The Vision of Ariel
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The Vision of Ariel, identified both as an opera-ballet and a choreo-drama in its published score, was one of several stage works in which Lazare Saminsky experimented with combining elements of choral, symphonic, solo vocal-operatic, and dance media within a single unified expression. “In my operas,” he reflected in his memoirs, “I have tried a complete absorption of ballet as a self-dependent agent of parallel action....I aimed at reaching out for a new form, sure and self-sufficient.” His artistic vision in terms of dance concerned liberating its music from what he saw as “formulaic uses.” At the same time, he aimed for music that—as this work demonstrates—is equally viable as absolute music, with sufficient drama of its own.
The Vision of Ariel is set against the backdrop of the Inquisition in Spain and lands under its dominance, and the resultant implications for those Jews who converted under pressure to Christianity but who clung to some Jewish practices or some vestiges of Judaism. Following the fierce persecutions in Christian Spain during the 14th century that culminated in the massacres of 1391, in which an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities extinguished, significant numbers of Jews surrendered to baptism and conversion. That situation was repeated in the early 15th century. Some of these “new Christians,” or conversos, continued to practice Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret. They were known as “crypto-Jews” or as marranos (swine)—the epithet that was originally attached to them but which remains in common usage without its initial aspersion. As Christians, however, the conversos were under the authority of the Inquisition—the Congregation of the Holy Office—and they were subject to the same consequences that attended heresy or denial of the faith for any other Christians.
This opera-ballet, even as historical fiction, does not necessarily represent a historically researched effort by the composer (who was also the librettist), who had no difficulty leaning on artistic license. According to the synopsis, the action occurs in Flanders in the latter part of the 16th century, in a large but unnamed city in the part of the Netherlands that, from at least 1584 to 1713, was under Spanish military and political control. Ariel, a marrano there, parades under the disguise of Don Diego, presumably a Spanish nobleman. Ariel, which translates literally as “lion of God,” is also understood in Jewish tradition as a symbolic name for Jerusalem, and therefore can represent pre-Diaspora Jewish sovereignty. The name Ariel is also biblically associated with the prophet Isaiah’s vision warning the people concerning their iniquities. Here, the vision is removed from that context to become a vision of resistance inspired by a biblical account.
The one-act work comprises a prologue and three scenes; the recorded excerpts here are drawn from the first and third of those scenes. The prologue has established the Spanish soldiers’ suspicion of Don Diego’s true identity. The first scene opens on the eve of the festive holiday of Purim, the annual commemoration of the thwarted genocide against Jewry in the Persian Empire—as recounted in the biblical Book of Esther—and the eleventh-hour reprieve through the king’s intercession that enabled the Jews to defeat their enemies and pursue justice. In a poor quarter of the city, Ariel and a group of marranos have gathered in a corner of a building, clandestinely used as a synagogue, for the annual reading (chanting) of m’gillat ester—the Book of Esther in its scroll form. Saminsky’s prominent use of dark orchestral colors, featuring the English horn, gives an appropriately ominous sense of foreboding to the opening of Ariel’s story, which will end sorrowfully. That entire introductory orchestral section is built on the traditional (albeit Ashkenazi) cantillation motifs for m’gillat ester.
Ariel’s rendition of the opening passage of the scroll is preceded here by the choir to the same cantillations, representing the assemblage of marranos. Ariel’s vocal line, while completely faithful to the established cantillation motifs, is of course stylized as operatic performance rather than ethnologically reflective of the less formal and more rapid logogenic lay approach typical of these readings.
In this scene, only the opening of m’gillat ester is offered as the orchestra builds to a reflection of the peoples’ growing anxiety about the soldiers loitering outside and the fear that they may discover the hidden synagogue. In a kind of trance (his “visions”), Ariel becomes transported back in time to the palace of the king of Persia, which constitutes the second scene: a liberally theatrical depiction of how Queen Esther (her Jewish identity concealed from the king until then) successfully prevails upon her husband to intercede on her people’s behalf. The transition at the end of the first scene to Ariel’s vision is described in Saminsky’s synopsis as a moment when “passing formless clouds, shadows, strange lights efface the synagogue scene.”
Ariel’s vision in Scene 2 also includes an image of his dead mother “in the mist,” praying over a lighted candelabra—presumably Sabbath candles—and then “dim silhouettes of helmeted soldiers and monks transpire through vapors,” after which Ariel faints.
The congregants hear the crescendo of a commotion in the street outside, which emanates from the jeers of the rabble as a group of Jewish martyrs, probably unmasked marranos, are being led as condemned heretics in a procession to their deaths at the auto-da-fé. As they proceed, they sing the elegy for martyrs known as av haraḥamim (Father of Mercies), which occurs in the liturgy toward the end of the Torah service (the biblical readings at the end of the morning service) on Sabbaths—in Ashkenazi custom, on all except liturgically special or distinguished Sabbaths. The prayer specifically concerns and eulogizes those Jews who were slaughtered as Jews—for being and remaining Jews and for their refusal to renounce Judaism—during the period of the Crusades (through the 12th and 13th centuries). In this scene the martyrs are naturally represented by the chorus. The interplay in the rendition of av haraḥamim, between the martyrs’ chorus outside and Ariel (now as a cantorial soloist) inside the synagogue as he observes the procession from a window, is theatrically effective.
Although this text has been set by many composers in a variety of styles and modalities (the most elaborate and perhaps best known of which is probably one by Zeidl Rovner [Jacob Samuel Maragowsky; 1856–1943]), the melodic material of the first part of Saminsky’s interpretation is uniquely drawn from biblical cantillation motifs. These give way to more freely conceived, emotionally evocative vocal lines for the tenor soloist, set against pulsating figures in the orchestra at climactic points. This is not a functional setting suitable for synagogue use, although it could be so adapted, but a manifestly operatic expression. A powerful orchestral interlude leads to a dramatic choral “sigh,” which in turn proceeds to a mood of resignation and faith as the chorus resumes.
The recorded excerpt concludes with this prayer, which Saminsky abridged. In the scene, following its recitation, the congregants attempt to persuade Ariel to escape. But he refuses and instead unsheathes his sword to await the soldiers as the people retreat to the balcony. The soldiers storm the building, and Ariel is killed in battle with them. They then rush the balcony, from which, according to the scenario, “an anguished cry is heard.” The scene—and the opera-ballet—concludes with the continuation of the martyrs’ procession to their deaths.
Saminsky wrote The Vision of Ariel in 1916 in Tiflis, before his immigration to the United States, but he revised it in America prior to a performance of its Finale in New York in 1953. The work received its staged premiere in its entirety the following year in Chicago.