By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
There was a stunning moment in Joel Hoffman's opera, The Memory Game Friday night, when a family stood around a table, saying blessings over the Sabbath candles, as "ghosts" around them mimicked their motions.
Then, the family turned to Mordechai Gebirtig - who was dead - and said, "As long as I speak your name, you are not dead."
The opera is about memory - its characters play a "memory game" to transport themselves from the horrors of the past. But it is also about never forgetting those horrors, and those who endured them.
On Friday, students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music gave the world premiere of The Memory Game, imaginatively staged by Sandra Bernhard and conducted by Johannes Muller-Stosch. The intimate production in CCM's Studio Theater, was multilayered and full of symbolism - not all of it obvious to the audience - and the postmodern orchestral score was rich with Eastern European color.
The libretto, by Dutch author Henk Romijn Meijer, is based on the true story of the Jewish poet/songwriter Gebirtig of Krakow, who was killed by the Germans in 1942. Gebirtig's life story evolves seamlessly through flashbacks.
Hoffman's well-crafted score was tonal and widely varied, becoming dissonant as the drama unfolded, and occasionally echoing Yiddish tunes. Klezmer instruments - cimbalom, accordion and mandolin - were linked to characters.
The singers had recitative that often soared into arioso. (One couldn't always hear the words.)
Hoffman's gift for melody was evident in the lamenting viola solo which opened the second act (Kaila Potts). The most touching moments were his arrangements of Gebirtig's songs sung in Yiddish, such as "Reisele," which opened and closed the work.
The large cast, which included a "chorus" and three actors, performed around a crevice in the shape of a broken Star of David. The set, by Michael Minahan, was based on the painting, "The Ghetto" by Samuel Bak.
Luke Grooms was a believable Gebirtig, both nostalgic and fearful as he relived his past. His "Blayb Gesunt Mir, Kroke," (Farewell my Krakow) was beautifully felt. His wife (Tana Field) and daughters (Katherine Hart, Brocha Evans and Nora Graham-Smith) projected excellent voices and well-developed characters. Strong performances were also turned in by Joshua Jeremiah (Julius Hoffman) and Maria D'Amato, the "diva" Molly Picon.
The ensemble seemed shaky at first, but grew confident, and the result was moving.
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