REVIEW: Iván Fischer’s ‘Red Heifer’ Opera Mixes Sounds, Not Lies
In what may be the first use of vuvuzelas in opera, the blaring horns popularized by South African soccer featured in the premiere of Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer's The Red Heifer--about a murder blamed on Jews in northeastern Hungary (classicalite.com)
The hour-long opera, given a concert staging last week, also included a life-size (if not life-accurate) talking and singing red cow, a spirited session of traditional Hungarian folk dancing, as well as a ghostly appearance by Hungary’s national hero/liberation leader Lajos Kossuth–sung by bass Krisztián Cser–to denounce anti-Semitism.
Another main character was a flaming red-haired Jewish innkeeper, sung with operatic flare by soprano Orsolya Safar. As the femme fatale of the region where the murder took place, she was known as “the Red Cow” and ran an inn of that name.
Fischer, who is Jewish, said he had wanted to write an opera based on the true story of the incident in Tiszaeszlár that touched off a wave of anti-Semitism across Hungary. Having waited 25 years, he felt the time had come.
“The same responses, stereotypes and petrified, unreasonable prejudices appear nowadays as if we were back in the Red Cow Inn in Nyíregyháza in 1883,” he wrote in the program notes.
The score for gypsy band and full orchestra, including electric guitars and with Fischer conducting, ranged from Bach to cabaret crooning to rap.
The last was performed by a chorus dressed up as soccer hooligans brandishing a half-dozen vuvuzelas. There were hints of Leonard Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay”, as well as echoes of Mahler in what Fischer had said beforehand would be an “eclectic mix” of musical styles and sounds.
The opera, which Fischer himself has labeled “grotesque,” is based on a 19th-century “blood libel” against Jews accused of conspiring in the ritual killing of a Christian girl to drain her blood to make traditional unleavened bread.
The bizarre twist of the case was that the Jews’ main accuser was the son of one of the elders of the Jewish community.
Young Móric Scharf, energetically sung by Jonathan Kovacs, is shown as being fascinated by the bonhomie of the folk-dancing, hard-drinking local Christian Hungarians–who live side by side with the Jews, but effectively in separate communities.
At the trial where his father József and other Jews are accused of murdering Eszter Solymosi in the synagogue, Móric says he saw it through the keyhole. Asked by his father why he is doing this, Móric replies: “Because I don’t want to be a Jew anymore.”
Móric’s duplicity is uncovered when the dead girl’s body is belatedly recovered from the river, bearing the scars on her foot from a cow that had trampled her. There’s no sign that she had been subjected to the gruesome ritual of the “blood libel” that has been reiterated in anti-Semitic tracts for centuries.
The elder Scharf and his son are reconciled, accompanied by a powerful orchestral interlude in which neither father nor son says or sings a word. They are, however, briefly taunted by another group of hooligans at the window of a train which–without it being said explicitly–appears to be taking them to a death camp.
The first half of the program was devoted to several pieces Fischer has written over the years (mostly for performance by his family), which were sung, in part, by his daughter Nora Fischer. In the program notes, he said it felt like he was baring his soul in public.
“It feels like opening a suitcase in a crowded bus, risking that my toys drop and get crushed,” Fischer said.
(Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Alison Williams and Logan K. Young)