New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Miscellaneous - Opera

New York City Opera, Lincoln Center, Manhattan

“Esther” has been described as “electrifying”—and rightly so. The revival, now at the renovated David H. Koch Theater (home of the New York City Opera), soars across the stage. The newly-renovated theatre—lush, elegant, and vast in size—is a perfect venue for the piece. Hugo Weisgall’s opera, staged originally in 1993 by the New York City Opera, now enjoys a triumphal return.

That Weisgall’s atonal piece would be so captivating is surprising. One would expect this very modern music (with its 12-tone scale) to be off-putting, but not so. The very lack of melodic arias works to its advantage, adding to its dramatic force. One is never distracted by charming tunes, but is hit again and again by its powerful story, so fraught with potential tragedy.

The story of Esther comes straight from the Old Testament. Xerxes, the King of Persia, has banished his wife Vashti for defiance to him and now seeks a new queen. (Librettist Charles Kondek has taken liberties with the Biblical tale. The King is no longer Ahasuarus, as in the Bible, but becomes Xerxes, an actual historical figure. He has total power, like all eastern potentates of early times.) All the young beautiful women of his kingdom are arrayed for his selection. Among them is Esther, one of the many Jews captured in Jerusalem and brought to Persia. Naturally, Esther wins the day. It is love at first sight, to coin a phrase. Meanwhile, the Jews of the Kingdom are about to be wiped out, on orders of the picked Haman. Esther bravely pleads their case (while acknowledging her own identity) and saves their lives. Esther, her King, and her own people, presumably, live happily ever after. No wonder Jews down through the ages have celebrated this holiday (to be known as Purim) with exuberance and raucous celebrations.

“Esther” is staged brilliantly, thanks to the vision of director Christopher Mattaliano and the work of his design team. Jerome Sirlin’s set opens with a startling image.

A row of bodies, hanging from ropes, are silhouetted across the rear stage, backed by a fiery sky. Sirlin’s work continues on that level, as scenes play out in the royal court and elsewhere. Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Joseph A. Citarella’s costumes meet those high standards, and Jennifer Muller’s superb choreography turns the tale into epic proportions. The Jewish people, clad in gray rags, sweep in waves across the stage or are  huddled stage-front as peril mounts.

Lauren Flanigan creates a vulnerable, human Esther, growing from a simple young girl, obedient to her uncle’s orders, to a woman of queenly stature. As actress and singer, she handles the difficult music even as she creates a larger-than-life character. She is well matched by Stephen Kechulius, who is a strong Xerxes.  Roy Cornelius Smith and Margaret Thompson give considerable juice to their roles as Haman and his wife Zeresh. One is reminded of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as they plot their moves. In all, a fine cast which meet the difficult demands of the opera.

This modern “Esther” not only reaches back in time, but carries echoes of the Holocaust. More than that, “Esther” sends forth a universal message. The persecution of minorities, the torture of innocents caught in the crossfire of wars, the lack of enlightenment and justice, has prevailed in all times and places—and continues to prevail. One can only hope that in mankind’s future a different story will evolve.

-- Irene Backalenick
November 17, 2009

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