‘A Melancholy Beauty’: Operatic Holocaust story has a happy ending

Georgi Andreev’s oratorio “A Melancholy Beauty” relates that rare Holocaust story: one with a happy ending.

It had its world premiere Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a compelling performance by the National Philharmonic and members of seven U.S. and Bulgarian choral ensembles under the baton of Henry H. Leck.

The story relates the 1943 refusal of Bulgarian citizens, clergy and government leaders to allow Nazi deportation of the country’s Jewish population. As a result, all 49,000 Jews in Bulgaria were saved.

If Andreev’s musical setting often sounds like an amalgam of mid-20th-century choral works (with Walton and Prokofiev figuring prominently), colored by washes of old Hollywood-style, biblical-epic soundtrack writing, that doesn’t take away from its attractions. This is a smart, confidently written, seductively attractive piece that weaves Bulgarian folk instruments and folk-singing styles into colorful scoring.

There’s an operatic urgency to the writing for three imaginatively contrasted soloists — bass David Kravitz (as the Nazi-sympathizing Commissar Belev), cantor Charles David Osborne (the vacillating King Boris) and folk singer Neli Atanasova Andreeva (Belev’s secretary-lover, who delivers life-saving classified information to the Jewish leaders).

Only the didactic libretto and cardboard characterizations contributed by writers Scott Cairns and Aryeh Finklestein create longueurs in this 75-minute work.

In a pre-oratorio program of music performed by the choirs that would later form the large chorus for Andreev’s work, the brief, sweetly devotional “Whosoever Saves a Single Life” (another world premiere, by oratorio soloist Osborne) was beautifully rendered by the fine New York-based ensemble Khorikos.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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