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Milken Archive - Jewish Operas Vol 1 / Gunzenhauser, Et Al


Release Date: 06/15/2004 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559424   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Abraham EllsteinRichard StrassburgRobert StrassburgDavid Tamkin
Performer:  Joseph EvansFreda HersethRaphael FriederTyler Oliphant,   ... 
Conductor:  Stephen GunzenhauserKenneth KieslerPaul Hostetter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony OrchestraUniversity of Michigan Symphony OrchestraChamber Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Timeless Jewish legends and unforgettable dramatic characters come to life in these opera scenes composed by 20th-century American masters. Ellstein's The Golem retells the ancient tale of a clay-made creature, brought to life by kabbalistic spells, who ultimately threatens the very people he was intended to serve. Strassburg's Chelm, a series of vignettes from a "village of fools," includes a portrayal of a hapless newlywed couple who conduct a hilarious search for an ideal wedding present. Tamkin's The Dybbuk transforms an age-old story of demon possession into a compelling drama wherein the fate of two star-crossed lovers becomes a mystical allegory for the Jewish People and Israel.

Full Review from Fanfare
Read more Magazine:
My initial, pre-audition reaction to “Jewish Operas, Volume 1” was that it might have been preferable to have an entire opera rather than chunks from three different ones. But even a survey as comprehensive as this one must make hard choices, and in the event it turns out that the excerpts presented here give us a pretty good feeling for the operatic ambitions of these three composers.

Abraham Ellstein (1907–1963) studied at Juilliard with, among others, Albert Stoessel and Reuben Goldmark. He was active in New York’s Lower East Side Yiddish theater scene and in Yiddish radio. Julius Rudel, conductor of the New York City Opera, helped secure a Ford Foundation Grant for Ellstein to write a full-length opera. The result was The Golem, which received its City Opera premiere in 1962, just one year before Ellstein’s death. A “golem” is a homunculus, which the dictionary defines as a dwarf. Within the context of ancient and medieval legends, however, it was a quasi-human, mythical, mystical creature brought into existence through invocation of the Holy of Holies, the alphabetic tetragram that forms the Hebrew name for God—????—(read from right to left) which is loosely transliterated into English as Yaweh. In Jewish tradition, such incantations of magic and the supernatural are forbidden; thus, in later times, “golem” (in the sense of being an imperfect and only partially formed creature) came to be used as a denigrating label. To call someone a “golem” was to call him ignorant and a fool. Taken out of context, the Finale to act II recorded here makes little sense. One must know that the Maharal has created a golem through deciphering formulas in the Kabbala (a collection of Jewish mystical writings), and by deriving the secret of creation from God’s name. Meanwhile, he learns that a fanatical monk is about to launch a new “blood libel” against the Jews. The complexities of the opera’s plot have partly to do with the Maharal rejecting divine intervention in the matter of the fanatical monk, instead placing faith in the golem he has created; and partly in the golem’s growing self-awareness of its own half-human condition, which leads to a violent confrontation. All ends well, though, when the Maharal at last acknowledges the ultimate Creator, and prays for his golem to be endowed with human spirit and to become a protector of the Jews against evil. Ellstein’s music is of a modern idiom, though at moments it turns Romantic in vein. The vocal parts are declamatory and fluid in style, following the text more by inflection than by anything resembling conventional melody or formal aria. Soloists are all singers of fine voice and well trained.

Robert Strassburg (1915–2003) was born in New York, but spent a good part of his active musical life in the Los Angeles area. His educational pedigree is impressive. He studied with Stravinsky, Piston, and Hindemith, the last named at Tanglewood. From 1943 on, he served on the faculties of a number of music schools and universities. He also established and directed the Roy Harris Archives and published a catalog of Harris’s works. Strassburg’s activities as a composer have been nearly equally divided between sacred and secular works. Chelm, Strassburg’s one-act comic opera, with libretto by Cantor Raymond Smolover, was premiered in 1956 at New York’s 92nd Street YMHA. Chelm, often imagined to be a fictitious place, actually exists. It is a small town in Poland, southeast of Lublin, with a rich Jewish history. In Jewish folklore, the town came to be associated with derisive and sarcastic humor about its inhabitants, who are described by Neil Levin’s note as “naive, childlike simpletons, unable to separate theory from practice; incapable of deductive reasoning, logical understanding, or problem solving; and prone to silly conclusions and confusions.” A typical Chelm parable, for example, poses the question of how the town’s Rabbi can get from his house to the synagogue in winter without leaving footprints in the snow. The Wise Men of Chelm confer and decide that four men from the village should carry him. Though not often acknowledged, I have always suspected that the Chelm stories represent a particularly Jewish tongue-in-cheek poke at the labyrinthine logic and legalistic arguments that were debated by the ancient Rabbis who crafted the Talmud. Our present-day jurisprudence in cases of property damages, for example, stems largely from lengthy Talmudic discourse over whose ox did the goring, which side of the fence it was on when the goring occurred, who is responsible, and how much remuneration is fair. For the libretto of Strassburg’s Chelm, Smolover selected anecdotes and vignettes from various Chelm stories and wove them together into a central plot involving David’s wedding gift to his bride Leah. She declares that what she wants for a gift is a she-goat. David goes in search of the animal, consulting Berel, one of the Wise Men, as to how and where to find the best specimen, and (it could only happen in Chelm) how to determine its gender. One feels sorry for Leah if her new husband doesn’t know the difference. The conversation is filled with sexual innuendo, as when David answers that the days are longer in summer than in winter because heat causes expansion. Strassburg’s music is as delightful as the libretto. There is a sincere, if naive, innocence to the score that is a bit reminiscent of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors—very touching. Karen Longwell, as Leah, and Matthew Chellis, as David, are both charming, as are Richard Lalli and Carla Wood, as Berel and Khaya (the goat).

David Tamkin (1906–1975) was a successful composer of nearly 40 Hollywood film scores, including Swell Guy, The Fighting O’Flynn, and You Gotta Stay Happy. He also orchestrated for Dimitri Tiomkin and Jerry Goldsmith. Tamkin’s opera, The Dybbuk (1951), is based on the classic Yiddish play of the same title by playwright Solomon Zainwil Rapaport, known affectionately as An Ski from his given name of Semyon Akimovitch. Not to be flip about it, but the literary “dibbuk” theme, which has roots going back several centuries, may be seen as a prequel to the movie, The Exorcist. A “dibbuk” is an evil spirit that invades and inhabits a living human host. In Jewish lore, at least, the soul thus possessed is not held entirely innocent of the possession; some sin or moral transgression has invited the “dibbuk” in. In Tamkin’s opera, it’s Leah (a different Leah than in Strassburg’s Chelm) who is possessed by the spirit of her dead lover, Hanan. Leah is taken by her father Azareal to be exorcised. In this version of the story, the operation is successful but the patient dies, thereby reuniting Leah in death with Hanan. Tamkin’s score seems appropriate to the subject—lots of lush orchestral writing, punctuated by periodic blood-curdling shrieks, hysterical outbursts, and heightened declamatory singing, somewhat reminiscent of Strauss’s Elektra but not as masterful or as effective. Again, all of the solo vocalists are completely up to their tasks.

I really enjoyed this disc, and if the opportunity presented itself, I’d gladly go to see any of these operas staged and complete. As excerpts, they whetted my appetite to hear more, so I’m pleased to note that this is labeled “Jewish Operas, Volume I.” Recommended. -JERRY DUBINS, FANFARE

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Works on This Recording

1.
The Dybbuk: Lord of the Earth by David Tamkin
Performer:  Joseph Evans (Tenor), Freda Herseth (Soprano), Raphael Frieder (Baritone)
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 5 Minutes 11 Secs. 
Language: English 
2.
The Dybbuk: Wedding Music by David Tamkin
Performer:  Joseph Evans (Tenor), Raphael Frieder (Baritone), Freda Herseth (Soprano)
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 1 Minutes 37 Secs. 
3.
The Dybbuk: Under the Earth's surface by David Tamkin
Performer:  Joseph Evans (Tenor), Raphael Frieder (Baritone), Joseph Evans (Tenor),
Freda Herseth (Soprano)
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 2 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Language: English 
4.
The Dybbuk: Dance of the Beggars by David Tamkin
Performer:  Raphael Frieder (Baritone), Joseph Evans (Tenor), Freda Herseth (Soprano)
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 2 Minutes 31 Secs. 
5.
The Golem: Act 2 - Finale by Abraham Ellstein
Performer:  Tyler Oliphant (Baritone), Michael Gallant (Tenor), Lauren Allardyce (Soprano),
Christopher Meerdink (Tenor)
Conductor:  Kenneth Kiesler
Orchestra/Ensemble:  University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1962; USA 
Date of Recording: 01/2001 
Venue:  Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan 
Length: 17 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Language: English 
6.
The Chelm: Scene 2 by Robert Strassburg
Performer:  Richard Lalli (Baritone), Matthew Chellis (Tenor), Carla Wood (Mezzo Soprano),
Karen Longwell (Soprano)
Conductor:  Paul Hostetter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956 
Date of Recording: 03/2001 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC 
Length: 8 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Language: English 
7.
The Chelm: Scene 3 by Robert Strassburg
Performer:  Carla Wood (Mezzo Soprano), Matthew Chellis (Tenor), Richard Lalli (Baritone),
Karen Longwell (Soprano)
Conductor:  Paul Hostetter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956 
Date of Recording: 03/2001 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC 
Length: 6 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Language: English 
8.
The Chelm: Scene 4 by Robert Strassburg
Performer:  Matthew Chellis (Tenor), Richard Lalli (Baritone), Carla Wood (Mezzo Soprano),
Karen Longwell (Soprano)
Conductor:  Paul Hostetter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956 
Date of Recording: 03/2001 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC 
Length: 6 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Language: English 
9.
The Chelm: Scene 5 by Robert Strassburg
Performer:  Matthew Chellis (Tenor), Carla Wood (Mezzo Soprano), Richard Lalli (Baritone),
Karen Longwell (Soprano)
Conductor:  Paul Hostetter
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956 
Date of Recording: 03/2001 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC 
Length: 4 Minutes 9 Secs. 
Language: English 
10.
The Dybbuk: The Song of Israel by David Tamkin
Performer:  Joseph Evans (Tenor)
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 2 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Language: English 
11.
The Dybbuk: Act 1 Prelude by David Tamkin
Conductor:  Stephen Gunzenhauser
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/1998 
Venue:  Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava 
Length: 3 Minutes 6 Secs. 

Sound Samples

The Golem: Act II: Finale
Chelm: Scene 2
Chelm: Scene 3
Chelm: Scene 4
Chelm: Scene 5
The Dybbuk: Lord of the Earth! (Act I)
The Dybbuk: Wedding Music
The Dybbuk: Under the Earth's Surface
The Dybbuk: Prelude to Act II
The Dybbuk: Dance of the Beggars
The Dybbuk: The Song of Israel

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