Deborah Drattell’s intriguing and much-publicized opera Lilith is really about Eve. It is with Eve’s struggles in the work’s premier at the New York City Opera this winter that we empathize. Lilith is a decidedly secondary character.
The opera’s setting suggests an Eastern European shtetl. A congregation of black-clad men and shawled women mourn the death of Adam. His widow, Eve, is devastated. She has lost her identity as partner in a mythic marriage. Soon, troubling presences—heard, not seen—invade the stage. Recognizing them. Eve explains to her children, a son and daughter in Drattell’s version, that these are their half-siblings by their father and another woman, a greedy, insatiable being named Lilith. Lilith herself soon arrives, displaying bare arms, unconfined hair, a sexily shimmering gown. Dramatically, she informs Eve that Adam—and indeed all men—are really hers. At this revision of her idealized past, Eve collapses.
Traditionally, Lilith existed as a projection of human fears—usually male fears—of female independence and sexuality. But this Lilith is a projection of Eve’s fears: of losing her past, of competing with a rival, of her own sexual impulses. As Director Ann Bogart suggests in the program notes, perhaps Lilith is just a figment of Eve’s imagination. Eve is the more interesting character, by turns angry, loving, repressed, sexual, self-deceiving, risk-taking. But Lilith here is merely the sexual aggressor.
After the funeral scene, the Seer, a male rabbinical figure, tells Eve that Lilith is her “dark twin,” who must besought after and merged with. Only by uniting can Eve resolve her spiritual/emotional crisis and Lilith find redemption. Eve agrees to undertake a journey back to Eden, to seek Lilith. The women meet and briefly embrace. Then Lilith leads Eve into a stunning dance, which becomes a stylized orgy, the women brazenly accosting the black-suited men. Eve both enjoys and is horrified by these proceedings. She is “torn” and fears losing her identity further by becoming Lilith, who asks, “Why deny your fire?” Eventually, Eve withdraws. Lilith exits. Neither merging nor redemption takes place.
Drattell’s use of midrash—of archetypal Jewish women characters—to express emotional states is bold and ambitious. At its best moments, the opera is both moving and gripping. However, because Lilith’s role is so ambiguous, this opera would be better served if she were de-emphasized. With some re-shaping and another title, this striking work could have been profound.