National Opera @ Lithuanian National Theatre, Vilnius, 9 October 2003
This summer the series of events held all over Lithuania to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the coronation of King Mindaugas was crowned by the world premiere of Bronius Kutavicius' opera-ballet Ignis Et Fides in the courtyard of Trakai Castle.
The production has now transferred to Vilnius.
It would have been a pleasant surprise if there had been no rain on 12 July when the world premiere took place. In Lithuania, if you go to a festival in the open air during the summer season, you must take an umbrella, and you usually have to use it.
It was the third summer season in Trakai for the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. This year, the music, acting, dances, expressive costumes and stage design were all based on two dates of great importance to Lithuania. One is the first mention of its name in written records in 1009, and the other is the coronation of King Mindaugas in July of 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 him. The reason is that information about the period and about the coronation is very scarce.
"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 laconic would be 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 in Handel's times from London was very helpful to him for the structure of the composition. 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 was the axis of his most famous work Paskutines pagoniu apeigos (Last Pagan Rites). The theme is also a major force in Ignis Et Fides, a stage diptych for soloists, chorus and symphony orchestra, supplemented by kankles (a plucked string instrument) and recorders.
The first part of the work is dedicated to the 1,000th anniversary of the first mention of Lithuania's name. Kutavicius wrote the libretto relying on three historical sources, 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 German abbess, a composer and poet, who lived in the 12th century.
He also used some of the language of Mikalojus Daukša's Postilla (ts language is close to that of Mindaugas' times) and 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 aspect of the work. "I took the Psalter and picked out those that seemed most appropriate to the situation", Kutavicius says. "Their melodies recall Gregorian chant".
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 another 130 years after Mindaugas was killed.
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 (Giedrius Zalys in the Vilnius production).
Choreography is by Aira Nagineviciute and 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.