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Scenes Before Marriage

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Ted Huffman & Zack Winokur | Dáirine Ní Mheadhra

The Serbian-born Canadian composer Ana Sokolović’s opera Svadba was first performed in concert in Toronto in 2011. It went on to win the country’s prestigious performing arts award, the Dora Mavor Moore, for Outstanding New Opera before embarking on a national tour. It has since received the American première at Opera Philadelphia. Earlier this year, Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, commissioned Sokolović to write a new work for the company’s main stage based on Michel Mark Bouchard’s play La Reine-Garçon.

Svadba (Marriage), as the title suggests, is a Serbian wedding made up of established rituals told with a contemporary twist. An opera for six unaccompanied female voices seems a real challenge for a composer. The vocal dissonances which held the audience of the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume riveted were superb. The dynamics, the narrow harmonies of the voices, verging on tone clusters at times, and certainly also the stage presence of the performers all combined to leave an impression on the audience as immediate as that of a shrill alarm clock early in the morning.

The work is divided into seven scenes, though it is not always clear where one ends and the next begins. For the soloists, who make a strong team under the musical direction of Dáirine Ní Mheadhra, it is a solid achievement. The possible aural variations within this musical constellation are not particularly great. The vocal form used by Sokolović seems derived from traditions like that of Bulgarian choral singing, though the composer has expanded the area of tonality considerably. She loves dissonance, but has her own coherent tonal language. Small elements of beatboxing or scat singing are sparingly employed, perhaps because the theme of a wedding is too traditional to invite more lavish use of these techniques. Still, it would have brought a little more musical variety to the whole. Presumably the chief differentiation occurs in the small detail between the individual scenes, not all of which is immediately apparent to the listener.

This European première production by director Ted Huffman and choreographer Zack Winokur uses a very minimal stage (designed by Samal Blak). Only the fifth scene brings a little more atmosphere. The final part begins with a long monody from the bride Milica (Florie Valiquette). It is her farewell to her friends, sung with moving solemnity. The finale is a sextet which rounds off the evening with intensity and profound beauty.

photo | ©Bernard Coutant

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