Mamzer Bastard at the Royal Opera House / Hackney Empire
The collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama was established in 2013 as an opportunity for one composer every two years to research and write a major operatic work. Na’ama Zisser is the second such composer in residence, and she studied at the Royal College of Music under Turnage. Together with her sister Rachel and her partner Samantha Newton, who jointly wrote the libretto, they have structured a new chamber opera called Mamzer Bastard.
Zisser merges her own musical idiom with a 20th century Jewish cantorial style in a musical text, full of ideas with great adventurous musical intensity.
The story focuses on a young religious Jew (Yoel) in New York who is about to be married but as he takes his ritual bath on the night before his wedding, there is huge blackout. As he attempts his journey home, he is mugged but rescued by a stranger who seems to know his past and present, and insists that his marriage proceeds. This stranger turns out to be Yoel’s mother’s first husband, who she had apparently lost in the Second World War. She remarried Yoel’s father, Menashe, but their marriage is bigamous and Yoel’s birth therefore makes him a Mamzer, or bastard, as he is born from a relationship forbidden by Jewish law. If known, therefore, he would be forbidden to marry, and his mother could not bless him. But after a searing, haunting, melodic line, he is ultimately blessed by his mother and allowed to live a normal life. The innocence of Yoel constantly projected on the New York Wall’s set, showing his sensitivity, is thus protected.
The director Jay Scheib, and his designer Madeline Boyd, put together a production which is constantly dark and uninspiring. It perhaps could have been possible for this production to be more expansive and reflective between light and dark. The filming throughout the opera was not always in sync with the singers – something that slightly blighted the recent ENO production of Chess.
However musically, Jessica Cottis conducting the wonderful Aurora Orchestra controlled the evening’s proceedings beautifully, ensuring that the singers were always supported, and the music flowed through the complexity of the score.
Overall the singing was of high standard, from the pure voice of the younger Yoel of Edward Hyde to the counter-tenor of Yoel himself, sung by Collin Shay, together with the stranger sung by Steven Page. Yoel’s parents, the Menashe of Robert Burt and the Esther of Gundula Hintz, conveyed with growing alarm the bewilderment they faced at a situation they did not fully understand, particularly as parents being faced with the loss of their son.
However, the musical line which held this all together was that of the cantor Netanel Hershtik, with the evening interspersed with cantoral music from Yossele Rosenblatt to Na’ama Zisser herself. His singing was heart rendering, and the combination of the different music lines added considerably to the drama of the evening.
A powerful and interesting reflection on a difficult religious topic.