Review by: David Hurwitz
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
On evidence here, Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavicius (b. 1932) stands with the finest exponents of contemporary music from the Baltic republics and Scandinavia. His opera Lokys (The Bear) mixes the timeless atmosphere of Pelléas et Mélisande with the expressionist extremes of Wozzeck, if you can imagine such a thing, and does so with complete success. The plot is a myth, and like most myths it’s full of familiar elements that we’ve encountered before both in stories and, naturally, on the operatic stage, though perhaps not quite in this particular form.
Years before the stage action transpires, the old count’s young bride was kidnapped by a bear. Although she was rescued, the experience left her mad and cursing the child that she was carrying at the time. Her son, the current count and object of the curse, has a curiously ursine appearance (in one scene he shaves his chest) and a bizarre attraction to blood. He’s about to get married to Julija, and for the occasion his old friend the Professor shows up, only to learn of the countess’ madness and the count’s increasing strangeness. On a hunting expedition in the woods a one-eyed old woman (a close relative of Verdi’s Ulrica) tells the count to give up his dreams of marital bliss and to assume his predestined role as lord of animals in the forest.
Needless to say the count ignores this advice with predictable consequences. The one-eyed old woman makes a disturbing appearance at the wedding ceremony, symbolically smashing a pot full of ashes, Julija experiences feelings of foreboding (no surprise there!), and the mad countess runs in with a shotgun looking for the bear that kidnapped her. As tradition demands, the count drinks a toast from the bride’s shoe and is mesmerized by the blood stain that remains on it from the previous day, when Julija stepped on a piece of glass and cut her foot (and he kissed it and sucked the blood from the wound). Ultimately the count’s blood-lust overcomes him and (it is implied but never directly stated) he or some other “wild animal” kills Julija by tearing out her throat and drinking her blood, whereupon his mother, believing he is the bear she seeks, shoots him to death. Despite the elements of Gothic horror, and like Pélleas, there’s a fuzzy sort of obliqueness to the events that imbues the work with a mysterious, dreamlike quality even when the action is quite gruesome.
Kutavicius further tempers the violence of the story with a hypnotic score in which quasi-minimalist ostinatos, hints at folksong, and acerbic dissonance combine freely to create a disturbing yet highly compelling musical idiom. His musical characterizations support the evolution of the drama and flesh out roles that might all too easily become mere archetypes (which in a sense they are) rather than people with emotions and feelings, while his use of the chorus is very effective. As far as performances go, the men are better than the women. Both Vladimiras Proudnikovs as the Professor and Vytautas Juozapaitis as the Count sound quite impressive, while Irena Zelenkauskaite-Brazauskiene sings with passion as Julija, but also commands a raw, unlovely tone. The chorus and orchestra perform very well under the baton of Martynas Staskus. In the final analysis, incidental imperfections cannot lessen the value of making the acquaintance of this very fine Lithuanian composer and his powerful, provocative opera.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: None
BRONIUS KUTAVICIUS - Lokys (The Bear)
- Vladimiras Prudnikovas
- Staskus, Martynas (conductor)
- Choir & Orchestra of the Lithuanian National Opera & Ballet Theater
- Ondine - ODE 1021-2D