Lithuania and Lithuanians on the Opera Stages Abroad

  • Helmutas Šabasevičius
Keywords: opera, Lithuanian history, Lithuanian mythology, set design, costumes


Works of art – literature, art, and theatre – have long been valued as a means of shaping and affirming the cultural and historical identity of one country or another. As a syncretic theatrical genre, opera is also often based on historical events or facts from the lives of historical personalities, which, once on stage, raise questions about the relationship between reality and artistic creation and help to create a connection between the artist and the spectator with actual events and characters. The discourse of Lithuanian art history has long been exploring the relationship between art and history, with stronger focus on art and theatre, but scholars have not yet addressed opera as a distinct cultural phenomenon in this context. Supported by iconographic sources, this article aims to present the strategies of the representation of Lithuania and Lithuanians in operas composed and staged in other countries, which are based, to a greater or lesser extent, on the themes of the history and mythology of Lithuania. It is focused on such visual elements as sets and costumes and aims to assess the artists’ contribution to the creation of a real or perceived image of Lithuania. The visual forms of operas written on the themes of Lithuanian history and mythology and staged abroad were influenced by the concept of scenography, which had evolved in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, and the shifts in this concept brought about by the general tendencies of changes in theatre, art, and visual culture of that period. Girolamo Magnani’s sets for Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera The Lithuanians (1874) and Józef Wodyński’s sets for Tadeusz Joteyko’s opera Sigismund Augustus (1925) are close to the dominating nineteenth-century trend of reconstructing, as accurately as possible, the geographical and chronological space in which an opera takes place, either on the basis of available sources, or,
in their absence, on comparative material and imagination. In these stage sets, the visual system of the production includes works by famous painters of the time: Józef Simmler’s The Death of Barbara Radziwiłł and Jan Matejko’s The Union of Lublin.
The changes in scenography principles and aesthetic attitudes towards the visual aspect of the performance is characteristically reflected in the work of the set designer Stanislaw Jarocki for Władysław Żeleński’s opera Konrad Wallenrod. For the first production of this opera in 1922, he used forms representing the actual historical background, and for the second one, in 1957, he resorted to generalised, conditional visual motifs intended to create the overall emotional mood of the performance, without worrying about the ‘Lithuanianness’ of the images.
The article was written in the framework of the project ‘History and Mythology of Lithuania on the Opera Stage’ funded by the Research Council of Lithuania (contract No. S-LIP-21-1).