By David Amos
This is grand opera at its best: The sets, costumes, solo singers, the chorus, and the orchestra, the musical value of the entire work, the drama, and yes, the premise. This is a freely recreated Biblical story of CII, and about the Jews and the Babylonian exile, with words and music that are accessible and relevant.
There are few grand operas in the standard repertoire that deal directly with a Jewish subject. There is, of course, Jacques Halevi’s La Juive. There are more, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron, but the latter, together with a handful of others, are hardly ever performed. (Interestingly, there is a recent opera about the Holocaust, composed by a Native American, a Comanche, David Yeagley!).
But Nabucco stands alone in many respects. It was Verdi’s third opera, and his first true success. It symbolized for the Italian people the search for freedom from oppression, and its famous chorus, Va Pensiero, often referred as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, as they longed for their homeland (“Fly thought on golden wings/Fly and settle on the slopes and hills”) became an iconic voice for a divided Italy in the 19th Century. There are still political groups in Italy today that use Va Pensiero as their voice and credo, without knowing of its Jewish origin.
It was also an opera where every musical selection was sequential and developmental, in that it connected the plot from the previous aria or chorus to the next. Nabucco also gave Verdi the unofficial title of “Padre del Coro”, for utilizing the on-stage chorus as an important element in the development of the story’s drama. Also, all the themes from the Overture were used in arias and choruses throughout the four acts. The compositional skill of the entire work was very evident and satisfying, with its logic and unifying elements.
The spiritualism of the opera is also worth mentioning. Every important character and even the chorus have a prayer. Some were liturgical in nature; others were of supplication, lamentation, resignation, affirmation of faith, gratefulness, submission, and hope.
For me, it was also significant to see all the posters and advertisements with a man wearing a talit, or prayer shawl, with Hebrew letters in the background. Nabucco symbolizes another aspect of music which I have promoted time and time again: A significant presence of music of Jewish relevance in the concert hall, from past composers, present ones and in the future.
This opera was premiered in 1842. During the first act, the High Priest of Jerusalem reminds his people that”in difficult times, people should have no fear of being killed, if they have faith in The Lord”. I couldn’t help but think what Verdi would have concluded with the events of 100 years later.
But all these details become less significant if the story, the music, or the production were weak. This was not the case at all. Overall, I was very impressed with the opening night, and here are some of my more detailed comments:
The orchestra and chorus, ably conducted by Edoardo Muller, played and sung with a high level of polish and finesse. There were moments of unsteady ensemble, such as the very opening of the Overture. I have conducted this Overture more than a few times, and the delicate opening with the three trombones can be a bit of a challenge. At a later point in the opera, a brass player was not watching Maestro Muller carefully enough, and became a one-note unscheduled soloist. This also happened with the chorus, which was otherwise a pleasure to hear, with its precise diction, intonation, and overall effect. Financial restraints notwithstanding, an additional rehearsal or two with the orchestra and chorus would have been helpful to avoid extracurricular glitches and to tighten the ensemble.
The pace of the entire opera could have benefitted from a greater sense of urgency and tension.
All the solo voices were outstanding, with a few which deserve special mention. The High Priest of Jerusalem, Zaccaria, was superbly sung by bass Raymond Aceto; he gave weight to the role with a deep, authoritative voice that conveyed dignity and inner strength in every phrase. Abigaille (A slave, believed to be the eldest daughter of Nabucco), is a vocal challenge to any singer, with its demands in extended range and vocal calisthenics; soprano Sylvie Valayre, one of the few world-class singers to tackle this role, was most impressive in her ability to not only convey the complexity of the character, but also in tackling its technical and artistic problems.
The title role of Nabucco, King of Babylon, was performed by baritone Richard Paul Fink. This role puts the complete spectrum of demands on the soloist, from arrogant, to godlike, to a humiliated fool, and finally, to an enlightened hero, who not only saves the Jews from annihilation, but converts to Judaism. (In fact, everyone who remains alive and on stage at the end of the opera, converts to Judaism!). I felt that Fink started indecisively and tentative in the first act, and as the opera progressed, picked up energy, presence, and strength in his character as it progressed from one phase to the next. His concluding arias were absorbing and memorable.
There are two more performances remaining in this San Diego Opera production, on February 26 and 28. I highly recommend that you call and reserve your tickets. Call (619) 533 7000, or, on line, sdopera.com.
What better way to conclude, than with a famous Mark Twain quote, which was mentioned by Rabbi Michael Berk’s fine essay in the printed program notes: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then…passed away. The Greek and Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts…All things are mortal, but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains”.
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and guest conductor of professional orchestras around the globe
PRESS RELEASE (WJC) The Polish government has ordered the municipality of Przemysl, in southeastern Poland, to return its ancient Jewish graveyard to the Jewish community. Authorities in Przemysl in took over the cemetery, which dates back to the 16th century, after the end of the Second World War. At a meeting last week, the city was ordered by the government’s Regulatory Commission to turn over the cemetery to the Jewish community, the ‘Jerusalem Post’ reports. For centuries the cemetery served as a burial place for the Jews of Przemysl and neighboring towns.
The decision by the commission, which resolves claims regarding Jewish communal property, came after years of negotiations. Przemysl was once home to about 20,000 Jews, most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.
The Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland has led efforts to secure the cemetery and will now restore the site, which is overgrown, damaged and not fenced. It was severely vandalized by the Nazis, who used Jewish gravestones to pave roads.
Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress
By Aaron Elias
IRVINE, California–By now we’ve all heard about the eleven Muslim students who intentionally disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren at UCI on February 8th. The incident has exploded into arguments about free speech all over the world. There is much debate over whether or not the Muslim Student Union (MSU)–already infamous for inviting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers to UCI’s campus–was involved in the interruptions.
As a UCI student who attended the event and saw everything that happened, the whole situation has left me–and many other students–thoroughly embarrassed. Since the MSU’s president and vice president were among the 11 arrested disruptors, there’s little doubt in my mind that the whole thing was at the very least discussed within the club’s social circle, if not outright officially organized by their leadership. I recognized nearly all of the disruptors and their supporters as MSU members and saw that many of them were wearing shirts from past MSU anti-Israel weeks. When the group of Muslim students finally got up and noisily left–I heard some of them chanting, “This is our campus.”
A coalition of students on campus has begun a grassroots campaign to fight to protect our right to free speech at our school. Anybody interested can find more information at the campaign’s website http://www.wewontbesilenced.com/.
A lot of people have also been eyeing how the UCI administration has reacted to the entire matter, in particular Chancellor Drake. The Chancellor has always been the recipient of harsh words for refraining from condemning the MSU’s provocative rhetoric as hate speech, even when their speakers shout Jewish conspiracy theories on campus.
The sheer rudeness of the interruptions to Ambassador Oren, though, has finally given the Chancellor room to criticize behavior that has been a constant thorn in his side. After the disruptions, Drake took the microphone and expressed how much the disruptors’ actions embarrassed him and the school as a whole. In an e-mail titled “Why Do Values and Civility Matter?” Drake wrote to the UCI student and faculty body condemning the interruptions and discussing the importance of common civility: “I am disappointed that some in our community seem more comfortable engaging in confrontation than collaboration, and in closing channels of communication rather than opening them.”
In the week following the incident, the campus paper also published an open letter from Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez discussing free speech. “No one can steal the right to speak from someone else,” Gomez’s letter pointedly stated: “No one’s right to speak is greater than anyone else’s. If you want to claim your right to speak, you must acknowledge and respect the same right for everyone.”
Personally, while I understand he has a lot of legal matters to take into consideration, I’ve always wanted to see the Chancellor crack down on the MSU for inviting such hateful speakers to our school. It’s no secret that the MSU has been a constant annoyance for UCI admin, and this situation is only going to worsen the relationship. And while many people are foaming at the mouth at the timidity of Drake’s response, we must ask the question: what else can he do?
Drake has already explicitly condemned the students’ actions as a violation of free speech. He may not have directly criticized the MSU since there is no undeniable proof linking them to the interruptions (yet), but this is certainly the closest he has ever come to doing so. The offending students are currently waiting academic and legal punishment, as they should be, and no doubt the MSU– whether linked to the interruptions or not–is going to suffer as an organization. As it should for a club is only defined by the actions of its leaders, who are elected by the club’s majority.
Always eager to play the victimization card, many supporters of the MSU disruptors’ actions have martyred them as “The Eleven.” Their most-used excuses for supporting such pre-pubescent behavior is that these students were merely standing up to evil; that if a person breaks a law with justice in his heart, it’s okay; and that Oren’s very presence is antithetical to free speech, so shutting him up is alright. They completely disregard the fact that Ambassador Oren, no matter what they believe, is a human being like the rest of them, albeit a civilized and infinitely more mature one.
The MSU disruptors’ embarrassing actions have also led the Zionist Organization of America to finally lose hope for UCI. The ZOA recently released a statement urging all prospective students–not just Jewish ones–to avoid UCI and for donors to cease giving money to the school, citing anti-Semitism and widespread hate as their main reasons. Undoubtedly, the statement is going to affect how many Jewish families view UCI.
This is the worst thing any Zionist organization can do in fighting for Israel.
Orange County is the second most Muslim-populated area in America. No matter what the ZOA says or does, the Muslim population at UCI is going to increase, thereby insuring its anti-Israel legacy. If Jewish students stop attending UCI, then the pro-Israel presence on campus will die, and the MSU will have free reign to brainwash the unsuspecting neutral student body with its half-truths and lies.
I’ve attended UCI for 4 years. Not once have I ever feared for my safety as a result of the MSU’s actions. That is not to say they haven’t tried to start physical fights with Jewish students, nor is it to say I haven’t heard some of their members mutter anti-Semitic, sexist, and racist comments between themselves, but they don’t own the campus. Their hatred, however loud, has not infected the rest of the school, and I like to think that is in large part due to the actions of pro-Israel students counteracting their hate rhetoric with peace rhetoric. UCI is home to some anti-Semitism, but it’s not enough to avoid going to UCI. What university–or any institution–isn’t host to at least some bigotry? In fact, Jewish life at UCI is thriving, and I invite any concerned readers to please peruse the UCI Hillel’s website (http://ochillel.org/) for proof of this. While I stand alongside the ZOA in its support for Israel, I must respectfully disagree with its stance on UCI.
The MSU’s interruptions have affected the way nearly everybody views UCI, including UCI students. I’m not proud that, through inaction, my university has bred this belief in certain students that it’s okay to tread all over other people’s rights for your own selfish reasons. However, I am glad to finally see Chancellor Drake take steps at addressing this degenerate behavior that continues to embarrass our university each and every year. And I am very glad to see how many diverse and free-thinking people support the Ambassadors’ inherent freedom of self-expression, regardless of their political views. It’s my own hope that, if and when this is all resolved, the members of the MSU who joined for religious and social reason, not political, will find a way to extricate themselves of the leech-like hold their leadership has over them- much like the hold Hamas holds over Gaza. The MSU leadership is welcome to go off and make its own anti-Israel club instead of subverting religion for political gain. Perhaps then Jewish and Muslim students can finally take steps at reconciling and stemming the fury on campus.
Aaron Elias is a student at the University of California, Irvine.
For God’s Sake!?: Perspectives on Chumrot
By Chaim Burg, CreateSpace Publishing, Charleston, SC.
ISBN 978-1-440-49007-1, 2009, $18.00, p. 188.
by Fred Reiss, Ed.D.
Imagine that a law is passed forbidding the use of cell phones by drivers. Then, some people, fearful of violating the law, never bring a cell phone into a car, as they could possibly become the driver. Or, imagine that people never park in a spot marked “30 minute parking only” horrified they might exceed the thirty-minute limit, and violate the law. You now understand the practice of chumrot, the Hebrew word for “stringent” in the plural form.
In order to prevent accidental violations of Torah law, the Mishnaic rabbis, in the section called Pirkei Avot, ordained the Jewish nation to “build a fence around the Torah.” The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is God’s law. Traditional Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses, who wrote the entire scroll, except for the last few lines that describe his death. The laws of the Torah are immutable, “”You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it,” says Deuteronomy 4:2. The Oral Law, the details of performing God’s law, can and does change.
After all, the conditions under which American Jews are now living markedly differ from the existence of Jews during the eras of the First Temple and Second Temple. There is no comparison with the various conditions under which the Jews in the Middle Ages lived and the Enlightenment of the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. Over the long course of the Jewish religion, the rabbis sometimes ruled for stringent adherence to the law, and at other times they regulated life more leniently. Today, practicing Jews have numerous rulings from which to choose. Why select from the pile marked chumrot? Traditional Judaism would have us believe that the implementation of Jewish law today is the same as it was throughout history. The truth is that in practice Jewish law is dynamic. Rulings changed depending on the circumstances under which the Jews lived, with the caveat being that no decrees can be made that the majority of Jews are unable to follow.
Chaim Burg, in his book For God’s Sake!?, decries the fact that certain modern-day Jews are now adopting a stringent path to Jewish law. His concern is founded on the idea of personal intentions. Does the individual who adopts a chumrah (singular form) have the desire to passionately serve God, or is on a route to fanaticism or elitism? Why is a particular chumrah chosen? Is it to better serve God, or to be self-serving? Burg also has distress about chumrot adopted by an entire Jewish community because that community sets itself apart from the rest of Judaism through practice as much as if it had distanced itself by geography. If the intent of the chumrah is improper, Burg concludes, then the chumrah is invalid to God.
In order to avoid even a hint of snobbery, egocentrism, or superiority, Burg suggests that all chumrot should be practiced in private. For Burg, a chumrah performed in private is usually more authentic then one carried out in public. One such public chumrah is visibly wearing the tzitzit (fringes) of the talit katan (garment worn under a shirt by men), when no such Jewish law exists. While it is very unlikely that a person displaying tzitzit will have urges to enter McDonald’s and eat non-kosher food (this is an example of building a fence around the Torah), it is just as likely the wearing tzitzit under the shirt will lead to the same result.
In the introduction to For God’s Sake!?, Burg states that his book will concern itself with Jewish practice and not Jewish law. Through rabbinic literature and responsa, Burg takes his reader on an interesting and well-conceived historical tour of lenient and stringent Jewish practices. He clearly explains why certain rulings were made in reaction to Jews wanting to live a Jewish life under Jewish law in various times and places. Burg makes it known early in the book that except for those who have a deep personal need, Jewish practice should fall on the side of leniency. After all, Judaism is not an austere religion whose leadership rejects the blessings of life. For Judaism, severity in service to God is no virtue.
Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.fredreissbooks.com