There is much to be said for seeing a production that’s so different from anything else you’ve seen before, it’s hard to place it in context in order to talk about it.
It is safe to call Yoav Gal’s Mosheh an opera, and more specifically a “VideOpera” as it’s billed. But beyond that, this perplexing and outlandish work defies categorization. Best described as a fantastical manifestation of a psychological landscape, it concerns certain key events in the life of Mosheh, or Moses, who is played almost completely silently by Nathan Guisinger. The noise comes from the small, brash orchestra, directed vigorously from the piano by Yegor Shevtsov, and from the women in Mosheh’s life.
The four female characters are sung in various acoustic shades, most notably the gorgeous warm tones of mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn as Mosheh’s sister Miriam, who is presented as a sort of punk naiad-ballerina, and some of the positively frightening non-verbal vocalizations of Heather Green as Pharaoh’s daughter, Bitia, who is costumed as a sort of half-Medusa half-Nile-goddess. Rounding out the cast of singers are Beth Anne Hatton as Mosheh’s wife Zipporah, a sort of blonde Bride of Frankenstein who in the show’s scariest moment performs the controversial bloody circumcision of Exodus 4:24-26; Judith Barnes, regal as Mosheh’s mother Yocheved; and countertenor Wesley Chinn who, unseen, sings the role of God in duet with Ms. Chinn in her alto guise, the combination giving Yahweh an androgynous voice. God sings in English, everyone else in Hebrew (with supertitles).
Gal’s expressionist music demands a lot of the listener. Occasionally lyrical and harmonious, it is more often repetitive, frequently jarring, and now and then literally painful. One lengthy sequence is accompanied only by Argeo Ascani playing the baritone saxophone in ways the instrument has probably never been played before (or perhaps it has, but at 30 times the speed, in a bebop solo); this music attracted and fascinated me, but repelled my companion.
The most effective use of sonic harshness comes during a scene in which Mosheh and his mother move hesitantly about the stage, never quite meeting or making eye contact, he in a painful-looking jerky manner as if bound. Hammered clusters of sound assault the pair for many minutes, but relent every so often and give way to a few seconds of appealing harmonies, which release the characters into relaxed positions—until the the hammering comes back.
The music may be expressionistic, but the scenes resemble Minimalist music, in the way the form has of moving so slowly that it lulls us into a sense of stasis, even flirting with the danger of boring us, so that when a change or motion does occur its meaning is enormously magnified. Staging a show this way certainly flouts our expectations of storytelling. Most of the scenes progress as a slow circling of characters who have little or no apparent emotional connection and move icily about through long silences broken by arias with intriguing melodies, with filmed projections as backdrops (and sometimes as part of the action).
Composer-designer Gal and director Kameron Steele show us a Mosheh about to bring down the Plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In this critical moment, major woman-centered scenes from Mosheh’s life replay before his eyes in the cold, nearly monstrous manner I’ve described, beginning with his rescue from the reeds as a baby by Pharaoh’s daughter. The women’s extravagantly weird costumes reinforce the feeling that we’re in some kind of psychological hell dimension.
This show won’t appeal to everyone, but as the product of a distinctive and original creative force and a showcase for talented singers willing to venture into the strange reedy waters of the imagination, it deserves attention. How to place it in context? Think Robert Wilson…maybe. More to the point, check it out and prepare to be impressed, “like” it or not. Mosheh runs through Feb. 5 at HERE (formerly HERE Arts Center), 145 Sixth Ave., New York.