Lithuanian Opera Company

at Morton East High School

Sorting through the debris of previous generations in search of novelty is nothing new to modern opera companies. The midden heaps most frequently mined for hidden gems are the 17th and 18th centuries; the discards of the 19th century are too close in time to our own period to allow the creative misinterpretation that would make them attractive to practitioners of the cult of director as “original” artist. But Chicago’s Lithuanian Opera Company, with its strong ethnic base and no pretensions to belonging to the artistic smart set, wasn’t deterred from prospecting in this relatively virgin territory, particularly with the lure of what seems to be the only opera ever written that deals with its historically trampled nation.

Amilcare Ponchielli survives today only through La gioconda. His other eight operas are virtually unknown. I lituani, with a plot as convoluted as a bowl of linguini–a confusing mishmash of Teutonic Knights, traitors, patriotism, and a very slight love interest, in four lengthy acts–is no diamond in the rough, but it’s no worse than a lot of other operas that deserve to be forgotten (Verdi’s Attila comes to mind). Still, with a plot line that would look unusually weak for a Tchaikovsky ballet, I lituani doesn’t quite achieve music-drama status.

For this production the Lithuanian Opera Company used the neo-baroque Morton East High School auditorium, which is a bit frayed around the edges but offers more seating and a grander air than the Athenaeum, home to Chicago Opera Theater. The company is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary, and any doubts about the strength of its ethnic roots are quelled when the orchestra plays the Lithuanian national anthem.

I lituani–presented as part of a two-week-long festival of Lithuanian music–was an unusual joint venture between the Chicago company and the Opera and Ballet Theater of Lithuania, on tour from the Soviet Union. This staging and most of the principal singers hail from the Baltic republic–the bio of one mentioned that he “spent his childhood and youth in Siberia, to which his family was deported in 1941”–with only a couple of the smaller roles taken by locals. With its hymns to Lithuania and dirges about the country’s suffering at the hands of invaders, it’s easy to see this opera’s appeal for the Chicago Lithuanian community, and hard to understand how Soviet authorities, even in these days of glasnost, permitted it to be staged. (Perhaps the fact that the bad guys are Germans helps explain it.)

Seeing this production is like going back to about 1940 in the Soviet Union (or about 1900 in the rest of Europe). The brightly colored, unsubtle sets and costumes designed by Janina Malinauskaite, the inept staging of the chorus, and the windmill gestures called for by director Eligijus Domarkas in lieu of acting all gave me a sense that I was seeing opera as it existed a few generations ago. This production is like a fly preserved in amber, a living museum demonstrating theatrical practices from the early part of the century–not surprising given that the director and set designer were trained under the Soviet arts establishment. In the Soviet world artistic endeavor attempts to placate the tastes of the party elite, leading to a kind of aesthetic rigor mortis amply demonstrated by touring Soviet ballet companies in recent years. (An interesting contrast can be drawn with provincial German houses, in thrall to a different kind of “establishment,” that of the resolutely avant-garde. In both cases genuine artistic originality has been destroyed by government influence.)

Nevertheless, musically the evening was not without interest. Virgilijus Noreika was outstanding as Konrad, the tenor lead. His strong voice had a clear heldentenor ring to it; despite his stiffness as an actor, he deserves a wider audience. Noreika was well partnered with leading lady Irena Milkeviciute as Aldona, Konrad’s wife, whose youthful, clear soprano would also not be out of place on more important stages. Chicago bass Jonas Vaznelis made an acceptable but unspectacular Viltenis. Further down the scale is baritone Arvydas Markauskas, who was dull, rough, and plodding as Erdvilis; if this were the Soviet Union, you’d think he was some apparatchik who got his role through a political connection. Least impressive was local mezzo Margarita Momkus, making a weak showing in the role of Vilnius. Surely a younger, lighter mezzo–both vocally and physically–must have been available. Alvydas Vasaitis did a decent job of keeping the orchestra under control in the absurdly wide, shallow pit. So restricted was the seating that the poor harpist was exiled to her own little niche outside the pit. The choral singing was full-throated and, in the case of the prologue’s hymnlike prayer for Lithuania, sung straight from the heart to the highly appreciative audience. I lituani was worth going to just to see what opera used to be like.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonas Kuprys.