The Boston Lyric Opera has been experimenting with made-for-video productions for over a year now as the pandemic drags on, bringing the weird (“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Philip Glass) and the sexy/scary (the “desert in” collaborative creation) to a home audience. Now, amidst the Omicron variation, it’s clear that in rendering Belgrade-born Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic’s a cappella opera “Svadba” as a cinematic experience instead of a live performance, BLO and the co-producers of the Philadelphia Opera have chosen the physically safest way to present it.
The play invites the audience to a pre-wedding gathering for a bride-to-be named Milica and five of her closest confidantes. There, garlands are woven, stories told, rites of passage marked. Adapting such things to physical distancing would be a tall order, and perhaps too depressingly realistic in its disconnection. How many weddings and related festivities have already moved to Zoom, anyway?
Unfortunately, when it comes to conveying connection and community, BLO’s “Svadba” also falls short. With one hand he reaches for something specific, with the other something universal, and he grasps neither. “Svadba” did not offer character development or even flesh out its characters; it felt like who they were was less important than what they stood for. However, their sound and visual representations ultimately failed to sync.
This “Svadba” is less a performance filmed live than an opera music video. The six singers – Chabrelle D. Williams as Milica, Brianna J. Robinson as older relative and bridal shower host Lena, with Vera Savage, Mack Wolz, Hannah Ludwig and Maggie Finnegan rounding out the wedding party – were recorded and filmed this past summer at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. Daniela Candillari (born in Novi Sad, Serbia) conducted Sokolovic’s constellations of grouped chords and trained the singers in the playful language of the libretto, which draws on a blend of Serbian poetry, Balkan folk music and of oral music: clicks, trills, sighs, the wordless language of an intimate group. The opera’s emphasis on the unaccompanied human voice draws on traditional Balkan harmony singing, while the tonal language is decidedly contemporary. “The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices” is not that. After taping, an ensemble of dancers filmed visuals on Cape Cod in pleasantly balmy October weather, directed by Shura Baryshnikov (movement director for BLO’s 2019 “The Handmaid’s Tale”) with a script by Hannah Shepard. Here, the visuals diverged from the sound: the cycles of tension and release in Sokolovic’s score were rarely reproduced or represented in the action or on-screen environment.
Decorator Ana Novacic filled a cozy seaside home with lush images – a bath of rose petals, a table covered in piles of fresh fruit and mason jars filled with homemade jams, Lena (actress Jackie Davis) lovingly mixing homemade herbal hair dyes, laughs and smiles without a smartphone or even a camera in sight – and it created an appealing cottagecore Pinterest board, even if it had little obvious relationship to the spiritual core of the opera. “Svadba” is a joyful work, but it is not without shadows. Without subtitles or translations, a non-Serb would not know if something is a song of celebration or sorrow, and in a way the whole opera is both. This bittersweet flavor is common in the region’s wedding songs, stemming from the (historically reliable) assumption that a young woman would move away from family and childhood friends after marriage to join the family. from her husband. It’s no longer a given, but feelings of impending loss are inherent in any ritual rite of passage: for a marriage-specific example, one might think of “Sunrise, Sunset.” The singers representing the bridesmaids of “Svadba” moan, “No tears, my darling”, during the final scene; here, as Milica (brilliantly portrayed by Victoria Awkward) unwrapped her freshly dyed tresses and accepted hand-fed candy from a bridesmaid, there was no indication she might even frown.
But the full emotional spectrum shone through in the singers’ performance, and in the brief cuts of the singers’ footage, it was written on their faces. In the opera’s only solo aria, for Milica, Williams’ voice and expression channeled a deep understanding of Milica’s state in the hour before the wedding, brimming with simultaneous anticipation and anxiety. If only the camera had stayed on her face during that moment of stillness instead of returning to the rustling candy-colored dresses of the bridesmaids at the breakfast table. If “Svadba” had been performed live, even if that performance had only been for a few cameras in an empty theater, it would no doubt have been less picturesque, but all the performers would have told the same story. Watching this “Svadba” was more like watching a movie overlaid on another movie’s soundtrack.
On operabox.tv from January 28.