"The Kingdom is something
man holds within". The world premiere of Barabbas in Switzerland
The biblical story is reinterpreted in Switzerland. The rebel Barabbas, whom the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate "for the sake of celebration" freed from execution in Jerusalem, becomes the hero of the opera. What is interesting about the new take on an old tale?
The project called Barabbas is presented to the world by graduates of the opera department of the Bern Academy of Arts. The music is composed by Andrei Maksimov. The libretto by Vladimir Alkhovik has been translated into English by Helen Daniels. The production demonstrates Mira Alkhovik's talent as an opera director. The premiere took place in April in Biel, Switzerland. The chamber student orchestra was conducted by maestro Igor Andreev.
Violins, viola and cellos, flutes and clarinet, double bass, piano and percussion played like good friends. The musicians and instruments were placed on the stalls level in front of the stage. The artists sang from the stage, the balcony or in the aisles between the rows. The close proximity of the performers, the synergy between the mundane and the sacred heightened the tension. A brilliant show rich in subtexts awakened the emotions and imagination of the audience for a full two hours.

The narrative is based on seemingly ancient events, but the stylized costumes of the characters and quirky and modern objects invited us into the present day, dressed up in T-shirts and trainers and armed with the latest technology, TV screens and police truncheons. The signs of the time are all mixed up and the line between past and present is magically blurred.
Gabriel de Jesus (pilate) and Gülden Vildan Kavakli (Licinia).
Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
The idea of libretto is to set the action in those early years, when the Roman Emperor Tiberius made Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea. As played by bass-baritone Gabriel de Jesus, the procurator appears as a cautious, hesitant, reserved ruler. He would like his entourage and subordinates to be quiet, submissive to the authority of Rome. But different people seem to have different perspectives and values.

People tend to unite around causes, ideas and beliefs. And to achieve common goals, they use available resources: knowledge and skills, bread and circuses, sticks and carrots, time and territory. In order to be able to move forward into tomorrow, it is a good idea for those united to share thoughts and methods and to stick to plans. The reliable guarantee of one's own freedom and life is usually the respect for the rights and freedoms of others.
Smooth on paper, but they forgot about the ravines, and walking on them.
To empty the Molotov cocktail bottle, the wine is supposed to be drunk. Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
In the Roman Empire, as in our days, 'what is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to an ox'. Those loyal to Rome carry eagles and other imperial trappings. Such innovations in Judea are not to everyone's liking: How long will the imperial spirit be tolerated? The young people in the tavern ardently discuss how to «tear up all the Rome». Simon (tenor Ian Sherwood) suggests the support of the Galilean (tenor Oscar Rey) - "the crowds stand faithful by his side". Conspiratorial leader Barabbas (baritone Félix Le Gloahec) likes the plan.

The chief critic of the Roman Empire's bad behavior is charismatic, with a burning eye, using modern technology to popularize his ideas, filming appeals on video. The team echoes him: «For our freedom, for our freedom, / how loud is the song in our hearts. / For the people / Barabbas he will set us free!» - guys and girls on stage vigorously emptying wine bottles while preparing them for "Molotov cocktails". Alcohol hits the head, stirring the young blood - so the coming dangers do not frighten revolutionaries.
Andrei Maksimov (Decimus)
and Mira Alkhovik (Mary).
Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
Pilate's entourage is also full of life and intrigue, with various characters revolving around him. For example, Decimus commands a hundred Roman soldiers and it would seem that rough military training limits one's horizons, oppresses nobility of feeling and the ability to think. But not in this case. Performed by the baritone Andrei Maksimov, the character shows a propensity for reflection and responsibility, and his feelings are strong and deep. And love helps to reveal the character of Decimus.

Look for a woman - and find one. The brave centurion is enchanted by Simon's sister Maria (soprano Mira Alkhovik). Fascinated by the Galilean's humanistic worldview, she wants to share her ideals with Barabbas and Simon (and the audience): "The Master told me that the Kingdom / is something man hold within, / and only trust in God's great wisdom / will free me from the life of sin!" Unfortunately, talking to a rebellion leader who does not believe in God, Barabbas, is like talking to a brick wall. He considers such thoughts worthy only of a slave.
Gabriel de Jesus (Pilate), Alexandra Lewis (Claudia)
and Anna Beatriz Gomes (Lucia).
Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
In contrast to the straightforward and not very far-sighted rebel, the Roman Decimus is drawn to the new teaching of Galilean through Mary. In difficult military circumstances, it is he who makes the decisive choice: disobeying an order from his superior officer, he humanely spares Barabbas, who has been defeated in battle, after which a complex chain of causality develops. What would have happened if the title character had been killed in action? Ah, if one only knew... And how much does comprehending the point of no-return in the past affect the present and the future?

What's meant to be is meant to be: he who is to be crucified will not be pardoned... And Pilate is torn by doubts. It is not very clear who is the greater authority for him. The harsh and just Roman law? The merciful wife Claudia (soprano Alexandra Lewis) and their daughter (soprano Anna Beatriz Gomes)? One wants to maintain a high rating with the people, get along with the chief priests and one's own soul. So, who is more dangerous for the Roman throne and the governor of Judea - a man of his word or his deed? On whom should the responsibility for the sentence be shifted?
The new opera is about the rebellion of the spirit, self-sacrifice, the perilous urge for danger, the thrill of salvation. The story of centuries ago is as meaningful as it was two millennia ago. Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
The imperial court is underway, a swift and unjust judgment... Where will the Roman politician fall on the slippery slope of concession?
Resistance is crushed, Pilate's security forces grab the ringleaders with batons and death stares them in the eye. Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023 (© Maria Tkachuk)
The Biblical plot is boldly dressed up in meaningful symbols, expressing excitement, anger, tenderness, bitterness of loss, doubt, hope and eternal love in two acts. The parallel universes of the two warring sides periodically intersected in stage space, as they do in real life. But the shackles fell, then the veil. Is there a place for prophets among us? The life-affirming finale benevolently suggests to the viewer that the truth is out there.
The rebel is released in time for Easter, the rebel's life is saved by the Other, the meek and merciful.
Volkshaus, Biel, April 2023
(© Maria Tkachuk)
At the world premiere of Barabbas on 14 April in Biel, I heard no dull music. And here's what composer Andrei Maksimov says: «The music of the opera does not stick to one style, it embraces many of them, which is one of the ideas of my work - to reflect present times». The impulsiveness and expression of the well-written music for the voice combined with the skill of the talented artists, giving the audience a harmonious and relevant act as a great cause for empathy and reflection.

The themes of freedom and rebellion against the seemingly incomprehensible and dangerous, the theme of family and love, are as important at the start of the third millennium as they were at the start of the first. One would like to believe that the heaviest and bloodiest catastrophes are coming to an end. Justice, respect for the feelings and thoughts of others, conscience and responsibility will hopefully keep people from new conflicts.
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