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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opera Review: The Unnameable.

Esther at New York City Opera.

Lauren Flanigan in a scene from Esther© 1993 New York City Opera.
Esther resurrects the New York City Opera in fine style. Lincoln Center's "other" opera company is known for exploring dangerous, "difficult" operas and making them wildly popular with its audience. Hugo Wiesgall's final opera, based on the Biblical story of the brave Queen who saved the Jewish people from slaughter, premiered at the former New York State Theater in 1993 but only ran for a few performances. Here, it returns in triumph, led by the incandescent performance of Lauren Flanigan.

Although the story of Esther is well-known to anyone who has ever celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim, this is ultimately a serious opera which examines the inner lives of these famous figures, and the moral consequences of the story's violent resolution. Esther, herself sold into slavery and married off to the Emperor Xerxes (James Maddalena) saves her people from the machinations of Xerxes' prime minister, the diabolical Haman. Haman, is in turn hung by the neck, along with his ten sons, an image which greets the audience when the curtain rises.

Flanigan's high-wire performance carries the evening, making it seem as if City Opera did not go dark for an entire season. She sings this difficult music with ease, tossing off those high notes with energy and fervor. She delineates the Queen's spiritual crisis and complex personality through excellent acting and a genuine exchange of energy with Xerxes, played by Stephen Kechuius.

Kechulius is the picture of machismo (and kingly indecision) as Xerxes. Roy Cornelius Smith has surprisingly comic moments as the evil, scheming Haman. Most memorable is James Maddalena in the critical role of Esther's uncle Mordecai, lending gravitas to the plight of the Jews. Also, as Vashti (the deposed wife of Xerxes) and Zeresh (the wife of Haman) Beth Clayton and Margaret Thompson share a memorable duet which is a highlight of the score. George Manahan leads his City Opera Orchestra through this complicated score with his customary skill.

Like most operas written in the late 20th century, Esther is influenced by 300 years of musical history that went before it. Weisgall's work has a lyrical flow and memorable music, while still adhering to sophisticated modern techniques. This is in some ways, a post-Romantic work, balancing a serious story with the back-room politicking of Haman and the development of Esther's own relationship with Xerxes. Esther is a major 20th century work, and a fitting choice to re-open this great opera company after a year spent wandering in darkness.

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