The North American premiere of Joachim Holbek’s The Rosenbergs to Rhea Leman’s book about the lives and deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg also constituted the Boston Playwright’s Theater’s inaugural foray into the operatic genre. Something thrilling can transpire when a primarily theatrical director/producer finds a connection to an opera, as was the case with production team of conductor Dmitry Troyanovsky (Assistant Professor of Theater Arts at Brandeis University) and Kate Snodgrass (Boston Playwright’s Theater Artistic Director).
Even before the house dimmed Saturday night, the striking claustrophobia of the scenic environment suggested that the show had already started. Tall stark white walls flanked the playing area, and faux industrial concrete panels with a construction ladder attached formed the back wall. A slightly reflective plexiglass partial wall in a Mondrian design framed a narrow pathway, manifesting both the fragility and security of the characters. Blueish-white illuminated tubes lined the playing area, articulating the cold vibe. The uncomfortably sparse main stage contained an upright piano, two music stands, and a variety of wooden chairs suspended in what appeared to be and smelled like coarsely ground old tires — more about this later.
The opera follows the pair from their meeting at a New York bar where Ethel Greenglass’s singing enchants Julius, to their wedding and involvement in the Young Communist League, and eventual incarceration and execution. While Ethel and Julius occasionally spout outbursts of communist theory, The Rosenbergs avoids judgment about the validity of their actions; the characters tell us that what we will hear is a “fiction of fact,” and that while the exact words are fabricated, the events themselves are true.
The show begins as three instrumentalists, in concert black dress, enter, and usher us into this cold sparse world using bleak string texture, and hollow piano chords. The other two members of the musical quintet, soprano Christie Lee Gibson and baritone Brian Church walk on barefoot, wearing period costumes in various shades of grey, looking like a portrait from 1939. Church’s mustache and glasses, and Gibson’s tightly fashioned hair immediately transports to the jazz age. Having the players and the characters inhabiting the same space gave a “Brechtian” reminder that there is no pretending that these are actual characters, but rather storytellers without personal responsibility for the outcome: simultaneously spiritually external observers and internal characters.
They tell the audience about how their decisions and lives led them on a course to collide with their ultimate fate. They discuss how their children must miss them, and how different decisions could have had different results, but rather than dwell in the past, the characters defend the ethical reason for their decisions.
At first Gibson showed a firm and reserved demeanor, with a voice that sounded rather perfunctory. As the story progressed, and Ethel Greenglass became Mrs. Rosenberg, passionate about her cause and the love of her husband, Gibson opened up to show beautiful range and color, always appropriate to the story, and I realized that her earlier reticence was truly a choice. Gibson is an incredibly brave singing-actor and risk-taker, giving us only what the character needed, not succumbing to the traditional operatic convention of “park and bark.” Church, began his story with the youthful jubilance of first love. One could not help but smile as he woos his eventual wife. His casual and effortless stagecraft somehow summoned Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Church’s beautiful and versatile voice easily filled our ears in passionate moments, and it softly sailed above us in delicate ones; he delivered each word with care and crystalline enunciation. Through palpable chemistry and impeccable stagecraft, Church and Gibson told Troyanovsky’s specifically eastern European story with aplomb.
In the hands of less capable actors, slow pirouettes with a chair might appear as a trite convention of prop movement. However, this production used the placement and replacement of chairs to great effect, ending in one of the most visually moving tableaux I’ve seen in quite some time. The chairs also stood-in for prison bars and foreshadowed the electric chairs. Christopher Ostrom’s lighting design is nothing short of inspired. His use of pointedly focused chiaroscuro brilliantly portrayed both the warmth of love, and the coldness of prison.
Was the granular black stuff that covered the entire playing area, “sands of time” or rather a desert of memories, with sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful, elements buried, and unearthed? In the first few moments of the piece, Ethel kneels at center stage and starts digging. A red toy airplane emerges as she speaks of her unwittingly abandoned sons. As I watched Julius and Ethel maneuver around the set from their charming meeting until “death do us part,” there were moments when they easily glided across the sand, and others when their steps appeared labored. I imagined them traversing their life’s journey, with connections to all of ours, filled with both the mundane and the dynamic. This was an incredibly powerful representation of the human experience, and expertly dispatched by both creator and interpreter.
The script by American ex-patriot playwright Rhea Leman highlighted the intense and operatic love that Julius and Ethel had for each other. I call this a “script” rather than “libretto” because of the noticeable lack of repeated text and conventional “aria” structure. Leman’s words had virtually no traditional treatment of duet, aria, mechanics, and rather created a structure that while not chronologically continuous, maintained a distinctly lyrical and poetic connective tissue that Danish composer Joachim Holbek painted with every color in the musical spectrum.
Holbek, most widely known for scoring Lars von Trier’s films, is a visionary as far as 21st-century aesthetic is concerned. His use of percussive rhythm, mimicking emotionally affected speech, seemed at once studied and complex, and at the same time completely organic and natural. His harmonic language perfectly straddled the line between academic composition and popular musical accessibility. Incorporating jazz elements and the American songbook, as well as through-composed traditional string and piano texture, this show identified as opera, while retaining the aural ease of popular genres.
I had the great pleasure to speak with both Leman and Holbek after the performance, and among other things, I discovered that while in Sing Sing prison, Ethel sang for her husband from an adjacent cell. Here she sings “Un Bel Di Vedremo” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which is fitting for the “mosca prigioniera” of Ethel Rosenberg.
Ethel evoked the passion and tragedy of Mimi, Butterfly, Violetta, and all of the Carmelite Nuns. Rather than despair, the Rosenbergs accept control of the acceptance of their own destinies, further solidifying them as heroic. Possessing myriad collective elements including a well-written and compelling story, riveting theatricality and stagecraft, and musical and dramatic honesty, The Rosenbergs represents 21st-century verismo.
In 2018, Russian involvement in American affairs again disturbs us. One of the more poignant moments of the opera occurs after the final guilty verdict is issued, when Julius falters in his conviction, and considers lying to the courts in order to allow his beloved to return home to their sons. She responds with the assertion that while she might not be executed, there would be no guarantee that she would ever see the boys again, and by admitting guilt, the government would win. She shows extraordinary strength in the face of unimaginable adversity, and offers security and stability for her husband, as they face martyrdom.
I can think of absolutely nothing more romantically operatic.
The Rosenbergs continues at the Boston Playwright’s Theater until April 22nd, when the production, directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky (Stage) and Cristi Catt (Music), and performed by pianist Nathan Urdangen, cellist Miriam Eckelhoefer, violinist Abigale Reisman, baritone Brian Church, and soprano Christie Lee Gibson will run at Brandeis University until April 29th.
Joshua Collier, lyric tenor and Co-Founder of Opera Brittenica, is represented by Berger Artist Management and enjoys performing Opera, Concert, and Musical Theater works around the country, and with many of Boston’s musical institutions.