Bruno Skulte: The Heiress of Vilkaci

Andrejs Jansons

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Bruno Skulte: The Heiress of Vilkaci Review

by James Manheim

The downfall of Communism on one hand and modernism on the other have resulted in the rediscovery of works that had certainly been given up for dead 25 years ago. One is the opera The Heiress of Vilkaci by Latvian composer Bruno Skulte, written in vocal score in 1947 (in Germany, to which he had fled from the Russians) but never orchestrated until 2005 by Andrejs Jansons, the conductor of the present performance. Skulte emigrated to the U.S. and formed a Latvian chorus in New York that exists to this day, but over nearly 30 years in America he never learned to speak English well. The nationalism that fact might suggest is on display in this five-act opera, which fits on two CDs -- perhaps the composer originally intended additional material, for as it stands it seems a bit episodic. The libretto, by one Tonija Kalve, tells a story that takes place in rural Latvia in 1896, and it is steeped in novel elements drawn from Latvian folklore. For example, one section of the plot revolves around the following love charm: the woman who seeks to attract a mate must catch a live bat, hold it in an anthill at midnight while the ants eat it alive, and then attach its claws to the clothing of the desired male. (You may not want to try this at home.) The story in general -- it would have been nice to know whether the whole tale was based on a folk legend, for it has that flavor -- concerns two neighborhing estates connected by an impending marriage and then by a union that produces an illegitimate child; one has always been more prosperous than the other, but the possibility exists that this situation is the result of witchcraft. The romantic interludes, scenes of village revelry, and threats of mob conflict involved are set by Skulte in a language without a trace of modernism. He was clearly conversant with the operas of both Wagner (the "midsummer night of love" enjoyed by the two romantic protagonists at the end of Act III draws on Wagner's love duets) and Dvorák, who provides the template for the incorporation of folkloristic elements into a complex operatic texture. (It is not clear to the uninitiated listener how many of those folkloristic elements are specifically Latvian.) But the music is simpler and more schematic (the opera falls fairly clearly into numbers) than that of those compsoers. It has a fast-moving directness and vigor that connect with the listener, and the young singers, all recent graduates of Latvian conservatory programs, give it their all. The booklet contains a full synopsis and the entire libretto in both Latvian and English, and the opera as a whole may be of interest beyond its target Latvian audience to those intrigued by musical representations of folklore in general.

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