Bontsche Schweig (1994)
for Two Sopranos, Alto, Two Tenors, Baritone, Bass, and Chamber Orchestra (Opera in One Act)
18.104.22.168/22.214.171.124/1perc/hp/strings (quintet or larger)
Libretto by Arnold Rosner, after the story by Isaac Loeb Peretz (based on a Jewish folk legend)
Duration: 33 min.
Premiere: 1999; Kingsborough, Community College, Brooklyn, NY
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Bontsche Schweig is a Jewish folk legend, best known in the version by Isaac Loeb Peretz. The full scoring calls for seven singers and 13 instruments.
Three heavenly angels act as something of a Greek chorus throughout. The Angels are in a festive mood as a new individual has entered heaven and approached the court. He arrives, and cannot understand the excitement. This is Bontsche Schweig (Bontsche, “the silent” or “the quiet”) whose life was practically unnoticed on earth, but whose piety and goodness are much celebrated in heaven. Despite this, the inquisitor confronts him with the proceedings about to take place where his “sins remembered and sins forgotten” will be weighed and his eternal reward or punishment determined. He sings “Sh’ma Yisroail” but the angels and the supplicant attempt to reassure him.
The trial proceeds and the supplicant speaks first, concerning Bontsche’s briss and Bar Mitzvah, the passing of his mother, his abandonment by his own father, and his quiet, miserable life, fraught with unpaid wages, tragic carriage accidents, and an unfortunate marriage.
The inquisitor now speaks but, after frightening all concerned by his very presence, prefers to be silent—as Bontsche, in life, was silent. This creates a sudden reduction in tension for all concerned, leading at first to meditative quiet music and then to a dance of joy and heavenly celebration, somewhat in Klezmer-style. (In the ensemble scoring, a solo clarinet is prominent.)
The angels sing of deliverance in the lord, and the heavenly judge sings an aria about the mysteries and joys of paradise, directing Bontsche’s attention to an area of gardens, a group of musicians, and the library of heaven. He tells Bontsche that any and all rewards are available to him, but Bontsche finds this choice daunting. As the angels watch in gleeful anticipation, he asks simply for a nice hot roll and freshly churned butter, every day, every morning. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)