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June 16, 2011 6:57 pm

The Heiress of Vilkaci, Riga Opera Festival, Latvian National Opera

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Three fatherless babies, two conflagrations, one storm, midsummer magic in the forest, and a love story that finally comes right: The Heiress of Vilkaci teeters on the brink of melodrama.

Bruno Skulte’s passionate 1947 ode to a lost homeland has taken more than half a century to reach the stage. Exiled in Oldenburg in the 1940s, Skulte began work on an opera inspired by Ilona Leimane’s novel of the same name, itself a response to the shock of forced displacement, but before he could finish the piece, fate took him to New York, where he penned other works and The Heiress of Vilkaci remained unfinished.

Skulte died in 1976, and his opera would have remained buried with him had the US-based Latvian National Opera Guild not unearthed it and persuaded conductor Andrejs Jansons to finish the work’s orchestration and nurse it on to the stage. This week, six decades of accumulated nostalgia for a hypothetical Latvia found expression in Inara Slucka’s ironic staging of Skulte’s magnum opus.

 
Valkaci
 Dana Bramane as the heiress

It is hard to place the Heiress in its historical context. You listen to the floating melodies, the dance tunes, the ferocious outbursts and squalls, and think, “Dvorak. . . Wagner. . . Puccini. . . Stravinsky. . . Debussy”. In fact, during Skulte’s formative years Latvia was very much in the middle of European musical life. When does something contemporary become something derivative? Without the second world war, the music world might still have found room for the lilt and innocent nationalism of Skulte’s Heiress.

Well-judged conducting and a strong cast help breathe life into the Latvian National Opera’s premiere. The calculated melodrama and cheesily folkloric decor of Slucka’s production attempt to leaven Skulte’s heavy-handed theatrics with emotional remove. This does not work; the audience groans and giggles in the wrong places and the kitsch is almost pleasing. Despite Slucka’s best efforts, Skulte’s score moves us most at its moments of intimacy, rage and crisis.

Though The Heiress of Vilkaci is not quite the Latvian Jenufa, it is a strong document of a difficult time, melodious and engaging, and well worth the effort of disinterral.

 

 


The Riga Opera Festival continues until June 19

opera.lv

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