“Early Music Festival,” Belgrade National Theater

Purcell, Dido and Aeneas

My flight out of Belgrade got canceled, so I snagged one of the last available tickets to tonight’s opera at the Belgrade National Theater: Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell. Although the seat was not so good, the sound traveled easily upstairs, and the performance was quite enjoyable. Rather than the regular opera company, the entire ensemble came from the “Early Music Festival” (no indication when or where this festival is held, however). The orchestra and chorus dressed in seventeenth-century costumes (and make-up), which must have been quite hot and sweaty in the intolerable heatwave afflicting Belgrade right now. Predrag Gosta, the conductor, removed his wig for most of the performance, conducting the orchestra from his harpsichord.

Staging was minimal and costumes were of the period – or at least designed to look like a 17th-century costume for a classical subject. The only odd touch was the projection during intermezzi of battle scenes from an old black-and-white movie, presumably showing Carthage and Rome at war. the chorus, also in the same 17th-century dress like the orchestra, did not take the stage but instead sung from the pit or from the first boxes.

The audience roared with delight at the end. Dido, sung by Dragana Popovic, stood out with her pleasant and expressive soprano, running through all the emotions. The Aeneas (Mihailo Sljivic) and the other soloists did not match her in either the emotional or the tone aspect, but did add to the success through ensemble melding. Bojan Bulatovic/b sang the sorceress in a hammed-up falsetto, clearly enjoying the opportunity.

Everyone looked to be having fun on stage, and such performances are contagious. The opera, written by Purcell for performance in a girl’s school, is simply orchestrated, full of humor despite being a tragedy, and lasts only an hour. Though not a big opera, it made its impact tonight.

Belgrade National Theater

Verdi, Il Trovatore

In my trips to Belgrade a number of years ago, I never managed to catch an opera at the National Theater, whose stage also holds other types of drama.  This week in Belgrade saw me overlap with Verdi’Il Trovatore.  This opportunity seemed doubly novel, as I do not believe I have ever seen Trovatore live, despite it regular showing up in standard repertory as one of the most-popular operas not only within Verdi’s canon but in general.  Tonight I rectified both situations.

The music, as I already knew, was beautiful.  But I left the performance wondering why exactly this opera ranks so high in the canon.  It combines a silly plot (not unusual in opera, but maybe especially so in this case) with an idiotic libretto written by someone whose intention was to remove all drama.  Many operas survive silly plots, few can survive poor books.  Verdi’s wonderful music attempted to inject the drama, but utterly failed to do so.  What a pity Verdi had not met Boito earlier (although Boito was only about ten at the time Trovatore premiered, he still could have done a better job fixing up the text).

Belgrade’s National Theater, as a building, did live up to its billing.  The theater is a gem.  It has a surprisingly tiny stage and auditorium.  Although not very large, the auditorium is tall, with four levels, making the upper gallery rather high.  This does allow, however, the music to rise, giving a fuller tone than I would have normally expected in such a small place.  Yet the cast did not have to labor to project into the hall, nor even over the orchestra, whose position (spilling into the first boxes) was exposed and might in another house overwhelm the singers.

Ana Jorana Grajovic also deserves some of the credit on the podium.  She conducted a clean and clear performance, using a precise but nuanced stick technique.  Her orchestra sounded much better than I had anticipated, and clearly she kept them together.  The chorus, also taking its visual cues from her, never missed anything, although they looked generally bored on stage, and the choral singing came off so precisely as to sound blockish.

The cast was also mixed.  Many of singers in the smaller roles, but also Manrico (sung by Dusan Plazinic) had tired out their voices somewhere, as though they had spent the week yelling into a canyon hoping the echo would reflect a pleasant sound.  It did not.  Dragana del Monaco stood out as Azucena, clearly the star of this performance (she is the ex-wife of a son of Mario del Monaco, one of the greatest all-time Italian tenors; she perhaps understandably appears to have kept the name in her divorce despite a subsequent re-marriage).  Dragutin Matic (Count de Luna), whose elaborate hair braiding looked exactly the same as the conductor’s, and Jasmina Trumbetash Petrovic (Leonora) also had enough stage presence, at least in this small house.

I bought a program, as usual.  Nevermind that it was only in Serbian (this is Serbia, so fair enough), but it was recycled from 2011.  While recycling should be applauded normally, the cast reflected that of two years ago, which for the most part did not match tonight’s.  So the program was of no use.  If they are going to recycle programs, they should probably not print the cast in them but instead put the cast on a printed sheet insert (they had those sheets anyway hanging in the entrance displays, so people could see the cast when coming into the building).  I suppose they’ll learn this commonly-employed trick some day.