“The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia” offers vibrant music but confused drama

May 5, 2012 at 4:50 pm

By Angelo Mao

Kevin Kees as Hajduk in Ketty Nez's "The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia," which premiered at the Roberts Theatre Friday night.

The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia is something of a chimera. The music and libretto, according to composer Ketty Nez, were inspired by the “ethnographic work” of transcribing Balkan folk songs. (Rumelia, Nez tells us, is “the historic Turkish name” for the southern Balkans.) Structurally, the opera is a concatenation of folk stories and songs, many of which are strange and riveting. From Nez’s notes, we know that the characters in her opera derive from archetypes found in Balkan folk songs.

The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia was given its staged world premiere by the Juventas New Music Ensemble Friday night. The performance, which took place at the Roberts Studio Theatre, showcased a work that has significant structural issues, but deserves to be heard for its vibrant performers and flavorful music.

Nez’s opera has as barren a plot as many a modernist novel. Roma, a wandering gypsy, runs into her friend and sometime-lover Hajduk on her way to a village. At the village, Roma and Hajduk meet the Youth and Vixen, a boy and girl at the end of adolescence. Hajduk and Vixen develop an infatuation, which disintegrates when Hajduk’s Bluebeard-like past tumbles out of the closet. The opera closes with Roma and Hajduk again on the road, content to be subject to the winds of fate.

In studying Balkan folk songs, Nez has tapped into a fascinating musical style, though it is difficult to imagine that wandering gypsy bands faced demands as high as those faced by the Juventas New Music Ensemble. The score is written efficiently for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. Nez’s music is fluent, imaginative, and striking, with devilish syncopations and striking effects for all instruments. Indeed, the orchestra’s playing was sometimes so fascinating that it was difficult to keep one’s attention on the actual stage.

Nez’s vocal writing is kinder, though just as effective, with pungent use of imitation in ensemble sections, elisions, and demanding ornamentations. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya deserves praise for leading a cogent performance.

The main problem in The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia is that the work fails to work effectively as an opera, since the music is not the product of drama that comes out of the characters. The protagonists seem blissfully unaware of their existential paradoxes, which we, the audience, grapple with. For example, is Roma complacent with Hajduk’s dalliance with Vixen? Is Vixen seduced or the seducer? Why do they suddenly all break into revue-like synchronized dance and song about joining the army, or the devil’s courtship habits?

As mentioned, Nez’s music is basically a string of Balkan-inspired folk songs. Their sequence makes sense only in association, like a flow of consciousness. As pure music, one hardly questions the logic of this sequence; such questions are resolved by the ebb and flow of sound.

Juventas’s production opted to treat the characters as flesh-and-blood entities whose passions drive the music. The result is that events on stage are either mystifying or melodramatic. The production should have opted to be more relaxed, perhaps, almost like a wandering conversation. This is a pity, because the music is a delight, and the production is clearly passionately executed and crafted.

Kevin Kees was the standout cast member in Friday’s premiere, bringing both vocal and physical prowess to the role of Hajduk. With the physique of an able-bodied Balkan outlaw, Kees possesses a rich, incisive baritone that easily fills the theatre. A few pitch problems intruded, but the overall impression is dynamic and Kees was at ease in both the spoken lines and music.

Hilary Anne Walker had the ideal presence for Roma—-sensual, balanced, and graceful (Is she supposed to be “the old woman” of the title?) Her mezzo is warm and supple, especially in the upper range.

Anna Ward as Vixen is appropriately naïve in contrast to Roma, and sings with a bright soprano. Leslie Tay is youthful as the Youth, and has a clean, round tenor. His character is so muddled, however, that one is puzzled every time he breaks into song.

Perhaps the most successful character is the bear, a silent role played by Kate Paulsen. It was certainly the audience favorite, and its interactions with other characters provide amusing counterpoint to Shakespeare’s famous stage direction in A Winter’s Tale (“Exit, pursued by a bear.” It is also the simplest character, who is there for comic relief alone.

The supertitling was somewhat problematic, as with the tiny stage it was impossible to see both at once with a projection glitch Friday night also rendering part of the subtitles invisible.

 The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia is repeated 8 p.m. Saturday May 5 and Sunday May 6 at the Roberts Studio theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Admission is free. juventasmusic.com

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One Response to ““The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia” offers vibrant music but confused drama”

  1. Posted May 09, 2012 at 2:50 pm by Ketty

    Kind thanks for your feedback and comments! I’m happy to hear the Balkan elements came through . . since most all the source folk material is monodic, one of my compositional challenges was to set the songs as if in amber, “untouched.”

    Assuming the “role” of librettist is new to me . . the archetype older man/woman and younger man/woman are those I found in the songs, so I thought to set them as a loosely structured collage of these songs, whose stories are usually true (unless they’re entirely comical and fantastical, of course). I got the idea of seven “days of the week” (alluding to the seven ages of man) as the Hungarian drinking song (heard in the opening scene) of what to do each day of the week.

    I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with the directing talent of Giselle Ty, the singers, and of course, Juventas!