Bird Droppings from Estonia: Lost in Latvia
Archived Articles 21 Nov 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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The last opera lover’s trip to Riga was a great day out! The usual suspects gathered in front of the Vanemuine theatre and there were so many trippers that organizer Marianne hired a bus complete with a homey frieze of pink and white cloth flowers at the top of the windscreen.

There was a slight air of nervousness as wintertime had started the night before but all managed to turn out punctually and Marianne’s clipboard list was complete. We took off in a National Express coach, with TV and WC, at around noon and made our way through the lovely autumnal countryside. One poor soul forgot her passport, despite a last minute check on the bus, and had to stay in Estonia. Then, after a quick lav break, we ventured on into Latvia.

An interesting interlude followed where we took a road repairs detour and ended up in a very narrow cobbled village street that seemed as if it were meant for a child’s scooter rather than a whopping great bus. No one took much notice, as the roads are worse in Latvia than Estonia. On we rattled with tree branches clacking against the windows and the few folk on the pavements taking cover in doorways as the bus threatened to mow ‘em down.

Eventually we came to a railway line (also in the process of repair), crossed over it on a tiny temporary sandy track, trundled off into the middle of nowhere and ended up on a dirt track. We were lost in Latvia. The driver stopped the coach and got out the map. A tricky 3 point turn followed that, when accomplished, was rewarded by a round of applause. Far from squawking the whole episode was greeted with immense good humour. Not a single person took the driver’s number or threatened to sue National Express. This is the Estonian way. An honest mistake was made, put right with a minimum of fuss and on we go. We traced our steps back over the railway line and the driver stopped to ask a local the way to Riga.

Once established back on the right route there was a vote as to what to watch. Two DVDs were chosen. The first was the animated film Jääaeg, ‘Ice Age’, (tag line: ‘The Coolest Event In 16,000 Years’). The film tells the adventures of Sid the sloth, Manny the wooly mammoth and Diago, the smilidon (a sabre tooth cat) who find Roshan, a lost human baby during the Pleistocene (when humans first appeared on Earth) and return him to his tribe. The sub plot concerns chaos theory (sensitive dependence on initial conditions) and how this relates to Scat the squirrel and his obsession with an acorn and a coconut.

‘Ice Age’ is enormously popular in Eesti. Maybe this is because Estonians think that the human race has not developed much since then. Very understandable given Estonian history. Take away the cars, tellies, computers and man made fabrics and the average human is still a Neanderthal albeit with an odd capacity called ‘love’. ‘Ice Age’ has even been dubbed into Estonian. It’s a magnificent piece of animation made by Blue Sky studios, whose animators were innovators in computer graphics. The film has lots of anomalies but who cares? The humans may be the first Americans. This could have happened during the last ice age. The animals, however, pass by Stonehenge in the UK and built thousands of years after the end of the Pleistocene. As they pass the grumpy mammoth comments ‘Modern architecture, it will never last’.

The second film, true to the deeply rooted Estonian love of eclecticism and miscellany, was the 2001 Vanemuine production of Prokofiev’s comic opera ‘Love of Three Oranges’. How well I remember English National’s ‘scratch & sniff’ production with it’s rotten oranges, antiseptic and f*rts! The music is good too. Just as ‘Love’ finished in the Riga suburbs Marianne’s clipboard appeared with a resume of the plot of the forthcoming opera (Masked Ball, Un ballo in maschera) with a description of the voice parts and was duly passed around the bus.

We arrived at the theatre with time to spare and a large party wended its way to snack and buy cheap booze (Latvian alcohol duties are lower). I wended my way through the lovely central park, it’s lakes swirling with autumnal mists, to a popular restaurant with a little steam running through it that serves authentic and delicious ethnic grub swilled down by bottles of delicious ethnic beer. Yum. Latvia is in political chaos and inflation is going through the roof but those Lats get all the important things right!

Riga's Opera House was one of the first buildings to get a complete refurbishment after the Soviets were chucked out in 1991. Latvians consider the opera an enormously important part of their cultural heritage, and their opera and it’s splendid mini-Bolshoi red and gold house was seen as an important way to spearhead the drive to recreate national identity. Now the Latvian National Opera is attracting worldwide recognition - not least thanks to the company's willingness to take risks. The ballet (Mikhail Barishnikov first bounced across the boards here) has a good reputation too. Un ballo did not disappoint, there was lots of drama and fine singing. Then the Tartu opera lovers tumbled out onto the neo classical portico and straight into our bus that delivered us (without detour) back to our home town at approximately half past midnight and we wended our tired but happy way home.

Bravissimo! Another Night at the Opera

Un ballo is my second Verdi this season. But the best night I’ve had at the opera in long time was right here in Tartu. More Verdi but this time performed at the little Art Nouveau (aka jugenstil) house of the Vanemuine theatre, built for the ruling elite in 1918 during the swan song of the German provinces of the Russian empire. It was the premiere of Rigoletto. And what a night it was. The singing was superb, the production combined the traditional and the quirky with stunning effect, the orchestra, led by the ever-marvelous Lauri Sirp (Mr. Sickle in English), emoted like real Italians and the director ratcheted up the tension with supreme skill. I was nearly under my seat by the time Gilda gets killed in the third act amidst a great thunderstorm and the orchestra going like the clappers in the pit. Phew. The curtain calls went on an on (for Estonia) and the whole company got a standing ovation. I contributed quite a few of my best London ‘Bravo’s and was quite hoarse afterwards.

Eduard ?udovaks, Latvian National Opera, was perfect as Rigoletto and all the better for being no spring chicken (he graduated from the Music Academy in 1974). Kristian Benedikt, from the Lithuanian National Opera was excellent as the brainless oversexed Duke of Mantu (described as ‘light headed ‘ in the programme notes); his La donna è mobile (‘Woman is fickle’, or, as I once saw rather poorly translated as ‘Woman is fripperous’) so spine-chillingly cynical, one of opera’s most popular arias and a showcase for tenors, was fabulous. There‘s a story that Verdi withheld the music even from the first tenor who sung it until the final dress rehearsal for fear that the gondoliers (it premiered in Venice) would start singing it before the opera opened. This is not exactly true but the composer was very secretive about the score. Now La donna è mobile is Verdi's signature piece; in 1903, when the New York Metropolitan lured the sensational young Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, to the USA he made his debut as the Duke.

The opera vies with La Traviata and Aida as Verdi’s most popular opera, although I have a very soft spot for La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, that premiered in 1862 in St. Petersburg). I first saw Rigoletto over 30 years ago with some very dear friends at the Roman amphitheatre, the Arena de Verona. The audience light matches as dusk falls. Magic. The stone seats, I recall, were not so magic and the sellers of cushion were on to a good little earner. The night was stolen by kittens playing at the back of the stage as a portly soprano bemoaned her tragic state in the front. The Italians (and me) were entranced by il gattini. I always wondered if the soprano ever called in the cat catcher.

Another wonderful Verdi memory is English National Opera’s 1982 Mafia version by Jonathon Miller, set in 1950’s Little Italy, NYC. The court became a luxurious Manhattan penthouse. A swank cocktail party was crammed with gangsters in dark suits and flashy rings. Rigoletto was a bartender. The Duke was an arrogant mobster. I always remember Mantua, dressed down as a GI, singing La donna è mobile leaning up against a juke box in a burger bar giving the machine a boot during the bridges of the aria. Sooo inventive.

Meanwhile, back in Tartu, Viktorija Stanelte, from Lithuania and still a student, was lovely as the ill-fated innocente, Gilda. Estonia’s Taisto Noor was splendidly villainous as the hit man, Faramenchile (who translates in Estonian into ‘Sparafucile’) and Atlan Karp a moving Count Monterone. The stage design was by Tartu’s very own Aime Unt, Professor Emeritus at the Estonian Academy of Arts, who studied at the School of Fine Arts 1963-69. Faramenchile’s dark, woody den was straight out of Act I of one of Estonia’s greatest plays, ‘The Werewolf’ with its similar air of heightened drama, tightening screws and nerve racking taught-wire tension. Aimee’s picture in the programme shows a jaunty figure in a navy cloth cap, wire frame glasses and a pudding basin hair cut.

What is it about Verdi? Love it! The story of Rigoletto is simple. Rigoletto, a jester at the cheesy court of Mantua, has a beloved daughter that he hides away, not least from the lecherous Duke. Rigoletto is not popular as his job is to torment the courtiers. When the Duke seduces the daughter of one Count Monterone, Rigoletto taunts him. The Count curses the jester. Then, despite all his precautions, Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, falls foul of the Duke and Rigoletto hires the hit man Sparafucile to dispatch him.

The Duke, however, has caught the eye of the assassin’s sister and she persuades her brother to kill the first stranger who comes to the door during a great thunderstorm and substitute the body. The victim is Gilda; she has overheard the hit man and his sister and, though she knows the Duke is unfaithful, decides to die for love. She knocks at the door and is stabbed. When Rigoletto arrives, he receives a corpse wrapped in a sack, and rejoices. Weighting it with stones, he is about to throw the sack into the river when he hears the Duke singing a reprise of his cynical aria. Bewildered, Rigoletto opens the sack and, to his despair, finds his dying daughter, who with her last breath assures him that she will pray for him with her mother in heaven. As she takes her final breath, Rigoletto exclaims in horror, ‘The curse!’ as the curtain comes crashing down.

I feel so sorry for Rigoletto, forced to join in with the laddish court headed by the irredeemably empty headed Duke of Mantua. The jester is corrupted by it, of course, but how this could be avoided? And Gilda is such a fragile soul who cannot live with spoiled illusions. And the ghastly Duke gets away with his sh**ty behaviour. Agh, well, that’s life. ??Verdi was commissioned to write the opera in 1850. He was already a popular draw and able to choose his subject. He chose Victor Hugo's playLe roi s’amuse (the King Amuses Himself). ‘It contains’ said Verdi, ‘extremely powerful situations... The subject is great, immense, and has a character that is one of the most important creations of the theatre of all countries and ages’. But, as with Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ (1786), criticism of a ruler was highly controversial. Hugo’s play had been banned after one performance in 1832 ostensibly because it ‘contained passages constituting an outrage on public manners’. The real reason was that a ruler was shown in a bad light, a view that is alive and well in more parts of the world than I care to remember.

Northern Italy in 1850 was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the opera subject to the censor. Verdi and lyricist Piave were aware of the risks. ‘Use four legs’, wrote Verdi, ’find me an influential person who can get permission to stage Le Roi s'amuse’. The composer’s nickname for the opera was The Curse. After much contention it was agreed to move the plot from the court of France to a duchy and to change the names. A scene in which the King goes to Gilda’s bedroom was deleted and the Duke’s visit to the taverna was not intentional but provoked by a trick. The hunchback (originally Triboulet) became Rigoletto (from French rigolo = funny). The name of the work too was changed.
Despite the hassle the opening was a great triumph, and La donna è mobile was sung in the streets and the gondolas the next morning. Victor Hugo agreed that the opera was better than the play. The daughter of Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto, said that her father was really uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear and, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was time to go the stage. Verdi realised what was happening and shoved him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was intentional, was very amused. Such is illusion and reality in the performing arts…

Rigoletto continues to be one of the most frequently staged operas in the world so yah boo sucks to censorship. ‘Put not your trust in princes!’ wheezed Cardinal Wolsey, quoting Psalm 146, as he exited this world in 1530. He should know. He was the disgraced former chief minister to Henry VIII and had been one of the most powerful men in Renaissance England … good advice indeed.
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