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The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre: A Historical Overview.

Placed on: 2008-03-12 10:22   Updated on: 2009-08-19 12:30   Comments: 0   Views from 2009-08-25: 0

The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre: A Historical Overview.
2008-03-12 10:21

The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is often considered the pride of the country. In its work, it demonstrates quality, excellent technique, dedication and high-class professionalism of performances, which is the result of several centuries of continuous hard work and aspirations to achieve such standards.

The formation of what is presently known as the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is often attributed to the emergence of opera in Lithuania in the early 17th century. On September 4, 1636, the court theatre of the Grand Duke of the Lower Castle in Vilnius hosted the first opera to be ever played in the country. It was an opera Il ratto di Helena by an anonymous composer set on a libretto by the then famous Italian librettist and musician Virgilio Puccitelli. The event took place only 36 years after the very genre of opera had originated in Florence. The appearance of the earliest operas in Lithuania, including Il ratto di Helena and the other two subsequent ones Andromeda (1644) and Circe delusa (1648), was initiated by the then Grand Duke of Lithuania Wladislaw Vasa. During his visit to Florence in 1625, the sovereign became completely captured by the art of opera and, thus, started to stimulate the development of music and the court theatre on his return to Lithuania. As a result, Wladislaw Vasa’s efforts made Vilnius one of the first European capitals to have been acquainted with opera, the new genre of the baroque art.

Dance, on the other hand, had always been encouraged at school theatres, e.g. at Vilnius University since 1570. However, some form of ballet was introduced to the Lithuanian audience a little later than opera. In the beginning, both opera and ballet performances were the privilege of wealthy people only and were usually shown in their private country mansions and city residencies. This was conditioned by the fact that, from the second half of the 18th century to the early 19th century, music and art in Lithuania were taken under the patronage of influential noblemen, such as the Oginskis’s, the Radvilas, the Tyzenhauzas’s, etc.

It was around 1785 when the situation started to change with the appearance of the first public city theatres in Vilnius and Klaipeda. The art of opera and ballet gradually started to enjoy wider audiences, which did impel the development of the two genres in Lithuania. Up to the World War I, the Vilnius audience had, hence, seen a considerable part of the world repertory, from Mozart to Puccini.

However, the creative work of public theatres often lacked, or missed altogether, national substance. This was due to the political situation in the country when through the period 1795 to the early 20th century Lithuania underwent the domination of Poland, Germany and Russia. The attempts to develop the national culture were, therefore, strongly oppressed and the influence of Polish, German and Russian companies in public theatres prevailed.

The abrogation of the ban on the Lithuanian press and the use of the Lithuanian language in 1904 initiated a new era in the cultural life of the country. Thus, not only did it remarkably develop the already public music and theatre movement but it also prompted the rise of national ideas. As a result, the first Lithuanian opera Birutė by composer Mikas Petrauskas and playwright Gabrielius Lansbergis-Žemkalnis was staged in Vilnius two years later, in 1906.
In 1918, Lithuania was proclaimed an independent state. However, Vilnius and its surrounding region were soon annexed to Poland. As a result, Kaunas became Lithuania's provisional capital where most of Lithuanian art, culture and science were concentrated for more than two decades. It was in Kaunas where the nation's first musical theatre, the Opera Playhouse, opened in 1920 with a production of La Traviata by Verdi.
In 1925, having gained national status, the Playhouse was joined with the drama theatre and until 1940 was referred to as the State Theatre. Most of its earlier work focused on the classical operatic repertoire. The theatre’s productions of operas by Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, etc., were known for the high level of professionalism and talent both across the country and in Europe. However, the classical repertoire was soon expanded by the contribution of national productions when operas by Lithuanian composers also started to be staged during 1933 to 1940. These were Gražina (1933) and Radvila Perkūnas (1937) by Karnavičius, Trys talismanai (1936) by Račiūnas.
Alongside with opera, a ballet troupe was developing in the theatre. On June 16, 1921, during the opening night of Demon by Rubinstein three dancers appeared. It was the beginning of the theatre’s ballet troupe. In June 1925, the troupe performed a program of ballets in one act and miniatures and its first independent ballet performance of Coppelia by Delibes was already given on December 4, 1925.
For the most part, the success of Lithuanian ballet rests on the traditions of Russian classical ballet and on the influence of Russian choreographers. The work of Nikolay Zverev and Alexandra Fyodorova in the theatre provided a crucial contribution to the development of both classical and national ballet in Lithuania. Thus, alongside with widely acknowledged ballet productions by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Adam, they choreographed the first ballets by Lithuanian composers, such as Jūratė ir Kastytis by Gruodis, Piršlybos by Dvarionas, Šokių sukūryje by Bacevičius.
Up to the Soviet occupation in 1940, the theatre had been incredibly active in its work. Sixty-one opera had been staged, with some of them having been performed several times. Theatre soloists had been singing on stages of Riga, Tallinn, Stockholm, Paris, Prague, Rome and Milan. In 1936, a group of soloists sang at the famous Colon theatre in Buenos Aires. Similarly, the ballet troupe had produced 36 ballet premieres by 29 composers during this period. In 1935, it toured abroad: 10 ballets were staged in Monte Carlo while 32 ballets were brought to the delight of the audience in London.
However, the theatre’s work was later considerably affected and disturbed by the World War II and the nazi occupation. Nevertheless, the theatre continued its activity, even though it had lost half of the ballet and opera troupes, conductors, chorus masters, stage designers and composers, many of whom had left for the West.,
Until 1960, the work of the theatre, which was moved to Vilnius in 1948, was constrained by the Soviet ideological control. At the time, Lithuanian composers found themselves cut off from many tendencies of modern stylistics. The overall repertoire of the theatre became rather limited in terms of the number of classical opera and ballet productions. A third of the opera repertoire and nearly half of the ballet repertoire, hence, consisted of the works by Russian and Soviet composers. Eventually, however, the balance of the repertoire was gradually restored. Productions of the original repertoire that had not been staged previously were performed; new operas by Gershwin, Prokofiev, Orff and Walton as well as new ballets by Khatchaturian and Bartok were introduced to the audience; 19 operas and 13 ballets by Lithuanian composers were also brought on stage.
Despite the limitations of the Soviet times, the theatre managed to preserve its status of an important center of national art culture. In 1974, it moved to a new long-awaited venue with 1,142 seats, designed by architect Elena Bučiūtė. It has been the theatre’s main building ever since. The new venue was equipped up to higher standards of technology and, therefore, opened new horizons to the work of the theatre. As a result, the stage of the theatre was widely acknowledged and became one of the most famous stages in the Soviet Union, attracting many singers and dancers from other famous Soviet theatres.
After Lithuania regained freedom in 1991, the life of the theatre became more dynamic. The repertoire was renewed to a great extent. Operas that had never been performed before, such as Norma by Bellini, Fidelio by Beethoven, Le Pescatrici by Haydn, etc., were staged. Furthermore, some operas (e.g. Tannhäuser by Wagner, Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck, Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart) were now brought on stage again after they were last presented during the times of the World War II. The ballet repertoire was renewed even more over these years. The theatre’s troupes also started to tour extensively gaining public recognition over the world, which was hardly possible during the Soviet times.
Today, after more than 80 years since its foundation, the theatre is officially known as the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the name it was granted with in 1998. Over its long history, the theatre has always been the largest and the most influential establishment promoting opera and ballet in Lithuania.
During the opening season September-June, the opera company is usually engaged in about 15 current and 4 new opera productions, with about 10 operas performed each month. The ballet company has roughly the same number of ballet productions, and usually presents 2 new ones every season. The average number of ballets on current repertoire per month is 15.
Some of the biggest opera stars of the theatre are sopranos Sofija Jonaitytė, Irena Milkevičiūtė, Romutė Tumuliauskaitė, Alma Buzaitė, Irena Zelenkauskaitė, Regina Šilinskaitė, mezzo-soprano Inesa Linaburgytė, tenors Bronius Tamašauskas, Česlovas Nausėda, baritones Eugenijus Vasilevskis, Arvydas Markauskas, Vytautas Juozapaitis, basses Vladimir Prudnikov, Vladas Bagdonas.
The theatre’s ballet traditions have been greatly contributed to by female dancers Eglė Špokaitė, a laureate of four international competitions, Rūta Jezerskytė, a winner of three international competitions, laureates of international competitions Živilė Baikštytė, Asta Bazevičiūtė, Miki Hamanaka, Žavinta Čičelytė, Asta Gailiušaitė, Kristina Kanišauskaitė, Olga Konošenko, Iryna Tsymbal, etc. Among the big names of male troupe members are V.Chlebinskas, A.Semionovas, V.Fadejevas, A.Molodovas, E.Smalakys, R.Maskaliūnas, V.Vološinas, A.Palauskas, N.Juška, etc.
The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is undoubtedly a must-see attraction both for the local population and for visiting opera and ballet lovers.

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