Ana Sokolović’s Svadba is the simple story of a bride and her bridesmaids preparing, physically and emotionally, for a wedding. The one-hour, one-act opera has little in the way of plot: some drinking, a brief spat, toilette-making and dress-donning. The libretto, gathered by Sokolović from Serbian poetry, is repetitive and abstract. Only the music and Dáirine Ní Mheadhra’s precise conducting hold the show together. But that music, created by six a cappella female voices (and hands, feet, drums, glasses, ocarinas, rain sticks, drum, and gong), is both varied and virtuosic.

<i>Svadba</i> © Stefan Cohen | San Francisco Opera
Svadba
© Stefan Cohen | San Francisco Opera

The opera begins with the entire ensemble holding edgy, straight tones in close harmonies as they lament that the bride (Milica, sung with silky legato and shimmering resonance by Jacqueline Woodley) will leave home and her friends. The scene soon turns more playful, with the bridesmaids complimenting Milica’s beauty and weaving her flower garlands. The music becomes fast and tinkling, and then more melodic. In the next scene, percussion dominates: the bridesmaids speak tonal gibberish while grabbing drinks, creating rhythms using a combination of the drinking cups (with chains and spoons), yawns, clicks, and other vocalizations.

The tipsy bridesmaids act out a scene. The three lowest voices, artificially darkened, are the men, while the other three bridesmaids adopt nasal tones and upward slides to play caricatured women. The men demand brides; the women refuse, and the men steal them. Laughter and a dance party follow, with Danica (Liesbeth Devos) performing an impressive percussion solo that makes use of the glasses and table as well as her feet, voice, and hands. Ljubica and Milica then get into a fight – the reason is unclear – which they vocalize using the names of the letters of the Serbian alphabet. Other bridesmaids diffuse the tension with clapping games, and both dramatic and harmonic resolution are eventually found. Sokolović’s writing leverages all the phonetic possibilities of the Serbian language, with unfamiliar, repeated consonant clusters sounding alternately harsh and teasing.

<i>Svadba</i> © Stefan Cohen | San Francisco Opera
Svadba
© Stefan Cohen | San Francisco Opera

The wedding approaches. Everyone showers in a waterfall of iridescent silver fabric, with rain sticks creating the sound of the water, and then sleeps. Zora (Pauline Sikirdji) wakes her companions with an ocarina, and they chatter rhythmically and excitedly about the day ahead – the bridesmaids with a drum, Milica with a rattle. Finally, Milica sings a solo, “Blow, blow the gentle wind,” gradually joined by her friends as they help her don her silver gown.

In the intimate setting of San Francisco Opera Lab’s new Taube Atrium Theater, the talented singers create a richly textured soundscape that surrounds and overwhelms. Even as the bridesmaids exit the theater at the opera’s end, their voices echo off the lobby’s walls. The space is also well-leveraged by Michael Cavanagh’s staging. Audience members sit at round tables reminiscent of a wedding reception while the scenes take place on a central dais and in alcoves at the room’s four corners. Colorful lights by Alexander Nichols represent everything from hair dye to a dance party. The singers flail their arms, waddle like penguins, collapse to the ground, and generally commit fully to the not-quite-naturalistic drama of the staging. I only wish the libretto or direction had offered them a more specific story to which to devote their energies.

After the show, a wedding reception with Champagne and cake await the audience – a well-deserved celebration not only of Milica’s nuptials, but of San Francisco Opera Lab’s inaugural success.

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