“Enemies” proves a tedious clunker in Palm Beach Opera’s world premiere

By Lawrence Budmen

Daniel Okulitch and Danielle Pastin in Ben Moore's "Enemies: A Love Story" at Palm Beach Opera.

Daniel Okulitch and Danielle Pastin in Ben Moore’s “Enemies: A Love Story” at Palm Beach Opera.

The premiere of Ben Moore’s Enemies: A Love Story is one of the most ambitious productions in the history of Palm Beach Opera. Based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer and the 1989 film by writer-director Paul Mazursky, the opera received a spiffy multi-media staging with an excellent cast and dedicated conductor.

Moore attempts to fuse a late 1940′s New York milieu, the damaged lives of Holocaust survivors and religious tradition into a music theater work in the vein of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. (In an article in the program book, Moore cites both operas as inspiration for his work.)

Yet despite the earnest efforts of the cast and creative team, at the performance on Saturday night at the Kravis Center, the piece emerged as a tedious clunker, leavened by fleeting moments of lyrical inspiration.

Singer’s anti-hero Herman Boder, a writer and intellectual, is haunted by nightmares of surviving the Nazi onslaught by hiding in a Polish farmer’s haystack and the chaos and misery of displaced person’s camps after the war. Believing his wife and children were killed, he has married the illiterate Yadwiga who aided his escape. They live a sparse existence in Coney Island. A longtime philanderer, he is also in love with Masha, a refugee who lives with her mother in the Bronx. When his first wife Tamara, who had survived being shot by the Germans and escaped to Russia, arrives in New York, Boder’s already morally compromised world is turned upside down. Having also married his mistress in a religious ceremony, he tries to do the right thing for the pregnant Yadwiga, bringing tragedy for Masha.

To be sure there is plenty of potential for rich  music drama in this tale of love, betrayal, lives haunted by demons and Judaic mores.

Unfortunately Moore is saddled with a long-winded libretto by Nahma Sandrow. Unlike Mazursky ‘s pitch-perfect cinematic mix of humor, ethnic flavoring and tragedy, Sandrow’s dramaturgy often falls flat. Her laugh lines quickly become clichés (like an endlessly repeated one about Masha escaping by moving to Miami Beach) and they often occur in moments that call for pathos. The denouement scene at a Hanukkah party is ineffective and too obvious. And, at three hours with one intermission, the opera seems overlong and weighty.

Moore is a fine composer of art songs which have been championed by such stalwart artists as Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham. He has a real feeling for mixing American vernacular music into classic molds, seasoned by wit and harmonic bitters. Inevitably there are moments in the opera when his melodic talents take flight.

Although drawn almost as a caricature of a betrayed operatic heroine, Masha gets some of the best music with two soaring arias and a rapturous duet with Boder. Tamara’s role is more fully explored, her music appropriately dark. Boder’s final monologue mixing observations about the chaos of the galaxies in the universe with his personal reminiscence about life in the Polish countryside could well be a separate concert piece.

Still much of the score sounds contrived and ineffective. Boder’s meeting with Masha’s conniving ex-husband and his phone conversations with Rabbi Lampert (who he writes sermons for) are humdrum note-spinning and Yadwiga’s two arias are undistinguished. The best tune in the score is a trio for the three women which opens Act II but Moore repeats it ad infinitum in a heavy-handed manner. The string-heavy orchestral score is lushly orchestrated in the best Hollywood style. Moore’s attempts at introducing Judaic elements sometimes fall flat, like the corny chorus and dance at the Hanukkah celebration. The klezmer band that played in the Kravis lobby before the performance and during intermission was more authentic and a lot more fun.

In the role of the conflicted Boder, Daniel Okulitch dominates the stage with a larger-than-life portrayal. With his deep bass baritone and movie star charisma, he brings sympathy to a man who lives a ghostlike existence, destructive to himself and those around him. His mellow timbre blended warmly in duets with the three heroines.

Despite Moore and Sandrow’s framing Masha’s character in a constant state of hysteria, Danielle Pastin’s distinctively flavored soprano and theatrical presence stood out in every scene. Her lovely, burnished tones can caress in Masha’s klezmer-flavored marriage aria but she also declaimed recitative with frenzied abandon. Pastin is a wonderful singing actress who deserved a more fully developed role.

As Shifrah Puah, Masha’s mother, Jennifer Roderer’s voluminous mezzo suggested Wagnerian dimensions. Leann Sandel-Pantaleo was a darkly expressive Tamara. With a rich mezzo sonority, her narrative about being shot by the Nazis was riveting and her tense scenes with Okulitch radiated real theatrical sparks.

Caitlin Lynch’s lackluster soprano tended toward shrillness on top, making Yadwiga’s innate decency all too bland. David Kravitz played Lampert as a show business rabbi. His big Broadway baritone would be perfect in Oklahoma, Carousel or Brigadoon.

David Stern drew gorgeous playing from the orchestra, bringing needed momentum to the often limp second act, and the large corporate sonority of Greg Ritchey’s chorus made the music in the party scene sound better than it actually was.

Sam Helfrich’s production was a winning mix of intimate confrontations, crowded New York venues and multimedia spectacle, aided by Allen Moyer’s picturesque abstract sets and Greg Emetaz’s projections of buildings, newspapers and billboards of the era.  Only the still photo of a deserted field during Tamara’s sad narrative seemed like overkill. Kaye Voyce’s period costumes were often striking, strongly delineating the three heroines.

Palm Beach Opera deserves great credit for presenting a new American work and staging it with such theatrical and musical integrity. The company should continue to explore this repertoire. South Florida audiences still are waiting to see major productions of many operas by Gian Carlo Menotti, Robert Ward, Carlisle Floyd, Lee Hoiby, Douglas Moore and Hugo Weisgall.

The final performance of Enemies: A Love Story will be presented at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach 2 p.m. Sunday.

Palm Beach Opera concludes the season with Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment 7:30 p.m.  March 20 and 21 and 2 p.m. March 22 at the Kravis Center. pbopera.org;561-833-7888.

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to ““Enemies” proves a tedious clunker in Palm Beach Opera’s world premiere”

  1. Posted Feb 23, 2015 at 1:46 pm by AdamOnDemand

    This is the most incisive, honest review I’ve yet read of this opera. I attended the performance of Saturday night, February 21. Great production, great performances from all involved, vocally, musically, directorially, set, costumes, design wise. Unfortunately, they all exceeded the windy book which, while plaintive and easily understood, needs tightening and fixing, and more poetry. The biggest issue with the piece is the score. Budmen is right on target: Contrived, ineffective, sections of humdrum note-spinning, heavy handed, and little to no authentic feel for Judaic music and its relation to Jewish culture, religious music, Middle European origins, humor. I was jazzed by this source material, themes, set in opera (of which I’m an avid consumer and occasional performer), of the distinctly Jewish milieu, and was excited by the prospect of their mixture, and deeply underwhelmed by the score, less so the libretto.

  2. Posted Feb 23, 2015 at 1:55 pm by AdamOnDemand

    That said, Palm Beach Opera and The Kravis Center are greatly to be commended. At a time when most of the American opera world is struggling simply to keep programs up and running and depending on the core cannons, old chestnuts, and war horses, they’re exploring brave new material and doing it in shockingly high quality production. It’s possible this opera can be fixed, although tough. What’s certain is that it was a thrill to experience an American opera world premiere of such high quality. As a New Yorker, with access to the Met and NYC’s far deeper cultural resources, PBO and The Kravis have nothing to blush about, and every reason to be encouraged. I’d have no qualms about flying down again for more productions, especially of new operas of this level of spirit and adventure, and high mind and high quality.

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