Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: I am not Georgian, what is more I do not speak the language, nor do I know anyone who does. I do know, however, that this is probably the greatest Georgian opera and to ignore on this blog of mine dedicated to neglected opera would be a musical injustice. I also know something about Georgian liturgical music as I sing in the choir of an Eastern Orthodox parish and I have performed solo tenor parts from Georgian music (in both Georgian and English). So I guess I have performed in Georgian even if I don’t have a clue what the words mean, except I know “da” means “and”. I have meant to write this review for almost two years, from when I first heard this opera. Hopefully this will be helpful.
Paliashvili (1871-1933) is an interesting figure. He came from a Georgian Roman Catholic family (not many of those around), and his musical style was a blending of Georgian folk music and 19th century romantic styles. Abesalom da Eteri was his first opera, written between 1909 and 1918 although it was partially staged in 1913. The story is taken from the Georgian epic poem the Eteriani, and relates the 11th century tale of a Cinderella-like peasant girl named Eteri who marries Prince Abesalom against the will of his father the king. One of his courtiers, Murman, has also fallen in love with her and makes a pack with Satan to make the marriage impossible. Murman uses magic to make Eteri ill and tells Abesalom that he can cure her if he takes her to his castle, far away. Abesalom eventually dies because he can not stand to be away from her and Eteri commits suicide. Murman then has himself buried alive during the double funeral and even in death keeps the lovers separated from each other.
This review is of the 1987 live performance from Tbilisi, but the 1971 studio recording is of significantly higher quality (although it appears to lack the opening polyphonic chorus).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A rocky place in the forest by a spring. (30 minutes)
0: The opera opens with a series of string chords on which the curtain rises followed by an a cappella chorus in the style of Georgian Orthodox liturgical chant ***. It is very beautiful, and follows the three part polyphonic harmony common in Georgian music. There are three voices, melody, harmony, and drone, but when sung together they come off as a single sound because of (among other things) a minimization of vibrato. It’s designed to symbolize the Christian Trinity, three voices one sound, although it appears that the technique is actually pre-Christian and is a natural phenomenon of Georgian folk music. It is very brief, and followed by a solemn but gorgeous orchestral prelude and then a more Russian-style folk chorus (male) but also a cappella, and then more orchestral preluding. The high rating at the beginning is for the combination of alternating elements and not just for the brilliant chant prologue.
5: Eteri’s sad song **. She is a girl who has a hard life, her stepmother is cruel to her and she has run away. Fetching water from the spring, she reflects on her existence.
16: Prince Abesalom and Murman happen upon Eteri as they are hunting in this forest. It turns out that that Russian-style chorus was a hunting chorus. Abesalom’s initial reaction to Eteri are more than a little terrifying, especially for her but also for us. When Eteri and then Murman join him ** things finally take off in an excellent trio. Murman has some enraged interjections as he storms off to ally himself with Satan.
20: After an energetic interlude, Abesalom comes on again and, after trying to abduct Eteri, she comes to him gracefully with a white shawl **. They withdraw to the capital city.
26: Murman sings of his loss of Eteri to Abesalom **. A very warm baritone aria in spite of the fact that we know what horrid things he will do as the opera progresses.
ACT 2: Before the Cathedral on the day of the wedding of Eteri to Prince Abesalom. (32 minutes)
0: The act opens with a regal prelude and an energetic chorus from the people of the capital city **. This is followed by yet another orchestral interlude, this time a royal march as the couple make their way to the cathedral for the ceremony. The King orders an oath of loyalty from the couple (a cappella) and gives his blessing in return. The chorus maintains the high level of ecstatic throughout.
13: The next sequence is the wedding party ***, a toast is offered and the number turns into a concert ensemble piece (a quintet specifically) complete with Caucasian spice.
20: Murman presents his wedding present to Eteri (this is probably the only action that occurs in the entire act). She instantly becomes mildly ill by the neckless and the scene has to be broken up by the chippy folk song of Marekh, the Prince’s sister *.
23: At last, the ballet **, a series of exotic and for once relatively authentic dances. The Georgian dance style seems to consist of a series of shuffles, first partnered, then in groups (female, then male, then the couple returns followed by the ensemble). During this time Eteri rapidly gets sicker and finally collapses as the act ends and the curtain falls.
ACT 3: A room in the palace. (23 minutes)
0: The act opens with a sobering aria from Abesalom about the condition of Eteri *. She is very ill, but the cause is totally unknown.
13: The chorus comes on and does little except witness the Prince’s despair as his mother advises him that he must send Eteri away for her health. Murman comes on and tells Abesalom that he can take Eteri to his castle where she can recuperate from her illness. Abesalom is tormented by this but gives in eventually. Eteri is horrified. This occurs in an ensemble which is quite lovely **.
20: The climax as Eteri is taken away to Murman’s castle is great theatre ***.
ACT 4: Murman’s castle. (39 minutes)
0: The act starts almost instantly with a female chorus led by Murman’s mother Naina *.
8: Abesalom arrives in a bad state, but Eteri has already been carted away. Murman greets him and they engage in a duet which takes a while to warm up but flowers okay ** with a strongly Georgian background tune.
17: The Prince asks his mother to leave him alone. Gong sounds, and she embarks on an arioso which is taken up by Eteri. The melody is gorgeous *** and haunting. Eteri leaves again and it appears that mother and son have reconciled.
21: Marikh goes into another of her folk songs **. This brings Eteri back and the number turns into a quartet on par with a comic opera number.
24: Eteri has recovered, but Abesalom is obviously showing signs of serious illness. Their duet is a climax of the score as he collapses and a death scene begins, although Eteri is oblivious. Abesalom takes the melody, and it is lovely as it turns into a glorious ensemble *** for all the present soloists and chorus. Eight grand minutes, at the close of which Abesalom dies.
32: The concluding scene ***, in which Eteri kills herself rather than live without her Abesalom. It starts off with minimal accompaniment and just Eteri’s soprano line. Slowly the strings and woodwinds come in. Her suicide is oddly heroic. Murman, the last of the main characters to survive, has to wait while the female chorus softly expresses their grief. The orchestra swells with the love theme (you will recognize it immediately), and the opera ends.
Abesalom da Eteri is the Georgian national monument to music (parts of the score are actually in the national anthem), but what are its strengths and weaknesses? The music is the opera’s chief strength, the score is gorgeous from beginning to end with an elegance all its own. Paliashvili is known in Georgia for being a westernizer, and although the music is very much in a romantic vein, the overall structure of the opera is not. Rather, the opera is made up of a series of numbers which make more sense as concert pieces than as coherent drama. This is not to say that any of them are bad, they are all spectacular, but whereas most operas have perhaps too much recitative, Eteri feels like an operetta with all the dialogue has been cut and just the hit musical numbers played. The sound world of the opera is a little bizarre as it bounces around from an opera seria structure (the opera consists of 27 numbers) and music which resembles at times Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Tchaikovsky as well as a more modern 20th century sound along with the obvious Georgian folk influences. The frequency with which numbers include battery chords is a little remarkable given the fact that the opera premiered in 1919. The plot is heavily episodic. Each act is basically a single episode in the story and most of the plot actually occurs off-stage. Abesalom, or at least the tenor singing him, is the weak link in the production. Something about his voice is shrill to me. Over all an A-, a static but spectacular one.