BLO defines Svadba – The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Boston Lyric Opera’s newest streaming offering, a co-production with Opera Philadelphia from Swadba “A Journey Through Friendship, Tradition and Love” by Ana Sokolović, begs the question, “What is ‘svadba’?” A title screen explains first in Cyrillic then in the Latin alphabet:
The hours leading up to 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 wrote music for a nuptial ritual. Employing a a cappella ensemble of six female voices, it draws heavily on Central European choral music: dense, tight harmonies with plenty of sustained dissonance, bouts of vigorous, danceable rhythm, and sometimes a long, ornate melody, performed alone or on a cushion of hanging notes. It is the heart of the sound world of Swadba, to which Sokolović adds additional elements that generate unusual surfaces: the text is often fragmented into individual phonemes; a handful of outside noises appear (shaken or crushed earth or gravel in plastic cups; a drum, a gong, rain sticks). Familiar 21st the minimalist procedures of the century are often in play, mixing literal repetition and alternating recurrence. I also thought of Meredith Monk at times as the voices raced and chattered. These techniques serve well a job with a unified personality. It’s often gritty, strong and assertive music throughout, balancing change and stasis. It creates a world of its own, very focused, the events of which capture the imagination for the 50 minutes of the play. Although bearing a gender resemblance to The wedding, Swadba seems much less mechanical and much more intimate.
However, as the music is played under the invisible conductor Daniela Candillari, we see a whole 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) perform a ritual of uncertain provenance for a bride before her wedding . We watch women engage in activities that simply follow one another. We meet them marching in formation on the beach carrying sheaves of grass; they are seen picking berries, which are then boiled and then eaten into jam. The bridesmaids strip and dance on the beach in light beige underwear, a scene that is both slightly itchy and slightly prudish (Albulena Borovci designed the costumes). We see significant long gazes. A strange and imaginary episode occurs when the sung text suggests that Milica has been engaged to a “tippler”, but desires the “hero” (Olivia Moon appears as The Betrothed in both this fantastic episode and the closing table of the wedding ceremony). The clothes are changed, the wedding dress is put on. There are naturalistic depictions of the women at the table, as well as dancing episodes that are clearly professional (I assume they were improvised; no choreographer is credited). Throughout, the music and action sometimes seem to be engaged with the same material, but just as often they bear little relation to each other. Rituals sometimes seem specific, but it is not clear what they are rooted in (boiling berries into jam, dyeing hair). Others are more generic: the bride bathes, the friends eat together. We don’t know anything about these women except that they are friends and that this one, named “Milica” is going to get married. Their emotions are simply transmitted to us: long loving gazes between the “elder woman” (as the character is called in the BLO material) and the bride; glances and smiles between the young women.
It’s at this point that I imagine a person’s reaction to the film depends on your willingness to accept these portrayals on their face – to identify with them, perhaps. I find myself resisting them. To me, it looks like a travelogue, but nowhere in particular – well, actually Truro in Cape Town, where it was filmed, but only geographically. The filmed element of Swadba this is not a wedding in Cape Town. What is it exactly?
A second title screen, displayed immediately after setting Swadbatells us to watch the movie – I assume the director (Shura Baryshnikov) and screenwriter (Hannah Shepard) intended it to work.
Signifying moment and change, this time we spend with Milica illuminates a rite of passage,
an enduring archetype of the human experience.
This description is convoluted, perhaps a signal of discomfort; we are not going to be show a ritual, our time with Milica will not be contain a rite. Instead, the work “illuminates” an “enduring archetype”, the adjective making a special plea for the importance of what we need to see (there is no ephemeral 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, and not of the ritual itself. This is an important distinction, which (for example) threatens to make the expression of emotion in the piece sentimental rather than archetypical.
The film has moments of visual beauty; it gave me particular comfort to see the beach and dunes and the bright summer light of Truro as I watched Swadba during the weekend blizzard (Kathrine Castro is credited as cinematographer). The frame is almost constantly occupied, as the camera is mostly hand-held; this creates an informal atmosphere at odds with the rather serious atmosphere provided by the music. The camera also feels eager to dance; the movement of the dancers is rarely enough, and instead the camera has to move too. It’s not a participant, just an opinionated observation. Was it the decision of Baryshnikov, Castro or set designer Ana Novačić? Sometimes I wanted the freedom to watch without these sometimes overbearing interventions.
According to the press release of Swadba“live productions of Swadba had artists sing and embody the six characters on stage” – like any live performance, such a production would have at least already been incorporated into the ritual of the in-person concert. While it is of course useless to criticize a film for not being a live performance, I nevertheless found it to be an unconvincing accompaniment to a powerful and percussive musical composition.
Swadba is available to stream for $15 HERE.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a degree in philosophy, so instead of a normal career he was a clarinetist, theater manager and software engineer. He resides in Eastport, Maine.