This weekend past marked the world premiere fully-staged performances of the single-act opera The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia by Ketty Nez (b. 1965), a member of Boston University School of Music’s composition and theory department. Performing at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, the Juventas New Music Ensemble’s talented musicians (six instrumentalists here) were led by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the stage director was Giselle Ty, and the equally accomplished cast consisted of four singers and one non-verbal (though not silent) character. The Turkish “Rumelia” refers to the southern Balkan regions of the former Ottoman Empire. The opera’s plot, if it can be termed thus, is based on folktale and, according to the composer, an exploration of her family tree, which includes Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian, Vlach, Greek, FYR Macedonian, Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Austrian roots. I couldn’t help but wonder if the libretto, obscure even by opera’s standards, might be rather less so if this quite diverse ethnic potpourri had been narrowed to two or three sources.
The characters are named by type: Vixen (in the sense of a woman fully aware of, and prepared to use, her sexual power), Roma (the collective name applied to gypsies concentrated in Eastern Europe and the Balkans), Youth (a callow male), Guslar (one who plays the gusle, an instrument similar to the cello), and Hajduk (a Balkan word, ironically pronounced “high duke” but meaning “outlaw”). The work’s seven scenes ostensibly represent a week, though a literal perspective on the plot would seem to require the passage of years. For instance, we have the dramatic character changes of Vixen who morphs, seemingly overnight, from a little girl playing pattycake into a femme fatale, albeit an initially self-conscious and insecure one. Hajduk as well transforms from a mere outlaw into the Devil and back again in the space of seven “days”; this may be simply the intersection of two different folktales, but if so, they both involve his mutual attraction to Vixen. It is not clear.
Inspired by Béla Bartók’s pioneering ethnomusicological research, Nez used only “folk material” in the vocal parts, which encompassed “normal” singing, Sprechstimme, spoken text, and siren-like cries whose emotional provenance was ambiguous to my western ears. The singers all had attractive, resonant voices: soprano Anna Ward as Vixen, mezzo-soprano Hilary Anne Walker as Roma; tenor Leslie Tay as Youth, Guslar, and Man; and baritone Kevin Kees as Hajduk and the Devil. Their enunciation, while not stellar, was generally acceptable; however, the musical setting of the text was fairly frequently not conducive to understanding. To cite one example, the several instances of quasi-canonic imitative writing had the admirable dramatic purpose of evoking two people drawing close together (in every sense) — but usually at the cost of the text’s comprehensibility. The projected surtitles (which I only noticed after four scenes) were far to the left of the stage, rather dim, and supported the most common argument against surtitles: they took the viewers’ eyes off the characters’ faces and actions. Whether it was owing to this, or to the opera being a “hard sell,” or to something else again, the acting of the cast was often not subtle, as though they were mightily determined to hold the audience’s attention.
Much of the time, Nez gave the singers fairly conventional melodic material, presumably folktunes though their harmonic context was most often unconventional at the very least. It was an interesting juxtaposition of the traditional and the modernist, with mixed results. And to avoid getting overly avant garde, we had comic relief in the “non-verbal” character, a bear, well growled by Kate Paulsen, which initially chases the Youth off the stage (one can’t help but recall Shakespeare’s immortal stage direction in The Winter’s Tale: “exit pursued by a bear”). Ultimately, the bear is chased in turn by the Youth, dances with him and the rest of the cast, and literally as well as symbolically picks up their messes — to the accompaniment of an ascending slide whistle. In fact, for me the non-sung dancing sequences were frequently more memorable, both for their narrative choreography and their music with the common touch. If there is a plot thread uniting the seven scenes, it would have to be the volatility and impermanence of human relationships as well as the ultimate failure of the sexes fully to understand each other.
As a reviewer, I personally want to help new works of merit find future audiences, but in my own mixture of responses to The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia, frustration finally won out. My lasting impression is of a montage including a cross-section of Balkan folk music and dance, a bit of morality tale, traditional mythic storytelling, and a generous dollop of theater of the absurd. While there is undoubtedly some fresh, imaginative music and choreography as well as some effective humor, I came away feeling it tries to do too many things at once and inevitably muddies the water. Nonetheless, it is clear that Ketty Nez and Juventas are gifted artists with something to say, and it is well worth keeping track of their future endeavors. And I must include a special word of commendation to the Free for All Concert Fund, Inc., whose generous support allowed free admission to these premiere performances. May their work continue.