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Review: 'The Dybbuk' brings spirited performance to PSO festival

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:53 a.m.

The Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival succeeded with an ambitious move up from concerts to a full opera production the night of April 25 when it presented the Pittsburgh premiere of Ofer Ben-Amots' “The Dybbuk — Between Two Worlds.” The performance, and its encore April 28, are part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Music for the Spirit Festival.

The multimedia chamber opera is a based on a Jewish mystical play about a young woman who is possessed by a dybbuk — a deceased soul, in this case her lover. The play by S. Ansky itself enjoyed success and has been the basis for a film as well as a ballet by Leonard Bernstein.

Ben-Amots created his own libretto, 18 scenes in three acts, and wrote an imaginative score that moves easily from the klezmer tradition of Eastern European village life (where the story takes place) to contemporary musical sensibilities. It was sung in Hebrew with dialogue in English.

Soprano Yahli Toren gave a riveting performance as the young woman, Leah, whose plight is well expressed by the composer in beautiful arias, such as “When one dies before his time,” and in the character of the instrumental music he composed.

Her lover, Hannan, only speaks during the exorcism through Leah. Hannan is represented throughout the opera by clarinet, played at the start from a balcony above the stage by Gilad Harel. Although he doesn't utter words, Harel's mastery of klezmer techniques is richly communicative through the sequence of colors and slides the composer created. The opera opens with his sigh.

Guenko Guechev gave a large-scale portrayal of the great Rabbi Azriel, enlivened by just the right touch of self-regard in acting manner and vocal richness — without the excess that would undermine his genuine stature.

Leah's father, Sender, is an acting role, which was played with convincing style by Leon S. Zionts for a character who has betrayed a promise to a childhood friend, a betrayal that sets off the action of the opera.

There was no conductor, except for the show's opening and the conclusion of the final act, when Christine Jordanoff led the Children's Festival Chorus and Duquesne University's Pappert Women's Chorale. The choral work was superb — supple and well-disciplined.

In addition, Texture Contemporary Ballet performed as various kinds of spirits in choreography by Joan Wagman that was not limited to the exorcism scene and was a valuable element in the production's rich layers of communication.

Aron Zelkowicz, a cellist and founding director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, made a very impressive debut as an opera director. He marshaled the many performers with a sure hand from start to finish, and made fine and full use of the space in the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

The production employed three video panels behind the performers. The center one was for text, including the English translation of the Hebrew being sung. The side panels, which, at first, showed photos of centuries-old tombstones, were used for video art by Sheri Wills.

One of the consistent strengths of this festival has been that it employs the highest-caliber performers, usually including many from the symphony. This production includes violinist Jonathan Magness, principal second violin of the Minnesota Orchestra; the fine, young cellist Bronwyn Banerdt; pianist Shira Shaked; and the always impressive percussionist George Willis.

“The Dybbuk — Between Two Worlds” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side. Admission is $30; $25 in advance. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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