By Philippa Kiraly, Special to the Sybaritic Singer
Twice a year, Seattle’s Music of Remembrance presents a thought-provoking concert of works by composers murdered in the Holocaust or contemporary works reflecting on different aspects of it and often including writings by those killed. Recently it has also branched out into performances about other instances of man’s inhumanity to man. Many of these contemporary works are commissioned by MoR, and several have been profoundly unsettling and enlightening chamber operas, leaving much to think about and research further afterwards.
The concert of May 19 this year took place on the 75th anniversary of the last night spent with his wife by Hungarian Jewish poet, Miklos Radnoti, before having to report to a forced labor camp. It was marked here by the premiere of a chamber opera composed by Tom Cipullo to a libretto by David Mason titled The Parting, imagining that final night of a couple who expected they might never see each other again, and that one of them was going to his death.
Radnoti had a passionate need to write poems, his way of bearing witness to life around him and to his love for his wife. Many of the ones he wrote in a small notebook during that final 1944 death march were discovered by his wife the following year on his body in a mass grave, and Mason uses some of these in his libretto.
Since much of what goes on in this opera is cerebral, Mason uses a couple of devices to bring the tale home to us. He includes, as well as the characters of Radnoti and his wife, Fanni, a third character, Death, in the form of a tangible woman we can see and hear but they cannot. He also projects for us the happenings to come, before bringing us back to the room where Radnoti and Fanni have been sitting and talking. It’s clear from the libretto that, like so many deeply creative people, Radnoti sometimes neglects his wife in order to write, and we witness her patience and sometimes frustrated understanding. We see the dichotomy clearly, and also the great love they share for each other.
We also see, in the leap forward in time at the side of the stage, his weakening body as he falls and struggles to rise.
All this time, Death has been hovering, speaking in an ear, commenting, speaking truth, the most telling comments being one which Mason gives to Death at the opening of the opera: “You never have to look far to see that for some, evil is right next door,” and another she answers to Radnoti at the nadir of his struggle, when he is asking what life is for: “To learn what life is. To love. To make beautiful things. To die.”
Cipullo says the first phrase haunted him while trying to compose the music, which is for a quintet of piano, violin, cello, clarinet and flute. The compelling work is through composed, the music built on a simple theme which gets increasingly changed, distorted, rhythm, tempo, key, pitches and more all different and mirroring the thoughts and feelings of the characters as they sing. The most easily recognizable are the more melodic sections sung by Fanni.
Fanni is sung by soprano Laura Strickland, Radnoti by baritone Michael Mayes, and Death by mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook. All have expressive faces and voices, as they have to be, so much of what goes on being not action but spoken thought. It would have been more comfortable for listening if Mayes had toned his voice down a bit, since Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall is small. Cook, a fine dramatic singer, has now a very wide, permanent vibrato which made it difficult to hear exactly what pitch she was on. These though are quibbles in what was a fascinating, moving performance. Erich Parce deserves kudos for imaginative staging, so that it never felt stale, while conductor Alastair Willis did a fine job of directing the ensemble. Supertitles made words clear where needed.
The Parting occupied only the second half of the program. The first half was devoted to three Hungarian composers who were murdered in the camps. It was clear, from the short works we heard, that the world lost three who could well have become important 20th century composers. We heard Laszlo Weiner’s Duo for violin and viola, Sandor Vandor’s more romantic-sounding Air for cello and piano, and Sandor Kuti’s Serenade for String Trio. Each work left a desire to hear more of these men’s compositions, those that were not destroyed.
Philippa Kiraly has writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.