By Larry Ludwig
October 18, 2015
Sergei Prokofievs Opera “Monastery Weddings” is sheer JOY! He composed this work at the onset of World War II, in 1940. Think perhaps to escape for but a brief few hours into a delightful comedy with which to forget the doom and gloom of Stalin purges and the horrors of war. Yes, it is a comic opera, featuring some eight-lead roles, yes, eight principal singers. More than likely the key reason why this work is rarely performed. Wikipedia mentions “recent” performances in only England, Scotland and Spain, in 1989, 2006 and 2008. It was first performed in 1946 in St. Petersburg.
Well to be added to that list is the August-September 2015 production of Theatro So Pedro in São Paulo, Brasil. Also called “Betrothals in a Monastery” (“Bodas no Monastrio” in Portuguese), the plot is a convoluted, complex scenariao much reminiscent of a Shakespearean “Comedy of Errors” mixed in with a Verdian “Falstaff”. At times seemingly too complex to follow, but in the end, as the saying goes, “alls well that ends well.” Yes, an opera with a happy ending. Nobody dies! Hopefully the Wikipedia plot summary below will help clarify the confusion.
The 600-seat Theatros production was superb, excellent. Not a single fault could I find. A friendly semi-abstract set with its mix of a curtain drop and multi-purpose plastic blocks that for once “worked”, which with varying degrees of multi-colored lighting, allowed for quick scene changes (of which there are many in this opera) clearly evoking the required plot setting. Beautiful period Costumes (the opera seems to take place in the 1700s-1800s), good makeup, wonderful wigs, great choreography, great acting, and of course, excellent singing.
Not a weak link in the entire eight singing lead roles (contralto, bass, tenors, baritones, soprano, mezzo-soprano), two principal secondaries and an exemplary chorus. Not to mention, excellent conducting and outstanding performance of the orchestra. Sung in Russian, a Russian speaking Brasilian friend pointed out, the singers Russian diction was more than passable, a testament to both the Russian language coach and the linguistic talents of the mostly Brasilian cast. And for the record, the Portuguese subtitles were excellent.
Besides the myriad of plot surprises, Prokofiev worked in a few subtle, not so subtle surprising moments. For instance, what seemed like pure walk-on non-singing supernumerary roles for some of the servants, servants who pretended to be talking and gesticulating… well appearances can be deceiving. Two of them turn into secondary singing roles, with the maid suddenly becoming, after what seemed like half of the opera, one of the two top lead, and most applauded singers. Never had occasion to experience that role-reversal in an opera heretofore.
Then there was the subdued, but quite classically balletic dancing by some of the servants, done in quite confined spaces. Difficult but done beautifully, elegantly. More like a side-bar action to main events elsewhere on stage… sometimes feeling like a three ring circus. Also featured was a three-piece trumpet, drum, clarinet combo on stage, as well as cast members walking onstage up from the audience.
Than the big WOWer, well one of two big WOWs of the night… a super rousing rambunctious well staged chorus of drunken, rapacious, yes very greedy monastery monks. Felt like a scene out of Karl Orffs “Carmina Burana”, perhaps the inspiration for what was one of the more powerful scenes of this opera. The monks brought the house down, as that saying goes.
The other “WOW” moment was during the concluding moments of the opera, with Don Jerome, tenor Giovanni Tristacci, while singing at full volume, put on a virtuoso performance playing musical-bottles non-stop, at a presto high-velocity pace. A true musical “tour de force”, one of the evenings many memorable highlights.
Prokofievs music is much like that of his ballet, “Romeo and Juliet”. The music melodies, tender or be it martial, flow, seeming seamlessly, without pause, leading one easily from one scene to the next, from one emotional moment to the next. There are very few solo aria or duet or quartet like moments common to more traditional operas, no real place for the audience to express delight with applause and bravos. That has to be saved for the end of each act, and especially at the end of the opera itself. And applause and bravos, bravas and bravis were aplenty with the standing ovation, this one, in my view, truly earned and very much deserved.
If you get the chance, do go see this work. Its an opera evening as noted earlier of pure JOY. You wont be disappointed.
By the way, the cast list follows, along with the Wikipedia plot-summary synopsis.
A Duenna Lidia Schffer, Mendoza Svio Sperandio, Don Jerome Giovanni Tristacci, Don Ferdinando Johnny Frana, Louisa Laua Duarte, Don Antonio Anibal Mancini, Clara DAlmanza Marly Montoni, Dom Carlos Erick Souza…and honorable mention on secondary, the two chief Monks, Padre Elustaf and Padre Augustin, Mar Oliveira and Educaro Fujita. This is in addition to eight other minor secondary roles.
Conductor Andr Dos Santos.
Coral Lrico Paulista and Orquestra do Theatro So Pedro
Don Jerome intends his daughter Louisa to marry the vain, wealthy and ugly fish merchant Mendoza. However, she loves instead Antonio, who is poor, though noble in spirit. Furthermore, Don Ferdinand, son of Don Jerome and prone to fits of jealousy, wants to marry Clara dAlmanza, who is a virtual prisoner of her stepmother.
Don Jerome locks up Louisa in her room to force her to marry Mendoza. Louisas nurse (the Duenna) provokes the fury of Don Jerome by pretending to be a messenger between Antonio and Louisa. Jerome dismisses her – but the Duenna exchanges clothes with Louisa who makes her escape in this disguise.
By the quayside – where fisherwomen are praising the quality of the fish caught in Mendozas boats – Louisa encounters her friend Clara, who has also run away from home and intends to seek sanctuary at the monastery. Louisa asks to borrow Claras name for a day – Clara assents. Enter Mendoza and his courtly friend Don Carlos. Mendoza is recognized by Louisa but he has never seen her. She therefore approaches Mendoza claiming to be Clara and asks him to take her under his protection and find Antonio with whom she is in love. Mendoza is attracted by this idea as a means to rid himself of his rival Antonio by marrying him off to Clara. Don Carlos escorts Clara to Mendozas house.
Mendoza visits the house of Don Jerome to meet Louisa (the Duenna in disguise); whilst Louisa is not as young and beautiful as Mendoza had been led to believe, her dowry is sufficient attraction. they agree to elope that evening.
The mystified Antonio arrives at Mendozas house; while he is offstage meeting Clara, Mendoza and don Carlos congratulate themselves on their cunning. Still unwitting, they agree to help the pair get married.
Don Jerome is rehearsing some amateur musicians (A trio of trumpet, clarinet and bass drum). He receives two messages- one from Mendoza saying he has eloped with Louisa, which delights him, and another from the real Louisa, which he does not read carefully, asking for his blessing on her marriage. He sends back his consent with both messengers and arranges for a great feat later that evening to celebrate.
At the monastery, Clara meets with Antonio and Luisa and laments her apparent loss of Ferdinand. Enter Ferdinand , who mistaking Clara for a nun exclaims that he is chasing his false friend Antonio who has run off with his beloved Clara. Clara is secretly overjoyed at this demonstration of Ferdinands passion.
The act opens with a drinking song for the monks in the monastery where the marriages are to be performed. The monks then switch to a hymn that extols fasting and abstinence, to a tune that is a slower variant of the earlier drinking song. Enter Mendoza and Antonio who by lavish bribery gain the monks consent to marry them to their loves. Enter Ferdinand who challenges Antonio to a duel, but the genuine Clara arrives and Ferdinand now understands the true situation. The three marriages are agreed.
At Don Jeromes feast, the host is increasingly amazed, exasperated and infuriated as the successive arrival of the newly-weds makes it clear that his plans have gone completely awry. He is slightly compensated by the likely size of Claras dowry. He sings a drinking song, accompanying himself on a set of tuned glasses.