Friday, October 15, 2010

Druha opera v Bratislave

[A second opera in Bratislava]

Tibor had told me he was taking me to a "concert" in Bratislava on Thursday. When we went to the Old Theater (Stare Divadlo) in Bratislava, he had told me he was looking into getting tickets for an opera at the New Theater (Nove Divadlo). I hadn't known the two were one and the same! (I think I was supposed to know this, but everyone had used the word "koncert," not "opera," so how was I to know?)

I got dressed up nicely when I got home from school, and at 4 Tibor came home and we left. I had known Erika, the music enthusiast, was coming, but I hadn't known stara mama was going as well, until we turned down the road to her apartment.

We drove into Bratislava, and I got a taste of more of it, but I still found it totally fine, as far as cities go. I mean, it's not a beauty and I wouldn't make it a tourist destination, but there was nothing wrong with it. Everyone I've met here in Nitra not only does not like Bratislava, they hate it. (Not even just the youth, as I've said before--the adults, too.) Maybe it's worse if you live your whole life 80 km (48 mi) away, having to go there for various reasons, and it's never visually pleasant or enjoyable...

Tibor suddenly pulled up to an apartment building, and I was wondering why, until I saw the woman standing there. She was Eva, Tibor's charismatic, much-younger cousin (she looks no older than 25, though Ruth told me she's in her thirties). I had seen her, but not been introduced to her, at her father's--Tibor's uncle's--wedding celebration. She works for a government agency there in Bratislava, translating news from English to Slovak (so you can imagine she spoke English very well). She and stara mama spent a while in the car discussing how much they hate Bratislava. Even though Eva has to live in Bratislava during the work week, she always escapes back home to Nitra on weekends.

We arrived at the back side of the Nove Divadlo. It reminded me somewhat of Nitra's Nove Divadlo, except about thirty times bigger (and I thought the Nitra one was huge!). Both buildings are very beautifully designed, made of white stone blocks. I thought I had seen everything, and was very impressed. Then, we walked around to the front of the building...

I think my jaw probably dropped. It wasn't just one building there, but an entire square. There was an enormous, state-of-the-art mall, a Sheraton hotel, a war memorial, a giant fountain, a beautiful view of the Danube, and many more stores. So, where do my descriptions start? I'll take the easiest route and start with the memorial.

Near the edge of the river was a sixty foot-high stone pillar, on top of which was a giant, black lion, holding some crest in his huge paws. When the two countries had been Czechoslovakia, he had been their symbol, and now served as a memorial for the ousting of Communism back in 1989-- the so-called Velvet Revolution. (Not to be confused with the Velvet Divorce in 1993, when the two countries split.) This whole square was brand new, so the lion had been moved from somewhere else to here very recently. I thought he was great, though I found one thing slightly flawed: there is a modern-art sculpture at the front of the Divadlo, about a football field away from the lion's pillar. It's made of bronze and is very nice, in that you can walk around it and it looks different from every angle. However, it works out that the sculpture is just so high that, with perspective, it blocks out the lion in the distance. If it were just a little differently positioned, the lion would be perfectly framed within the sculpture. But I guess that would have required a lot more planning...

Not far below the lion, seemingly leaning up against his pillar (and therefore invisible from the non-Danube side) was a gargantuan sculpture. He was cool just because he was so big--maybe twenty feet high? He was some General Stefanik, dressed like a WWII pilot (maybe he was?). I had a fun time imagining him coming to life and then stampeding through the square. That's one Golem I wouldn't want to mess with.

After admiring the memorial, the four of us (Erika had met up with friends in Bratislava) went to the mall. I should note that everything in this square was in a white-gray stone, including the cobblestones underfoot. What wasn't stone was thin glass or smooth stainless steel. Many buildings were partially made of a block of colored lights, which would change subtly. It was all extremely pretty and metropolitan. So, we went into the mall... Sorry, Mlyny, you were the prettiest mall I'd ever seen--until yesterday. It had Mlyny's semi-reflective, shiny white-tile floors, and was three or four stories high like Mlyny, but the ceiling was a warped arch of what looked like netted glass-- crisscrossing white metal bars framing pieces of glass. We got halfway through, and suddenly the ceiling was different: OMG! We were underneath the fountain!

The fountain in the square was ingeniously designed: it was large and mostly flat, but it somehow managed to be very interesting anyway. It was illuminated from within and was made of raised tiles of a strange material (ha! now I see they were either glass or clear plastic). There were a few, very short (a foot high?) fountains along the surface. So, here we go into the depths of the mall, and look up to see the ceiling is rippling in a greenish glow! It was extremely beautiful; you really felt like you were underwater.

We went straight through the mall, and came out the doors-- on the opposite side of the square! I was wondering how this was possible--did I fall through a wormhole or something?--when I remembered we'd gone underground. Still a little mind-bending, though.

I can't imagine what the square must have looked like before any of the other things were put in. Eva told me it was all "new"; that's a relative term, so I asked for exact figures, and she said three months. Wow! Very new indeed.

And, despite all these miracles of design, the Nove Divadlo managed to remain the focus. The design of the square itself bowed towards the building. It was the most beautiful one there, top-of-the-line classy, with many little windows revealing the inside. It is officially the Slovak National Ballet and Opera Theater.

The inside was just as exquisite! The floors and walls were all in white marble, except for the cafe, which had red carpet. Many people were dressed to impress in showy dresses you can only wear to an opera. One woman, Eva pointed out to me as something of a celebrity: she's a famous talk-show host here in Slovakia (and her husband is apparently a famous opera singer). We heard quite a lot of German. Bratislava is right on the Austrian border, so Eva says a lot of Austrians come over for the opera, which is cheap by their standards.

There were too many mirrors for my liking (and they were designed to distort somewhat, so that made them more grotesque), but that's just the opera house tradition. Along one wall they had intricately-detailed, luxuriously rich previous costumes. A lot of fun to see.

We checked our coats and then went inside the actual performance space. I was shocked, given the incredible size of the building and everything else, how small the actual theater was! It was not very many rows long and not very many seats wide, with no side balconies and only one other floor, which was only three rows long! I looked around for a long time, in vain, searching for a hint as to how it might fold out or something. Unless wood folds...

And I haven't gotten to the best part yet. So...(deep breath here) Our seats.... FIRST. ROW. Seriously?!! I couldn't believe it, even after we'd sat down (Tibor, Eva, me-- stara mama and Erika sat elsewhere). I still don't believe it. That's something that will almost certainly never happen again in my lifetime! Wow, typing it here, it stuns me all over again...

I could see the inside of the whole orchestra pit. (Actually, I could have reached over and touched the cellist's cheek, probably.) Just incredible. And being that close surprisingly did not make it harder to see the whole layout of the scenes or anything. The only thing it hampered was the ability to read the subtitles-- they were directly above us, so you really had to crane your neck. Not really an issue for me, since the subtitles were in Slovak and so I didn't plan on reading them anyway, but Eva had a sore neck by intermission.

So, what opera were we seeing, exactly? Madam Butterfly by Puccini. I'd always known it's a classic, but never known what it's about. So... wow. An opera with actually an interesting, unpredictable plot that doesn't end with everyone frolicking in a trite, mass marriage! (Though I guess another one of those really old opera stereotypes is the singers coughing up blood, since they all had tuberculosis-- and this ended with people coughing up blood!)

The plot: Pinkerton, a (expletive) American in the late 1800's, stationed by the navy in Japan, buys a contract from a sleazy middleman to a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio San (called Butterfly). The contract guarantees him a house, servants, and sex. He plans on having a real marriage in America. His friend, another American, tries to tell him that the marriage means a lot to Butterfly, but Pinkerton won't listen. The two marry, and Butterfly is denounced by her family. She falls deeply in love with him, and he seems to love her as well. But he leaves for America. Butterfly waits for him for three years, certain he will return. She has borne a son by him, whom she has named Pain (to be renamed "Joy" upon his father's return). Well, Pinkerton finally does come, but with his American wife in tow, planning on taking his son and leaving Butterfly forever. Butterfly is distraught, and forces Pinkerton to come in person to pick up his son. She commits seppuku (men put the sword in their bellies, women put the dagger in their throats), Pinkerton finds her dying, and realizes he loved her, and will never be happy again. The end!

At Intermission Tibor left Eva and me to talk, and then returned with a program for me. Dakujem! So, reading the plot synopsis in there, I was able to understand everything. The First Act, before Intermission, I pretty much had no idea what was going on. I couldn't understand the Italian at all. I thought all these wannabe Asians were Chinese! I say wannabe, because none of them were actually Asian, and a black wig does not an Asian make. The main woman's make-up was done well, though, and she looked pretty convincingly Japanese. (So, my question: If they can do it for one person, why not all of them?) The main woman was older, probably in her fifties; reading the plot synopsis in the program, I discovered Butterfly is supposed to be fifteen when she first meets Pinkerton. What?! I just had to ignore the actress' age, because I certainly couldn't imagine away thirty-five years...

Okay, but my nitpicks aside, it was great. The costuming was absolutely fabulous, all these detailed, many-layered kimonos and Oriental designs. The wedding scene was the best feast for the eyes, as all of Butterfly's family--fifty or so people, each in an incredibly intricate outfit--walked in a circular procession, singing. The scenery was very well done, as well--simple and easily-convertible, but also interesting to look at. The richly-colored lighting looked wonderful on all the rice-paper-covered screens. The night scenes were my favorite: the walls were covered in a million tiny lights for stars. At the very beginning, when the sleazy fellow is trying to sell Pinkerton various Japanese women, there was a huge screen behind the two men which images were projected on: black-and-white photos of destitute, at times half-nude, Japanese women with prices clumsily scribbled next to them. Very interesting.

One neat scene, when Butterfly's family are denouncing her, had a man burst through a rice-paper screen, coming down from the ceiling. Then he just hung there for a while as he sang his outrage. He was dressed in a very oversized militant Japanese costume; it was much too big for his body, and served to make him look larger and more impressive, which was certainly the point.

For Butterfly's son, they actually had a little boy up on stage. He was very young; he couldn't have been older than six, I thought. He didn't have any speaking roles, but he had a lot of acting to do. He did a great job! It must have taken him so long to memorize all the things he had to do. That's so impressive.

You expect a National Opera Theater to have quality singing-- and of course, it did! I may not like the sound of opera singing, but I really appreciate it and it always blows me away. Especially when you hear the music building, and building, and building-- and finally the belt of sound you were waiting for from the singer. I should add I thought the background music of this opera was especially good, with a nice Oriental flavor. Usually I don't notice the actual notes, because it all just blends for me as the opera singer goes up and down and up and up, etc.

It was three hours long, and we finished at 9. I was very, very tired. Erika didn't ride home with us; I think she was going to stay on with some friends in Bratislava. I fell asleep almost immediately in the car, and when we got home, I was ready for bed in three minutes flat. It was 11:15.

Unfortunately, I was so exhausted the next day (today) I did one of those bad things where I turn my alarm off in my sleep. So, when I finally opened my eyes, I knew immediately, by the amount of light there was in my room (usually it's pitch-black), I'd overslept. Yep, over an hour later than I'd planned on getting up. (Also, Ruth gets to sleep in on Fridays, so her getting ready for school hadn't woken me up.) Five minutes to get ready and be out the door to catch the bus to school. It wasn't fun. But I made it.

Sundry plans for tomorrow! We'll see.

Much love!

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