Alisa Garin Photography
There is no doubt that large arts organizations are generally the face of a city. But it is the small arts organizations that are the pulse, able to present rare and original works on a regular basis. Sometimes the twain do meet, though, as in a recent, largely fascinating performance of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds.
The title said it all, translated as the brainchild of Aron Zelkowicz, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival and celebrating its 10th season, but presented under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Music of the Spirit at the New Hazlett Theater.
The production itself floated between many artistic worlds, officially a multi-media chamber opera combining music, film and dance. That concept was in keeping with this Dybbuk’s gestation. It had been an indelible part of Hassidic Jewish legend long before it appeared S. Ansky’s 1914 production, now considered a seminal Yiddish play.
In the ensuing years, The Dybbuk morphed into other translations and took several ghostly forms on film and television, inspiring writers and directors alike. And in 1974 choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein collaborated on a highly personal, but controversial ballet.
Maybe the Zelkowicz production, using Ofer Ben-Amots’ haunting music and Hebrew libretto (with projected translations), had the right idea, to play upon this tale of shadows and light, mysticism and reality in an abstract fashion.
The story was simple and actually might seem quite familiar to contemporary audiences, containing elements, as it does, of Romeo and Juliet and The Exorcist. It centers on the story of Leah, daughter of Sender, a rich merchant, who is in love with Hannan, a poor but brilliant scholar. But Sender opposes the match. Hoping to find a way to change his fate, Hannan delves deeply into the magical and spiritual dynamics of the Kaballah, trying to find a way to reclaim Leah’s love.
It takes its toll on him and he dies of exhaustion. When Sender finds a wealthy suitor for Leah, she goes to the Holy Grave, where Cossacks massacred a young couple under the wedding canopy, for guidance. And as Leah herself is about to be married, Hannan, now a dybbuk (a disturbed soul or ghost), possesses her, leaving the young woman torn between two worlds.
But Mr. Ben-Amots wove in additional material, including a glass parable sung by Rabbi Azriel, a morality on how “through clean and transparent glass one sees other people, but when the backside of this glass is covered with silver (or money) one sees only oneself.” And at the start of the third act, he included the tale of The Heart and the Fountain, part of the Kaballah. Although they added to the richness of the story, they also added to the length.
What drove this Dybbuk was the overriding passion of Leah, profoundly sung by Israeli soprano Yahli Toren. A diminutive singer with a powerful voice, she was able to convey the anguish and uncertainty of a young woman by inhabiting the role herself.
Her relationship to Hannan was never specific, but more ritualistic because it was played by clarinetist Gilad Harel, who moved freely about the stage. He had some of the most scintillating parts of the evening, weaving virtuoso lines with numerous shades of klezmer music, So while the two could not really connect in a physical manner, he conveyed his own passion through the instrument.
Filling out the cast were baritone Guenko Guechev, who was particularly effective in the exorcism scene, and actor Leon S. Zionts as Sender. The accompaniment was spare, but set a fine atmospheric tone with cellist Bronwyn Banerdt, violinist Jonathan Magness and pianist Shira Shaked, all clustered in one back corner of the stage, with percussionist George Willis opposite. Christine Jordanoff directed the Pappert Women’s Chorale and Children’s Festival Chorus at the end in a transcendent performance, although their angular placement, with Ms. Jordanoff conducting, shifted the emphasis from a theatrical piece to a concert format.
Choreographer Joan Wagman produced some of her best work with four dancers from Texture Contemporary Ballet, who had several expansive dance interludes (including a beggar scene with Chloe Moser’s wonderful masks), but also provided a connective tissue by playing multiple roles.
Although Kelsey Bartman and Alan Obuzor had a lovely duet, the dancers, who usually perform in a contemporary style, wisely adhered to the dramatic overtones under Mr. Zelkowicz’ direction. It was a fine first effort from the cellist and Festival administrator and certainly a significant way to celebrate the organization’s decade-long commitment to artistic excellence.