MilevaAleksandra Vrebalov - Mileva

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged, Hungary 2012 | Aleksandar Kojić, Ozren Prohić, Victoria Markaryan, Dan Popescu, Violeta Srećković, Vladimir Andrić, Jelena Končar, Branislav Jatić, Marina Pavlović Barać, Miljenko Đuran, Verica Pejić, Laura Pavlović, Maja Mijatović, Saša Štulić, Branislav Cvijić, Igor Ksionžik, Goran Krneta, Slavoljub Kocić | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 12 October 2012

The Armel Opera Festival production of Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Mileva demonstrates the importance of a good libretto to the overall impact of an opera, or to be more exact, it demonstrates how detrimental a weakness in this area can be to the work as a whole. There is of course a variety of different disciplines that combine to create a work of opera, but they do not function independently, and a good musical score and strong singing performances are likely to be rendered meaningless unless it has a good subject and a strong libretto to express. It’s particularly frustrating that the libretto is so lacking here since the choice of subject is certainly an interesting one and in all other respects, the approach to the production is impressive. Mileva is a portrait opera of Mileva Marić, a native of Novi Sad in Serbia (also the composer Vrebalov’s hometown) who played a significant part in advancing the cause for women at the turn of the 20th century through her marriage to Albert Einstein and through her own studies and scientific research.

Actually, having just written that sentence, that in a nutshell is about as much as you’ll learn about Mileva Marić from this work - that she was a woman, that she broke conventions of what was expected as a woman, that she was involved in scientific research with Albert Einstein, and that she was married for a time to the world famous physicist. Written by Vida Ognjenović, based on her own play ‘Mileva Einstein‘, and adapted for the opera by the composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, the subject ought to be a lot more interesting than it is. It opens up with some promise, with a Serbian folk band playing in the night, as Mileva’s sister Zorka writhes around in a fit in bed, anxiously awaiting a letter from her sister who has gone to study in Zurich - the behaviour of the disturbed young woman and the anxiety of her parents powerfully scored with violent musical colouring by the composer. Elsewhere however, the circumstances of Mileva Marić’s experience are somewhat prosaically laid out in a rather simplistic and expositional manner. She is determined to be a successful academic and scientist, breaking new ground at least as far as challenging what is expected of a woman. Despite the example of Marie Curie however, Mileva is not taken seriously by her lecturer, who tells her to go home and do the cleaning (or something along those lines).

Despite her assistance to the young Albert Einstein (the opera doesn’t really examine the contentious area of how much personal input Mileva has into the development of his theories), it seems however that Mileva’s role is determined by the social expectations that come with her being a married woman and being pregnant. While Albert goes to Berlin then to make his great breakthroughs (”Oh planet, the true genius walks upon you!/ His great discovery will change the face of the planet/ The world is no longer the same from this day on/ The gods are jealous!” sing the chorus), it’s viewed as chasing fame, while his instructions to his wife (”You will make sure than my garments and undergarments are always clean“, “Expect no intimacy from me“, to which a chorus of faceless women in housewives’ clothes respond “I agree“) highlight how society and history view their respective achievements. It’s difficult to know then Einstein announces that his success “belongs to the two of us” whether Mileva’s contribution to it has been of the scientific or the domestic variety.

That’s about the height of the ideas and the characterisation explored in Mileva, the whole thing expressed in the most obvious, expositional and prosaic dialogue. Other than a token gesture of having Milena’s older self looking on and commenting on events - which works well, often in duet with her younger self - there’s little sense of the characters or the subject being explored with any depth or insight in the libretto. Vrebalov’s brilliant musical writing for Mileva however suggests rather a lot more, although it’s questionable how it relates to what is described in the limited character development and dramatic exposition that takes place. Vrebalov scores with broad strokes and bold gestures in lush orchestration. There’s no minimalist picking and plonking here and there, but huge swathes of strings and floating melodies with violent interjections of stabbing brass and percussion. The singing too is filled with melody and written for musical voices carrying a strong sense of personality and expression, but it’s telling that the merely vocalised closing section of Epilogue to the work is just as expressive, if not even more so, than the actual words of the libretto. Mileva doesn’t appear to have much to say, but it at least says it brilliantly.

Much the same thing could be said about the fine production design and the singing performances for the Armel Opera Festival in Szeged, Hungary (broadcast live on the 12th October via internet streaming by the French-German art channel ARTE). The opera festival presents fully staged productions of mainly contemporary works as a means of viewing young singers in competition. Mileva benefitted Georgian soprano Victoria Markaryan in the lead role more than it did Romanian bass Dan Popescu in a relatively minor part as Jakob Erat. Although the role did her no favours as far as establishing characterisation, Markaryan sang well, her voice only slightly too weak on a few occasions to always rise above the overwhelmingly powerful orchestration (superbly performed by the Serbian National Theater Opera under the direction of Aleksandar Kojić). She sounded marvellous however in her duets with Violeta Srećković, who also make a strong impression as the elder Mileva. Also worth mentioning is Jelena Končar’s powerful singing and chilling performance as Mileva’s sister Zorka. Vladimir Andrić was similarly light-toned as Albert Einstein in a way that worked well with Markaryan’s Mileva.

Ozren Prohić’s design and stage direction strived to bring a flow of continuity to the opera’s string of short scenes and succeeded most impressively, requiring little in the way of props, but relying more on the positioning of figures on the stage, using backscreen projections and effective lighting techniques with a consistency of tone that worked with the opera itself. Visually strong, musically impressive, with good singing performances, it was a pity that the libretto wasn’t able to make some rather more insightful points about the life of Mileva Marić, but this was a fascinating work nonetheless, wonderfully presented.

The Armel Opera Festival production of Mileva is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.