Bird droppings from Estonia: Spring at the opera
Archived Articles 27 Apr 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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Spring, dear friends, has arrived. There's something of every age, shape and form on every bench and wall in Tartu enjoying the bright spring sun and blowing away the winter blues. I bought my first bunch of blowsy bright yellow daffs from the flower ladies, who are back in force, last week.

The musical year continues to be fabulous. Not only do we have excellent Brits and Latvians to supplement our ballet company but also an excellent Russian soprano, Svetlana Trifinova, on contract. This young woman is going far. She's already been a principal at the Mariinski (Kirov as was), the Bolshoi and has sung at Covent Garden. In the meantime we've got her! I've since seen Trif in the premiere of 'Tales of Hoffman' (singing the very tricky Olymphe song where the singer has to simulate clockwork running down).

But it was in a recital with an excellent Estonian pianist (Janika Sirp) in the Aula (Assembly Hall) of the University that Trifinova really shone. She's got quite a following and, as one of my new opera buff pals says 'we're very lucky to have her.' She's about 5'2" but is a real little big voice. The aula concert was lovely. It was a grand night in Tartu anyway as there were three concerts on and the town was buzzing but the pale grey, pink and white neo-classical hall was perfect for Mozart, Bellini, Rimski and Mussorgsky. The rapport between the two young women was perfect with Trifinova making sure that Janika got her share of the considerable credit for a beautiful evening in a very un-diva-ish way. If only all Russian-Estonian relationships were as harmonious as this!

I was lucky to get a place on the Tartu Opera Buff trip to Riga. Riga has an opera company with a reputation for originality and at 09.00 on a Saturday morning thirteen of us trundled off from in front of the theatre in a very comfy Vanemuise mini-bus (that the theatre rents out when its not needed) painted with the muses of comedy, tragedy and music.

The Opera House alone was worth the trip. It's a mini-version of the neo-classical Bolshoi, just slightly smaller than Covent Garden and just as grand. We sat in the stalls (for £18!), in smart wood and upholstery seats and gazed at a proscenium arch that boasts the Germanic Greats - Goethe, Schiller, Wagner and, wait for it, Shakespeare. Well, English is largely a Germanic language, you know. Think of all those Angles, Saxons (Sakslased is Estonian for German) and Jutes, not to mention the Vikings who spoke Old Norse i.e. Scandinavian-style German.

There was a spotlight shining on Dickie Wagner, as the opera was 'The Valkyrie'. Dick was conductor at Riga 1836-9 before absconding and leaving debt. I've never been a Wagnerian but have known several people whose opinions I respect who are so I've had several runs at Wagner ('Meistersinger' and one of the 'Rings' in the dim and distant past) in the UK but have never taken to it. But I really liked this one! I have to say I found the plot, like many 19c Romantic offerings, as daft as a brush. Mr and Mrs Gott, Wotan and Fricka (Odin and Freya to you and I), would benefit from the help of a marriage guidance councillor and all that Teutonic 'Storm & Stress' (Sturm & Drang) have a nice cup of tea rather than stalking around waving their spears and shouting? The horned hats (that never existed apparently but were dreamed up for Wagnerian operas) were replaced by American football helmets. The Valkyries wore a sort of black and yellow bumblebee outfits with shiny yellow PVC shorts, while Wotan wore either pinstripes or an ankle length leather gymslip. It sounds silly but it worked. The sets were wonderful - the first act was particularly impressive - a sort of tall, Spartan neo-classical room in pale beige and dark green.

Act III opens to the tiers of a sports arena littered with naked dead heroes (with faces covered and willies bared) waiting to be whisked off to Valhalla by the Valkyries (Wotan's daughters) to the sound of one of Dickie's most famous and exciting tunes. This worked really well. As did the lighting. First when Wotan is emoting over having promised the missus that he will do away with his bastard son for the sake of a bit of peace and quiet and in the final act where Brünnhilde is surrounded in silhouette by a red electronic beam.

I liked the last act very much. Once all the tortuous Teutonic comings and goings have settled, and the relationship between the impossibly egotistical Wotan and his favourite but (to him) errant daughter is played out to truly gorgeous music. And I was very impressed by Wagner's opinion of housework. The nastiest punishment he can think of is for Brünnhilde to be kissed awake, not by a prince but by some mediocre plodder and to spend the rest of her life permanently pregnant and over the kitchen sink. It sends a veritable shudder down the spine. Fortunately Brünnhilde is able to convince her angry but loving pa to surround her by a ring of fire, although why getting yourself scorched in order to wake up a woman that's bound to be a handful is a mark of heroism also rather escaped me.
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