Echoes of Ukraine fill Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Fiddler on the Roof”
Sometimes in art you struggle with relevance. Other times, relevance finds you. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, of course, unknown and several months later when the Philadelphia Orchestra began planning its production of fiddler on the roof.
But there the show was on stage at Verizon Hall on Saturday night, its characters being forced from their homes somewhere in the Russian Empire. The listener, confronted simultaneously with what is happening now and a story set over a century ago, might have felt that the region is doomed to an endless and dehumanizing feedback loop.
The orchestra placed an insert in the program booklet saying Fiddler, unfolding during the pogroms that murdered and terrorized Jews in the Russian Empire, is “increasingly searing in light of the invasion of Ukraine.” But the production – directed by Sarna Lapine and directed by Andy Einhorn – aimed for a more universal approach. Yes, with its costumes, props, and choreography (no sets), the 1964 musical was specifically Jewish — to begin with, a story based on a time, place, and historical event specific to Jewish people. The cast was multiracial, suggesting that people are people, and what’s plaguing the world right now is our fixation on differences.
This Fiddler was a collaboration of the orchestra, the University of Michigan and the University Musical Society, with a cast consisting of students and professionals. It had a lot to offer, including a welcome opportunity to revisit the lively tunes and poignant harmonies that introduced the Jewish sonic world to many non-Jews. It must be said, however, that there was not a single charismatic voice in the production. Interestingly, the students on Saturday (the second of three Philadelphia shows) were stronger than the veteran cast of singers, actors and dancers. The focus, if there was one, was the orchestra, and specifically this edition of the score.
In its marketing for Fiddler, the orchestra capitalized on the name of John Williams, who is not the songwriter – Jerry Bock is. But this particular show is an amalgam: a concert version of the musical originally produced on Broadway, but with Williams’ orchestrations and added material used in the 1971 film. the music. Williams created a very Hollywood sound in this score. This plump, large-scale orchestration sometimes sounds like an outsider looking inside.
Certainly, there is a generous dose of Jewish musical influence in the opening. The solo violin part taken by Isaac Stern in the film was played by orchestral expert Juliette Kang, who was both fiery and moving. A bit of klezmer emerged here and there in the solo moments for violin, clarinet and trumpet, and even accordion.
Even if there are moments that sound strangely like the score to AND the extra-terrestrial, Williams is a wonderful orchestrator, and the way his sense of sound falls on this orchestra is a thrill – live, especially. At full throttle, the strings are rich, the horns stir, and the low brass has bite. The solo voices of English horn player Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia brought tenderness, and trombonist Nitzan Haroz gave a hard time.
In a way, Fiddler has always seemed to be one of those shows that goes over the heads of critics and straight into the hearts of listeners. A universally beloved aspect of the original 1964 production was Zero Mostel, who played Tevye, the milkman and father of many daughters.
There are too many actor-singers, dancers and creators behind this production to mention – several dozen, including Sholem Aleichem, whose stories Fiddler is based. Loretta Ables Sayrev as Golde, the wife, was stronger dramatically than vocally. Of the student performers, Ella Olesen as the Tzeitel Girl and Diego Rodriguez as the Tailor/Motel Suitor showed particular promise.
Chuck Cooper, as Tevye, had a great voice and a lot of presence. But what the established actor’s performance and others lacked were the complexities of cultural identity. Only Liz Larsen, as Yente the Matchmaker, invoked a slight Yiddish or Eastern European inflection, and while the accents and inflections are hard to do without sounding cartoonish, a simple grounding hint vocally these characters at their specific time and place would have been welcome. recognition of who they are.
A more developed sense of humor would also have gone a long way. Jewish humor is its own thing. This includes self-mockery, puns and irony, and the tongue-in-cheek recognition, through impeccably timed vocal movements, that sweetness and tragedy (or at least unhappiness) tend to exist on the same plane.
And if somewhere in the contours of your voice you can conjure up the old country – be it Minsk or Miami Beach – then you really have the audience in the palm of your hands.