Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera Morning Star, with a libretto by the late William M. Hoffman based on Sylvia Regan’s 1940 play, premiered in 2015 at the Cincinnati Opera. Last week, On Site Opera presented its first New York performance, in a new chamber version orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin. Seen on its second, March 22, night, the evening was dedicated to Hoffman, who died in 2017.
The gorgeous venue, the Museum at Eldridge Street, is a former synagogue, built in 1887 and reopened in 2007 after 20 years of loving restoration. Among the myriad interior details is a striking oculus—a cobaltblue window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans that was added in 2010.
The synagogue proves a nearideal match for this story of RussianJewish immigrants—Becky Felderman and her three daughters—who arrive in New York in the early 20th century. As the tale progresses, the daughters find love—and lose it—as one of them ultimately dies in the Triangle fire.
Similar to his opera based on The Grapes of Wrath, Gordon’s idiom is tonal, with keen attention to vocal resonance. Most of the cast members have poignant solos and duets, with occasional choral tuttis, all deftly constructed for maximum emotional impact. Among the satisfying harmonies, a faint but effective shadow of Sondheim appears now and then.
The vocal lines fall easily on the ear, although in some sequences the high tessituras make Hoffman’s words — packed with piquant details to create a keen picture of New York’s Lower East Side — frustratingly unintelligible. Characters make loving references to rugelach from Yonah Schimmel, a venerable bakery founded in 1910, and neighborhood streets like Allen and Ludlow.
As Irving Tashman, the songwriter beloved by one of the girls, tenor Blake Friedman had one of the opera’s early high points, “O Morning Star,” which glides across the ear with a bigband vibe. As Fanny, the daughter who falls for Tashman, soprano Jennifer Zetlan offered some of the more stratospheric delights. Cree Carrico sang the role of the illfated Esther, using her lustrous soprano to touching effect, and as Harry Engel, her devastated paramour, Andrew Lovato showed the power of a tightly focused baritone.
Blythe Gaissert deployed her richly textured mezzo as Sadie, the daughter who is eventually overwhelmed by the demands of running a business. As Aaron Greenspan, renowned for his hat factory, Joshua Jeremiah’s warm baritone flooded the room. David Langan was appropriately solemn as Rabbi Engel, leading the audience in prayer (and late in the show, in an Ivesian moment, adding The StarSpangled Banner to a complex chorus). Mezzosopranos Chrystal E. Williams (Mary) and Allison Gish (Kathleen O’Fallin) and tenor Martin Bakari (Prince) all offered fine characterizations in supporting roles.
Most magnetic was soprano Emily Pulley as Becky, the strongwilled mother trying to hold the family together after her daughter dies. As the opera progresses, so does her pain; so effective was her portrayal that one couldn’t look away.
Under conductor Geoffrey McDonald, the 16 members of the American Modern Ensemble gave Gordon’s score a crisp edge, with notable passion and unity. Summer Lee Jack dressed the cast in period style, made even more persuasive with Emilia Martin’s vintage wigs. Shawn K. Kaufman added subtle lighting to augment the synagogue’s ornate fixtures, and Sydney Schatz designed the minimal props: coffins that doubled as tables and kitchen storage, and a chuppa, the Jewish wedding canopy.
Eric Einhorn, OSO’s general and artistic director, staged the action using the entire room, including the balcony. Singers flitted down the aisles, often scarcely inches away from the audience—one of On Site’s most potent attractions. But the immersion carried a slight pitfall. Seated in wooden pews facing forward, audience members in the front were constantly turning around, oftentimes awkwardly, to get better views of the action behind them.
A few tweaks might help clarify the plot, generally admirable in its tight construction. During Act I, it was initially difficult to identify the daughters (no surtitles), since their names were often not spoken until later. And the final scene, a depiction of the horrific fire, with swaths of fabric drifting down from the balcony, seems to better belong in the first act, which opens with the rabbi presiding as coffins are carried to the front of the room.
But any missteps were offset here by the cast’s ardor, and Gordon’s constant invention. On Site Opera has already racked up impressive credentials, presenting operas all over the city in locales as diverse as a townhouse in the Meatpacking District, a giant raw space near Hell’s Kitchen, and last fall, a production for children at the American Museum of Natural History. This latest foray into reinventing opera confirms the company as one of the most imaginative in town.