Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0023468, Sun, 18 Nov 2012 09:29:59 -0500

A pastoral opera about Nabokov and butterflies at Old First ...



A pastoral opera about Nabokov and butterflies at Old First


Last night the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church presented a one-act chamber opera by Ann Callaway entitled “Vladimir in Butterfly Country.” The title is a reflection on the fact that, while Vladimir Nabokov is best known for his novels (not to mention his often merciless criticism of other authors), he was also a professional entomologist with a particular passion for butterflies. (His first job when he arrived in the United States to escape the Nazis was at the American Museum of Natural History.)

Jaime Robles’ libretto for “Vladimir in Butterfly Country” amounts to a contemporary rethinking of the ancient pastoral genre. The text offers up highly descriptive language of natural settings culminating in an encounter between a butterfly hunter (Vladimir, sung by bass Richard Mix) and a rare (and very small) blue butterfly (sung by soprano Erina Newkirk). The narrative culminates in Vladimir metamorphosing and flying off with the butterfly.

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The staging by Daniel Labov Dunne (who, along with Jenny Donohue, prefaced the performance with readings of several of Nabokov’s literary reflections on butterflies … rather than his more scholarly writings) emphasized the radical contrast in size. Mix cut an imposing figure next to Newkirk’s diminutive form. One could see her playing Freia to Mix’ Fafner in a production of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. For those who know Nabokov, there is also the irresistible connotation of an encounter between not quite mature youth (Lolita) and obsessive old age (Humbert Humbert) at the core of his most famous novel. (It is worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for Nabokov cites him writing Lolita “while travelling on butterfly-collection trips in the western United States,” where he may have encountered that particular blue butterfly cited in Robles’ libretto.)

Between plot line and a rich context that extends in many different directions, one has a fascinating idea for an opera. It was therefore disappointing that Callaway’s score had so little to appeal to the listener. For the most part the thematic material was blandly innocuous, occasionally suggesting efforts of others who had ventured more boldly. Two of the more salient associations involved the Chansons de Bilitis of Claude Debussy (particularly his scoring for two flutes) and the soprano writing of Igor Stravinsky’s early opera, The Nightingale. To some extent these associations were facilitated through the performances by the members of the chamber ensemble required for Callaway’s score, Tod Brody on flute, Carla Wilson on bassoon, Michael Seth Orland on piano, and Callaway herself providing minimal percussion coloration.

Ultimately, however, it was the imagery of the staging as enacted by Newkirk and Mix that made last night a memorable experience.

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