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Ivan Fischer premieres "The Red Heifer"

Review of The Red Heifer and other  original pieces by Ivan Fischer performed at Millenaris Park on Monday, 15 October 2013.

“I have been thinking incessantly about composing this opera for 25 years now.  I started and stopped several times, but the Tiszaeszlar Affair becoming a present day hot political issue finally helped me.  The same responses, stereotypes and terrified, unreasonable prejudices appear nowadays as if we were back in the Red Cow Inn in Nyiregyhaza in 1883.” – Ivan Fischer

One of the things I miss about Budapest is the extraordinary range of classical music, opera, and ballet offered at magnificent venues ranging from the elegant National Opera to the decidedly modern Palace of the Performing Arts (MUPA) whose colorfully lit facade dances on the Danube at night.

The black box theater at the Millenaris Park would not be most people’s choice for the premiere of a new work by one of Hungary’s leading conductors and composers.  The acoustics are unremarkable.  The ventilation is noisy. When turned off  the air inside quickly turns hot and stale.  And yet Ivan Fischer, whose world renown Budapest Festival Orchestra regularly performs at MUPA, selected this venue for the first public performances of The Red Heifer, a one-act opera about the 1883 trial of four kosher butchers accused of kidnapping and ritually murdering a Hungarian peasant girl in the eastern Hungarian town of Tiszaeszlar.  The key witness for the prosecution was the 13 year-old son of one of the defendants.   The defendants were eventually released after the bloated body of the missing girl was recovered from the Tisza river.  But hysteria surrounding the trial forced the accused and their families to move away from Tiszaeszlar.

Upon entering the venue I was surprised to see risers on opposite ends of the room, as though a game of handball or basketball was to be played. On either side of what appeared to be a dance floor opposite the main stage, scores of black beanbags were strewn about for anyone wishing to sit on the floor or recline.  Fischer himself watched the first half of the program from one of the beanbags near the stage.

Except for the opening piece called Fanfare (2011), a short “musical joke” written for young musicians “who are not supposed to play it too perfectly”, all the pieces performed had a theatrical element performed on the rectangular floor area in front of the stage.  Configuring the black-box theater “in the round” prevented the actors from obscuring the musicians and vice versa, hence Fischer’s unconventional choice of venue.

The first half of the program featured six original pieces composed between 2004 and 2006.  All three featured the voice of Fischer’s enormously talented daughter, Nora, who sang alternatingly in medieval Dutch, Italian, and German, the latter as part of a chorus of six witches whose collective wailings sounded uncannily like wind howling through a haunted wood, complete with owl hoots, dog barks, and ululations.

In the misty drizzle, in the deep snow,

In the wild woods on a winter’s night,

I heard the hungry howl of wolves,

I heard the screech of owls,

Wille wau wau wau!

Wille wo wo wo!

Wito hu!

I shot a cat once by the fence-

Anna the witch’s black cat;

There came by night seven werewolves to me,

There were seven she-wolves from the village.

Wille wau wau wau!

Wille wo wo wo’

Wito hu!

I knew them all, I knew them well:

Anna, Ursula, Kathy,

Lisa, Barbara, Eva, Beth:

Forming a circle, they howled at me.

Wille wau wau wau!

Wille wo wo wo!

Wito Hu!

Then I loudly named them all:

What do you want Anna? What do you want Beth?

They shook themselves, they gave a shake,

And ran howling away.

Wille wau wau wau!

Wille wo wo wo!

Wito hu!

Zigeunerlied (Gypsy Song) by Ivan Fischer, 2005

The witches’ maniacal pacing to and fro enhance the piece’s ethereal eeriness.  The experience was akin to hearing preternatural voices and seeing apparitions, which is presumably what Fischer intended.

Concluding the first half of the program was Tsuchigumo (The Monstrous Spider), a “satirical opera in six languages” (including French, Italian, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and English) which Fischer “composed for his family” in 2012 “in the style of a 14th century Japanese Noh play” in which Erik Bos danced the part of the giant spider in a manner showcasing his mastery of hip-hop dance techniques.

In addition to personally writing the notes for each program, Fischer is in the habit of talking to his audiences about the piece they are about to hear, and Monday’s performance was no exception. From the erudition of his comments it is obvious that Fischer is intellectually curious, drawing musical inspiration from the widest range of sources imaginable.  His single movement piece of string quintet and Indian tabla “Shudh Sarang Sextet”, which premiered in Amsterdam in 2011, is performed by two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass, and three Indian drums, the latter performed Monday night by visiting Indian percussionist Arup Kanti Das.

As the piece in question defies description, allow me to reprint Fischer’s own program notes:  “The Shudh Sarang sextet was inspired by my journey to India.  “Shudh sarang” is a beautiful Indian raga related to the afternoon. . . . The composition wanders about all over the place, as if somebody wanted to be somewhere else all the time, then all the memories are mixed up in a chaotic jam session.”

Having conducted many operas over the years (including last year’s memorable production of Bartok’s one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle”) as well as orchestral works featuring vocal soloists and choruses, Fischer has obviously developed a deep love of the human voice.  For Fischer speech, song and music are not separate and distinct from one another but belong to the same gradient of human expression. Human voices transmute into musical instruments (especially when singing an medieval Dutch or Japanese) even as instruments are called on to speak.

The 10 minute long solo cantata, which was sung beautifully by Nora Schiffer, is based on a medieval Dutch translation of five passages from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus published in 1693.   According to the program the cantata is “a new translation of this old Dutch text into the language of music” that “does not reflect Spinoza’s thoughts”, but rather is “a chain of free associations in which the words . . . provide an opportunity for the playful appearance of various musical forms.”

Clearly 30 years at the head of one of the world’s great orchestras has enabled Fischer to master and perfect his musical forms.

The Red Heifer features completely authentic sounding Hungarian and Hassidic music that is entirely Fischer’s creation but for one folk song entitled “Hey, Jewish girl”.   Most of the recitative music is modern but not atonal, modulating frequently.  Directed by Hungarian Tamás Ascher The Red Heifer‘s cast includes a number of third year drama, film, and dance students.

Fischer writes “the topic of the opera is not the court case itself, but rather the ’psychological mystery’ as to how the conjecturers (sic) of the showcase trial won 13 year-old Moric Scharf over to be their crown witness.”

In the first scene the character of Hungarian writer Gyula Krudy (performed by Hungarian actor and singer Jozsef Gyabronka) whose novel about the blood libel trial constitutes the bulk of the opera’s libretto, sets the scene:

“Tiszaeszlár lies at the Upper Tisza river.  It is a small Szabolcs county village like countless others in the environs of the Tisza.  Three times every year the river breaks its banks, sweeping away a cottage, a yard, a child, an animal, a riverbank bush in bloom or an unhappy young girl.”

In the next scene a 13-year-old Jewish adolescent named Moric Scharf  (performed competently by Jonatan Kovacs) witnesses a cow step on the toes of a young peasant girl named Eszter Solymosi.  He tries to help her but is physically rebuffed by a dashing young Hungarian peasant who carries her off in his arms.

The next scene shows Moric wandering about a typical peasant celebration at the Red Heifer Inn in the midst of raucous song and dance.  His expression of wonder indicates his desire to join in the festivities, only to be rebuffed with a frequent cuff to the head or neck.

It is at this celebration that we learn of the Tiszaeszlar trial.  An admirer of the Jewish innkeeper (performed by the opera singer Orsolya Safar) tells her

“We must not lose the Tiszaeszlar trial—or else Christians won’t be allowed to speak their minds here for fifty years to come. . . . . Open your eyes, those bovine eyes of yours, my adorable flower!  Male Jews ought to be hanged, but the females, fair Jewish girls, set in gold.”

Prevented by his religion, mannerisms, and dress from fraternizing with this peasant neighbors, Moric succumbs to the hatred, fear, and suspicion directed at the Jewish community.  In the next scene a man tells Moric what to testify at the upcoming trial of four kosher butchers accused of the ritual murder of Eszter Solymosi.  While playing the piano he asks Moric

“Do you know where you are going?  To jail. Look here my dear child.  If there’s anything you know, why don’t you confess?  So far the weight of this crime rests on your father’s shoulders; do you wish to be a prisoner of your conscience all your life?  Son, if you speak the truth, the tribunal will always protect you.”

At the trial Moric repeats the false testimony verbatim, egged on by a chorus of peasants dressed in the manner of modern day soccer fans.  Moric bares false testimony against each of the accused.   When confronted by his father  Moric responds that he no longer needs him “because the Hungarian Royal Interior Minister will take care of him”, adding that he no longer wants “to be a Jew”.

In the next scene the great leader of the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49, Lajos Kossuth symbolically enters the courtroom to read aloud the letter he sent to the authorities from exile abroad.  In his beautiful low voice Hungarian baritone Krisztián Cser sings Kossuth’s fateful words:

“I have never differentiated between man and man based on religion; I am ashamed by the anti-Semitic agitation; as a Hungarian I feel repentant towards it, as a patriot I scorn it.

The people are aware of misery but cannot explain its causes.  The medieval hatred of Jews comes forward and says: You poor, miserable people, I’ll tell you the cause of your misery: the Jews.”

In the following scene the judge acquits the four defendants who start singing a “Hassidic nigun without words” and dancing.

In scene five Moric and his father are sitting in a train car.  Like the families of the other accused, they have been forced to leave Tiszaeszlar.   The only singing heard is that of The Red Cow which “passes in the other direction, singing passages from Numbers in Hebrew according to which God command that the children of Israel sacrifice a “red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke.”   All of this is performed in a loose time signature against a snare drum and two toms played with brushes in four-four time to simulate the sound of a train.  For those familiar with the subsequent tragic history of Hungary’s Jews, the drum set hauntingly foretells the deportation of the bulk of Hungary’s Jewish population in cattle in the months of May through July, 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the majority were gassed upon arrival.

At one point a crowd of peasants attack the train, breaking its windows.  Moric and his father cower together before his father drowses off once again.

Ivan Fischer deserves a lot of credit for composing an opera that is unlikely to ever be performed outside of Hungary.  In light of current cultural, social, and political trends, it may be a while before he is invited to perform it in any of the more established performing art venues.

Conspicuously absent from last night’s program was Fischer’s acclaimed Deutsch-Jiddische Kantante which he does not allow to be performed in Hungary because “this intimate and paradoxical piece of music would not function well in the heated atmosphere here.”

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