St. Birgitta Festival
by Stuart Sweeney
August 2008 -- Tallinn, Estonia
Now in its fourth year, Tallinn’s St. Birgitta Festival is already a cornerstone of the summer music and dance scene in Estonia’s capital, and there are several elements to its undoubted success. The setting is an exquisite, ruined convent on the edge of Tallinn, and intervals spent wandering around the floodlit grounds take on a magic of their own. The high stone walls form a dramatic backdrop for performances to large audiences of 1000; a temporary roof means you don’t get soaked on wet nights, but perhaps a little damp if you’re near one of the huge empty window spaces – a small price to pay for the unique setting, in my view. The second key feature is the quality of the programming by Director, Eri Klas, one of Estonia’s leading conductors. This year’s opera performances saw Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” alongside more accessible work, such as a Cav and Pag double bill.
Dance has always been an important part of the Festival and 2008 was no exception. The inaugural year featured a new production of “Carmina Burana” with Fine 5 Dance Theatre performing in front of the choir and soloists, with scenes inspired by Carl Orff’s songs of lust, love, drinking and the extraordinary death song of a roasted swan. I wrote then that I was impressed by Fine 5’s use of contemporary and folk dance styles, complementing the earthy music more successfully than many ballet versions I had seen.
For their second commission from the St. Birgitta Festival, Fine 5 tackles the much trickier proposition of Verdi’s “Requiem”. Here, the dancers connect more closely with the singers, and using a mix of procession, dance and sculptural poses, the performance is a fine example of Gesamtkunstwerk or total theatre, with the Latvian choir, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, dance, lighting and projection all tightly integrated. In one section, the choreography picks up the fast, “day of wrath” passages with bodies spinning across the floor. In another section we see the powerful image of a figure ascending a ramp high at the back of the stage, forming a crucifix.
Dramatic lighting by Margus Vaigur and video projection by Rain Saukas and Reio Aare provide additional visual stimulation, but the simplest effects often work best and here a candle-lit procession, framed by the mediaeval fabric of St. Birgitta, lingers in my memory. Verdi’s “Requiem” will never feature in my 10 desert island discs, but the contribution of the choreography of Tiina Ollesk and Rene Nõmmik and the Fine 5 dancers, uncredited in the programme, (Tiina Ollesk, Külli Roosna, Laura Kvelstein, Eneli Raud, Rain Saukas, Dmitri Kruus, Argo Liik, Silver Soorsk, Endro Roosimäe) ensured that this was a rewarding experience.
Another regular at the Festival is the Imperial Russian Ballet and this year, their Artistic Director, Gediminas Taranda, brought his staging of “Swan Lake” and a double bill of “Scheherazade” and “The Polovtskian Dances”. Mikhail Fokine’s “Scheherazade” is one of my guilty pleasures. Yes, it does belong alongside “The Corsaire” as a ludicrous Western view of the exotic East, but it has three saving graces: a plot, which unlike “The Corsaire” makes some sense; fine tunes from Rimsky-Korsakov; and an extended duet for the Slave and Zobeida, as erotic as anything in the ballet repertoire. The restricted stage did little to inhibit the dancers, and amid sets and designs inspired by Lev Bakst’s originals, Nariman Bekzhanov and Anna Pashkova gave their all as the doomed couple.
It’s a long time since I saw “The Polovtskian Dances” and I was looking forward to seeing this version from choreographer, Kasian Goleisovski. However, it proved a disappointment after the similar but superior “Scheherazade”, lacking not only a plot, but also any connection to the myriad of characters. Even Pashkova and Bekzhanov couldn’t bring it to life in the relatively short period they were on stage. Nevertheless, with the Orchestra of the Kolobov Novoya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and an uncredited choir, providing a lively rendition of Borodin’s score, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation.
“Swan Lake” was a popular choice for the opening night of the Festival, and Taranda’s setting of Petipa and Ivanov’s masterpiece didn’t disappoint, with a string of innovations, including some that work and others that don’t. To make life easier for a travelling company, we have drapes rather than scenery, but the dark, symbolist designs accord perfectly with this fantasy of a swan woman. In most, if not all. Russian stagings, the Jester is one of the most contentious additions, created by Soviet era choreographer, Alexander Gorsky. Perhaps there should be a pre-performance warning for all ballet purists with weak hearts, that the Imperial’s version has not one, but two Jesters. To my surprise, this device worked better than most and, alongside the usual spins and tumbling, we had an effective Jester duet in Act III, and they didn’t seem to get in the way of the other dancers as much as usual. On balance though, I still side with those who would smother all Jesters at birth. An aspect that didn’t work for me was the intrusion of the swan corps before Odette’s first entry and after her exit in Act II, blurring the precise arch of the original solos.
Above all, the principals excelled: Nariman Bekzhanov’s pure line and beautiful jumps brought the choreographers’ steps to life, and the chemistry between him and the supple and elegant Yaroslava Arantanova, as Odette/Odile, meant this was much more than a technical exercise. As a result, I enjoyed this performance more than the National Ballet of China’s version a fortnight earlier in London.
If I have a criticism for arts organisations in Estonia, it is that many still have a long way to go in tapping into the potential of sponsorship. Thus, I was delighted to see corporate hospitality tents for most of the nights I attended, bringing in extra revenue, without changing the nature of this democratic event. With its mix of opera, ballet, contemporary dance and other performances linked by music, the St. Birgitta Festival offers an innovative mix to appreciative devotees, and I look forward to many more.