DIGITAL REVIEW — On a stopover in New York in 1981, Gian Carlo Menotti said, “I think that opera on television loses as much of a new audience as it attracts. That is because most opera shown on television is so bad. Opera is not for television unless it is written for television.”
There’s no irony lost here. When the Italian-American composer created Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1951, the work was considered the world’s first television opera. So, if Menotti were still with us, what might he think of Boston Lyric Opera’s streamed production of Ana Sokolović’s Svadba, a co-production with Opera Philadelphia?
He would probably applaud. Menotti said in that same interview, “To adapt an opera for television, you need a superb cameraman and a superb director.” Operabox.tv’s streaming version of Svadba answers Menotti’s fears. Director Shura Baryshnikov and director of photography Katherine Castro have transformed an opera intended for the stage into a cinematic experience by cannily embracing the styles of contemporary music video production. By borrowing the image-centricity of their contemporary counterparts, Baryshnikov and screenwriter Hannah Shepard fuse the best of opera with the best of music theater video cinematography.
Svadba, which means “wedding” in Serbian and Slovakian languages, is a contemplation on wedding rituals. The various preparations before the nuptial ceremony, common to almost every folklore, form the narrative arc of Sokolović’s work.
The challenge for the creative team was how to approach this theme, how to re-scale the theatricality of a stage version to the screen, and how to find a contemporaneity and immediacy that will connect to a modern television audience and hold attention.
To solve the dilemma, Baryshnikov’s dancers and actors embody the characters. A sextet of female opera singers, dressed in black, are assigned to an offstage studio and perform the characters of the opera in oratorio-like style while the substantive length of screen time is taken by a parallel dance-theater script.
In application, the bride-to-be Milica is sung by Chabrelle D. Williams but danced by Victoria L. Awkward. The role of elder Lena is sung by Brianna J. Robinson but portrayed by actor Jackie Davis. On the one hand, this directorial decision is a novel way to understand and extend the inner world of the character through physical expression, and on the other, the concept cleverly allows the opera singers to perform unencumbered by tricky camera close-ups. Given that the muscular physicality of opera singing rarely translates well on to the small screen, the result is that nothing is lost and everything is gained.
It takes a while to unravel what is going on, but once you accept the convention, the alternation between the mirror sets of dramatis personae quickly takes shape. The counterpoint offers us an opportunity to experience a full-bodied vocal performance without sacrificing the lyrical or subtle intentions of this dance-theater drama.
Sokolović’s score, built on Balkan folk music, drives the passion engine of this telemovie. We associate the soul of Balkan folk music with melancholia, and our ears are accustomed to the sounds of the close intervals of the second and odd meters. Sokolović’s imagination takes us to a rhythmic and sound world that retains the kernel of eastern European folk but is never derivative and always remains complex. The Serbian-born, Quebec-based composer takes the Balkan reference points and elevates their nuances to produce an a-cappella, electronically enhanced score that is a wonder for its textural inventiveness.
Sung in Serbian, the opera opens with an arresting heraldic antiphonal chorus built on a dialogue of flourishing trills and silence. Later, Siren songs that are manifest through ascending and descending vocal slides take you to a mythical world. Another musical number articulated entirely through flutter lips and extended vocal techniques brings an onomatopoeic experience.
The pitch-perfect performance by the sextet of singers (Williams, Robinson, Maggie Finnegan, Mack Wolz, Vera Savage, and Hannah Ludwig), under the direction of Daniela Candillari, is meticulously controlled yet exuberantly energetic.
Baryshnikov’s dreamlike, otherworldly dance sequences compete with these palpable and rich vocalizations. Baryshnikov shepherds our visual attentions through a series of ritualistic dance theater scenes. The bride Milica is surrounded by the attendants of her wedding party who assist and support her preparations. There are enactments of fertility dances. Wreaths and garlands are made and food prepared. And while the lyricism of these gentle moments captures your attention for most of the 55-minute duration, the director asks a lot from her audience. There are times when our attention wavers simply because there are few dramatic tensions in the work itself. Ultimately, we stay with the opera because the series of divertissements are designed to appeal to us purely on an aesthetic level, and ultimately the piece itself cannot take us any further.
Svadba succeeds as a beautiful abstraction.
Boston Lyric Opera’s television foray takes Menotti’s vision to a different future for opera. I’m reminded of the Socratic dialogue The Republic, in which Plato famously wrote: “Our need will be the real creator.” The pandemic brought us to the digital space. The question of whether streamed opera “loses as much of a new audience as it attracts,” as Menotti said, will be answered by the inventiveness of its creators and their ability to understand where opera meets the medium.
The production can be streamed for $15 (good for seven days) on Boston Lyric Opera’s operabox.tv or as part of an Opera Philadelphia Channel subscription ($99 per year or $9.99 per month) at operaphila.tv.