Enemies: A Love Story
On February 20, 2015 The Kravis Center hosted the world premiere of Ben Moore's new opera "Enemies: A Love Story" presented by Palm Beach Opera.
This is the first world premiere in Palm Beach Opera's history and they managed a magnificent production for this new work.
Ben Moore is one of the most well respected of the contemporary American composers. His works have been commissioned and sung by such notables as Susan Graham, Deborah Voigt, Frederica von Stade and Audra McDonald. He has composed the scores for two musicals and innumerable songs. "Enemies: A Love Story" is his first opera.
Librettist Nahama Sandrow took Isaac Bashevis Singer's 1972 novel and turned it into a moving and effective piece of theater. Combined with Moore's music, it made for an emotionally powerful evening.
The opera tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, Herman Broder, who, believing that his first wife was killed in a concentration camp, has married the woman who kept him hidden during the Nazi occupation of Poland. They have moved to America and now Herman not only has his wife Yadwiga, but also his girlfriend Masha.
As the opera begins, we see a conflicted Herman being pressured by the less than virtuous Masha to leave his wife so that they can marry. Torn between the two women, Herman is shown to be a weak man unable to make a decision. To make things worse, it is revealed that his first wife, Tamara, is alive, having survived two bullet wounds and being left for dead.
Herman, in one of the stupidest character moves in operatic history, then decides to marry Masha, even though he is currently already married to two other women. This is not a comedy so, of course, things don't end very well in Act Two for Herman.
"Enemies: A Love Story" is, in many ways, an odd choice for an opera due to the weakness of the protagonist. As an audience member, one never really dislikes Herman as he is not essentially bad, but one never really likes him nor sympathizes with him either. The characters that elicit the most sympathy and love from the audience are Tamara and Yadwiga. Both Herman and Masha end up proving themselves as weak characters and their ending comes off less as tragic and more as somewhat justified.
Character issues aside, Moore has crafted a beautiful piece. His music is sweeping with lush melodies and complex harmonies that are never jarring and always underscore the emotion of the piece. There are moments that are reminiscent of Menotti and Richard Strauss as well as moments that are as beautifully melodic as that of Puccini.
The opera begins with a duet scene between Herman and Yadwiga, "Little Bird" which is beautifully written and shows us both Yadwiga's simple-ness as the country girl in America and Herman's weakness as the husband who can't be faithful.
The first major aria in the piece is "My Love Remembers" sung by Masha. The aria is dramatic and melodic and tells the story of Masah's surviving the concentration camp and Soviet Russia.
"Tamara's Aria" in Act One, where the character tells of her survival and escape, is one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the show. It is a piece that is likely to become a permanent part in the dramatic soprano/mezzo-soprano repertory alongside the "To This We've Come" from Menotti's "The Consul" and "La Mamma Morta" from Giordano's "Andrea Chenier." In some ways, this aria is so perfect and dramatically moving that, much like the aforementioned Menotti aria, it almost overwhelms the rest of the opera. The next major aria in the opera is "Yadwiga's Aria" which is another brilliant piece of writing although, this time, for a more lyrical soprano voice. Moore knows how to write beautifully for the female voice.
Act Two opens with the "Women's Trio" that shows us Masha, Yadwiga and Tamara each in their respective homes giving their perspective on the events that are happening. This is the moment in the show that feels the most Strauss like, hearkening back to the delicious trios for women's voices in "Der Rosenkavalier." Musically it is one of the highlights of the show but it does little to further the plot.
The big moment for Herman Broder is his aria at the end of Act Two. The character of Herman is written for Bass Baritone and the aria is dramatic and uses this voice type very effectively. It is a show piece that is, without a doubt, the second most powerful piece in the opera.
The only real flaw to "Enemies: A Love Story" is its length. It is in two acts and runs a total of 3 hours and 10 minutes. The 92-minute first act is very long for an audience to sit in a packed theater. There are moments where it seems like the opera could be shortened, however conversely, the opera may play better split into three acts and allowing a little more character expansion for the women and for the character of the American Rabbi whose significance in the story, the comparison of the American Jew versus the European Jew who survived the war, at times seems to be lost.
With a little structural tweaking, "Enemies: A Love Story" has a high likelihood of remaining in the operatic cannon for a long time to come.
The performances for the world premiere were, as a cast and as individual singers, outstanding. Creating a role is a big responsibility for any singer or actor and all of the members of this cast more than accomplished the job.
In the role of Tamara, mezzo soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo walked away with the show. Her voice, which is highly reminiscent of Tony Award winning diva Patricia Neway, is a full and rich voice with a velvety tone and crystal clear diction. Her characterization was superb and she has a lot of the comedic moments in the show. It is possible to have one-liners in opera and Sandel-Pantaleo delivers them perfectly. This was a true star performance from a great singer.
Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is no stranger to creating roles. Recently he sang the role of Ennis DelMar in the world premiere of the operatic version of "Brokeback Mountain." He gave a wonderfully powerful performance in the role of Herman Broder. He took a complex and weak character and very nearly made the audience fall in love with him.
Had he been up against weaker singers in the female roles, he might have easily walked away with the show himself. His voice has a beauty in tone from the top of his register all the way to the bottom. His diction was superb and he was a joy to watch and to listen to.
As Yadwiga, soprano Caitlin Lynch was a delight. She captured the innocent farm girl perfectly. Vocally, her high notes were brilliant sparkling jewels that floated above the darker, heavier voices of the rest of the cast. Her diction, even in the upper register of her voice, was very good.
In the role of Masha, soprano Danielle Pastin more than held her own against her cast mates. Her darker and slightly heavier soprano voice fell somewhere in between the voices of Lynch and Sandel-Pantaleo. It has a warm and lush tone and was a good fit for her sexy, sultry and manipulative character.
In the role of Shifrah Puah, the mother of Masha, mezzo soprano Jennifer Roderer had the heaviest and darkest voice of the female cast members. Her bottom register was impressive and her large and ample voice was never overpowered by the orchestra or other singers.
In the role of Rabbi Lampert, baritone David Kraits gave a fine performance when he was on the stage. It could only be wished that his character had been a little more developed and been given a little more stage time.
Bass-Baritone Philip Horst gave a fine, if brief, performance as Tortshiner, Masha's ex-husband. Four members of the young artist studio, tenor Robert Watson, sopranos JoAna Rusche and Liana Guberman and mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky gave fine and memorable performances in their smaller roles.
Vocally this cast was as perfect as it can get and stage director Sam Helfrich helped them along in bringing life to their characters through emotion and movement.
Conductor David Stern led the robust 42-piece orchestra with all the sensitivity and precision that is required from an operatic conductor.
The set design by Allen Moyer was very evocative and cinematic and it was helped along with a stage spanning video wall and projections designed by Greg Emetaz. Lighting by Aaron Black and costumes by Kaye Voyce added the final pieces to create a very evocative and tempting image of New York City in 1949. This production was as visually stunning as it was musically and vocally.
Premiering new works is always a risky proposition both for the company presenting the work and the audience attending the performances. You never know exactly what you're going to get. In this instance, Palm Beach Opera got an unquestionable hit and the first night audience received a vocally and musically beautiful, emotionally moving performance.
"Enemies: A Love Story" runs through February 22 at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd. in West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For tickets and information on this and future Palm Beach Opera events, call 561-833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.