Friday was an exciting night at The Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. For the first time in its over 50 year history Palm Beach Opera presented the World Premiere of a new opera. For an art form that very often finds its classics in the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s a welcome change (and an honor) to experience an opera’s very first (complete) performance.
Enemies, A Love Story was composed by Ben Moore, with a libretto by Nahma Sandrow. The opera is based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the novel had been previously released in serialized form in 1966 as Sonim, di Geshichte fun a Liebe.
The opera is set in New York City, 1948. World War II has only recently ended and many of the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps have resettled in the U.S. Herman Broder is a Polish immigrant who was hidden from the Nazis by his mother’s maid Yadwiga, a gentile. Broder and Yadwiga have married and settled in New York City.
This marriage has not prevented him from seeking out another dalliance on the side in the form of Masha, who shares an apartment with her mother Shifrah Puah. Both women are survivors of different camps and the apartment they share is provided by Broder. Masha is pressuring Broder to marry her, after she receives a divorce from her husband. This arrangement is further complicated by the arrival Tamara, Broder’s first with that he presumed died via gunfire on a field in Poland. Tamara’s arrival causes Broder to take the plunge and inexplicably marry Masha, which brings his grand total to three wives and a mother-in-law.
As a protagonist, Broder is all but unredeemable. He’s selfish, wishy-washy and just an overall schmuck. Masha is a perfect match for him, being the manipulating adulteress that she is. His first two wives fare much better. Tamara is a strong willed, sharp tongued woman, while poor Yadwiga is the delicate, innocent that gets wrapped up in Broder’s mess.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the character of Rabbi Lampert. The character is presumably employs Broder as a ghostwriter for his lectures. However the audience really doesn’t get much information one way or the other about him.
Adapting a known work into the operatic form is always a challenging proposition. Operas by their nature are long, and sometimes choosing what to excise is just as important as what is retained. Moore and Sandrow have done an admirable job of narrowing Singer’s expansive plot down to a more manageable level, however it still comes in at roughly 3+ hours including one intermission. The first act alone clocks in around 92 minutes which is lengthy even by opera standards. The piece would perhaps have been better served being broken up into three acts, rather than just two.
Moore score is beautiful, classic and even at times understated. The melding of score to libretto is near perfection. Unlike many of the “modern” operas that have opened in recent years the music and words flow seamlessly together. It’s a breath of fresh air to see an opera that 1) is in English 2) that I can actually understand full sentences without resorting to the the supertitles (a testament to composer and singer alike).
Palm Beach Opera has pulled together a first-rate cast for this very important world premiere. Leading the cast in the role of Herman Broder is bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. Broder is difficult; as a character he plays almost more like a villain than the protagonist. Okulitch captures each of those nuances and brings them to life. Broder has one really big moment, sadly it’s his final moment. Near the end of act two, he decides he can’t continue with his new marriage to Masha and sings a final heartfelt aria. Okulitch performance is gripping, and heartbreaking and the one moment in almost 3 hours where we actually feel something for him.
In the role of Yadwiga, wife #2, is soprano Caitlin Lynch. The character of Yadwiga bookends the piece. The opening notes are hers and the final moment focuses on her. In a sense her naivete is the surrogate for the audience. She is described by the other women as “simple”,however it’s more of a trusting innocence than any mental issue. The opera’s first aria Little Bird is lovely, Lynch’s clear and crisp soprano is a nice balance against the heavier voices of Tamara or Masha. Lynch captures the essence and charm of Yadwiga without venturing into stereotype or cliche.
Wife #3, Masha sung by soprano Danielle Pastin, is a conniving, manipulative survivor. Moore has placed Masha somewhere between the delicate flower of Yadwiga and the intensity of Tamara. Pastin’s dark, full voice is a perfect match for this darker character.
Broder’s first wife, Tamara, is sung by the powerhouse mezzo soprano Leann Sadel-Pantaleo. Moore and Sandrow have created a character in Tamara that mezzos will be lining up to tackle. Tamara’s act one aria, Tamara’s Aria, which tells the story of her near death on a field in Poland, is intense and powerful. Sandel-Pantaleo performance is pretty close to perfection. Her characterization spot on. The aforementioned aria, which sadly comes midway through act one, would maybe have been a good moment to break the act in half as everything that follows for the remaining 30 or so minutes seems flat.
In addition to the rock solid casting, Palm Beach Opera has pulled out all the stops in the design department. The scenery, designed by Allen Moyer, is deceptively simple. The action of the opera takes place primarily in three apartments. Moyer has placed these apartments on three wagons which move across the stage in much the same way as a giant game of Tetris. Moyer’s eye for detail is to be commended. From the canned goods that crown Masha’s kitchen cabinets, to the tiny radiator behind the bed in Yadwiga’s bedroom each apartment is complete and appropriate. Each room is surrounded by black walls which bring the focus front and center, regardless of where on the stage the room has been shuffled.
On top of these moving apartments is a proscenium wide video screen. Each scene is augmented by scenes playing on the screen above created by Projection Designer Greg Emetaz. Video has been used a lot over the past few years, sometimes faring better than others. Emataz’s montages set the scene, or in some cases play the memories, without ever becoming overbearing or garish. Especially the wintery snow scenes in act two.
Enemies. A Love Story is an intimate story, and Stage Director Sam Helfrich’s direction is just as intimate. He guides his performers through the mundane tasks of their lives, whether it’s making tea or reading the paper. Nothing is grandiose, just real.
Palm Beach Opera’s first world premiere is a winner. From the casting, to the direction to the design every element has worked together to create a cohesive whole. Perhaps there could be a little trimming here and there, or maybe a slight restructure, but overall Moore and Sandrow have crafted a solid work. While this may not make it into the classical rep immediately, it deserves to be seen by more audiences. It’s unfortunate that PBO only manages to run one weekend.
Palm Beach Opera has more than done themselves proud, Bravo!
For information regarding Palm Beach Opera’s upcoming production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment (La Fille du Régiment) please visit www.PBOpera.org
For Jack Gardner’s review of Enemies, A Love Story for Edge Media Networks, click here