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Mamzer Bastard review at Hackney Empire, London – ‘hauntingly melodic’

Gundula Hintz and Colin Shay in Mamzer Bastard at Hackney Empire Gundula Hintz and Collin Shay in Mamzer Bastard at Hackney Empire. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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Mamzer, a Hebrew word, denotes a person born from a forbidden relationship. Yoel (countertenor Collin Shay) is a timid 21-year-old Hassid. On the night before his wedding he escapes to Manhattan from Brooklyn. Only it’s the sweltering summer of 1977 and all the lights go out.

In the chaos he encounters a mysterious man (Steven Page) – just possibly a ghost – who leads him to a revelation about his family. He comes to understand the reasons for his confusion and achieves some kind of resolution.

Composer Na’ama Zisser and her librettists pick up on the story’s Oedipus element by introducing a kind of Greek chorus – here a synagogue cantor (Netanel Hershtik). Of his seven numbers only one is by Zisser; the others, mostly conventionally and reassuringly tonal, date from the 20th century.

Zisser’s own music is eclectic, sometime sparse, sometimes layered, sometimes hauntingly melodic. Recorded sound complements live performance (conductor Jessica Cottis and the Aurora Orchestra are in the pit) and the singers are discreetly amplified.

The score’s highlight is a reflective trio for Yoel, his younger self (treble Edward Hyde) and his troubled mother (mezzo Gundula Hintz). Here, Zisser takes assertive command of her material, creating memorable music drama. Elsewhere she can slip into neutral, relying on the surtitles (which translate the Yiddish terms that pepper the English text) to tell the story.

Jay Scheib’s production, set on a largely empty stage, makes striking use of live video and news footage. If it never quite evokes mid-1970s sweatiness, the theatrical intensity never falters.

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