Latvian National Opera, Riga - 2015
Modestas Pitrenas, Viesturs Kairišs, Inga Kalna, Juris Adamsons, Rihards Macanovskis, Mihails Culpajevs, Armands Silinš, Liubov Sokolova, Andžella Goba, Ieva Parša, Krišjanis Norvelis, Samsons Izjumovs, Nauris Puntulis, Laura Grecka, Ieva Kepe
The Opera Platform - 30 May 2015
Premiered in 2014, at the close of the celebrations of Riga's year as European City of Culture, Arturs Maskats' Valentina is undoubtedly an important new opera work; important to Riga and Latvia, and important to a world that is still trying to come to terms with events that happened in recent history during the Second World War. Memory is in fact one of the main themes of the opera, evoked in the libretto, in the structure that this gives the work, and in the music itself. It makes its point very well, even if it can't possibly live up to the ambition of standing as a statement for all the people of Riga during and after the war.
Maskats and his librettist Liāne Langa ambitiously attempt to filter the whole of the experience of the war and its legacy through the figure Valentina Freimane, a famous theatre and film historian who survived the Holocaust. It's ambitious but necessary as the best way to understand the context of the war as a whole is through the experience of one person. Belonging to a Jewish family, in hiding for the duration of the war, Valentina's experience speaks of the horror of the whole, the initial incomprehension, the realisation of war, spreading out to take in the impact it has on close friends, relatives and other citizens in Riga who they come into contact with.
That's challenge enough, and it inevitably feels a little oversimplified trying to compress this naturalistically into the dialogue of the libretto. The opera's creators however aren't aiming for an entirely naturalistic approach. To do so would be to resign the war to an event in the past and neglect the wider impact and its significance through to those living in the present day. Maskats' opera, and particularly the staging by Viesturs Kairišs, attempts to break away from the linear narrative format, dividing the opera up into two parts, the first Act leading up to the beginning of the war, the second part dealing with the aftermath, but also introducing little digressions in time to connect it to a wider historical and personal perspective.
The first half of Valentina, Act I, is constructed then of a number of shorter scenes, episodic snapshots in time that stand mostly as moments of memory and beauty of more innocent times. It starts out in a reflective manner with Valentina seen as an older woman, a screen showing a sepia photo of a street scene, Valentina recalling children singing and playing on the street, family life and being in love. The libretto is littered with references to the summer, the music also evoking warmth and melodies of the 1930s. It's an innocent age, and that innocence is reflected in Valentina choosing to follow her love for Dima rather than the Jewish boy Alexey that her family would like for her, Valentina oblivious to the situation elsewhere in Latvia and to the consequences that this will have in the years ahead.
Those elements gradually make their presence felt as the first Act progresses, the music taking on a more militaristic edge and a marching rhythm as the events in the wider world are discussed. How it relates to Latvia is spoken about in real practical terms, but the libretto also uses an undertaker to give a sense of general unease and uncertainty for all in his fearful dreams. Valentina's role however can also be seen to reflect Latvia's position, caught between two great powers, Russia and Germany, in the middle of something they have no control over and a great deal over. As Alexey also says later, he is now a grown man, but still feel like a child, "still unaware what game he will have to play".
Musically, Maskats' compositions in the first half have something in common with Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. There's no direct reference other than the use of national folk music, but the accumulation of moments add up to a celebration of life and experience, of time and the changes that time brings. Later, there's more of a Tchaikovsky to the dramatic underscoring and flowing melody that works effectively. Most notably however, there is a very specific Latvian character to Valentina, on how events during the war have had an impact that has shaped national character and outlook. There's an attempt to consolidate the pre-war character through a stirring ode to Riga close to the end of Act I, which might have sounded like nationalistic and celebratory were the reverie not shattered by a soldier appearing gun first from a manhole in the middle of it and a red flag appearing.
Reflecting the loss of national identity, or even the personal identity of being part of a family, Valentina and Latvia are further divided and categorised by the yellow stars that appear at the start of Act II. In contrast to the episodic reverie of Act I, Act II has more of the flow of a nightmare. In attempting to capture the horror of war, and a wider perspective on matters such as collaboration, Act II loses Valentina as a focus for the opera while she is in hiding. The opera too consequently fails to hold its focus musically and dramatically, the incidents certainly horrific on their own, but still not really being capable of hitting the mark at the full gravity of the situation. It's an impossible task in any case and probably a mistake to even attempt it. While it certainly doesn't trivialise the experience for all those concerned, it's beyond the realm of this opera and Muskats' tonal melodic music to truly express and encompass dramatically the horror and the greater evil by merely putting singing 'champagne Nazis' on the stage.
Viesturs Kairišs' direction makes the very best of the staging of Valentina in a more or less traditional manner, without any clever effects. The episodic structure of the first half has a consistency of tone, makes bold gestures where they ought to be, and is subtle when a lighter hand is needed. Adopting the perspective of the older Valentina, it effectively manages exactly the way a person would tread delicately through those memories, with fondness for those times of family and community warmth, and with the horror of the symbols (red flags, yellow stars) that intrude on those memories and usher in less pleasant events. In line with the dramatic shift in Act II, it feels less effective at trying to place a concrete reality on the war crimes, but certainly by the end, with the reappearance of Valentina - a strong performance from Inga Kalna - it all comes together to make a strong impression indeed.
Links: Opera Platform