Ana Sokolović - Svadba
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2015
Dáirine Ní Mheadhra, Ted Huffman, Zack Winokur, Florie Valiquette, Liesbeth Devos, Jennifer Davis, Pauline Sikirdji, Andrea Ludwig, Mireille Lebel
Culturebox - 10 July 2015
Opera has always been and should always be open to broadening its definition and its remit in line with the times. Even those traditional core components of music and narrative should be capable of being stretched to accommodate new forms of expression through musical drama. There's at least one area that has been under represented and is surely capable of taking opera in new directions in modern composition, and that's in the field of women composers. The Canadian-Serbian composer Ana Sokolović certainly finds a distinct individual approach to opera in Svadba, but I'm not convinced that the subject - a woman's preparations for a wedding - really gains anything from being in the opera medium.
Women composers are rare enough in opera and classical music composition, so it's interesting that the only other female opera composer who I've covered on OperaJournal so far, Aleksandra Vrebalov, is also Serbian born. It's interesting too to compare the subject matter of Vrebalov's Mileva with that of Svadba, both of them rooted in the plight and the nature of women of Serbian background. Mileva is a portrait opera of Mileva Marić, who was married to Albert Einstein, but received little recognition for her own scientific research. Svadba means 'Wedding', and marriage of a young Serbian woman, Milica, is the whole subject of Sokolović's short one-act opera, performed here at the Aix-en-Provence festival.
It's perhaps not so much the subject that is the problem with both works, as much as the failure of the libretto to live up to the ambitions of the operatic medium. Ana Sokolović certainly makes her own mark in the subject and treatment of Svadba. Most notably it uses no musical instruments whatsoever, and yet it is still thoroughly musical. The entire one-hour opera consists of six women singing and interacting together a cappella. And it's not just words, but slaps, sounds, chants and stamps connected in through dance and movement to build up a wonderful musical rhythm. It's a bit Steve Reich and a bit Stomp. In terms of narrative, unfortunately, it's mostly Stomp.
There are unquestionably other levels you can draw from the rather simple outline narrative description of Svadba. You can see that it has roots in folk, that there is the whole idea of wedding as tradition, and that there is a particular bond that exists between women preparing for a wedding - and some tensions too. I'm not convinced however that Svadba puts these matters across any better in an opera than could be done in a film. And I don't just mean 'Muriel's Wedding', 'Mamma Mia' or 'Bridesmaids'. There's clearly an attempt to get beneath the surface and into the deeper subconscious nature of how women feel and behave in such an occasion that places Svadba closer to 'Céline and Julie go Boating'. In any case, it's got nothing in common with The Marriage of Figaro. But then there's no reason why a 21st century opera should have anything in common with an 18th century opera.
It would help if the libretto did support something as ambitious as the a cappella arrangements. The flow and rhythms of the night before the wedding narrative all culminate evidently in the moment of the wedding, and Milica's solo singing of her wedding morning reflections "Light breeze, breathe softly..." is beautiful, bringing all the moods together into this one big moment. Unfortunately, the words and imagery of the libretto let it down somewhat with unsubtle horticultural metaphors like "Come to me my beloved / Come into my verdant garden / where my red rose is blooming", and Milica's separation from her family makes her feel like a "grape cut from the vine".
Svadba is really about is whatever you want to see in it, and in that respect, it matches how opera is staged in the present day. Concepts and real human issues can be drawn out of it if you are willing to apply your own experience to it. Identifying with Milica, you can feel part of a long line of tradition, you can experience the feelings of loss that marriage brings ("I'm my mother's only daughter"), feel the thrill of the unknown that comes with a man (better a heroic husband like Ilija than a drunkard like Jovan), running a whole range of emotions from fear and excitement to the sense of setting out alone, being reborn in white in a wedding dress. Or you could see it as a lot of irritating characters prancing around chanting nonsense syllables with pantomime overacting ...oh, so it is like 'Céline and Julie go Boating' then.
Links: ARTE Concert, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence