by Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos[1]

       Every instant in life is unique and may be unrepeatable. So proved our opportunity to acquire a 3 LP Soviet set of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” featuring the late Moldovan soprano Maria Bieshu (1934 – 2012) and legendary Russian tenor Vladimir Atlantov (*1939). We located it at the basement record shop of the Johann Nepomuk Hummel Museum, commemorating this Austro – Hungarian  composer’s birth in Pressburg, Bratislava’s official name while belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary.  By postponing this purchase we missed our opportunity altogether, since the following days the shop closed for renovation not due to be completed before our scheduled departure from the Slovakian capital. By this moment impatient readers may already be complaining about the reason which urge us to share this collector’s disappointment. Because “Sharing” seemed to be the crucial unifying element of experience common in many and partly greatly divergent kinds of so called “immersive theatre”, one of the main points of focus during the 2-day “New Drama”  Conference  organized by the Slovak Ministry of Culture Theatre Institute, headed by the ever diligent Mme Vladislava Fekete, the International Association of Theatre Critics, represented by its’ charismatic Associate Secretary General Mr. Octavian Saiu and the IATC’s Slovak section, currently presided by Mme Zuzana Ulicianska, playwright and critic, who contributed to the Conference a separate chapter on New Drama in Israel.

  The actual title of the Conference was more broadly conceived bringing together “Contemporary Drama and Performative Space: from Playwriting to Immersive Theatre” and aiming in “addressing the relationship between the new drama of the 21st century and the contemporary theatre from the point of view of performative space”. In our experience terminology, actually and thankfully used more sparingly by the contributors than expected, played little role since various among them seemed to understand quite differently the frame and conditions for what Polish theatre director and theorist  Jerzy Marian Grotowski defined as “encounter between the actor and the spectator”.

So, for instance, doubts emerged about whether an event shared with unsuspecting participants can be a form of theatre or if it should preclude certain amount of control from the part of its’ initiators in order to avoid unpleasant non artistic consequences and to ensure certain aesthetic standards. In this context, actor and director Jaroslaw Fret, who is currently director of the Grotowski Institute, shared with participants of the Conference his views about the human body being the foremost and most elemental  performing space, defining as a primeval act of immersive theatre even the most minimal address of the subject to another person. Fret focused on the importance of human breath and explained his method of meticulous organizing chanting ceremonies based on long and sometimes nearly extinct liturgical chant traditions through a painstaking calculation of breaths and sounds that form a deeply involving shared and at best mystic performing experience.

While Nick Rongjun Yu, an award winning playwright and as of 2005 director of Shanghai International Contemporary Theatre Festival, stretched terminus “Immersive Theatre” in order to include even popular festivities or tourist events of mass dimensions, a much more painful story emerged from the report of Benny Lin, a solitary author and performer on a most unexpected range of stages, who is currently an assistant professor at the Hong Hong Chinese University. While Lin was intended to analyze and explore “the concept of self-reflexivity in relation to the socio-cultural construction and deconstruction of the different places (and spaces)”, a supposedly  neutral and cerebral presentation was revealed as way of expression in places that freedom of speech and human rights still (or perhaps increasingly) remain unfulfilled visions. Having to overcome preventive censorship in Singapore, his country of  origin, Lin has eschewed written text altogether, makes use of key words notes and performs for limited numbers of viewers, while he was the one who composed a PhD on his individual way of  “postmodern self-reflexive” drama.

Another highpoint of the Conference was for many of us the presence of the distinguished Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, who presented his own invention of “polydrama” as an advanced, viable, demanding and hugely successful form of immersive theatre. In fact, his “Alma Mahler” Theaterstueck was presented as of 1996 and for 20 consecutive years at the renowned Wiener Festwochen International Festival. Focused on the sensational biography of Alma Mahler and her extramarital relationships with poet Franz Werfel, architect Hugo Gropius and painter Oskar Kokoshka, Sobol used 3 performers for Alma in different stages of her tempestuous life, each one trying to lure part of the public to follow her in preference to her other incarnations as the only seeker of a certain truth reflecting divided opinions on persons and events. In a series of 70 brief scenes a knowing public was thrilled to sample a divergent version of facts, which later in the evening would be shared during a common banquet. The practically limitless variety of shared experience on offer for the public by the 3 Almas and her famous suitors created a furor of demand for  more while enhancing the pluralism of historical aspects on this important figure.

Sobol confessed that a similar polydrama lies hidden in his vaults drawing on another highly debatable pillar of European Drama and Music Culture, Richard Wagner, tantalizingly urging visitors of the Bayreuth Festival to hope for an eventual endorsement of it by such a prestigious institution, particularly in the aftermath of a sincerely  brave opening of its still new board of directors with its revelatory “Verstummte Stimmen” exhibition.

Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the shores of Danube

Leaving to prose theatre critics the assessment of a series of drama performances presented to us during our stay in Bratislava, we nevertheless would like to comment on the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth”, presented on May 11th  in the beautiful old building of the Slovak National Theatre. Bratislava’s operatic life unavoidably suffers from a rather unfair competition with the too nearby Vienna, but this production of the standard version of the opera (which usually retains the additions and retouches of the 1865 Paris version minus the act 3 Ballabili), first mounted  in 2003 by Marian Chudovsky, apparently as his calling card for his almost simultaneous nomination as the Manager of the Slovak National Theatre Opera, seems in the long run to retain many of its virtues, especially its simplicity and its’conformity with the text, Shakespeare’s as well as Francesco Maria Piave’s.

The scenography is dominated by monoliths and a central frame which serves well during the scenes involving the witches and the apparitions of several ghosts, first Banquo’s during act 2, scene3, and later his descendants Kings-to-be, in the course of act 3. And though the ballabili were omitted altogether, there were plenty of dance elements in form of at least 3 dancers, hovering fatefully with extended ultra long open arms over the proceedings. Two colors shared the all dominating fabrics of the scenery, the one of blood as well as of the royal tunic and the one of ashes, presenting not only meaningful but also aesthetically viable frame for the action. Speaking of action, it is inexplicable that the movement of artists on stage was largely left on each one’s -singer’s or chorister’s- initiative, thus creating quite a few awkward instants of uncertainty in an opera that requires a high degree of general alertness.

This nevertheless must be accounted as a minor blemish in view of an airing that boasted such a largely excellent as well as internationally acclaimed cast, headed by two superb protagonists as the murderous couple. Their choice as a youthful pair, with striking good looks, ambitious dynamism and openly enamored of each other, established at last the Macbeths as they should but rarely get to be presented on stage. Only in this respect their gradual mental and corporal decline becomes feasible and presents itself as the outcome of their moral decline. Dalibor Jenis, an internationally active Slovak baritone , was the epitome of a long haired, impetuous  young warrior. Although his voice is of a lighter calibre than Verdi requires, though robust enough in its high register, he took advantage of the small house in order to darken it as less as possible and offered much passionate singing, sensitive to dynamics, in clean but somewhat inaccurate Italian. His act 4 aria was a triumph of sane, Verdian line with welcome escapades to soft singing. It is no coincidence that he has been chosen to star  in Verdi’s “Macbeth” directed by Sicilian actress and director Emma Dante, considered by many as one of the mot interesting and innovative voices of the international theatrical panorama, in a new production of the opera  shared by the Teatro Massimo di Palermo, the Macerata Opera Festival and the Teatro Regio di Torino (a nationwide direct relay from the latter is due for June 21, 2017).

His Lady proved to be a sensational choice even for the standards of much larger venues. Then, the proverbial emphasis of Verdi himself on a singer strong on expressive power even at the cost of vocal beauty has since encouraged many performances of highly debatable vocal standards even at the classiest of opera houses. Not the case with the Italian soprano Maria Pia Piscitelli, on the verge of international fame ever since her 2014 Vienna State Opera debut as Norma. Bearing Tebaldi – like glamorous diva looks, she impersonated a Lady full of zest and inner energy, who could very well have another life path, had she not succumbed to her own relentless ambition. As for her singing, it proved to be the epitome of honesty and Belcanto School. Every note was clear, every attack was accurate, there was a constant awareness of the singing line, with secure top notes and no shrill leaps of octaves. In a theatre of these dimensions she proved to possess all the necessary power and homogeneity to avoid effortful singing throughout the registers, not forgetting her delicate coloratura technique for the act 2 florid brindisi. Her admirable vocal articulation was coupled to a crystal clear diction that made Italian surtitles redundant. Her Sleepwalking respected as elsewhere the measure of the character and was coupled by an acceptable off stage top note.

Banquo was sung and acted by the well known veteran Slovak bass Peter Mikulas, who managed to retain much of the control required for his brief but rewarding part. On the other hand we didn’t care for the rough singing of tenor Ludovit Ludha as Macduff, who was easily upstaged by tenor Jan Babjak as crown prince Malcolm. A decent contribution by soprano Lucie Hajkova as a Lady-in-waiting,  reliable in the big final ensembles of acts 1 and 2, rounded up a colorful and  deeply satisfying opera evening. Thank You, Brastislava[3]!

[1] Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.

        Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a  CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by  “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address .

        As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory”  Society.

[3] Unless otherwise stated photos by Kyriakos Loukakos