Only a handful of New York's once-flourishing small opera companies still survive, so it's good to welcome a newcomer to the scene: Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, founded in 1999 by writer Jonathan Levi and violinist Gil Morgenstern, and at the moment housed at the 92nd Street Y. The group's principal goal is worthier still, the development of new works that combine the tools of theater with the intimacy of chamber music. For its debut production, Nine Circles unveiled an hour-long piece that did precisely that and with considerable sophistication: The Scrimshaw Violin, with a libretto by Levi, music by Bruce Saylor, and direction by Mel Marvin.
Functioning on many levels for a pocket-size opera, the work tells of how Rabbi Sandy Lincoln (Victor Benedetti) came to Nantucket at the invitation of Madeleine Gordon (Juliana Rambaldi) and her husband, David (Steven Goldstein). The journey takes an unexpected spiritual turn when Madeleine gives Sandy her violin: The instrument's etched fingerboard is said to be carved from whalebone, but the rabbi soon learns that, in fact, it was made from the arm of a woman who died in the Holocaust. Shaken by this discovery, Sandy plays the violin one last time before taking it down to the harbor for burial.
The overall tone of the opera is lighter than one might expect, and Levi endows the characters with a crooked-smile sense of humor about themselves and the built-in paradoxes of their Yankee surroundings. Also cleverly integrated into the action, a small instrumental ensemble provides the chamber-music connection -- Morgenstern's crucial violin, of course, a prima inter pares voice among Jo-Ann Sternberg's clarinet, Carol Cook's viola, Peter Donovan's double bass, and Thomas Hoppe's piano, with Sherry Boone providing a nice blue-note touch as a narrating band singer.
It is really Bruce Saylor's score that holds the piece together so smartly. The basic underpinning is a sturdy, muscular tonal accompaniment spicily laced with references to Jewish cantilena, Bach's solo violin music, and various jazz-pop idioms, as well as vocal lines that often bloom with real expressive eloquence. So much accessibility would seem to guarantee The Scrimshaw Violin continued life, and the expert manner of its presentation augurs well for the future of Nine Circles.
The Scrimshaw Violin
Nine Circles Chamber Theatre at the 92nd Street Y