9 October 2015

Onute Narbutaite: Kornetas

Last night was my first visit to the Lithuanian national opera theatre (Lietuvos Nacionalinis Operos Ir Baleto Teatras). A wonderful venue in the centre of Vilnius and around the corner from the river Neris. Stood in the foyer before entering the actual theatre you stare up at the evening sky with the Gediminas fort dominating the skyline.

My visit was to see an opera by one of Lithuania's most internationally recognised composers, Onute Narbutaite. A composer who I have know for quite a significant amount of time, due mostly to the vast number of recordings available of her works. Finlandia did a wonderful selection of CDs including her second symphony and Gates of Oblivion. Her work has always struck me as rather wonderful. The intensity of the music combined with a powerful melodic strive makes her work very powerful. The second movement of the second symphony 'melody in the garden of olives' is one of best demonstrations of her music. With its focus on melodic material combined with jarring chords and thick colourful orchestral textures make the piece quite stunning.

With this familiarity of her work I was curious to see what a Narbutaite opera would sound like. Mostly because in my experience of watching opera by living composers, not all composers can make good opera. Sometimes the best composers will fail at opera. A good operatic composer needs something else, and I was hopeful to see if Narbutaite could work this magic.

The opera is called Kornetas (Cornet) and to quote the composer:

This opera is a free improvisation on the subject of Rainer Maria Riike's Die Weise von Liebe un Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke....Now, in the 21st century, this opera improvisation is speaking of the universality of that story, as if trying to state that human yearning - for love or transcendence - always remains the same...R.M. Rilke's poetic storyline is reflected in the opera, however, it serves more as a pretext...and inspiration to a personal vision.             Onute Narbutaite.

The opera is two acts shows the last moments of Kornetas before he died in battle. Through these final moments he is haunted by memories of his past and you always feel his desire to return back to that life. This parallel of real life and 'dreamworld' is handled very well by the stage design so there is very little confusion about how the two worlds interact. Musically it has the same gutsy power that I come to know and love of Narbutaite. But its wonderful music sadly didn't make it great opera. The real strength in the work came in the second act where the momentum was far stronger and every shift from reality to dream felt more necessary. And the final death of Kornetas was extremely powerful. The first act spent too much time setting up the parameters of reality and dream, to the point that direction was lost and the death of the Screaming girl felt like it came out of nowhere. 

The hefty task of tackling a new opera was mastered rather wonderful by the conductor Robertas Servenikas and the main cast were very strong in their roles. The set was beautifully made, but at times felt unconnected.

My misgivings of this opera are by no means a reflection of the successes of Lithuanian opera or the quality of the music of Onute Narbutaite. Listen to Narbutaite's Tres Dei Matris Symphony the sheer magic and colour of the choir and orchestra makes for a wonderful listening. Alternatively you can hear Lokys the Bear by Bronius Kutavicius to see how powerful Lithuanian opera can be.

Over the next few weeks there will be more blog posts as I have been fortunate enough to get press access to the Gaida Festival, so look out for more posts. 

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