Posted July 25 @ 17:00 Irish Time (16:00 GMT/UTC)
The Priest and His Servant Balda
Perhaps the most striking event of the week was Thursday’s performance of a lost Shostakovich opera, The Priest and His Servant Balda, under the leadership of Norwegian conductor Odd Terje Lysbo. Quoting from the program notes,
The project was originally a full-length animated opera by Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, with music by Shostakovich. However the movie and most of the music was destroyed during WWII. In 1980 the project was realized as an opera…[and] now has been further edited by Odd Terje Lysebo after new discoveries….
Lysebo commissioned an animation company to create a new film, as only three minutes of the original film was in existence. This original excerpt was incorporated into the opening of the new version. The video was used in combination with live actors, wind ensemble (with cello and string bass) accompaniment, a small choir, and vocal soloists. The animation purposefully imitated the appearance of shadow-puppet theatre, drawing connections with another classic story-telling tradition. Thus, in order to create a uniform look, the live actors had costumes that seemed animated, with exaggerated features, large hollow eyes, and disproportionate bodies.
The basic story is that of a priest, his wife and daughter, a servant named Balda, and various devils. The gullible priest is searching for cheap labor, and is delighted to find Balda who is willing to work one year for no money: all he asks is to smack the priest three times over the head at the end of the year. All is well on the farm during the year, and Balda and the priest’s daughter fall in love. The priest sends Balda on what he thinks is an impossible journey in order to have an excuse to fire him, in order to avoid the humiliation of receiving three bonks to the head. Balda is ordered to go to the lake where the devil lives in order to collect a payment that is owed to the priest. After much manipulation and some humerous physical competitions, Balda does in fact win his master’s back pay. Upon Balda’s return, he demands his wages, and his hits to the priest’s head causes the minister to go insane.
The production was unlike any theatre event I have ever seen. The flow between the music, animation, live acting, and singing was flawless and logically connected. The video and acting alternated, with the screen becoming simple backgrounds to the actors. While it was unusual to have one character represented by two people, an actor and a singer, it provided for much more freedom on stage, and allowed for some interesting moments when the singers moved onto the stage and interacted with their character. Even the band was involved in the action: players held devil puppets in one scene, and in the prior scene Balda actually came over and pushed Lysebo off the podium and conducted a piece himself!
The music was unmistakably Shostakovich, containing scales, modes, melodic constructions, and folk elements that we have all come to associate with him. The folk element became central in several pieces, as some songs were accompanied with just an accordion or a balalaika, the three-stringed triangle-shaped Russian lute. In another piece, the tenor saxophone player walked to the opposite edge of the stage to play a beautiful duet. Overall, the music was most often light-hearted.
One element that was a bit confusing was Shostakovich’s choice to have some of the characters change vocal parts. For instance, the priest’s wife was usually sung by a soprano, but at one point it moved to the bass. The priest was both a bass and a tenor. Since the play had no sub-titles and the actors’ mouths didn’t move, this made sometimes made it difficult to tell who was speaking.
The quality of the performance was excellent. The technological aspect of coordinating video and amplified singers was flawless, and the sound was well-balanced between instruments and voices. The orchestra played with great character and style. The actors created wonderful characters: the grumpy priest, the frumpy wife, the flittering daughter, and the macho and confident Balda who walked with a great gait. The devils provided some excellent contrast as well, especially the Little Devil who had limbs made out of what looked like Slinkys, requiring two actors to create amazing visual gags. There were some minor first-night jitters, it seemed, especially from the narrator who occasionally seemed uncertain of where he was supposed to go.
Each performing ensemble that came to WASBE brought something new to the audience, and this is certainly one of the most compelling reasons to attend a convention such as this. Special kudos to Odd Terje Lysebo for pushing this no-longer-lost work to the stage; it is a marvelous work and I am delighted to know that it will receive many more performances in the future as this production tours around Norwegian schools next year.
Labels: Performance, Premiere, Review