New York City Opera revives ‘Esther’

Lauren Flanigan (left) as Esther in the story of the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation. Lauren Flanigan (left) as Esther in the story of the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation. (Carol Rosegg/ New York City Opera)
By Mike Silverman
Associated Press / November 10, 2009

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NEW YORK - Launching its comeback in perilous financial times, the New York City Opera might well have played it safe with a surefire crowd-pleaser, like its production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.’’

But Puccini’s lush melodies will have to wait until spring. Instead, the company opened its season Saturday night by reviving an atonal opera that it premiered back in 1993 - Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther.’’

A bold move, but far from a foolhardy one. “Esther,’’ based on the biblical story of the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation, is an impressive piece of work.

Its strength begins with a powerful English-language libretto by Charles Kondek, which retells the story in a series of short scenes spread over three acts. Within the acts, each scene melts into the next in cinematic style, creating a sense of headlong momentum toward catastrophe - or catastrophe narrowly averted. Kondek avoids sentimentality in his treatment of Esther and the plight of the Jews, and there’s a minimum of Cecil B. DeMille-like pageantry.

Weisgall’s music, though challenging for an audience accustomed to hearing conventional tunes and harmonies, is grand and ambitious. There are arias, duets, choruses - even a ballet. And Weisgall, in what would be the last opera he completed before his death in 1997, displays a striking ability to define characters by their musical accompaniment and vocal line.

Esther’s progression from dreamy-eyed young girl to concubine and wife to Xerxes and finally to heroic savior of her people is charted in music filled with yearning and uncertainty. Vashti, the wife Xerxes banished because she refused to dance naked before his followers, sings to rhythms that pulsate with her sense of injustice and self-pity. And Haman and his wife, Zeresh, spin their evil plot against the Jews to music that is scherzo-like in its ebullience.

A top-flight cast helps put this uncompromising work across with conviction. Lauren Flanigan repeated her portrayal of Esther from the premiere, displaying a powerful voice filled with passion and sincerity, marred only by an occasional wobble in her highest notes. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, as Vashti, sang with intensity and allure. In twin debuts, tenor Roy Cornelius Smith as Haman and mezzo Margaret Thompson as Zeresh created characters memorable for their wicked glee. Two baritones rounded out the lead roles: James Maddalena as Mordecai and Stephen Kechulius as Xerxes.

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