Cipullo: The Parting
by Daniel J. Kushner
This Chamber Opera, which had its' premiere in Seattle in May 2019, is the second by composer Tom Cipullo and librettist David Mason to be commissioned by Music of Remembrance, a performing-arts organization dedicated to commemorating the stories of the Holocaust. It's about Miklos Radnoti, a Hungarian poet of Jewish descent who was killed while forced into service at a labor camp during World War 11; Cipullo and Mason highlight the irony that Radnoti's lasting legacy is in part due to the circumstances surrounding his death, in 1944. When his body was recovered from a mass grave, a notebook of his final poems was found on his person, and with them messages of love to his wife, Fanni Gyarmati, as well as descriptions of the atrocities he experienced firsthand.
It's fitting, then, that The Parting imagines a conversation between Radnoti, Gyarmati and Death itself on May 19, 1944, the night before the poet would go to the camp and never return. (He died in November.) At the outset, Death (mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook) is framed by Gyarmati (soprano Laura Strickling) as an interloper, a prospective mistress of sorts for Radnoti (baritone Michael Mayes) and a threat to their union. But Death, knowing the tragedy that will soon befall the poet, instead insistently tries to foster a deeper connection between the couple, in spite of her intrusion and admitted propensity for jealousy. "How will you use the time?" Cook sings with urgent solemnity.
The opera's tone is melancholic but tender. Under conductor Alastair Willis, Cipullo's economic instrumentation- performed by violinist Mikhail Shmidt, cellist Walter Gray, flutist Zart Dombourian-Eby, clarinetist Laura DeLuca and pianist Jessica Choe never sounds scant; instead it underscores the emotional intimacy shared by the characters.
All three singers possess vocal stamina, and they easily sing both forceful phrases and delicate melodies. Strickling and Mayes demonstrate this versatile delivery in the beguiling duet "In your two arms, back and forth." Cook portrays Death with an earthy yet velvety tone. During the interlude "I can no longer either die or live without you," when Radnoti asks about the point of living, she condenses the drama into one plainspoken reply: "To love. To make beautiful things. To die."
Mason's libretto repeatedly reminds the audience that Death's power is derived from its poetic reliance on life lived vibrantly to achieve its beauty and relevance. Paradoxically, as in the life of Radnoti, it was only through death that the full impact of his art was realized.
Cipullo's consonant harmonies, subtle dynamics and slowly unfolding melodic phrases turn Mason's text into an odd lullaby, full of bit tersweet moments. The Parting takes the catastrophic, dense and unwieldy Holocaust and zooms in on one life lost, demonstrating the enduring nature of love and art in defiance of extreme cruelty and injustice.