Seeming to invent a space where harpies and angels intermarry, the almost entirely female cast of SEMMELWEIS unleashes soprano voices swirling into the ethereal. The musical progressions (Composer: Raymond Lustig) in some ways seem to be given a visual form by the semi-spiral back stage that reminds a New Yorker of the Guggenheim. The spice of chimes, music boxes and toy piano sounds intermingle with the voices throughout. Later, a mezzo soloist captures our ears with a shift from sacred music sound to something more pop music in style.
Several actors in oversized puppet-like mask face interact with the one male character, baritone Szilveszter Szabó P., in the title role. They are the scientist physicians of Vienna who are unwittingly killing the many women who come to them to help deliver their babies. The chorus warns that if you want to live and have your baby live, you should try to hold off delivering until a midwife is on duty. That let's you avoid these doctors of death.
Less prose and more poetry, the libretto suggests, rather than precisely tells, the story of how Semmelweis came to see that it was the antiseptic shortfalls of his fellow physicians that were causing the deaths. (Libretto: Matthew Doherty). It is not an a to z, but rather, the rumblings of Semmelweis’ mind that landed him in an insane asylum.. He is haunted because he could not ignore the realities, yet was ostracized for his breakaway notions of causes—the failure to wash hands.
From the opera’s promotional materials we learn from the composer, who is also a microbiologist, why he feels this opera is newly relevant in the age of the pandemic. Lustig says, “When Matthew Doherty and I started work on Semmelweis several years ago, we were very consciously not interested in a genius-hero story or biographical piece, but rather we were drawn to the internal conflict, the torment of a medical worker on the front lines of an epidemic, facing incredible tragedy daily, with the demoralizing feeling that the answer might be right under his nose yet invisible. And then suddenly an answer seems to present itself."
"But no one can change a flawed system overnight. What does it feel like to be one of the people trying with every waking breath to do the impossible? It’s quite surreal now to be living in a situation so incredibly similar to that one. In those days all doctors were men. Today, my wife is a physician struggling on the front lines, grieving with families, trying new ideas, rethinking old ones, hoping desperately that some answer might arise, and that if it does, the system will be able to accept it, quickly.
Budapest Operetta Theatre & Bartók Plusz Opera Festival Give Us a Passport to Europe
For this reviewer, SEMMELWEIS is recommended most for the standout stagecraft that glues us to the story, seeming to add a visual poetry dimension to the opera. Like other Budapest operas, to an American viewer it has added sizzle of feeling more exotic. Death blankets wrapping the mothers infected in childbirth foreshadow Semmelweis’ discovery by having a cacophony of hands emerging from the weave. Later, projection designs take over to show hands after hands ,as if a window to Semmelweis’ pre-occupation with germs and his own culpability in the slaughter. You too might have to squint and make a huge mind leap that connects the presumed streetwalkers’ costumes sporting wire sprocket epaulets and crowns as familiar. They remind of an oldie time Buck Rogers wardrobe long forgotten.
How fascinating too to watch the women spawning paper dolls by machine—perhaps a nod to their role in society as breeders alone. Like any poem it’s wide open to interpretation. Like the best poems, these stagecraft effects cast a seductive spell.
Semmelweis is free to watch, but all viewers are encouraged to donate to a pandemic-related charity, with the specific suggestions of UNICEF USA, Alight, and the Semmelweis Foundation being promoted on their website.
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SZILVESZTER SZABÓ P.
BARTÓK BÉLA CHAMBER CHORUS OF SZOLNOK
RAYMOND J. LUSTIG
Director of Bartók Béla Chamber Chorus of Szolnok
Assistant music director
ANNA KYOKO SZABÓ T.
DIÁNA ESZTER MÁTRAI
JULIA TYTAN JAKUBOWSKA
Free, donations encouraged to COVID-19 relief organizations.
Images courtesy of Budapest Operetta Theatre & Bartók Plusz Opera Festival
About the Author: Amy Munice
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.
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Nominated for Picture This Post BEST OF 2020