And the Rat Laughed

A Chamber Opera
By Ella Milch-Sherif
Adapted from the novel 'The Rat Laughs' by Nava Semel Libretto: Nava Semel and Milch Sheriff Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv
(2005)

Production photo
Production photo

And the Rat Laughed is a thrillingly ambitious début opera by Ella Milch-Sheriff based on Nava Semel's novel 'The Rat Laughs', which deals with the horrors of the Holocaust.

A wide stage accommodates all 35 musicians of the Israeli Chamber Orchestra on one side; a grandmother in a wheelchair (Soprano, Bavat Marom) and her granddaughter (Soprano, Clair Meghnagi) in the centre; and a round faux futuristic stage at the other end where Lima Energelly (superb Mezzo-Soprano, May Israeli) and Stash (Baritone, Jonathan Himovitch) stand.

This opera tells the harrowing tale of a young Jewish girl (Soprano, Einat Aronstein) whose parents entrust her to a family of farmers living in a remote Polish village towards the end of the war. She is hidden in a dark potato cellar for over a year, with little food and only a rat for company and is raped repeatedly by the farmer's son.

When the girl's parents no longer send money, the farmer's wife takes the girl to the village priest, Father Stanislaw ( Baritone, Alexey Kanunikof), and urges him to kill her. Instead, he hides the girl in his church at great personal risk. The highlight of the opera is a Mass scene, when Father Stanislaw rebels against his Lord who abandoned his children.

The inner voice of the girl in the pit, until the priest rescues her, is provided by the remarkable performance of the Moran Girls' Choir.

In 1999, the girl has become a grandmother, "the owner of painful memory", living in Tel Aviv. She recounts her tale to her nameless and generic 12-year-old granddaughter, who is interviewing granny for a school project.

On the 'Futuristic stage', the year is 2099. Lima and Stash, two anthropologists are resolved to uncover the origins of the widespread myth known as the "Girl and the Rat". It is they who excavate this memory from its burial place.

Although this is his first opera, director Odedt Kotler superbly manages to create natural connections in an unnatural existence.

Milch-Sherif's music, which includes references to some familiar Jewish motifs, intensifies the content and augments it without introducing any sentimentality.

The Israeli Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Ori Leshman delivered stirring harmonic colours to accompany the dramatic action.

This was a captivating experience but, despite its sensitive subject matter, And the Rat Laughed might have achieved wider appeal had it embraced a laugh or some humour.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson