Operagasm Exclusive Review: PBO’s Enemies, A Love Story
by Judy Marchman
A truly great piece of art leaves its audience feeling captivated and uncomfortable. Enemies, A Love Story is indeed a truly great piece of art. In its entirety, the production is a mixture of mediums and themes encased in the brilliant realization of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish novel Sonim, do Geshichte fun a Liebe (1966). Enemies, A Love Story premiered this past Friday at the Palm Beach Opera and is scheduled to run through the weekend.
Set in the 1940s in varying burrows in New York, the story follows a Polish writer and philosopher, Herman Broder. What is striking about Herman is his human-ness. He is seriously flawed. You see, good ole Herman has two wives and a mistress. At first, you find yourself derisively disliking him. Then pitying him. Then disliking him. Then rooting for him. Then pitying him, again. Your feelings toward him adjust as the story unfolds. And, similar to a good episode of Game of Thrones (you know what I’m talking about), you feel yourself thrown about in the humanity of the tale, both loving and hating the inhabitants of its story.
It is not only about Herman and the debacle he has created as a man – it is about the different facets of a woman, as well, portrayed by the three different women of Herman’s life. Additionally, the story and the characters’ lives are interwoven with tales of their frightening experiences as Holocaust survivors. In fact, it’s almost as if the Holocaust experience is its own character. Herman’s first wife, Tamara, was believed to be killed by Nazis in a field. She is a strong and is the quintessential survivor. She has survived a freezing work camp, having been shot – with a bullet remaining inside her, no less! She has arrived in New York to find her husband. Herman’s second wife, Yadwiga, is a Polish farmer’s daughter who hid Herman in her family’s hayloft for two years. Herman married her following the end of the war; partly as payback, partly as a yearning towards the simplicity of Yadwiga and her adoration of him. Enter Masha, the mistress turned ceremonial wife. Masha, a survivor of a work camp herself, celebrated the nightmare she endured by partyin’ and livin’ it up. With her, Herman has a slightly volatile, certainly sexy, relationship. He says he can’t live without her – her vitality and instability draw him addictively. So, you got sturdy and trustworthy; simplistic and adoring; and sexy and addicting. Characteristics of all three women, if combined, could be an example of just one woman. And each woman draws Herman and the audience in.
What is most ingenious about this production is its artistic conception, designed by Allen Moyer, and how it is delivered. Above the moving set, which is innovative enough, there is a video wall depicting different scenes that address changing locations, and characters, but also add a secondary emotional layer. In Tamara’s moving aria in the first act (Tamara’s Aria), she relates her experiences: freezing while enduring the work camp, being shot, and the death of her children. Above the set, evocative images appear depicting both the tangible elements of recounting, such as images of the field where Tamara was shot and the forest where she lay awake at night; but, also images representative of her emotions – her terror, her desolation, her existence. Leaving the subject matter which is moving enough, the delivery of it encompasses the audience member in a 21st century way. What could be conceived as lazy – Americans probably can’t function without a TV screen – is an ingenious way to move opera forward as a genre. Well done, Palm Beach Opera. That was a super smarty-pants move.
The moving set depicts each woman’s home, and various other scenes, with small vignettes. What is most important is that the women’s homes can appear singularly or together. In fact, at the discovery of Tamara’s existence, her home remains on stage, in varying shades of darkness, reminding the audience that her character looms as a constant prodding to Herman’s psyche. There is a very moving trio of the three women (Women’s Trio) in the second act in which the homes appear side by side. The idea could have come off trite, but really, it is quite moving.
Hold on to your 1940’s fedora, I’m going to get to the singers in a minute…
It must be mentioned, that within the ingenuity of the scene and the weighty source material, the composer and librettist team of Ben Moore and Nahma Sandrow is absolutely breathtaking. The swell of passionate violins is tempered by little inserts of Yiddish fiddles. Honestly, I was worried that the story would include a dancing Tevye on a roof, but thankfully Moore and Sandrow steered away from the obvious. I will say, however, that in many respects that orchestral score far out distanced the vocal score. There was a lack of melody for which the arias were begging! The stories of each survivor had an opportunity for the story-stopping moment often delivered by the great arias (think Nessun Dorma or Vissi d’arte), but didn’t quite make it in this opera. I kept waiting for that breathless moment, which I almost had during Tamara’s Aria, but was never quite realized. There were moments… but, not necessarily the moment.
Okay, okay… the singers. Daniel Okulitch played the conflicted Herman Broder. An attractive specimen, to be sure, his velvety baritone encompassed passion in scenes with Masha, stability in scenes with Yadwiga and resignation in scenes with Tamara. He is a presence to be sure, but there are slight variances in his timbre and delivery as his character fluctuates with the moods of his circumstances. Sandrow (or Singer) cannily weaves in text of the traditional Jewish prayer, Women of Valor. Okulitch successfully changes his smooth timbre for each of his women as he sings, “A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above [rubies]. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and nothing shall he lack.” Well done, Okulitch. Well done, Sandrow. I see what you did there.
Tamara is heroically portrayed by mezzo soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo. She had not only the depth required for such material, but the brightness in her upper notes balanced the heaviness. While she is a beautiful singer and did a wildly admiral job, there was something missing in her performance. As a performer, interpretation is most often dependent upon personal experience. Even in a nominal way, if not actually experienced, a performer can draw upon his or her feelings. I think, unfortunately, having not ever experienced the atrocities endured by the survivors of the Holocaust, not having felt anything close to it, puts a performer at a disadvantage. I imagine there is nothing of that can compare to that experience, even on a smaller level, from which to draw upon. And that disconnect was felt not only from Tamara’s character, but from others as well throughout the entire opera. There was a lack of chemistry between Okulitch and Sandel-Pantaleo, for all that their characters were intertwined. I kept trying to put my finger on what was missing…
Danielle Pastin’s Masha was lively and sexy; conversely, her voice was almost sweet in places. The contrast of the darkness of her character and the brilliance of her soprano was astounding. The pianissimos of her upper notes were unexpected from this larger voice, and whether Moore intended the contrast, it was quite poignant. The chemistry between Okulitch and Pastin was remarkable. Perhaps the characteristics of Okulitch’s Don Giovanni is a more comfortable fit for him. Jennifer Roderer sings the role of Masha’s mother, Shifrah Puah, with whom Masha lives. Shifrah Puah represents the older survivor and has a certain expectation for Masha and consequently Herman. The voice was solid, but unfortunately, Moore doesn’t provide her with a viable melody line in which to deliver her weighty texture.
Caitlyn Lynch was an expectedly simple Yadwiga with a lighter soprano. Yadwiga’s Aria in the first act was closer to the mark of a heart-stopping aria and was incredibly sweet. I will say her acting was a bit wooden; but, again, this may be the result of the source material. She improved when she had Okulitch to draw from. Yadwiga’s neighbors, sung by PBO Young Artists Liana Guberman and Rachel Arky were beautifully sung, but delivered just as woodenly. I can almost hear the stage director telling them not to be so obvious. Mezzo soprano
Rabbi Lampert, sung by David Kravitz, a character that counsels the guilt-ridden Herman, provides yet another contrast. Kravitz’s baritone offers solace and condemnation to Okulitch’s baritone. At times Kravitz has a lighter delivery with smoother lines, then at other times his voice is weightier – even a bit pushed – in the lower ranges. While this may be an acting choice, providing contrast (which would be quite ingenious), it sometimes sounded worn. Philip Horst as Masha’s first husband Tortshiner, was a nice and steady bass. Whether it was his character or the melody, he did not live up to the text of which he sang. Again, there was a small artistic opportunity there, as he recounts his own survivor’s story within his relationship to Masha that was missed.
Usually I am a champion of Young Artists. I applaud PBO for using them to their greatest advantage; however, Robert Watson’s portrayal of Tamara’s uncle, Nissen was… not good. Sandrow writes in a bit of comedy and Watson, while musical with a voice of great potential, missed his comedic mark and seemed awkward. As his wife, Sheva Haddas, Young Artist Joana Rusche did a better job and seemed to pick up the comedic slack, somewhat. I will be happy to hear them both in roles that may serve to emphasize their talent. While the chorus was ancillary musically, their presence was felt and served to move the plot forward both visually and metaphorically.
Overall, Enemies, A Love Story is the proverbial feather in PBO’s cap. Wildly successful as both a production and an artistic move, this opera is an important adjustment in PBO’s role in the community and on the international opera stage. This opera is a study in contrasts, with an effective cast and creative concept. I would venture to say even the old guard of Palm Beach Opera’s audience approved.
Judy Marchman has performed the roles of Miss Wordsworth (Albert Herring), Foreign Woman (The Consul) and Eurydice (Les Malheurs d’Orfée) with the Palm Beach Opera, Florida State Opera and the Frost Opera Theater.
Her voice having been referred to as, “bell-like” [South Florida Classical Review] and “rapturous” [Organiste.net], Judy has performed as a soloist in several large works, such as Mozart’s Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Rutter’s Magnificatand Gloria, Bach’s Magnificat, and Vivaldi’s Gloria among others.
Judy most recently performed in master classes with Carole Farley Serebrier and with the renowned soprano Jane Eaglen at the 2012 NATS National Conference. A winner of the Milton Cross Award and a semi-finalist in the American Prize Competition, Judy is a specialist in the art song of British composer Peter Warlock.
Beginning her music studies at an early age, Judy went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from Palm Beach Atlantic University, a Masters of Music degree from Florida State University, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from University of Miami.