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GogolFest:Dream review - the best music festival of the summer? | reviews, news & interviews

GogolFest:Dream review - the best music festival of the summer?

GogolFest:Dream review - the best music festival of the summer?

A socially-distanced festival of new music and head-banging Nova Opera in Kherson

TakeOff: Headbanging operaGalkin

GogolFest:Dream in Kherson, somewhere near the Crimea in Ukraine was the music festival of the summer.

GogolFest:Dream in Kherson, somewhere near the Crimea in Ukraine was the music festival of the summer. Admittedly, in my case and for many, having missed out on WOMAD, Glastonbury, Fez, and others it was the only festival of the summer, and the bar didn’t have to that high to satisfy a festival junkie in need of a fix. It was, in any case, a fascinating event, featuring not merely some of the best bands of Eastern Europe, but theatre, lots of opera, and assorted talks and seminars.

How to do a festival that maximises social distancing was the challenge in a country where Covid numbers are increasing rapidly. The opening, featuring the wholly original band Dakha Brakha who mix Ukrainian and other global music, and have found a level of fame worldwide was supposed to be viewed mainly from boats. But freakishly, after weeks of consistent and placid warm weather, the opening night had downpours and even a tornado warning, and the specially constructed waterside stage was too damaged. But even a tape of the band booming over the water with people dancing on boats was impressive. And as Malcolm McLaren used to say “Better to be a glorious failure than a benign success”. After an inauspicious start the festival sailed forth, with no other obvious SNAFUs.

Other social distancing measures included presenting a version of Romeo and Juliet in a nearby forest, seeing “freak cabaret” band Dakh Daughters and Dhakha Brakha from hotel balconies on the closing night, and being checked for temperature and masks at the festival club, the Urban Cad (“Cad” meaning garden, as opposed to bounder) where you could catch new, experimental music, notably the East-West grooves of Ragapop, featuring Ruslana Khazipova from Dakh Daughters.

This was the first GogolFest in Kherson, a charming city in the south of Ukraine, with, like so many ex-Soviet places, an atmospheric Opera House. The original GogolFest has been operating for years in Kiev, under the direction of Vlad Troitsky, who art-directed Dhakha Brakha, Dakh Daughters and three of the new operas at GogolFest:Dream. Troitsky is a visionary and catalyst, some mixture of Diaghilev, Malcolm McLaren and Warhol for Ukraine. He has a great will-power and imagination, two essential ingredients for creating magic. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Troitsky made some money and, wanting to be an adventurous theatre director, realised there wasn’t a suitable academy in Kiev, so started one and enrolled himself. He is the kind of character who swims every morning in the local river, even when it's iced over.

Trotsky makes the case that Ukraine is a space in between a Europe that is going backwards, that has lost the romance of the European idea, and Russia, a basket case in many ways with Putin. His belief that the new innovations in culture and politics can come from Ukraine are not just talk, but were embodied here, notably in a quartet of operatic performances. One, worked on in lockdown by Dakh Daughters called Make-Up, was a sort of post-feminist cabaret opera, another was a more aggressive piece called IYOV. The opera is based on the biblical story of Job (Iyov in Hebrew). IYOV is a part of a big project, putting new modern settings to ancient holy texts. It was produced and directed by Vlad Troitsky together with two young composers Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiky, and based on Latin texts from the Old Testament. The opera was composed for prepared piano, cello, drums, and voices.

The same composers were responsible for one of the absolute highlights of the Festival, Take-Off, which you could describe as a heavy metal opera. It was performed outside the opera house, using drums, guitars turned up to 11, and like other pieces, some astonishing graphic back projections, which raised the question - if Wagner was alive today, would he have used such elements? Very likely. The spectacle was huge fun, complete with flamethrowers and dancing girls, and numerous members of the audience actually head-banging, an unusual sight for an opera..Troitsky, feeling that the word opera is off-putting and claiming to dislike opera anyway calls this genre Nova Opera.

The most compelling Nova Opera of the weekend was Stus, at the opposite emotional spectrum to Take-Off, with words by tragic dissident Vasyl Stus, and was a subtle, moving chamber opera, performed to an audience sitting apart on café tables in the opera house. Reminiscent in parts of Steve Reich or Piazzolla but with gloriously adventurous use of dynamics and atmospheric near Eastern melodies. it showcased the revelation of Sofia Baskakova’s wonderfully expressive voice.Troitsky’s almost messianic vision, that Ukraine can be a source of inspiring new culture, was believable, at least for a few days.

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