(Above: View of Grand Tier lobby from NYCO's David H. Koch Theater)
Sixteen years after its world premiere at the New York City Opera, Hugo Weisgall's atonal grand opera, Esther, was a cunning attempt from George Steel to level the playing field for the newer audiences that he's actively rustling. Opera Chic didn't attend the 1993 unveiling for a few good reasons (OC was too busy with Pokemon and the Spice Girls). Esther's a win for NYCO because it's contemporary American opera wrapped in an easy sell: a classic heroine worthy of Puccini's and Verdi's craftiest lionesses coupled with a digestible English libretto (by Charles Kondek) aided by a familiar plot. But what's clear after its 16 years of absence (where Weisgall's opera was virtually untouched upon), is that for such grandeur -- twelve scenes spanning over three acts -- Esther remains an opera that flits soon from memory, and the goddess fails to inspire.Although we don't blame Hugo Weisgall, the late Jewish American composer -- who passed away in 1997 -- for his oft-soaring composition nor Kondek's streamlined libretto. Instead it's a dreadfully pseudo-minimalist production that turns a potential masterpiece into a footnote of American contemporary opera.
Weisgall had always shared a healthy relationship with the NYCO, having premiered his "Six Characters in Search of an Author" in 1959 and "Nine Rivers from Jordan" in 1968 under NYCO's auspices. Esther, after a blighted commissioning process in the late 1980s, was ultimately conceived as a joint commission with San Francisco Opera and premiered in the Fall of 1993 as part of NYCO's World Premiere Festival for their 50th anniversary.
The Old Testament tale is about young Persian-Jewish maiden, Esther, who becomes queen and uses her pardoning powers to save her fellow Jews from extermination via bargaining prowess with King Xerxes, while ordering the death of the King's anti-semitic Prime Minister, Haman (of the delicious Hamantaschen legacy) -- scarily barbaric, 5th Century B.C. stuff.