Reviewer's rating

Every now and then the Israeli Opera presents a whole new and truly original Israeli opera sung in Hebrew. On opening night it was a great pleasure to discover that Theodor is an unqualified success. Judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience, this was the general feeling. Theodor is a dramatic and definitely not hagiographic portrait of Theodor Herzl, considered the prophet of the State of Israel, or, according to Wikipedia, “the father of modern political Zionism”. The opera, written and directed by Ido Ricklin and composed by Yonatan Cnaan, follows Herzl’s awakening of Jewish national consciousness, inspired by the rise of German nationalism from which he is rejected.

We first see Herzl standing by the gate of the Parisian courthouse where Alfred Dreyfus is on trial for treason. The year is 1895 and Herzl (baritone Oded Reich) is a 35 years old journalist who has come to cover the affair for a newspaper. His relationship with his wife Julie (mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny) is on the verge of collapse and she wants to take the kids back to Vienna. Next, we are taken back to Vienna in 1881, where the young Herzl (baritone Noam Heinz) has just been accepted as a member of the German nationalist fraternity Albia. This fills him with macho pride as he is not yet aware of the organization’s antisemitism.

From here on the opera moves back and forth between these two time-frames and places. In Vienna Herzl is swept in the general admiration for Richard Wagner who inspires nationalistic enthusiasm, and some notes from Tannhauser’s overture are cleverly incorporated into the music, orchestrated by Eran Zehavi. It should be noted that Wagner’s music is not played on Israeli public stages because of his antisemitism and association with Nazism. Later, in Paris, after almost being tempted to enter a brothel, the lonely Herzl is tempted by Christianity during a visit to a church and comes up with a crazy idea – he envisions himself leading all the Jews in the world (except for him) to convert to Christianity.

The scene at the church is gorgeous – the lighting designed by Adi Shimroni is celestial, the choral music is divine and mezzo-soprano Tamara Navoth has a deep beautiful voice in the role of the priest. As we are drawn by the vision we can sense why Herzl is thus swept and mislead. The scene closes with an ironic note, as the younger Herzl is lowered from the ceiling, resembling Jesus. This is the sixth scene out of ten altogether, almost all of them beautifully staged and choreographed. An earlier scene at a Viennese bear garden will be remembered for the catchy and energetic drinking song sung by a choir of virile men.

This is Cnaan’s first opera. While his training is classical, so far he has composed musicals and commercials. In the music he wrote for Theodor I could hear varied influences, from Alain Boublil Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables, to John Adams’s Nixon in China. There was also a bit of Carl Orff as well as Israeli songs. It all crystallized into a beautiful and soaring score. Outstanding was Julie’s aria in the seventh scene, in which she ridicules her husband’s ideas and declares he will be laughed at and forgotten.

The idea to divide the main role into halves that will be sung by two different singers turns out to be a very fruitful one. The older disillusioned and frustrated Herzl is immediately recognized due to his iconic beard, whereas the younger man, only 21 years old, is fresh faced and fool of naïve narcissism. Both Reich and Heinz have rich and beautiful voices and they fully embody the character. A third baritone, Yair Polishook, is also impressive in the role of Hermann Bahr, young Theodor’s friend who laments Wagner’s death in a way that opens Herzl’s eyes to the fact that Jews have no place within the German burgeoning nationalism.

Both Herzls merge in the final scene in which he sits to put on paper is idea for a Jewish state in which all will be equal, Jew or otherwise. Characters from earlier scenes haunt him as he feverishly writes page after page, and a chorus of naysayers gathers around him. It is an uplifting finale that drew lasting cheers from the audience. Theodor is a timely work of art which should have a lasting power.