Boston Lyric Opera’s most recent streaming offering, a co-production with Opera Philadelphia of Svadba “A Journey Through Friendship, Tradition and Love” by Ana Sokolović, prompts the question, “What is ‘svadba’?” A title screen explains first in Cyrillic and then in the Latin alphabet:
The hours before a wedding are filled with private and ancient rituals between a bride and beloved attendants—
a short but decisive moment in time: Свадба (Svadba)
Sokolović has written music for a bridal ritual. Employing an a capella ensemble of six female voices, it draws heavily from central European choral music: dense, close harmonies with much sustained dissonance, episodes of vigorous, dancing rhythm, and the occasional long and decorated melody, performed alone or over a cushion of suspended notes. This is the core of the sound world of Svadba, to which Sokolović adds additional elements that generate unusual surfaces: the text is often fragmented into individual phonemes; a handful of outside sounds appear (dirt or gravel shaken or ground in plastic cups; a drum, a gong, rainsticks). Familiar 21st century minimalist procedures are often in play, mixing literal repetition with alternating recurrence. I also thought of Meredith Monk at times as the voices would swoop and chatter. These techniques well serve a work with a unified personality. This is often gritty music, strong and assertive throughout, balancing change and stasis. It creates a world of its own, severely focused, whose events hold the imagination for the 50-minute running time of the piece. Though bearing a genre resemblance to Les Noces, Svadba comes across as far less mechanical and far more intimate.
However, while the music is being performed under invisible conductor Daniela Candillari, we view a very different kind of creation. Six women (dancer Victoria L. Awkward, actor Jackie Davis, dancer Jay Breen, dancer Sarah Pacheco, dancer Emily Jerant-Hendrickson, dancer Sasha Peterson) enact a ritual of uncertain provenance for a bride before her wedding. We watch the women engage in activities that simply follow one upon the other. We meet them walking in formation up the beach carrying sheaves of grass; we see them gather berries, which are later boiled and then eaten as jam. The bridesmaids undress and dance on the beach in light beige underclothes, a scene both mildly prurient and mildly prudish at the same time (Albulena Borovci designed the costumes). We see long meaningful looks. A strange, imagined episode arises when the text sung suggests that Milica has been betrothed to a “tippler”, but desires the “hero” (Olivia Moon appears as The Betrothed in both this fantastical episode and the closing wedding ceremony tableau). Clothes are changed, the bridal dress put on. There are naturalistic depictions of the women at table, as well as dance episodes that are clearly professional (I assume they were improvised; no choreographer is credited). Throughout this, the music and action occasionally seem to be engaged with the same material, but just as often they have little relation to one another. The rituals appear specific sometimes, but it is unclear what they are rooted in (boiling berries down into jam, dying hair). Others are more generic: the bride bathes, the friends eat together. We know nothing about these women except that they are friends and that one, named “Milica” is getting married. Their emotions are simply handed to us: long loving looks between the “female elder” (as the character is termed in BLO’s material) and the bride; stares and smiles between the younger women.
It is at this point where I imagine one’s reaction to the film depends on your willingness to accept these depictions on their face — to identify with them, perhaps. I find myself resisting them. To my eyes this plays like a travelogue, but to nowhere in particular — well, actually to Truro on the Cape, where it was filmed, but only geographically. The filmed element of Svadba is not about a Cape wedding. What is exactly is it about?
A second title screen, shown immediately after the definition of Svadba, tells us to watch the film — I presume how the director (Shura Baryshnikov) and screenwriter (Hannah Shepard) intended it to work.
Signifying juncture and change, this time we spend with Milica illuminates a rite of passage,
an enduring archetype of human experience.
This description is convoluted, perhaps a signal of discomfort; we aren’t going to be shown a ritual, our time with Milica won’t contain a rite. Instead the work “illuminates” an “enduring archetype”, the adjective doing some special pleading for the importance of what we are to see (there being no such thing as a short-lived archetype). We are not shown a specific, recognizable rite of passage: we are watching the performance of the idea of such a rite or ritual, not the ritual itself. This is an important distinction, which (for example) threatens to make the expression of emotion in the piece sentimental rather than archetypal.
The film has moments of visual beauty; it especially brought solace to see the beach and dunes and brilliant summer light of Truro as I watched Svadba during the weekend’s blizzard (Kathrine Castro is credited as Director of Photography). The frame is almost constantly busy, as the camera is most often handheld; this creates an informality at odds with the rather graver atmosphere provided by the music. The camera also feels impatient with dance; the movement of the dancers is rarely enough, and instead the camera must move too. It’s not a participant, just an opinionated observer. Is this the decision of Baryshnikov, Castro or production designer Ana Novačić? At times I wanted the freedom to watch without those sometimes overbearing interventions.
According to the press release for Svadba, “live productions of Svadba have had artists sing and embody the six characters onstage” —like any live performance, such a production would at least have already been embedded in the ritual that is in-person concert going. While it is of course pointless to criticize a film for not being a live performance, nevertheless I found it to be an unconvincing accompaniment for a powerful and striking musical composition.
Svadba is available to stream for $15 HERE.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He resides in Eastport, Maine.