Last night, as part of the Ashkenaz Festival, we got to see Henekh Kon’s Bas-Sheve. It’s the only known pre Holocaust Yiddish opera and there’s quite a saga involved in it getting to a staging. The work dates to 1924, when it premiered in Warsaw then disappeared. In 2017 Dr. Diana Matut unearthed an incomplete piano score version which was completed and orchestrated by librettist Michael Wex and composer Joshua Horowitz to create an hour long piece that premiered in August 2019 as part of the Yiddish Summer Weimar festival.
The story is taken from the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 11 and 12) and concerns David’s seduction of Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. David packs Uriah back off to the war where he is killed. Bathsheba bears David a son but the Lord is displeased (surprise eh?) and Nathaniel the prophet warns David that the child will die because he has displeased God. The child dies. These king and prophet stories never have a happy ending. In the opera there’s also a messenger figure who serves to move the plot along and inject a bit of black humour.
We saw it last night in a concert performance featuring Jaclyn Grossman as Bathsheba, Joshua Spungin as David, Marcel d’Entremont as Nathaniel and Geoffrey Schellenberg as the messenger. with the UCLA Philharmonia orchestra and chorus. Neal Stulberg conducted. There were no sets or costumes but the there were multi media graphics by Yeva Lapsker supporting the surtitles. Some of these were quite abstract (and beautiful) and others rather disturbingly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam (in a good way). However David did not get squashed by a giant foot.
Kon’s music is basically late Romantic (think Korngold) with injections of hymn like elements, folksong and a lullabye. Horowitz’ additions were mostly in a more abrasive modern idiom which worked well coming where they did in the narrative. The young choir and orchestra were really excellent and there was strong singing from the soloists. Schellenberg injected the needed humour and d’Entremont did “angry prophet” rather well. I felt both David and Bathsheba could have been more sharply characterised even without staging but on re-reading the original Samuel I have to say he doesn’t give librettist or singer much to work with in that department.
Bas-Sheve plays again tonight at the Glenn Gould Studio at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm. The opening wasn’t sold out so there will likely be tickets available. It’s more than an unearthed historical curiosity. It’s a very worthwhile piece that I’m glad to have seen. A fully staged version would be interesting!