A bride to be and five girlfriends gather to celebrate on the eve of her wedding ceremony. They wear knee length skirts of wine and black hues that flare out in puffs and folds over pattered or boldly reddish tights. They wear squeezed uppers, bodices that accentuate their breasts and assert their womanhood. Their striking and surprising costumes, by designer Michael Gianfrancesco, seem to urge them revel in their sexuality.
So these ladies are hanging loose. They are playful, impish, assertively celebratory, and much fun to be with for the Opera’s fifty minute duration. In life off the stage, they are mezzos Andrea Ludwig and Krisztina Szabo and sopranos Laura Albino, Carla Huhtanen, Shannon Mercer, and Jacqueline Woodley, a gathering of vocal riches, to be sure.
The ladies sing texts of Serbian poetry that sometimes shows a desperate sense of existence in everyday life, as in the lyric: “Mother is giving me to Jovan the drunk”. The singer, however, wants Ilija the hero, and not Jovan. Such is a girl’s complaint that inhabits folk songs of every culture. Or, further “two roosters were fighting on the priest’s hearth”, a lyric which echoes a rural existence where all kinds of animal activity and consciousness prevails. In the country, people and animals both domestic and wild traditionally live as one coexistence, and humans sometimes take animal sounds, like those here on display, as their own. They make up stories played out by animals, ergo folklore and its buddy imagination. Thus, the surtitles overhead are a welcome good read.
In the composer’s and her first culture’s tonally compressed vocal sounds, we hear piercing and elongated Balkan harmonies that carry a sense of inherent echo, of mystery. We have ebb and flow cadences and staccato sounds punched out on the breath. We hear squeezed and flattened or ripe and juicy tones, group conversation like collective barnyard clucking, voices of implicit defiance whatever the subject. We also hear gut-wrenching cries from the bride and dizzied, breathless laughter and affectionate teasing tones from her friends.
The sung dialogue might be “vuh……huh huh” repeated over and over, meaningless sounds that, with pointed characterization, seem to speak whole texts. Or it might be confidential girl chatter bursting with urgent advice or premarital sexual innuendo or a wistful sharing of dreams. In terms of sound alone, even without director Michael Cavanagh’s inventive and very human sensitivity and his keenly theatrical smarts, this opera would be maddeningly delicious with its always surprising variety of sounds.
In the realm of body, since physicality is indeed a driving force of Sokolovic’s creation, we have playfully robotic or marionettish movements, or sauntering, swaggering and suggestive walks, or a sensual bride writhing in the light and stroking her hair. We have foot stomping in staccato rhythms, or mime with everyday gesture magnified, or physical movements that echo or accompany the words these voices sing. These bodies are often so rich and varied with movement and sound that they seem collectively as complex as an orchestra, yet always spontaneous , spur of the moment, easily silly. The voices make sound and such sound is worked over into meaning, a meaning that is not abstracted but rooted instead in physical existence that constantly encounters the world. Sound is a spirit here, one that permeates all, makes everything presented here exist again and again in a new dimension.
As well, a celebratory lust for existence drives the atmosphere created here by these assertively breasted women who play both their sexual and life-nurturing cards at one time. They are crucial to life’s process, and this is what we sense. The production becomes even more potently female with the bride-to-be’s undressing, removing her stockings, and the sense of isolation seeping into her being as the voices around her, though close as before, sound more distant. She sinks into her senses, it seems, and then into poetry as she is told that “the sky is full of stars” and then to “wash your hair in the stars”. Her friends circle about with yards and yards of silver fabric and over a simple frame create an ambiguous formation. Is it a bath, a bed, an ocean symbolic of her awaking sensuality, her primordial purpose? She is told to “wash your breasts in the stars” and we thus know that something very true of the human heart is going on.
In Svadba we experience women in groups where, through play and bonding, they have their own feminine existential search, their own feminine world, their own dimensions of reality. A continuum of sound develops as, for instance, each upends a hollow tube, one not quite three feet in length and filled with granular material, and creates the sound of water flowing. Or is in time that flows in their hands, like grains of sand?
The bride to be is being awakened to her part in the fundamental flow of propagation, one in which a species must participate in order to endure. Her friends slumber almost protectively around her and a flute sound is heard and we are told “the nightingale is starting to sing….. it must be dawn… wake up, Milica… the groom is arriving.” The bride to be, naked and wrapped in silver disappears for a moment and returns in a gown. She sings the opera’s only solo “Come to me, my beloved.” A new lifetime is beginning and from it other lifetimes.
In the production’s program notes, Svadba is described as a newly commissioned opera by Serbian born, Montreal resident Ana Sokolovic. As you can tell, it is much, much more. Rooted, as it is, in traditional folklore, and composed and produced with a knack from all participants for subtle profundity, it carries the unforced resonance of a collectively shared ritual. It weaves multidimensional realities into a theatrical fibre that entertains and moves one deeply, it alters and embellishes everyday life and draws forth its archetypal underpinnings. Svadba is a creation that celebrates the immediacy of friendship, sensuality, fantasy, physical existence in the world, the sounds we make and amplify into meaning. It celebrates being.
With six instinctively dedicated and versatile singers, a minimum of multipurpose props, six lights that seem like small suns to roll on stands and be refocused at will, and tonal resources so broad and daring that they reconfigure what one defines as experience, Svadba succeeds in reaching beneath concept into a more fundamental experience of existence. It certainly offers many surprises, much delight, many nudges into ineffable understanding that we come to feel in our bones. Ultimately, it simply gives undeniable cause to celebrate being in the world. For this production of Svadba is most seductive as it demonstrates and indeed seems made of the very same life energy that it would have us, the ones who watch, also know and, yes, celebrate. I’ve waited a long time for theatre to do something like this.