Lithuania National Opera and Ballet

'Ignis et fides'

by Julija Kalpokiene

2003 -- Trakai Castle, Lithuania

This summer the series of events that were held all over Lithuania to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas was crowned by the premiere of Bronius Kutavicius’ opera-ballet "Ignis et fides" in the courtyard of Trakai Castle. It would have been a pleasant surprise if there had been no rain on 12 July when the performance was put on. In Lithuania, if you go to a festival in the open air during summer, you must take an umbrella, and you usually have to use it.

Important dates

It was the third summer season in Trakai for the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. This year, music, acting, dance, costume and stage design were all based on the two dates of great importance to Lithuania. One is the first written mention of its name in 1009 and the other is the coronation of King Mindaugas in July 1253.

For three decades the composer Bronius Kutavicius has been considered a creator of oratorios on pagan themes. In spite of this, the job of creating a work for the anniversary of the coronation of the country’s first and only king was not so easy, even for Kutavicius. The reason is the scarcity of information about the era of King Mindaugas.

“I did not want to create a simple adoration or glorification,” Kutavicius says. “That would have been absolutely unacceptable to me. I went to speak to some well-known historians; but to call the answers I got sparse would have been an understatement. King Mindaugas was crowned in July 1253, and this is the only fact we have. “Then I asked the religious studies expert Gintaras Beresnevicius to write about Queen Morta and King Mindaugas. I wanted to go deeply into the essence of these personalities -- their psychology and the rituals of the times. A change of religion is a very big personal drama.”

He admits that a description of a coronation ceremony during Händel’s time in London was assisted the opera's design. The coronation of King Mindaugas is closely connected with the Christianisation of Lithuania. Kutavicius incorporated into it the theme of Bishop Bruno and the story of his martyrdom, which was why Lithuania’s name was mentioned in written sources in 1009. The clash between paganism and Christianity, the crux of his most famous work, "Paskutines pagoniu apeigos" (Last Pagan Rites), is also a major force in "Ignis et fides."

Atypical creation

"Ignis et fides" is a stage diptych for soloists, a chorus and symphony orchestra supplemented by kankles (a plucked string instrument) and recorders. This work cannot be ascribed to one genre; it has the features of an oratorio and an opera, and the instrumental music brings it very close to ballet.

The first part of the work is dedicated to the 1,000th anniversary of the first recorded mention of Lithuania’s name. Kutavicius wrote the libretto relying on three historical sources and bringing together authentic details from the period: kankles, Vilnius church bells, trumpet fanfares, sutartines (polyphonic songs) and the psalms and music by Hildergard von Bingen (a 12th century German abbess, composer and poet).

He also used some of the language of Mikalojus Daukša’s "Postilla" and some words from the dead Prussian language. An unrecognisable text in Prussian creates a historical distance, and this was the composer’s aim.

“The audience can pile on the criticism because they don’t understand the text, but my idea was to show the colour, not the meaning of the words.” The psalms cover the Christian aspects of the work. “I took the Psalter and picked out those that seemed most appropriate to the situation,” Kutavicius says. “Their melodies recall the Gregorian chant.”

“I didn’t want to invent anything. Words reveal secrets. You can express more without words.” The psalms are in Latin, and thus say nothing to the audience. “Only after the scene with the coronation did I take an epigram from Daukša’s "Postilla" for the chorus. Its language is close to that of Mindaugas’ times.”

The three languages - Lithuanian, Latin and Prussian - used in "Ignis et fides" reflect the historical destiny of Lithuania. The recording of real thunder in the finale is not just an effect: it symbolises Perkunas, the main pagan god to whom Lithuania reverted for 130 years after Mindaugas was killed.

Without rain

Martynas Staškus, a 34-year-old conductor with the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, directed the premiere. His repertoire includes 30 compositions such as Kutavicus’ "Lokys" (The Bear) and Mindaugas Urbaitis’ "Acid City." Two stars with the theatre were invited to sing the main parts: Inesa Linaburgyte as Morta, and Vytautas Juozapaitis as King Mindaugas. The choreography was created by Aira Nagineviciute recognised as Best Choreographer of 2002-2003. The director was Jonas Vaitkus, whose repertoire includes more than 50 productions at home and abroad, and five films.

One more member of the cast but not mentioned in the script was the rain, raising barricades of umbrellas. However, it had a quite insignificant effect as the audience was not at all put off. Luckily or unluckily, there will be no rain or wind to blame difficulties on when "Ignis et fides" transfers to the stage of the renovated Opera and Ballet Theatre in October.

This article was first published in the magazine "Lithuania in the World."

This article has been edited for additional clarity by Jeff.

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