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Esther, Hugo Weisgall’s tenth, last, and grandest opera, with a libretto by Charles Kondek, is based on the biblical Book of Esther. In many respects it was Weisgall’s crowning achievement both artistically and in terms of public and critical recognition. It was commissioned originally by Terrence McEwen and the San Francisco Opera in the mid 1980s, and preparations for a premiere began with elaborate piano workshops, a major celebration of the announcement, and a press event. But Lotfi Mansouri, who took over the reigns of the company from McEwen before further preparations for Esther were implemented, canceled the project in 1990, citing severe budgetary problems—especially in view of the high cost of mounting so large-scale a work, which had eleven major roles, two choruses requiring substantial rehearsal of their imposing and challenging music, and ballet. As well, a production that would do justice to this opera required expensive stage designs and sets. Weisgall was devastated, and for a while he despaired of seeing a production come to fruition during his lifetime.
Fortunately, Christopher Keene and the New York City Opera, which had already produced two of Weisgall’s operas, took over the project for a premiere as part of that company’s imaginative World Premiere Festival in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, in 1993.
The Book of Esther (m’gillat ester; lit., scroll of Esther) concerns the imminent genocide of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire, a triumphant, nearly last-minute reprieve through the intercession of the queen, and victory over its tormentors and would-be murderers.
The biblical narrative begins in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, king of the vast Persian Empire. A royal feast and 180-day celebration for the imperial officials, military officers, courtiers, noblemen, and princes from all the provinces—to demonstrate the riches and glories of the empire and the king’s own honor and majesty—is capped by another seven-day feast for the entire population of the capital, Shushan. On the final day of that banquet, the king, by then inebriated, orders his queen, Vashti—who is holding her own banquet for the women—to appear before the men as his “trophy bride,” to show off her beauty and thus increase his guests’ admiration and respect for him. But the presence of a woman in the midst of a drunken male crowd is entirely inappropriate and inconsistent with the mores of the time and society, and Vashti refuses. In anger over the humiliation of being disobeyed and his publicly observed powerlessness over his wife, the king not only removes her as queen, but, on consultation with ministers, sends a decree to all men of the empire instructing them to establish and assert control over their households. Then, his advisors assure him, Vashti’s example will lose its danger of emulation, and all wives will give honor to their husbands, “great and small.”
In order to select a new queen, Ahasuerus announces, also on the advice of his ministers, a competitive gathering of beautiful eligible women from throughout the empire. Mordecai, a Jewish leader and respected courtier in Ahasuerus’ palace, has a beautiful young orphaned cousin, Hadassah (or Esther, which is the name many biblical authorities believe she assumed only on becoming queen), whom Mordecai has reared and adopted “as his own daughter.” Esther is taken to the palace to be presented as a candidate, but on Mordecai’s advice, she does not reveal her Jewish identity. Ultimately, Ahasuerus chooses her from among all the others and proclaims her his new queen in Vashti’s place. But she becomes more to him: his prized and cherished wife.
Meanwhile, Mordecai learns of a plot against the king by two of his chamberlains. He tells Esther, who then tells the king—letting him know that Mordecai discovered the plot, but not revealing her relation to Mordecai. After a proper investigation that confirms the guilt of the conspirators, they are hanged.
Shortly afterward, the king promotes Haman, an arrogant and egotistic courtier, identified by tradition as a descendant of the Amalekites—archenemies of the Jews, who had attacked the Israelites in the wilderness during their wandering after the exodus from Egypt—to the position of his principal court officer and advisor. Haman becomes besotted with envy and hatred for the Jews because Mordecai, unlike the other courtiers, refuses as a Jew to kneel and bow down before Haman. Haman thus plots the annihilation of the Jewish people not only in Persia per se, but throughout the empire—which, according to the biblical narrative as well as some historical corroborations or approximations, encompassed the area “from India to Ethiopia, over 127 provinces.” Haman persuades the naïve king (known in Jewish literature as melekh hatipesh—the fool king) that the Jews are a subversive enemy in their midst, who must therefore be eliminated entirely. He convinces the king to authorize complete annihilation of the Jewish population throughout the empire, and then, by drawing lots (pur), he selects the date of the thirteenth of the month of Adar for the mass murder.
Beseeched by Mordecai through an intermediary to intercede with the king, Esther is at first reticent. To appear before the king without a summons—even as his queen—could result in her death according to law. Also, neither the king nor anyone at court knows that she is a Jewess, and she and Mordecai have taken care not to communicate in person—since Mordecai’s Jewishness is well-known and, apparently, has been of no detriment until Haman’s accession to his present position. But Mordecai reminds her through an intermediary that Haman’s decree will apply legally to her as well, despite her assumed royalty, and despite the king’s fondness for her: “Think not that you will escape [even] in the king’s house.... You and your father’s house will perish.” Mordecai even suggests that she might have been fated to become queen (as part of some divine plan) “for such a time as this” (umi yode’a im l’et kazot higa’at lammalkhut). She agrees to take the risk of interceding, and after asking Mordecai to organize a three-day fast among all the Jews in Shushan as a form of petition for her safety and success, she goes to Ahasuerus to request his and Haman’s appearance at a banquet she has prepared that same night. As it happens, Ahasuerus, genuinely enamored of her, is in a mood to please her, offering her whatever she might request—even if it should include half his kingdom. At that banquet (“of wine”) the king repeats his readiness to grant whatever she wishes, to which she replies that if he and Haman will come to a second banquet the next day, she will tell him then.
Meanwhile, Haman has a gallows constructed for Mordecai’s hanging. That night the king discovers that Mordecai was never rewarded for saving his life by revealing the plot against him, and he asks Haman—who has come to speak about Mordecai’s hanging—to advise him on the best way of honoring a man whom the king deems worthy. Thinking that the king is referring to him, Haman suggests that such a man be attired in royal apparel, including a crown, seated on one of the king’s own horses, and led on a procession through the streets of the city by a noble prince, who will proclaim aloud, “This is what shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!” When the king readily accepts the idea and tells Haman that the honoree is Mordecai—and that Haman will be the “noble prince” to lead the procession and make the public proclamation—Haman is left with no choice but to proceed as ordered.
At the second banquet, Esther reveals, in Haman’s presence, her Jewish identity and Haman’s approved plan for her and her people’s imminent annihilation, and she begs the king to allow them to live. Astounded and enraged, the king retreats to the garden, while Haman pleads with Esther to intercede to save his life. When the king returns to find Haman on the same sofa as Esther—on which he has fallen to plead with her—he assumes that Haman is attempting to seduce Esther, or worse. At that, he orders Haman to be hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.
Mordecai is now a trusted friend and in-law to the king, since Esther reveals Mordecai’s relation to her. Ahasuerus even gives Mordecai his ring and seal, which he had earlier given to Haman. But the royal decree concerning the Jews’ destruction is irrevocable by law, and the only way to circumvent it and thereby annul it is to permit the Jews to destroy their enemies. Ahasuerus therefore has Mordecai issue an edict throughout the empire in the king’s name and delivered everywhere with full royal assistance—to all satraps, governors, and princes of the provinces, and to all the various peoples therein (“in their own languages”), stating that the Jews have been granted authority to defend themselves militarily: to “destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish all the forces of the people and the province that would assault them.” The Jews are bidden to do this on the same day throughout the empire—the very day Haman had determined for their genocide: the thirteenth of the month of Adar. With the cooperation and help of all royal officers as well as imperial and local officials in each province of the empire, a decisive victory is achieved by the Jews. In Shushan alone, 500 enemies are slain on that day; and at Esther’s further request of the king, Haman’s ten sons—assumed to have been part of the plot—are hanged. The numbers of enemy dead throughout the empire come to 75,000 according to the report given to the king, who authorizes further action on the following day in Shushan, which results in the death of another 300 enemies. Although the king has authorized that Jews everywhere also take the property of their vanquished enemies, the Jews “lay not their hand” on the spoils.
Mordecai ordains that the fourteenth of Adar—the day on which the Jews had “rest from their enemies”—should be celebrated perpetually by all Jews in the empire as a festival of joy and gratitude, with gifts of food to each other (mish’l’ah manot) and with donations to the poor. The Jews agree, for themselves and on behalf of their progeny, to accept Mordecai’s instruction and to keep this annual festival of Purim, so named after the lots that Haman cast to determine the date of the genocide. Mordecai attains a position of high stature as the king’s closest minister and advisor (“next unto Ahasuerus”), and he is the accepted leader of his fellow Jews throughout the empire—“seeking the good of his people and preaching peace to all his seed.
Eventually the celebration of Purim became universal in Judaism as a festival of rejoicing, feasting, carnival-like entertainment—including masquerades, parodies, satires, and staged “Purim plays”—and general merrymaking. The entire m’gillat ester (Book of Esther in its scroll form) is read aloud in a public forum, to an assigned biblical cantillation that varies from one tradition to another. Among the many Purim traditions is the congregational outburst of noisemaking each time the name Haman is pronounced during the reading. More than usual strong drink—wine and spirits—is also a part of Purim customs in most traditions, after the tradition established in the Talmud (Meg. 7b) by the Babylonian teacher Rava, who is said to have remarked that on Purim one should drink enough to become unable to distinguish between cursing Haman and praising Mordecai.
The fifteenth of Adar became known as Shushan Purim, since the hostilities continued in Shushan for an additional day and the peace did not begin there until the fifteenth. That too is addressed by Mordecai in the biblical account, and it is still observed by Jews living in cities that are—or once were— walled, such as Jerusalem.
Even viewed purely as literature, apart from any historical, theological, archaeological, or other scientific considerations, the Book of Esther is in some ways a loosely drawn synopsis or sketch, akin to a parable not only in content but in form. It is missing, perhaps intentionally, many pieces of basic information, which raises unanswerable questions at every turn. On its own merits—viz., without rabbinical commentary— it can betray both Judaic incongruities and other gaps, as well as implausible military situations, all inviting a degree of imagination along with reasoned interpretation and literary criticism. For example, since Mordecai is portrayed as a proud and God-fearing Jew, why would he even acquiesce in Esther’s abandoning her Jewish heritage and obligations in order to become the queen—before knowing anything about her potential value as an intermediary? How could she live in the royal palace without violating commandments such as the Jewish dietary laws and the Sabbath? Or can this possibly suggest that Mordecai might have known secretly—in advance of Haman’s plot—that the Jews were already facing serious danger throughout the empire in terms of public attitudes toward them, and that eventually an embedded intercessor such as Esther might be their only hope. The only hint in the text concerning perceptions of the Jews is Haman’s explanation to the king that everywhere in the empire the Jews “have their own laws,” which might suggest popular resentment. But later the Jews do find it strategically necessary to defend themselves and ensure their security by military or paramilitary engagements—obviously with the assistance of imperial and local armed forces acting on the instruction contained in Mordecai’s edict with the king’s stamp. Since nowhere in the empire could the Jews have had their own army, Ahasuerus’ instructions include arming them. And those engagements result in the deaths of no fewer than 75,000 adversaries outside Shushan.
Does this in any way suggest local populations foaming beneath the surface with combustible hatred for the Jews, which Haman had only to ignite—not unlike the Germans vis-à-vis segments of Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and other eastern European populations during (and lingering even after) the Second World War? How else to explain the accepted necessity from Jewish perspectives in the narrative of so costly a victory at the expense of civilians? Clearly, the text implies no out-of-control vengeance or bloodthirsty rampage (or “disproportionate response,” to borrow from misapplied and misguided 21st-century contemporary usage). To the contrary, the text emphasizes that the Jews declined their rights—according to the king’s edict—to enrich themselves by taking the property of their vanquished foes as the spoils of war. Inasmuch as Jews participated in the defensive military action, it would have been impossible for them to have suffered no casualties, yet the text seems to suggest just such a tactically untenable proposition, since none are mentioned.
And why—notwithstanding later kabbalistic and Hassidic literature that interprets God in the story as active “behind the scenes,” unlike His direct and visible intervention in the Exodus narrative—is there no religious element? There are no prayers of petition (not even by Mordecai), no resolutions of faith in God’s protection, and no prayers of thanksgiving upon victory. Or does the fasting, rending of garments, and donning of sackcloth and ashes imply accompanying appeals to God through prayer? Are these cited as symbolic acts not only of mourning, but of repentance?
Naturally, Aggadic and Midrashic literature, in the context of its didactic explanations by way of legends and other embellishments, sought to mediate some of these issues by reading into, inferring from, and superimposing onto the story various religious parameters. For example, one source proposes that the three fast days for Esther encompassed the first day of Passover, about which, upon Mordecai’s objection, she replied that without the priority of the Jewish people’s survival (to which the fasting was related), Passover would have neither meaning nor existence (Esth 4:16). Another source understands Esther’s concealment of her identity as a means of precluding the Jews’ neglect of prayer on complacent grounds that they were safe with one of their own in the king’s palace.
There was some initial rabbinic resistance to the canonization of the Book of Esther as part of the Bible, and the Talmud reflects concerns about whether the book demonstrates sufficient divine inspiration in its writing (Meg. 7a). In addition to its lack of divine references, there was also concern in some quarters over its aggressive and militant tone, which some feared might encourage ill will. Ultimately, the advocates on its behalf prevailed, and the Book of Esther was included in the Hebrew Bible as part of the section known as the k’tuvim (sacred writings), or the Hagiographa.
Ahasuerus is often identified as the historical Xerxes (I), who reigned from 486 to 456 B.C.E., and whose name is thought to represent the Greek rendering of the Persian king or emperor’s name. In that case the name Ahasuerus could be simply the Hebrew form of the Persian. A tablet discovered at Borsippa from around the time of Xerxes refers to a royal official named Marduka. However, neither the equation of Ahasuerus with Xerxes nor the historicity of the Book of Esther, both of which present chronological, historical, and comparative theological problems, is universally accepted in the world of biblical scholarship—even though many acknowledge that the book’s author(s) may have drawn on historical events. Among various hypotheses and conjectures emanating from various schools of objective biblical criticism as well as research are proposals that Esther and Mordecai are derived from the Babylonian deities Ishtar and Marduk; that the origin of the story lies in a quintessential oriental or Near Eastern romance pattern, with two originally independent plots—a harem and a court intrigue; that Ahasuerus’ historical identity is actually that of Ptolemy Euergetes II (reigned 170–164 and 145–117 B.C.E.), and that Esther represents Cleopatra III; and that the author of Esther invented the narrative to accommodate an already existing seasonal festival of a type common in antiquity, in which fictional or mock combat between good and evil sides was accompanied by entertainments that included the telling of stories similar in general contour to parts of the Book of Esther.
Weisgall’s opera added to a long tradition of musical expression of the Book of Esther, in whole or in part, that includes numerous works composed over the past six centuries. Haman is thought to be represented in an early 14th-century motet. Palestrina wrote a five-voice motet, Quid habes Hester (1575), for which the text draws on the dialogue between Esther and Ahasuerus as presented in apocryphal additions to the Book of Esther. Among 17th- and early-18th-century works are Stradella’s oratorio Ester, liberatrice dell’ popolo ebrae (ca. 1670); M. A. Charpentier’s Historia Esther; G. Legrenzi’s oratorio Gli sponsali d’Ester (1676); and J. B. Moreau’s choral supplements to Racine’s play Esther. Handel’s oratorio Esther (1732), still performed today, had its origins in his earlier masque Haman and Mordecai, with a text by John Arbuthnot, perhaps together, as some musicologists maintain, with Alexander Pope. Based on Racine’s drama, the earlier work, Handel’s first oratorio-type work in English, was first performed at the palace of the Duke of Chandos in 1720. The full oratorio, with additional text by Samuel Humphreys, was introduced on the stage of the King’s Theater, and its libretto was translated into Hebrew by the Venetian rabbi Jacob Raphael Saraval (1707–82). Later in the 18th century, von Dittersdorf wrote his oratorio La liberatrice del popoplo giudaico nella Persia o sia l’Esther (1773).
In the 19th century there were operatic versions of the Esther story, and Eugen D’Albert wrote an overture to Grillparzer’s play Esther (1888). Productions of Racine’s play at the Comédie Française invited contributions of incidental choral music by several now forgotten composers. But the most important operatic work prior to Weisgall’s is probably Darius Milhaud’s Esther de Carpentras (1925–27), which draws on an old purimspiel (Purim play) from his native Provence, concerning a local bishop in Carpentras intent on converting Jews. Jan Meyerowitz (1913–98) also wrote an opera, Esther (1956), with a libretto by the American poet Langston Hughes, as well as an orchestral tone poem, Midrash Esther, which was recorded for the first time by the Milken Archive. In the “lighter” realm there are also many works, including Abraham Goldfaden’s Yiddish musical Kenig akhashverosh (ca. 1885), one of his least-known Yiddish theatrical works, and Israeli popular composer Dov Seltzer’s music for Itzik Manger’s Yiddish production Di megila.
For dramatic effect in the opera, in which Ahasuerus is assumed to be the historical Xerxes in the capital city of Susa, Weisgall and Kondek took many liberties with the biblical account. Their Esther is not claimed as a faithful reenactment of the biblical story, but as a work of art based upon it. Characters are fleshed out in appropriately multidimensional human terms; details of plot and setting are filled in but sometimes changed altogether; motivations are explored; and parallels are drawn to contemporary issues and concerns—especially Jewish identity in modern society and moral reflections arising out of post–World War II sensibilities with regard to defensive war for national survival. The triumphant spirit in the biblical narrative is deliberately muted as well as complicated, and the opera opens as well as closes with a chilling scene in which eleven bodies of hanged men are suspended above a grave digger, with Esther, disguised beneath a hood, hovering in the background.
In the opera, Esther is portrayed as far less sympathetic at first than in the biblical narrative. When Mordecai initially implores her to intercede for her people, she seems to represent the stereotypical overly as well as negatively assimilated Jew in modern perceptions. Not only convinced that maintaining the secret of her own Jewish ancestry will permanently ensure her safety, she seems to have removed herself in her own mind from her people altogether, feeling little of the kinship upon which Mordecai is counting. “No longer!” she replies to Mordecai’s reminder that she is still a Jew (“You are one of us!”). “I live in a different way as queen than I did with you.”
Weisgall and Kondek’s Esther—before the spiritual growth and recovery of her better self that they seek to establish and develop onstage—is, at that moment, eerily reminiscent of those Jews in the modern era who declined to jeopardize newfound social status in a non-Jewish world, completely disassociating with their past, and who are now generally criticized if not condemned. As events of the 20th century have proved, their masks were ultimately futile anyway.
Esther now likes being queen, with all its advantages—even though the opera has altered the circumstances surrounding her original candidacy. (In this libretto, following Midrashic interpretation, she is mysteriously summoned against her and Mordecai’s wishes to join the group of candidates. Although she resists at first, she complies only because Mordecai assures her lamentably that there is no choice. This, of course, circumvents the difficult question of why Mordecai would have cooperated in her abandoning Jewish life by becoming queen.) It is not only that she fears approaching the king without an invitation, but she is not so ready to forfeit her position by revealing her connection to the Jews—even to the respected Mordecai.
Her selfish attitude, however, is only superficial. She is soon genuinely conflicted, and that conflict is played out during Act II. “Who am I?” she asks repeatedly on second thought—of Mordecai, and of herself. She realizes that while she has ignored her heritage, she cannot continue to repress her bond with it and to abdicate her obligation to her people in its time of need. But her realization requires the persuasion of a crowd representing the people, in addition to Mordecai. After insisting that she can do no more than empathize, she ultimately acknowledges that “we are responsible, each for the other.”
Seeking to explain and explore Haman’s motivations, Weisgall and Kondek have presented his genocidal plan within the context of a larger goal that becomes an invented subplot involving his wife, Zeresh. Together, at her constant encouragement, they are planning to stage a coup and overthrow and murder the king so that Haman can assume the reigns of power. Unlike in the biblical account, Zeresh appears with Haman at the banquet, which he thinks is given in his honor (which, in the opera, is a composite of the two separate banquets described in the Bible). There, they converse gleefully about the sure success of their plot.
Indeed, the composer and librettist have carved out an added, quasi–Lady Macbeth role for Zeresh—whose foundation in the biblical account may be found in the scene (5:13–14) where Zeresh, together with Haman’s friends, advises him to relieve himself of the agony Mordecai causes him by ordering Mordecai’s hanging. In the opera, her role is many times magnified, for it is she who, in addition to being a coconspirator, incites Haman against the Jews and urges him not to stop at Mordecai’s execution: “Do not act against him [Mordecai] alone, act against all of them,” she tells him— partly in order to camouflage Mordecai’s execution, which might otherwise have dangerous repercussions for Haman when it becomes known in the Jewish community. “His death would be noticed,” Haman fears, suggesting that the king might be alerted to the role Mordecai played in uncovering the earlier regicidal plot, and thus might blame Haman for his death. But Haman’s momentary resistance to Zeresh’s advice about genocide is without foundation in the biblical story, in which Haman is portrayed as the essence of evil who needs no encouragement. In the opera, Zeresh plays on his ego for the sake of her own ambition, assuring him of immortality in terms that, for late 20th-century audiences, might recall Holocaust and post-Holocaust rhetoric such as the resolution proposed at the 1945 postwar Polish Peasant Party congress, posthumously thanking Adolph Hitler—their defeated enemy, conqueror, and tormentor—for at least having annihilated Polish Jewry, and urging that those Jews who might have survived be expelled. (Although that resolution was neither voted on nor adopted, it was proposed to the tumultuous applause of the more than 1,000 Polish delegates.) “To be remembered as the man who rid the world of an insolent race ... you’ll achieve the greatness you deserve,” Zeresh promises.
Vashti, from whom we do not hear in the biblical narrative after her banishment, is a coconspirator along with Zeresh and Haman in the opera’s subplot. From Zeresh’s communications with her, Vashti believes that—once Haman takes over—she will be restored to court in some capacity. Yet another new twist to the story comes with Vashti’s involvement in the earlier plot that Mordecai uncovers in time to save the king’s life. In this new scenario, the two royal chamberlains and plotters, Bigtan and Teresh, are fiercely devoted to the deposed Vashti, who tries to use them as an instrument for her own revenge as well as a means to her return to court.
Perhaps the most glaring and politically charged editorial supplement to the biblical narrative occurs subtly in Scene 10 of the third and final act, where Esther reflects with sadness on the fact that the necessary defensive war, which occurred only as a result of her intercession, took tens of thousands of enemy lives (including, it must be presumed, many so-called civilian casualties). Her dampened enthusiasm for the victory—even as the triumph of survival—and her lament about the necessity of her role may appear to come as a bit of political-historical revisionism in the tradition of postwar amateur reconsiderations about Dresden or Hiroshima—or for that matter the equally civilian-populated and equally deadly if not deadlier bombing of Tokyo or Berlin. But for anyone who knew Hugo Weisgall personally, this would have been, if anything along those lines, a poke at just such revisionist or pseudo-pacifist naïveté. Esther’s sadness does not necessarily question the strategic wisdom of the campaign.
Yet this regretfulness of what was nonetheless necessary (“that that day [the thirteenth of Adar] could not have been avoided fills me with regret ... so much blood, so many dead”) has solid roots in Judaic tradition. Probably the most notable example is a Midrashic commentary on the death of the Israelites’ Egyptian pursuers as the Sea of Reeds closed in on them and caused them to drown—leaving the former slaves safe on dry land and free from bondage. According to that commentary, the angels in heaven were about to break into jubilant song as the Egyptian hosts were drowning in the sea, when God admonished them sternly: “My creatures [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?” The Passover seder reflects similar sensibilities in the pouring of a drop of wine from the full cup at the mention of each of the “ten plagues,” a custom generally explained as deliberately diminishing what would otherwise be unalloyed joy at Israel’s victorious exodus, precisely because it entailed the suffering of others. And the Purim tradition of reading in a single breath the names of all ten sons of Haman as they occur in the m’gillat ester—while its derivation has been tied to demonstrating that they were executed at the same time—has also been viewed as refraining from dwelling on them and thereby refusing to gloat over the death of enemies.
On a more practical personal plane, Esther is concerned about her future reputation and perception. She is in need of reassurance from the king—which is immediately forthcoming—that she will be remembered not chiefly as the agent of war and death, but rather as the intermediary for her people’s survival.
The scenes excerpted for the Milken Archive recording are from Acts I and III. In Scene 8 of the first act, Esther, waiting in the harem for her summons, contemplates her chances of being chosen by the king to become his queen. Although beset with mixed feelings at first, her excitement builds at the prospect. Her vocal lines exhibit youthful rapture, accompanied by muted strings. The wide-ranging tessitura, however, suggests the solidity of her character that will emerge later. The musical content relies heavily on chromatically based half-tone melodic cells, a technique that pervades the entire score.
Scene 2 of Act III portrays the dancing at the banquet to which Esther has persuaded the king and Haman to come. A fast-paced scherzo, the music is suffused with propelling energy, foreshadowing the outburst that will occur when she reveals Haman’s plot to the king along with her Jewish identity.
Scene 10 of Act III takes place on a palace terrace bathed in moonlight, in the atmosphere of quiet and peace that has returned to Shushan with the Jews’ victory. Esther’s contemplative aria begins in the lowest part of the soprano register, in darkly colored hushed murmurs. The semitone intervals heard in the first act aria are expanded here. Her three pronouncements of “the thirteenth of Adar”—as the day of bloodshed that will always be associated with her name—are sung to a descending chromatic scale. The Holocaust-tinged mantra of never forgetting and never permitting it to happen again (“Never again!”) is recast here in her words: “No one should forget. It must not be forgotten. It must not be repeated.” The king assures her (simplistically and naïvely, of course, in view of history) that evil and darkness—and, by implication, any further danger to her people—have been eradicated, a hopeful sentiment in which she joins: “No shadow will ever again stain our bright new world again.” The scene ends with Esther and the king both reaffirming her identity as he praises her strength and her heart and as they lean emotionally on each other: “We are each other’s light.”
Esther was one of the three American operas produced on consecutive evenings in October 1993 for New York City Opera’s World Premiere Festival. (The other two were Ezra Laderman’s Marilyn, about Marilyn Monroe, and Lukas Foss’s Griffelkin.) Inasmuch as Weisgall’s unrelenting modernism and gritty chromaticism render his opera more stylistically and harmonically complicated than those two works, and in view of the sometimes reactionary trend toward accommodating the public with what is condescendingly called “accessible music,” it came as a welcome surprise that Esther was widely adjudged the most successful production of the festival—in terms of public as well as critical acclaim. All three performances were sold out, and the audience reaction at each was wildly enthusiastic, even from those usually resistant to so-called dissonant vocal music. “You would have thought,” wrote critic Anthony Tommasini with reference to Weisgall’s reception at his curtain calls, “that Verdi had risen from the dead.”
Writing in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein observed that the composer’s triumph “could not have been more complete.” He saw Esther as a compelling case for not shying away from difficult music in the service of serious purposes—a case for Weisgall’s “acidic melancholy and muscular dissonances” and his “rhythmic verve, sharp contrasts in texture, and a youthful energy that belies the composer’s eighty years.” New York magazine considered Esther “a work that can now be placed among the very finest American operas,” and another New York critic predicted that the opera “might well go down as a masterpiece of the American stage.”