Maria Zărnescu[1]

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The International Festival for Musical Performing Arts, Life Is Beautiful
(Viaţa e frumoasă) in Bucharest, Romania, 5th edition in November 2012.

The fifth edition of the International Festival for Musical Performing Arts, Life Is Beautiful, found its organizer‒The National Operetta Theatre “Ion Dacian” in Bucharest‒in an awkward situation: without a building of its own. It is an old story that began in 1986, when, at the order of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, one of the most beautiful theatres in Romania’s capital (The Estate Operetta Theatre) was demolished in order to make room to a megalomaniac urban project, a symbol of communism’s victory: “The People’s House.” (Today, the building complex is only famous for its size and architectural kitsch.) The Operetta Theatre was moved, almost overnight, into one of the Bucharest National Theatre halls, where it functioned until last year, when the location went back to its legal owner. In the meantime, the construction of the new headquarters was initiated, a modern and true 21st century theatre building, the first of its kind that to be raised in Romania after 1989. Hopefully it will be ready in the autumn of 2013.

For this reason, the more than 70 events of this anniversary edition of Life Is Beautiful took place, over 11 days, in different venues in Bucharest–theatre halls and foyers, auditoriums in schools and universities, churches, clubs and restaurants, malls, or even open air. I am not a fan of “quantitative reporting” when speaking of artistic productions, but those cases where the figures are supported by quality are worth mentioning. Or, it is obvious that for the last five years the self-confident producers of Beautiful Life have succeeded in imposing a cultural enterprise dedicated to the musical performing arts in a capital overcrowded with various events of all kinds. And that the quality standards which accompanied the first edition were preserved‒at a time when Romania and the European Union are troubled by their economic problems.

Credit for these achievements goes to Răzvan Ioan Dincă and Alina Moldovan, the directors of the festival, and to their passionate team of more than 100 people.

They are also praiseworthy for bringing the institution of the Bucharest Operetta Theatre back to a 21st century-specific balance in its repertoire. On one hand, the operetta genre is still alive in Europe. There are theatres specializing in this art form in Hungary, Russia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Bulgaria or Slovakia, even if their faithful audience has become a little old. On the other hand, Romania has no tradition in the field of musicals. And this is exactly what Dincă and Moldovan did attempt in these last years: both to restore the old glory of operetta and to introduce the country to musicals. New productions of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and Lehar’s Merry Widow cohabited the season with Romeo and Juliet, the musical by Gérard Presgurvic, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the Sylvester Levay / Michael Kunze version.

The same cohabitation principle now applies under the title “festival for musical performing arts,” which covers an eclectic selection of events. Operetta and musical shows, but also theatre performances in which music plays the most important role. Concerts and recitals, and in parallel workshops, lectures and colloquia, exhibitions, musical albums and books launching events. The traditional competition dedicated to the young performers completed one of the most diversified editions of the Life is Beautiful festival so far.

Long live the operetta!

The National Academic Operetta Theatre from Kyiv [Kyev], Ukraine presented Johann Strauss’ operetta, The Gipsy Baron, directed by Bogdan Strutynskyi, an Honoured Artist of Ukraine, and also the manager of the institution. In recent years, the director has specialized in staging musical shows. His success lies in his approach to the genre, but also and mostly in the creative discipline that he imposed on his team. The apparently obsolete and somewhat kitschy conventions (the two-dimensional, painted backdrop, the gypsy costumes) overcome us with affection, indulgence and good humor, with the self-irony that is specific to the operetta and musical, and are turned into post-modern comedy (e.g. cheerleading dancers dressed as rabbits).

“The Gipsy Baron” - directed by Bogdan Strutynskyi, The National Academic Operetta Theatre Kyiv © TNO
“The Gipsy Baron” – directed by Bogdan Strutynskyi, The National Academic Operetta Theatre Kyiv © TNO

Similarly comic(al) for the audience were also the sonorities of the sung Ukrainian language (whose words have many more syllables than the notes of the original score), as were the abundant regionalisms of the Romanian translation or the nationalistic colour palette (yellow and blue), in spite of the action’s being located somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The young singers and chorus members—with their good voices, exceptional physical abilities and fine training in choreography along with a carefully selected ballet corps (as if for Moulin Rouge)— were the necessary ingredients for one of the best shows of the festival, and created the conditions for the success of the ensemble scenes that are so much enjoyed by the audience.

“The Gipsy Baron” - directed by Bogdan Strutynskyi, The National Academic Operetta Theatre Kyiv © TNO
“The Gipsy Baron” – directed by Bogdan Strutynskyi, The National Academic Operetta Theatre Kyiv © TNO

Puck is a DJ

One of the most non-conformist and, consequently, most controversial Romanian theatre directors of the new wave, Radu Afrim, was invited in the festival with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (originally) staged at The National Theatre in Iaşi. Although his preference for contemporary texts and postmodern interpretation is well known in Romania, this time Afrim tackles a classical text. On his first approach to a Shakespearian play, the director remains his true self. He moves the story to 2012 Athens, with Greece in full crisis–as suggested by the video inserts showing riots in the streets. From this point on everything becomes different.

“A Midsummer’s Night Dream” - directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO
“A Midsummer’s Night Dream” – directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO

“Different” are the dream and the forest and the characters that inhabit them. The “Forest” becomes a club-disco, under the patronage of matron Titania and with Oberon a drug addict and dealer. No wonder, is it? This is where the origins of theatre have been, ever since Dionysus… Theseus is a local potentate and Hippolyta a self-seeking and abused wife. The young lovers have an undefined sexual identity (Helena is played by a man [LR1], as in Shakespeare’s time), and the mechanicals become common artisans with genuine Romanian manners and accents. In the club “Forest” construction is under way and the scaffolding makes you think of the underlying levels of Shakespeare’s play, the ones which, in the Iaşi production, seem to have been mixed up. (Could drugs be the cause?) The famous “theatre in theatre” scene looks like a corporate team-building game and Puck, a key character, becomes a disc-jockey. We know, however, that the DJ is the god of the club…

The lovers in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” - directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO
The lovers in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” – directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO

Music and dance are not missing, but emotion sometimes is. The text is deprived of its poetical dimension, which gets lost in the shadow of eroticism, but the director’s furious inventiveness is a gain. For three hours (no break) one keeps asking oneself how far he can go. But one does not get bored. Radu Afrim’s imagination holds up and finds enough space under the generous umbrella of the “post-modern key.” It’s just that, here and there, the umbrella has holes in it and one can catch sight of the “naked emperor” through them…

The mechanicals in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” - directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO
The mechanicals in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” – directed by Radu Afrim, The National Theatre in Iasi © TNO

Long journey into the musical

No matter how much we might try to use autosuggestion and flatter our patriotism, the true Broadway- or West End-flavored musical has not yet arrived in Romania, neither as a touring show, nor as a local production. This is why the courage of choreographer-director Răzvan Mazilu to stage Terrence McNally / David Yazbek’s musical The Full Monty, based on the famous British film (1997) is praiseworthy. A dedicated artist, who established and promoted the contemporary dance-theatre genre amongst Romanian audiences, Mazilu staged this musical at The National Theatre in Timişoara. The cast also includes star actors from other Romanian theatre companies, and the musical score is performed by the small but passionate orchestra of the Timişoara Opera, whose members scrupulously fulfills its task of ensuring the instrumental accompaniment.

“The Full Monty” - directed by Razvan Mazilu, The National Theatre in Timisoara, photo ROXandSAN © TNO
“The Full Monty” – directed by Razvan Mazilu, The National Theatre in Timisoara, photo ROXandSAN © TNO

Although the show succeeds in following the production recipe of a musical, it still remains very difficult to overcome a conflict that is more or less declared or admitted worldwide. It is about matching a modern stage expression with music incapable of joining the styles en vogue at the moment. While the staging is moving away from the patterns of the operetta or “classical” musical, the same does not happen on the musical level. The dismissal of that melodicity, which has been proven for centuries, would lead to the loss of its spectacular attraction. The Full Monty’s musical score is built in relation to the rock ’n’ roll sound of the 1950s and ‘60s, which is modern enough for our time. But it is not an easy score, and consequently it requires more than just passion and enthusiasm for the actors to perform it. It requires special training, which in most cases is missing.

From theory to practice

For the second time in a row, the festival hosted a special event presented by members of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards from Pontedera, Italy. If last year Richards himself and his research team in Art as a vehicle held a series of workshops followed by shows, this year it was the turn of the Associate Director of the center, Mario Biagini, a longtime Grotowski collaborator, and his Open Program creative team to present their achievements. These took the form of two shows based on the works of the American poet Allen Ginsberg: I Am America and Electric Party Songs.

Through these performances, the members of the Open Program, actors from around the world, investigate the moment of meaningful contact between individuals and the poetic word as a tool for human (inter)action. They take as their source material the complexity and richness of Ginsberg’s poetry and traditional African-American songs and shouts from the Southern United States to highlight the distinct relationship between song and the poetic word.

“I Am America” - directed by Mario Biagini with the participation of the Open Program team, The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, photo Jorge Etecheber © TNO
“I Am America” – directed by Mario Biagini with the participation of the Open Program team, The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, photo Jorge Etecheber © TNO

The original compositions in I Am America, developed in intensive collaboration over a period of three years, are placed in dialogue with these sources. The performance unfolds around fragments of the poem which begins with a symbolic verse: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…” It is a performance about America which speaks about herself, her hopes, contradictions, wishes and brutal failures. It is in fact a performance about any of us, not limited to the geographical or mental boundaries of the United States. It is an answer given by its creators to a completely unknown future, which needs “a practical reply to the arrogance of reality, the arrogance of life” during these interesting and peculiar times, in a world of environmental catastrophe, terrorism and nuclear meltdowns. Ginsberg’s fiery, apocalyptic visions are shaped into a visceral, high energy performance.

“I Am America” - directed by Mario Biagini with the participation of the Open Program team, The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, photo Stephanie Cheron Cielecki © TNO
“I Am America” – directed by Mario Biagini with the participation of the Open Program team, The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, photo Stephanie Cheron Cielecki © TNO

The team’s investigations of American songs, based on their capability to catalyze contact and interactions, were summarized by director and researcher Biagini: “It is amazing when you have this big opportunity to really explore what is the human being in music and action. We all know that in moments of great intensity in life something becomes rhythmical. In these moments people never just talk, they sing. When someone is in great joy or in great sorrow, their voice is like a song, their behaviour becomes rhythmical, articulated. Music is one of the basic human manifestations, and theatre has always been attached to music.”

These ideas and many others in the same vein were discussed during one of the most important meetings of this event. Organized under the aegis of The International Association of Theatre Critics, the anniversary colloquium 5 Years of Festival brought together a lot of personalities of theatrical and musical life‒local and from abroad‒with artists of the National Operetta Theatre. On this occasion, the festival organizers admitted that the mission to make “life more beautiful” is not an easy one, especially in these times of change. Frankly speaking, life is not beautiful at all for many people around the world, it is rather miserable. Therefore, without being ironic or idealistic, the attempt to bring a bit of joy into the sea of problems that surrounds us all, even if it only lasts as long as a song, a concert or a performance, is a task which is worth all the hard work.


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[1] Maria Zãrnescu (born 1969) is a Romanian theatrologist and critic, teaching associate and a PhD candidate at the University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. Her theatre and music reviews, studies and essays have been published in Critical Stages, Time Out Bucharest, Teatrul AZI, Yorick, Concept and Theatron. She has had long experience as a radio journalist and manager, television editor, and events producer.

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The Beauty of Musical Eclecticism