Estonian National Opera House

The Baltics are bursting with musicians, as we in the West discovered when the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, the region’s independence movement was dubbed “the Singing Revolution.” (For a piece I wrote about this in 2011, go here.)

The first head of state in a free Lithuania was a professor of music—Vytautas Landsbergis. I once discussed him with a prominent Lithuanian singer, Violeta Urmana, the soprano (who began her career as a mezzo).

Latvians? Outstandingly, there is the conductor Mariss Jansons—son of another conductor, Arvids Jansons. The junior Jansons was born in the Riga ghetto in 1943. His mother was in hiding. Her father and brother had already been killed by the Gestapo.

Today, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is Andris Nelsons. His wife is a soprano, Kristine Opolais. One of the opera world’s biggest stars is Elina Garanca, the mezzo. Last month at the Salzburg Festival, I reviewed a Latvian soprano, Marina Rebeka.

And we must not forget Gidon Kremer, the veteran violinist (and founder of the Kremerata Baltica).

Estonians? Quite possibly, Arvo Pärt is the most frequently performed living composer (classical composer, I should say). Then one thinks of the Järvi family: Maestro Neeme Järvi and his talented offspring.

Right this second, I am in the Tallinn airport, looking at a magazine called Pulss, whose cover boy is one of those offspring: Maestro Paavo Järvi.

Previously, I was in Riga, where the national opera company offers both opera and ballet. Same with the national company in Tallinn. I was not able to attend a performance in Riga—either operatic or balletic. But in Tallinn I caught a Sleeping Beauty.

(Better to kiss a sleeping beauty, to be sure.)

The Estonian opera house is lovely—a pale yellow building. The curtain inside is royal blue. Sitting next to me was a little girl in—what else?—a pink dress.

This night was a special occasion, honoring Aime Leis on her eightieth birthday. The lady is a onetime ballerina and a longtime teacher and coach. There was a film about her. She gave some remarks. In turn, the audience gave her what sounded to me like a local version of hip-hip-hooray.

She looks marvelous, by the way, this octogenarian dancer.

The orchestra was conducted by Kaspar Mänd, who was authoritative and musical. The players were musical too. They were sometimes faulty in their execution, but they never lost that essential musical heart.

As a group, the dancers were dedicated and capable. What’s more, they were eager. They seemed delighted to be doing what they were doing. Why not? I will touch on a few of them, not necessarily the most important.

The Beauty was Alena Shkatula, spunkily elegant. The evil fairy, Carabosse, I am used to seeing portrayed as a kind of bag lady. This Carabosse, however, was a dark, sexy twisted sister. Making her this way was Marika Muiste.

Two men in minor roles stood out. Ali Urata was the Wolf (scaring Little Red Riding Hood), and he was rangy, loose, and exceptionally musical. His phrasing with his body was extraordinary. Adding to the impression was his wild, dreadlocky hair. Jevgeni Grib, dancing Puss-in-Boots, was creepy, in a Jim Carrey-like way. He was also fascinating—slinkily, creepily fascinating.

In my experience, the Queen is portrayed by an older dancer, probably retired. This Queen was youthful and stunning. Her name is Pavlova—Svetlana Pavlova. The name has appeared in dance before.

My main thought at the end of the evening was Tchaikovsky—that staggering genius. The older I get, the more staggering he gets. His music seems inevitable, like Mozart’s. (And Tchaikovsky, of course, revered Mozart.) It cannot proceed other than as it does. This is not true of the music of all great composers—of Beethoven’s, for example.

You know those Tchaikovsky bits that young people sneer at as perfumed ditties? You realize when you’re older: staggering. Staggeringly great.

Now playing at the Estonian National Opera is The Gypsy Princess: an operetta by Kálmán. It is being performed in the local language, as operettas (and musicals) should be. There are titles in both Estonian and English. Then comes The Flying Dutchman, Wagner’s opera (in the original language, of course).

I wish I were lingering in Tallinn.

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