Lithuania's operatic language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 5 12:50:21 UTC 2006

Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence,
in 1990, and achieved it the following year. During the past decade and a
half, it has turned increasingly toward the West; in 2004 Lithuania became
a member of the European Union. Opera in the nation's capital has a
surprisingly long history, with the earliest recorded performance in 1634.
Various German, Russian or Italian companies dominated at different times
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Vilnius is a city with a
particularly troubled history. It was seized by after World War I,
becoming Lithuanias capital again only after World War II, at a time when
the country entered the long, gloomy years of Soviet domination.

Unlovely from an external point of view  in contrast to much of Vilniuss
handsome historic center, with its plethora of Baroque churches  the citys
opera house, dating from the Soviet period (1974), is a well-equipped,
comfortable building, possessing a fine acoustic. Since 2002, the director
of the Lithuanian National Opera has been Gintautas Kevisas, a former
concert pianist who was Lithuanias minister of culture from 2000 to 2001.
He previously headed the countrys leading concert institutions. Under his
leadership the company has abandoned its previous all-Lithuanian language
policy and extended its repertoire to include works not previously
presented locally. He has also made a point of introducing modern
production styles, in collaborations with the likes of Francesca Zambello,
Gunter Krmer and Anthony Minghella; the Minghella Butterfly that opened
the Mets 2006-7 season was a coproduction with Vilnius and ENO.

The latest director to respond to Kevisass silver tongue is David Alden,
whose production of Richard Strausss Salome  a piece largely unfamiliar to
Lithuanian audiences  opened on November 24. One of the most important
foundation stones of any opera company is its orchestra, and here the
players showed a complete technical mastery of the virtuoso score, while
Polish conductor Jacek Kaspszyk demonstrated the rare ability to hold the
musicians in check, allowing the voices consistently to come through. One
has heard more overwhelming accounts of Salome, but few so musically or so
confidently realised.

One criticism of Aldens production might be that if one did not know the
work well, his generous rewriting of it might be likely to confuse. But
for those intimately acquainted with the original, Aldens variations on a
Wildean theme held a perverse fascination. The period and location were
altered to the 1960s in one of the many small Soviet satellite republics
of Central and Eastern Europe, not unlike Lithuania itself, though the
lavish and vulgar lifestyle flaunted by the ruling couple of Pawel Wunders
boldly abrasive Herodes and Ligita Rackauskaits syrupy Herodias
(especially as pinpointed in Constance Hoffmans costumes) suggested that
of the Ceausescus, Romanias appalling and ultimately ill-fated

Set designer Paul Steinbergs lurid period wallpaper offered an apt
background for an opening scene in which Herodess staff sat at a table
with listening-in equipment to spy on dissidents. One of these was the
Jochanaan of Mikolaj Zalasinski, whose grand hectoring offered a pungent
commentary on the wickedness of the court and its rulers.

But the main departures from script came later. Sigut Stonyts hardworking
Salome dressed as a bride for the Dance of the Seven Veils, but it was
Herodes who took most of his clothes off. Meanwhile there was a parade of
younger Salomes  teenage or even pre-teenage versions, suggesting that
Herodess sexual interest in (and perhaps relationship with) his
stepdaughter had begun much earlier. At the close, when Herodes ordered
his soldiers to kill Salome, it was not she who died, but he and his wife,
mowed down in a spray of machine-gun bullets aimed by the Page, who had
been mooning around the stage ever since the death of Narraboth. Heady
stuff, and surely major revisionism, but neither frivolous nor arbitrary,
however oblique the angle it came from.

The following night offered a local delicacy, in the shape of the
Lithuanian opera Lokys (The Bear), by Bronius Kutavicius. Born in 1932,
the composer has produced three stage-works in all, of which this, the
latest and largest, was unveiled at the Vilnius Festival (founded and run
by Kevinas) in 2000. The opera is based on a tale called Lokis, or The
Manuscript of Professor Wittembach, by Prosper Mrime (of Carmen fame). It
describes a professor arriving at a remote court in Lithuania in the
nineteenth century and gradually uncovering the secrets of the mysterious
Count, who turns out to be half-man, half-bear, the unfortunate offspring
of an incident many years before when his mother now the aged and
partially demented Countess had been raped by a bear. This weird Gothic
tale climaxes in the Byronic Counts wedding, at which his mother shoots
him as he sinks his teeth into the neck of his bride-to-be.

Kutavicius's score partakes of Lithuanian folk influences (and employed
here a nationally famous folk-singer in the shape of Veronika Povilionien,
as the One-Eyed Woman) but also uses a kind of minimalism whereby a
musical section is constructed out of a repeated short instrumental theme
or motif that might have been borrowed from a Tchaikovsky ballet. Over
this, the vocal lines form lyrically and naturally, while the echoes of
nineteenth-century harmony fit well into this period piece. The result is
a finely paced, powerfully atmospheric work that holds the attention while
the strange and alarming discoveries of the narrative are gradually
revealed. Its a work that deserves to travel.

Giving full value as the sinister yet attractive Count was Vytautas
Juozapaitis, with Inesa Linburgyt as his understandably disturbed mother
and Irena Zelenkauskait as his saved-in-the-nick-of-time intended. Jonas
R. Jurasass production told the dark fairy-tale story neatly, with some
scary resonances conjured up in Mindaugas Navakass designs, which threw
many suggestive images onto the video back-projections. Martynas Staskuss
conducting provided momentum and clarity in this worthwhile presentation
of a remarkable new work.


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