The marriage ritual is a common subject in virtually all art forms, including opera, but the perspective of Ana Sokolović’s Svadba-Wedding, along with the highly original musical language she employs, presented this passage of life in an especially striking way.
Whether intentionally ironic or not, these performances included another marriage in the background: the high style union of the continuously adventuresome Opera Philadelphia with FringeArts, the frisky avant-garde performance platform that, despite its name, is moving closer to the mainstream of the Philadelphia arts scene with each new season.
A marriage made in heaven? Let’s hope so. Such cultural joint ventures, which in the past were often presented in a dutiful and uninspiring way, have lately been enlivened by a real synergistic vitality.
Exotic Serbian language
Svadba-Wedding is a fine example. Its very format— an all-female a cappella cast— was the first indication that this would be an unconventional opera. This arrangement enjoys the dramatic effect of viewing marriage from a strictly female vantage point, which flavors the entire work.
Then there’s the allure of a Slavic libretto— in this case, the rather exotic Serbian language. The sound of that dialect, alternately earthy and lyrical, gave depth and expression to the singing. But as it turned out, much of the dialogue was in a language fashioned by Sokolović, with no translation in sight.
This practice of make-believe words isn’t original to this composer, and it’s impossible to miss the Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s influence in this respect. Both composers use a form of Sprechstimme—pitched sounds from spoken word designed to express dramatic content in a very succinct way. Sokolović’s new words tend to monosyllables and diphthongs, rendered in a way that suggests questions and reactions.
Philadelphia Orchestra audiences heard a similar use of invented language this past spring, at a performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, although in his case the words contained more bite and humor.
Sokolović’s feminine perspective may deliver a lower dosage of edginess compared to Ligeti, but it’s no less expressive. She manages to pack in a broad range of emotions in a brief package; this one-act opera lasts less than an hour.
The plot is simple. The intended bride, Milica, prepares for her wedding, accompanied by five girl friends. They help her celebrate; fix her hair, bathe her and dress her, but they also express sadness and even resentment at the impending irreparable shift in their relationship. In one especially poignant segment, they all play children’s games, depicting a paean to the loss of innocence.
Under the bridge
The well-rehearsed cast, which premiered the work in Toronto two years ago, managed to convey a palpable sense of strong and varied interpersonal relationships, while at the same time broadcasting an aura of dreaminess. This balancing act neatly followed from the music, a bewitching combination of daring modernism and traditional Balkan folk music.
This production marked a wonderful introduction to the exciting new FringeArts Theater, under the Ben Franklin Bridge and directly across the street from the Race Street Pier. It would be hard to conjure a more dramatic setting, especially at night when the Benny, at its best angle, is bathed in a soft blue light as it looms over the theater.
The traditional Balkan wedding feast that followed the opera, featuring authentic Serbian food and the delightfully braying sound of the West Philadelphia Orchestra, capped the spirit of celebration.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.