Bird Droppings from Estonia: A scorching evening at the opera
Archived Articles 28 Jan 2009 Hilary BirdEWR
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Early in the evening of January 7 – my birthday - I went to a concert at the Linnamuuseum, the Tartu town museum. The museum is located on the east side of the town at 23 Narva Road in a house known as 'Catherine's House' after Catherine II of Russia (the Great) who came to Tartu twice - once on her way to be married and once on an imperial tour. But Catherine was long gone by the time that the house was built. It was built for a local nobleman, lieutenant Woldemar Conrad von Pistohlkors (1755- 1801) and was completed in 1790. The ancestors of the Pistohlkors family, like those of George Browne and Barclay de Tolly, came from Celtic Britain to seek their fortunes in the north. All three found both fame and fortune.

Olof Scott emigrated from Scotland in the 16c to serve the king of Sweden. His son Joran Olofsson Scott was a cavalry lieutenant in Finland. He was ennobled in 1645 and given the name Pistolekors ('crossed pistols' in Swedish). Joran Pistolekors's sons also served in the Swedish army. One of them, Erik, settled in Livland (Livonia: modern Latvia and South Estonia). Woldemar was Eric's younger son, the owner of an estate near Põltsamaa and the builder of the house at 23 Narva Rd. This lovely house was just about the only property to survive the artillery poundings that the Narva road (leading from Russia) received in WWII. It now stands in solitary splendour opposite a park and a garage, and adjacent to a scattering of Soviet nonentities.

Woldemar Pistolekors wanted an aristocratic, luxurious, neo-classical town house like those of the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany and hired master builder J.H.B. Walter (who designed Tartu Town Hall) to build it for him. The ground floor of the two-storied stone dwelling had eight rooms, an entrance hall and a large kitchen; the first floor had a big hall with adjoining salons. The stairs were wooden, the floors of painted pine, the ceilings and walls plastered. There were twelve folding doors painted white and twenty-one one-leaf doors, sixteen Dutch stoves and three porcelain stoves. It also had stables and a granary. The house remained in the possession of the Pistohlkors family until 1809, when Woldemar's son sold it. The building remained in possession of other noble families, until, reflecting social change, Konstantin v. Knorring, delegate of the Livland diet (assembly) sold the house to Carl Faure, a merchant of the Great Guild, in 1870.

Income for the Tartu Town Museum is supplemented by concerts and exhibitions. The evening’s concert was a gem but I also had a fascinating ten minutes or so watching the computerised re-creation of medieval Tartu while I waited for it to begin. The room used is what must have been the ballroom. It’s quite large with enough room for five rows of twenty chairs. The audience does not sit in bucket seats but repro neo-classical style chairs with white frames and pink and cream striped covering. The window curtains are a dark-ish salmon pink supplemented with white drapes. The walls are faux pale pink and cream marble with a blue skirting board. As befits a building built during the Napoleonic wars, there are rather martial bas reliefs with bundles of swords, shields, fasces, paunchy putti mucking around with helmets and playing winners (arms crossed and looking serious) and losers (grovelling) and the like. It's all in the best possible taste.

The concert was 'Young European Musicians in Estonia,' a recital of songs by Mozart (Austria), Brahms and Humperdinck (Germany), Grieg (Norway), Faure (France), Sumera and Ester Mägi (Estonia), Lajovic (Czech Republic) by rising stars Kristina Bitenc, a soprano from Slovenia and Kadri Tegelmann, a mezzo from Estonia. The accompanist who played the piano was Jaanika Rand-Sirp who I have now seen several times and really like, playing vivaciously but not so pushy as to detract from the singer. I really enjoyed the hour and a half of delicious music.

Perfect for my birthday, especially the duets from two of my favourite operas - Marriage of Figaro (Mozart) and Hansel and Gretel. When I was small my mum used to sing me the lullaby Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child, As I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. I must have been 30 years before I discovered the tune was Abends will ich schlafen gehn - Evening blessing - by Engelbert Humperdinck. No, not the chunky British-American pop singer but he of the twirly mustachios whose highly original synthesis of Wagnerian orchestration (Humperdinck had been Dicky's assistant) and traditional German folk songs made the opera such a success that (in 1923) it became the first complete opera ever to be broadcast on radio (from Covent Garden, London), and later (1931) the first to be transmitted live from the New York Metropolitan Opera. You can't keep a good tune down!

Whilst I am on the subject of singing I can't let Mcenskas aprinoa ladija Makbeta (Lady Macbeth of Mtensk) pass without a mention. This visit to the Latvian National Opera was a Christmas present to myself. The Riga production is, quite simply, the best I have ever seen. For an introduction from the director see The orchestra played Shostakovich's electrifying score with absolute conviction, the singing (especially Natalia Kreslina as Katerina Izmailova, the 'Lady') was superb and the conception and production perfect.

'Lady Mac 'was the last opera I saw at Covent Garden and, whilst beautifully sung and played, Katerina was rather a dumpy woman with a headscarf. Not in Riga! Kreslina's Katerina was sex incarnate - a curvaceous figure in shiny back boots, low cut red dress and long, black hair. Not a headscarf or a welly in sight. The setting has been moved away from the original countryside to a run down estate in modern post Soviet Russia, and the action was permeated by close-up-and-personal experience of the former USSR. The men were kitted out in cheap, nasty, shiny suits, the main protagonists have sex in the communal shower (and the sub-standard shower curtain breaks) and a murdered man is shoved into a paladin bin. All the frustrations - material, spiritual and sexual - were extracted from the score with maximum drama and passion. A scorching evening at the opera!
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