A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Carmina Burana

When I found out that tickets to The Opera and Ballet Theater of Dnepropetrovsk only cost 15 grivnas (otherwise known as THREE DOLLARS!!), less money than it costs to buy a cup of coffee, I decided that I was going to go every week. Since the season opened on Wednesday (and it was Rosh Hashana, so I couldn’t go), so far I’m 1 for 2.

The season works very differently than it does in the US. There is only one theater for all the ballet and opera in Dnepropetrovsk, and there is one other theater, The Shevchenko Theater, for all plays. I don’t know about the latter, since I wouldn’t be able to understand it yet anyway, but The Opera and Ballet Theater puts on a different performance (sometimes more) every weekend. For example, this Saturday and Sunday only they were putting on Carmina Burana. Next weekend is Swan Lake on Friday, The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday, and Полумяна квиточка (I don’t know what this is in English) on Sunday. In the month of October alone, they will have twelve different performances of nine different operas and ballets, all (except the season’s opener last Wednesday) on weekends.

I’m told that attire is usually very casual and attendance minimal, but that is not what I found at Carmina Burana. The show just debuted last year and has been very popular, and in fact it was nearly sold out. People dressed very similarly to how they would to see a Broadway show in NY, which I suppose is a little casual for an opera but didn’t strike me really in one way or another. The theater ceremony was completely minimal, however. Tickets were paper printouts. There was one woman ripping the “stub” (ie: a blank white section at the end of the printout) at the main entrance, the only way in or out of the theater. Ten minutes before curtain, they opened this single door, and a large line started filing out into the plaza. It took nearly five minutes for everyone to make their way inside, and then we all quickly found our own way into our seats.

There were no ushers, no security, no playbills, nothing except for the one lady taking our tickets and a couple of people checking coats in the lobby. Things ran extremely smoothly, however, and by 6 pm sharp, everyone was in their seats and the house lights went down. I have almost never seen a theatrical performance begin on time, until now. A woman in a sparkling disco-ball gown came in front of the curtain and introduced the piece, and then the curtain rose and it began!

(Here I must interrupt my narrative to apolozige for the photographs from here on in. The lighting in the theater, while beautiful, was absolutely terrible for pictures, and I couldn’t manage to get a decent one. I include them so that you can see how beautiful the inside of the theater is, in contrast to its exterior, even though I recognize that as photographs they are not worth posting. All of the action shots come from the official website of the Opera and Ballet Theater. If you click on any of them, you will be redirected to their photogallery, where you can see more images from last April’s performance.)

This was an incredibly abstract and inventive interpretation of Carmina Burana, accentuating the theatrical and downplaying the musical. This performance lives up to Carl Orff’s original intentions that music, movement, and speech would be indistinguishable, but it fails to live up to the vocal standards of opera today. Overall it was thoroughly engaging and entertaining, although not quite as powerful or dynamic as it could have been.

O Fortuna set the stage for the entire show. The curtain opened onto a minimalist set– a high scaffold with an ornate chair atop it, the scaffolding mechanisms clearly visible despite the small decorations below attempting to hide it. Sitting atop the chair was Fortuna herself, represented by a clearly female yet slightly gender ambiguous ballerina all a seductive red dress. Sitting at her feet was her male counterpart, all in gold. As the music began to swell, the chorus entered from under the chair, adorned in lush garments with ornate headpieces. The powerful music was then all of a sudden interrupted by unfortunately loud feedback from the mics (there were not only stage mics, but individual ones for soloists, as well). The chorus continued on pitch, despite this embarrassing hiccough, and the spectacle continued. There were five dancer couples– Fortuna and her mate and four others– all of whom danced well, but not extraordinarily. Timing was always slightly off, as if the company needed a few more rehearsals to perfect their coordination. The chorus, too, was at times just slightly ahead of the orche

stra, although this was very rare and almost completely unnoticeable. The chorus danced admirably, and this choreography was well matched with the music.

The solo performances were disappointing, with two exceptions. The male ballet lead was brilliant. He combined passion and technique, truly commanding the actors’ fortunes and moving the theatrical world with every twist of his arm. The soprano lead was wonderful, as well. Her aria, Dulcissime, is extremely difficult and hits notes in the coloratura range, and this lyric soprano rose to the challenge spectacularly. Her performance was stunningly beautiful. The female ballet lead was disappointing at best. While her technique was unquestionably sound, she lacked any emotion in her performance. Whether she was aiming for gender neutrality or not is unclear, as her moves did lack that certain feminine grace. The male singers were also disappointing. The tenor had a magnificent voice, within his range, but whenever he entered into his falsetto he lost all support and even dropped the pitch. The baritone, as well, sounded fine in his range, but Orff wrote these men difficult arias in a very high range, and he simply could not support the notes out of his comfort zone. I was very surprised, moreover, that the director chose for these ment to dance and move in such a way as to inhibit their breath support, especially considering their struggles. It was another example of theatricality trumping musicality.

The one element of the performance that was absolutely and unquestionably fantastic was the costumes! They were a real tour de force of the imagination, evoking emotional responses and inspiring both laughter and consternation. They played with the boundaries of human sexuality, exploring the neuter as well as the extremely masculine or feminine.

All in all, the Dnepropetrovsk Opera and Ballet Theater’s rendition of Carmina Burana was impressive, considering its short duration on stage and meager budget it must earn from tickets. There are some truly impressive talents in the company (and some truly uninspiring performers). The stage, choreography, costumes, and direction blended to create a creative and thought provoking world one would never have imagined from Orff’s work, but one which fits the music and the lyrics surprisingly well. The interpretation was done very well.

And so Lena and I left the theater almost exactly an hour and a half after entering it, very content after an evening well spent.

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