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Moses: The Video Opera

To say that Yoav Gal’s “Mosheh,” playing in New York City’s HERE through February 5, is an opera about the life of Moses is to understate the exhilarating complexity of the work. Those expecting a simple linear retelling of the biblical story won’t find it here: Gal uses Exodus less as a plot blueprint than as a starting point for a hallucinatory meditation on themes of alienation and loneliness. Four female characters who receive short shrift in scripture — Moses’ sister; his wife; his biological mother, and his adoptive mother, Bitia, Pharaoh’s daughter — are foregrounded in this version of the tale, each singing an aria before performing, as a quartet, a chilling recitation of the Ten Plagues. Mosheh himself is reimagined as a modern-day urban dweller: The Nile becomes the East River, Pharaoh’s palace a graffiti-scarred colonnade under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Ultimately, though, the setting for this story is neither Ancient Egypt nor present-day New York, but rather the murky, sometimes grotesque terrain of the human subconscious.

Gal’s score, by turns contemplative and deeply unsettling, is the driving force behind a musical drama with a surprisingly sparse libretto: Characters sing from time to time, but there are also long stretches of deliberately repetitive instrumental passages accompanied by stylized movement and dance. This is less a concert performance than a seamless multimedia spectacle (Gal calls it a “videopera”): The performers are enclosed within a box made of four translucent screens onto which ever-morphing images are projected, giving the impression that we’re watching a kind of live, three-dimensional film.

The improbably psychedelic costumes (designed by Gal and by Heather Green, who also plays Bitia) are artworks in their own right, and the orchestral musicians, who are clearly visible off stage right, occasionally interact with the characters. In one instance, the baritone saxophonist stands and plays a lumbering solo — long, pure tones interspersed with growling harmonics — as accompaniment to a duet of movement between Mosheh and Pharaoh’s daughter. Later, the bass-flutist, barefoot and playing into a microphone, circles around Mosheh, who is crouched on the floor in the center of the stage. Gal’s music has its tuneful moments, but more often features insistent rhythmic repetitions, discordant harmonies, and a variety of ominous shrieks and bleats.

It’s hard to glean any clear chronology from the events onstage, but the program’s synopsis suggests that each scene represents a childhood memory now revisited by the adult Mosheh in a time of crisis. A creative rendering of the voice of God — plural, otherworldly, multi-gendered — issues proclamations that set off the different sections of the piece. Two alto voices, one female and the other a male countertenor, sing in cantorlike recitative, alternating between close polyphony and perfect unison. Each instruction, enunciated in careful English (unlike the rest of the opera, which is sung in Hebrew) evokes in us the right mixture of fear and awe.

Mosheh’s sister, Miriam, is the first of the four women to appear, moving about the stage with delicate, halting steps, sideways glances and mannered flips of the wrist. Her hot-pink and blue getup looks like Dr. Seuss’s answer to ballet tights and a tutu. Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn is graceful in the role, bringing expressive warmth to a gently lilting lullaby accompanied by piano, xylophone and pizzicato strings.

What comes next is both a startling contrast and perhaps the most impressive performance of the piece: Bitia clad in a space-age costume, clomps out onstage while belting out a shrill, swooping soprano passage of wordless vocalise. With a tall, spiky wig, a face painted white, and mesh-covered rings encircling her arms and legs, Bitia seems part unfeeling Star Trek robot, part menacing Mozartian Queen of the Night. During a halting circular dance with Mosheh, her face softens slightly, and we glimpse the first stirrings of maternal affection (“A little baby in an arc of reeds / he is beautiful,” she sings.) Bitia seems to care for Mosheh, and yet we never quite trust her: She is a mother, but an alien one, and we feel (perhaps as Mosheh feels) a sense of terror at her foreignness.

Less memorable performances come from Judith Barnes as Yocheved — matronly in an enormous red hoopskirt and matching headdress — and Beth Anne Hatton as Zipporah, sad and meek in a yellow wig. It’s possible that this unfortunate imbalance is purely a function of uneven casting, but it also seems as though Gal and director Kameron Steele simply have not given Mosheh’s mother and wife the kind of attention they lavished on the other two women. With Miriam and Bitia, every movement and facial expression seems carefully chosen to construct a clear and specific emotional identity. These are figures from dreams or nightmares; by comparison, Yocheved and Zipporah are disappointingly ordinary, weirdly affectless.

At the other extreme is Nathan Guisinger as Mosheh, who never sings, speaks only once and yet always makes his presence felt. Mosheh’s spiritual struggle is plainly visible in Guisinger’s body; as he works his way into and out of an impressive array of physical contortions, we watch his muscles straining under the weight of an unseen burden. In one stunning display, Guisinger moves in concert with an identical figure projected onto the screen behind him in what looks like the image from a pregnancy ultrasound. It’s an arresting visual metaphor for birth, but whether we’re meant to ponder Mosheh’s physical birth or his spiritual birth — as one chosen by God — remains unclear.

“Mosheh” is rife with befuddling moments like this; one feels enthralled without quite knowing why. Minute scriptural details are stretched into scenes that seem to drag on forever, while major events are glossed over or skipped altogether. The effect is disorienting, sometimes maddeningly so. Sitting in the theater, nothing seems to make much literal sense. But afterward, the mind is left humming. Melodic fragments — the groan of a cello, the squeak of clarinets — stick in the ear. A sense of malaise lingers. Are we to envision the East River running with blood, and locusts descending upon Central Park?

It’s a frightening thought, but “Mosheh” seems to offer more than a grim reimagining of Exodus in modern times. What we’re left with is a kaleidoscopic jumble — bits of scripture, fanciful and alarming images, urban scenes, pulsing sounds. Shards of unexpected beauty are colored with fear and uncertainty. By framing the story as a kind of hallucination, Gal invites us to peer into Moses’ emotional landscape, which, for an archetypal savior, turns out to be a surprisingly dark place.

Eileen Reynolds is a New York-based freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to the books blog of The New Yorker.

Below, watch a performance of “Colonnade,” a song from Mosheh (a VideOpera) performed at Merkin Concert Hall in 2003:

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