tue 11/05/2021

Mamzer Bastard, Royal Opera, Hackney Empire review - inert Hasidic music-drama | reviews, news & interviews

Mamzer Bastard, Royal Opera, Hackney Empire review - inert Hasidic music-drama

Mamzer Bastard, Royal Opera, Hackney Empire review - inert Hasidic music-drama

Sludgy orchestral lines and ungainly word-setting in Na'ama Zisser's new opera

Collin Shay as Yoel, Steven Page as Stranger and video designer Paulina JurzecAll images by Stephen Cummiskey

Striking it lucky with a successful new opera is a rare occurrence, though every company has a duty to keep on trying.

Striking it lucky with a successful new opera is a rare occurrence, though every company has a duty to keep on trying. The Royal Opera hit the jackpot with 4.48 Psychosis, a highly original approach to Sarah Kane's profound and authentic play by Philip Venables, the first Doctoral Composer-in-Residence on the scheme initiated by Covent Garden in alliance with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. How could one not wish his successor, Israel-born Na'ama Zisser, all the best? Her credentials are excellent, not least studies with Mark-Anthony Turnage. But Mamzer Bastard makes for a nearly unendurable 90 minutes in which a churning orchestral sludge seems misallied with operatic word-setting of an awkwardness unparalleled even by today's mostly ungainly standards.

Netanel Hershtik in Mamzer BastardRelatively bearable is the cantorial music framing the action, mostly by other composers – only the last of the seven numbers is by Zisser, and you can guess without having read the programme beforehand since it's much more awkward for the excellent tenor Netanel Hershtik, cantor of The Hampton Synagogue, New York (pictured right), to negotiate. More surprising to read is that Zisser hoped for homogeneity between the religious numbers and her own music-theatre; the contrasts are extreme, and make what in the context of the synagogue might be fitting seem mostly banal.

The plot, such as it is, underlines with very little tension the heavily signposted revelation. On the eve of his traditional Hasidic wedding, Joel finds that he is indeed his mother's son, but not by his presumed father; the “Stranger” who dogs him is her first husband, presumed dead in the camps (no spoiler there), after whom he's named. That makes Joel the younger not so much a bastard as a “mamzer,” illegitimate in the eyes of Jewish custom because the mother has been married to another man. The drama supposedly unfolds on the streets of New York during the blackout of 13 July 1977.

Though this is clearly Joel the younger’s crisis, you'd think it was Apocalypse Now on the streets of New York rather than a matter of personal revelation, the sort of doomy nightmare where you're wading through treacle. The mostly lower-register instruments sink ever downwards in a style which seems at loggerheads with the jerky setting of repetitious text (by Zisser's sister Rachel and Samantha Newton). Whether conductor Jessica Cottis is getting tight results from the Aurora Orchestra ensemble or not is impossible to judge – as is the vocal quality of the five singers actually participating in the drama. Gundula Hintz and Collin Shay in Mamzer BastardTreble Edward Hyde as young Joel, countertenor Collin Shay as his older self, Gundula Hintz, Robert Burt and Steven Page can't be judged by the same standards that make Hershtik's part in the proceedings more accountable. The ungainly lines are further sabotaged by raspy-edged miking (really necessary against 10 instrumentalists?). The camera held by video designer Pauline Jurzec projecting enlarged images on to a screen – a cliché now in all but the best hands: director Ivo van Hove can still get away with it; Jay Scheib, in charge here, does not – has the further drawback of the lips moving out of synch with the delivery.

The possibility of grace after all this torment (Hintz and Shay pictured above) could just about be considered moving in itself, but the real balm comes in a final release from the harsh lights and the monotonous sound pictures. A worthy subject, no doubt, but nothing in its handling inspires confidence in the possibility of future work from this team.


Agreed in full. A turgid monstrosity .

I thoughr it was mesmorising Crirics are a joke What they know anyhow

This production is pure torture!

Whatever this critic opinion was, the review oozes malice. Something has ticked David Nice off, I don't think it was the actual work that did it, and he is letting a doctoral student who is presenting her debut opera have it, potentially crippling her prospects. Some minimal decency is always warranted.

Unless my unconscious knows something I don't, I assure you you're wrong. I went with nothing but goodwill; it was indeed 'the actual work that did it'. In retrospect, though I wanted to be kind, it might have been better to take the view of Neil Fisher in The Times - that Zisser's supervisors should have stepped in to say that too much was wrong for this to go before the public. The real blame rests with them.

Appalling score and libretto, staging was below mediocre and its weakness revealed as dire when the video system failed in a key scene. Cantor Hershtik was a blessed relief at times. Collin Shay has a fine voice, but the idea of a countertenor lead, something that died out about 300 years ago, makes sense for the story but is musical idiotic. We felt robbed of the modest ticket price.

What a nonsense write up. I could not disagree more. Compared to the pseudo-intellectual 4.48 Psychosis, that was an actual torture to sit through, this musical piece was so delicately nuanced and hauntingly beautiful. I thought it accompanied the piece wonderfully, and the contrast of the sharp church-like organ melodies with the traditional Jewish cantorial songs and prayers send chills down the spine and lures one into the secret and closed off world of the Orthodox community. The story was original and emotional, and oh so relevant and REAL. The cinematic references and live streamed footage was bold, intimate and visually arresting. The whole thing was moving and has left me in tears. Yes the amplification could have been done more expertly, and it by all means is not perfect. But surely, that can be forgiven for the sake of the big picture here, but it appears that you missed the point. This was clearly written and produced to democratise and refresh the genre. Perhaps it's a good thing that you've had such hideous response to it - as this archaic institution really is due a proper shake up by brave young uncompromising creatives!

The way 'to democratise and refresh the genre' is to write vivid music-theatre that really connects with people and shakes them up. As opera has done, and still does, from Monteverdi through to John Adams. This had an alienating effect upon the young people I spoke to - it certainly isn't going to win any new fans to opera as a form. But you think differently, and that's your prerogative.

The way to refresh the genre is to write "Vivid Music"? I'm sorry but there is no formula to it. It seems like you have a very specific idea of what you like to see and hear, but if something is not to your personal taste does not mean that it is bad. It seems very strange to me that a professional writer would write such a review, purely based on personal taste, and would be so enraged by it that he would not write anything actually constructive? Yes, I do think differently, and the people I've spoken to came out very touched and excited by the music, the story and the staging. It is very surprising that a peice can be so polarising. Perhaps that by itself defines relevant and good art?

There is indeed no formula; 'opera', 'music theatre', call it what you will, is a very broad church - but there are criteria, which I tried my best to enlarge upon within the bounds of considering the work itself. No point in expanding on what the score didn't do, but the composer herself objectively failed in one of her objectives (to bring the cantor's music close to her own style). There are certain composers, too, who write deliberately and brilliantly against the grain of the words (Gerald Barry, for one), but that this was bad word-setting. The enervating orchestral textures, which had no correspondence at all with the text, could be justified by themselves, and if there is a future for Zisser, it may well be in instrumental music.

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