If there is such a thing as avant-garde opera – and I suppose there must be, since there are Google results for it – then Svadba – Wedding currently showing at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theater is it. Since I am admittedly not an avant-garde opera enthusiast, it took me a while to warm up to this Queen of Puddings Music Theatre production, but in the end I came away bewildered but delighted with what I’d seen.
Billed as a piece about “raucous ‘girltalk’… as they prepare [Millica] for [her] impending wedding,” I expected – well, I’ll just say it – some plot. A story upon which to hang what I was seeing and hearing. Though the story becomes somewhat relevant toward the end, especially as the five friends prepare and dress Millica for her wedding day; for the first half of the show the super-titles seemed so disconnected from the action onstage that I continually wondered if there had been an error with them.
Never mind. Once I let the story piece go and allowed the Svadba – Wedding to become about the sound and movement in front of me, it opened up gorgeously.
Composer Ana Sokolovic, clearly aware of why more operas have not been written in Serbian, wove the lyrics in and out of soundscapes created by the singers out of consonants and emotive yips and hums.
Perhaps my favourite of the composer’s choices was to embrace the somewhat harsh – in opera terms – sound of the Serbian language. Sokolovic cheerfully embraced what she had to work with. There’s something strangely lovely about a textured, robust musical composition, however short, created entirely out of six sopranos and mezzo-sopranos singing the /ch/ sound over and over again. Sokolovic played similarly with other consonants and sounds, creating bright lines of music that travelled – mostly smoothly – in and out of melody.
The real feature of Svadba – Wedding, however, is the actors. Given a bare stage, six clip lights on rolling stands, a few lengths of silver lamé and, for a few minutes, cups of rocks with spoons in them; the women of this show hold nothing back. They commit so fully to their actions, and are so clearly grounded in them, that despite the non- linear and non-narrative feel of the performance, I always knew exactly what I was looking at.
Teasing, coaxing, scolding, celebrating or, memorably acting out a scene of two roosters fighting on a priest’s hearth – all of the actors gave rich performances. Often this was managed while miming/playing something rather different from what they were singing about. As a company, they were connected and transactional in what was clearly a challenging piece; quite a lot of fun to watch them.
Additional praise must be heaped upon designer Michael Gianfrancesco, who chose such a playful take on the busty Slavic maid idiom for the women’s costumes: merry-widow style bodices with bustled short skirts in coordinating whimsical fabrics and cuts. Thematically the same, but not matching -a particular favorite of mine- they worked well with the light and the often-playful tone of the piece. I still have no idea how those six women ran around that stage in those chunky wedge heels he put them in without clomping like a herd of Clydesdales, but they managed and looked fantastic, so more power to them.
The best way to enjoy Svadba-Wedding seems to be to just let it wash over you as a gorgeous enterprise of performance. Don’t worry about the storyline; you’re not missing anything if you can’t understand the lyrics – just knowing that the women are spending the night before their friend’s wedding together is enough.
Enjoy the sound, the black/red/silver colour palette as it moves and changes in front of you, the clever bits of business, and the musicality. There’s more than enough here to hold a theatre-goer’s interest, and some of the moments are just breathtaking in the hands of this cast.
– Svadba-Wedding is playing at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St) until July 2, 2011
– Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm, with an additional matinee on Sundays at 2pm
– Tickets are $49. There do not appear to be rush or discounted tickets available for this performance.
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416.368.3110