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music: opera review

Krisztina Szabo, Carla Huhtanen and Laura Albino in a scene from "Svadba (Wedding)"

Svadba (Wedding) At Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto on Friday

These days, it's hard to find an opera composer whose theatrical instincts are daring and sure-footed at the same time. So let's be thankful that Ana Sokolovic chose Canada as her home.

The Serbian-born composer has lived in Montreal since 1992 - and rapidly developed a local, and then national, reputation as fresh voice in new classical music. Toronto's daring little Queen of Puddings Music Theatre company discovered her in 2000, and premiered her Sirens/Sirènes, for six women's voices. The Midnight Court (2005) and Love Songs (2008), followed, forging a close relationship between Sokolovic and Queen of Puddings.

And now she's back in town with a new work. Svadba (Wedding), also scored for six female singers, received its premiere from Queen of Puddings at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Friday night.

Sokolovic's own triple-threat background in music, dance and theatre permeates Svadba from beginning to end. Both the music and the text (mostly bits of Serbian poetry) are by her, and it's pretty clear that the elements of staging and movement were the products of her fecund imagination, as well.

The result is a miniature Gesamtkunstwerk: a rich and evocative series of semi-connected tableaux, set on the eve of a young woman's marriage. Milica, the bride (sung by Jacqueline Woodley), celebrates her last unmarried night with her five bridesmaids (Laura Albino, Carla Huhtanen, Andrea Ludwig, Shannon Mercer and Krisztina Szabo). There's lots of girls'-night-out drinking and dancing - and at one point, the young women fend off a pack of roving guys looking for a good time.

But alongside the fun and games, there's real emotional depth here. Conflicting emotions are front and centre: aspirations of love clash with anxieties surrounding Milica's new life, and the pain of separation from friends and family. And despite the work's contemporary setting, ritual and tradition are never far from the surface. The piece recalls a time when marriage was both sacred and permanent, and when gender roles were fixed entities.

The work's timeless quality is reinforced by Sokolovic's score. Quirky rhythmic nonsense syllables, vaguely suggestive of pop music beats, blend deftly with ancient-sounding Balkan melodies sung in close harmony. In the hands of a lesser composer, such a mixing of styles might have descended to mere pastiche, but Sokolovic is not a lesser composer.

The absence of instrumental accompaniment gives Svadba an arresting simplicity, at least from the audience's perspective. However, this opera is anything but simple for the cast. Except for one solo aria - sung by Woodley with a pure, clear voice - it's ensemble singing from start to finish. The vocal writing is tightly interconnected, leaving the singers to depend upon each other, like mountain climbers roped together as they scale a rock face. Fortunately, the well-chosen cast rose to the challenge, with a performance that was spot-on and seemingly spontaneous.

They had solid support from conductor Dairine Ni Mheadra, who, together with stage director Michael Cavanagh, kept the pace lively and the music under control. Set and costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco concocted a delightfully Eurotrashy melange of club-wear clichés for the cast. However, the threadbare scenery - basically, some hanging banners and lamps on tripods - gave the awkward impression that Gianfrancesco was working within a very limited budget.

In the end, Svadba remains an ambiguous and enigmatic work. Its mysteries are not fully explained and its contradictions are by no means resolved - yet it's a strong and satisfying piece, nonetheless.

Svadba continues through July 2.

Special to The Globe and Mail.