our appreciation of the work itself. Two member of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition spoke to the audience of their personal experience as relatives of women who lost their lives in the fire. These two generous speakers were Mary Anne Trasciatti and Suzanne Pred Bass whose memories brought the story alive for us.
We were happy to learn that the tragedy had a silver lining in that the cause of labor was advanced; workplace safety has been addressed (and is still being addressed!) as was working conditions. The flagrantly indifferent owners of the factory were acquitted due to the efforts of a high-powered attorney who intimidated the young women witnesses. So sad!
To bring the story to the present, Governor Andrew Cuomo has donated a significant amount of money to establishing a memorial so that this tragedy will be remembered.
(c) meche kroop