Arts & Letters; Cultural Stew Simmers With International Flavor ; Greek Tragedy and Russian Symphonies At Summer Fest


By Raphael Mostel

Published July 04, 2003, issue of July 04, 2003.
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In its whirlwind of offerings from July 7 to July 27, the Lincoln Center Festival promises a veritable feast of diverse cultures. Audiences are invited on extraordinary excursions into enchanted realms, including Korean shamanism rituals and vibrant epics known as pansori, and not one, but two Italian operas based on Shakespeare’s Scottish play, “Macbeth.” A 14th-century Chinese opera will be presented in a traditional and also in a modern musical setting, while a dance company from China will weave its magic. A five-day survey of Brazil’s astonishing diversity of popular music will dare audiences to try to resist dancing in the aisles themselves, and “The Angel Project” will send ticket buyers on solo pilgrimages around the city.

Threaded throughout the tapestry of this year’s celebrations is an amazing number of Jewish offerings, including an Israeli spectacle that is sure to be one of the festival’s hottest tickets.

From July 8 to July 13, internationally acclaimed director Rina Yerushalmi and the Itim Theatre Ensemble of Tel Aviv will present “Mythos,” a transcendent, hypnotically beautiful and brutal adaptation of the Greek “Oresteia.” Performed in Hebrew with simultaneous English translation, Yerushalmi’s innovative staging of this Greek story mythologizes for her where Israel is today, she said, “because this story of blood feud and revenge is eternally true. And revenge is something we all are dealing with.” Indeed, the fearless director said in an interview with the Forward, Aeschylus’s classic tragedy is one of the only plays that has not been rendered “irrelevant” by the intifada.

Drawing on a variety of sources beyond the Greek original, Yerushalmi has transformed the story of the house of Atreus. In the original Greek myth, generation after generation of the cursed family commits all manner of horrors — violent murder, cannibalism, incest, theft, betrayal. But at last the goddess Athena intercedes to stop the endless cycle of generations of blood feuds. “Athena proposes a court, governed not by passion of revenge, but by passion of justice” said the director. However, in the different ending of her adaptation, “Family is family. Orestes and Electra journey into the past and view for themselves the destruction of Troy their own father and the other Greeks have caused. They make their own trial. In despair they decide to die.”

It is altogether remarkable how this production revivifies the ancient text. Startling here is the Mediterranean sensibility shared by Israel and ancient Greece, and how much these cultures are merged in it. The music for the spectacle, composed by Avi Belleli, mixes Arabic songs and even Beethoven, and the scenes often blend into dance.

The famous Kirov Opera, treating New York to a rich panoply of Russian operas throughout the festival in honor of St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary, is sharing in the feast of Jewish works: Conductor Valery Gergiev is to conduct such well-known classics as Tchaikovsky’s palindromic tragic love story “Eugene Onegin,” and Mussorgsky’s political saga “Khovanshchina” along with such eagerly anticipated rarities as Rimsky-Korsakov’s spectacularly colorful “Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” and Prokofiev’s Soviet epic “Semyon Kotko.”

But perhaps none of these operas is more anticipated than the one to be performed in concert on July 15, a legendary work that almost no one knows at all: “The Demon” by Anton Rubinstein, based on the famous poem by Lermontov. Born of Russian-German-Jewish parents, Rubinstein (1830-1894) was one of the most famous musicians of his time, although today he is known only to musicologists. As a pianist, his only contemporary rival was Franz Liszt. As a prolific composer, he had tremendous success in all forms — symphonic, chamber, piano, opera. With his brother, he founded both the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories. His most famous pupil was Tchaikovsky. Influenced by the German style in general, and Mendelssohn in particular, his compositions are songful and melodic, though in retrospect, his love of things German was out of tune with the ascendant Russian nativist movement.

Like almost all Jewish composers in the 19th century, including Mendelssohn, Rubinstein converted to Christianity. Perhaps his conversion was sincere, but because it was impossible to obtain work otherwise, it retains an air of suspicion. And even though baptized, Rubinstein was still derided in correspondence by Mussorgsky and other Russian colleagues as a “zhid,” according to musicologist Richard Taruskin. To be fair, the epithet may have been used not because Rubinstein was seen as the enemy of the Russian nationalist school, but because most contemporary Jews, representing an internationalist outlook and a German heritage, were deemed suspect by many Russians. (Paradoxically, the dead Jews in the Bible were treated with greatest respect.) Though Rubinstein did compose an opera called “Christus,” he repeatedly addressed Jewish subjects in other operas, including “The Maccabees,” “The Tower of Babel,” “Shulamit” and “Moses.” Sadly, these and his other melodious works are hardly known today.

“The Demon” opens in a storm. A lonely demon sees and falls in love with the beautiful Tamara, who is happily anticipating her wedding to a prince. To keep Tamara for himself, the demon arranges for her fiancé to be attacked and killed in the storm. When she finds out about the murder, she decides to go to a convent. The demon pursues her there, but is pushed away by an angel protecting her. The demon tries again and is able to kiss her. She dies and the angel carries her to heaven. The demon is left alone, miserable and lonely as before. At one time this romantic fantasy was performed all over. But now, thanks to Gergiev and the Kirov Opera, New York will get to hear it with completely unprejudiced ears, in what promises to be an authentic, idiomatic performance.

Another prolific contemporary German composer, Heiner Goebbels will be represented in the festival on July 13 by an entirely different kind of show. Goebbels’s touching “Eislermaterial” is one German composer’s tribute to another –– the great German/Jewish composer, Hans Eisler. Eisler is famous as the successor to Kurt Weill as collaborator with Bertolt Brecht, and also as the composer of the national anthem of East Germany. Goebbels claims Eisler –– both the man and his music, which embodied his ideas in practice –– were what inspired him to become a composer himself. Goebbels is in love with the “alienation effect” (verfremdungseffekt), Brecht’s guiding principle, which calls for a degree of artifice and stylization to keep the audience detached and not swayed by emotional appeals. Goebbels has made a career of the strange intersection of almost conversational music performance and mysterious theater action, a beautiful kind of performance art that can only be hatched under state support or in such international festivals. Performed by the great musicians of the Ensemble Modern, what emerges is Goebbels richly eclectic internal dialogue to Eisler’s “material.”

Even the Dance Theater of Harlem will present a Jewish work –– the halcyon lark “Fancy Free,” by those two New York Jews, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. And then there is a two-day marathon of Prokofiev’s chamber music that will of course feature his moving “Overture on Hebrew Themes.”

New York is already brimming with diverse cultures from all over the world, which makes programming such special celebrations a challenge. This year’s Lincoln Center Festival more than meets the challenge.

Raphael Mostel is a composer and frequent contributor to the Forward. His composition “The Travels of Babar” (using the classic story by Jean de Brunhoff) has just been released on CD.

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