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World premiere of a Serbian opera (yes, Serbian)

Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs
06/24/2011 -  & June 25, 28, 29, 30, July 2, 2011
Ana Sokolovic: Svadba-Wedding
Jacqueline Woodley (Milica), Laura Albino (Lena), Shannon Mercer (Danica), Carla Huhtanen (Zora), Andrea Ludwig (Nada), Kristina Szabo (Ljubica)
Dáirine Ní Mheadhra (Conductor)
Nathalie Bonjour (Producer), Michael Cavanagh (Director), Michael Gianfrancesco (Set & Costume Designer), Kimberly Purtell (Lighting Designer)

J. Woodley (foreground) (© John Lauener)

In 2000, Queen of Puddings Music Theatre commissioned from Ana Sokolovic a 10-minute work for six female voices (a capella) entitled Six Voix Pour Sirènes/Six Voices for Sirens. This led to a further commission, The Midnight Court Opera, in 2005 (toured to London in 2006) and Love Songs (2008) for solo soprano (Shannon Mercer) - this toured across Canada). The 2000 work has been recalled in this new hour-long opera, Svadba-Wedding, which received its premiere on June 24.

Svadba-Wedding is also sung a capella (although not quite all the time: a snare drum is used momentarily, as are rainsticks) and Sokolovic has designed melismatic vocal lines that recall what we think of as ancient music that, in this case, seems to rise from the Balkan earth. Yes, Balkan: the work is performed in Serbian, the Montreal-based composer’s native language. She also wrote the libretto and her program notes state that the text is taken from Serbian poetry, just as the music has folkloric origins. Playful nonsense syllables intervene at times. (The English surtitles are the skilled work of Gunta Dreifelds, who ran the surtitles at their first appearance at the Canadian Opera Company back in 1983 - and she has been at it ever since.)

The plot: six women gather during the night preceeding the youngest one’s wedding. The seven scenes sum up the action: Girlfriends sing; Colouring hair; Love suit - dance; Competition/Alphabet and Patty Cakes; Bath; Dressing; Farewell. Milica, the bride-to-be, expresses trepidation as she is to be married to Jovan the drunk instead of the handsome Illya. (We see neither man of course.) Following the playful scenes, the bride is ritually bathed in a scene featuring the effective use of a swathe of silver fabric which later becomes her gown.

The six singers are all known locally as committed total performers and they don’t disappoint. Jacqueline Woodley, a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, is the young bride. She is lucky indeed to have an evocative role composed expressly for her. The one aria, translated as “Blow, blow the gentle wind”, in which she bids farewell to her old life, is glowingly beautiful and Ms Woodley makes the most of it.

Director Michael Cavanagh, along with designers Michael Gianfrancesco (sets and costumes) and Kimberly Purtell (lighting) have devised an atmospheric milieu guiding us through the night to the transcendent finale. My only complaint is that they shine bright lights right at the audience several times, a deliberately annoying theatrical device that I sincerely wish would go out of fashion.

With the committed conducting of Dáirine Ní Mheadhra, co-artistic director (along with John Hess) of Queen of Puddings, the attentive opening night audience (full house!) seemed spellbound throughout.

Looking forward: Ana Sokolovic will have a piece, Nine Proverbs, inspired by a painting by Peter Brueghel the younger, performed in Toronto by the Esprit Orchestra in November.

Michael Johnson



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