Javoka, Skënderbeu

Always one to at least try some new operas, I went to my first Albanian-language opera this evening.  The National Opera of Albania performed Skënderbeu by Prenkë Jakova.  Jakova was a 20th-century composer, and is considered the father of Albanian opera, although I’m not sure how many other Albanian opera composers there have been.  His family was repressed by the communist regime, and although (outside of stints as a political prisoner) he was allowed to continue to work because of his prominence, he was eventually driven by the regime to suicide one year after the premiere of this opera, at the age of 52 in 1969.

This opera took a safe topic – the 15th-century Albanian national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, known as Skanderbeg – in which all foreigners are portrayed as treacherous (matching the old communist regime’s paranoia).  Dramatically, the opera did not develop much, and contained out-of-place scenes like children’s chori possibly designed to provide an opportunity to add a patriotic song.  The final chorus was also a set patriotic piece of no particular quality.  I suppose these elements were essentially required by the regime at that time.

However, for the most part, the opera sounded musically like Verdi met Borodin in the Albanian Alps.  The set numbers were melodically derivative of Verdi, connected through music reminiscent of Borodin’s Prince Igor – not eastern per se (indeed, still using western harmonies), but certainly eastern-influenced.  As Jakova had studied eastern music, mostly Turkish, this association is probably not accidental, although I am not aware that Jakova was familiar with Russian music.  It’s hard to know what he knew given the isolation of Albania especially under that regime.

The cast was adequate (headed peculiarly by an American tenor – Roy Stevens – who was cast in the title role because someone decided he looked like an actor who had played Skanderbeg in a 1960s film – he learned to sing Albanian just for this part).  The orchestra was merely adequate as well.  Zhani Ciko, the opera’s general director, kept it all more-or-less together from the podium.

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