Perhaps the time has come to drop the habit of identifying new operas by the composer’s name. To judge from the impoverished works that regularly reach the stage these days, music is no longer the major element of an opera, but just another ingredient in the mix. That certainly describes Deborah Drattell’s Lilith, recently given its stage premiere by the City Opera. For better or worse, the libretto by David Steven Cohen, the production staged by Anne Bogart, and the cast, led by Lauren Flanigan as Eve, all command more attention than Drattell’s dreary score, which never defines or transforms the dramatic moment in ways only music can. A real composer could surely have made something powerful out of this material.
In the cabala, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, formed like him from dust and demanding to be his equal. Rebelling at her submissive role, Lilith became the first feminist, while God provided Adam with a more docile partner by creating Eve from his rib. Cohen’s libretto effectively sets up the tensions between the two women as well as their dilemma – incomplete feminine spirits in eternal conflict – although his text is full of impenetrable nonsense. “Exquisite pain … Dark pleasure … Sweet river past the teeth and tongue …” as Eve and her daughter sing at the end of Act II.
The piece allows Bogart’s SITI Company plenty of time to fill the stage with elaborate choreography and rituals that career from the powerfully evocative to the hilariously miscalculated; at one point Beth Clayton’s Lilith picks up a giggling male victim and tickles him into an orgasm. But Eve, here the last word in tortured femininity, is the opera’s dominant character; Flanigan brings her usual fearlessness and unstinting commitment to a role that finally defeats her. The score – monotonous vocal lines, seesawing string tremolos, muttered brass figures, mindless thumping chords, scrappy suggestions of Jewish chant, glutinous instrumental textures, ominous vamping that leads nowhere – comes off more as a collection of miscellaneous sound effects than a thought-out composition. American opera is in trouble enough without the City Opera championing a disaster like this.