Time Of The Gypsies: Kusturica's Punk Opera

Pushing life and music to the maximum, heightened, exaggerated, full of exuberance, joy and tragedy, there is something operatic about most of Emir Kusturica’s films, but the most musically lyrical and balanced in terms of structure must be Time Of The Gypsies, a film that in many ways would become the template that the Yugoslavian/Boznia-Herzegovinian director would follow in nearly all of his subsequent work to increasing levels of freewheeling madness. Bringing the story to the stage of the Paris Opéra at the Bastille as a “punk opera”, Kusturica perhaps unsurprisingly directs it as if it were a film – one hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission. Intermission? In an Emir Kusturica production? No – once started, you in for the ride through the raucous tragedy that is Time Of The Gypsies.

On stage, the story remains largely the same as the 1988 film, opening in a gypsy camp where the orphan Perhan lives with his grandmother Hatidza, his gambling and womanising uncle Brandes (Merzan in the film) and his sister Danira. Perhan is in love with Azra, but her mother refuses to let them marry, hoping to find someone with more money as a husband for her daughter. Perhan’s sister is crippled, but the big gangster Ahmed owes the Perhan’s grandmother a favour for saving his sick son, and agrees to take her to the hospital in Ljubjana for treatment. Instead, Ahmed puts the young girl out begging on the streets of Milan – part of a people trafficking operation he is running with his brothers. Perhan has no choice but to work with Ahmed, but the business of thievery, begging and prostitution is a lucrative one and soon Perhan makes his fortune in Italy. He returns to marry Azra, but finds that she is now pregnant, apparently with the child of his uncle. It’s a situation that is to end in tragedy for all concerned.

While there were some initial doubts at the opening night of the opera’s world premiere in Paris about Kusturica’s ability to stage and choreograph a live opera as well as his films – it’s much harder to fill the huge Bastille stage than it is to fill a movie screen – the director does his best. The stage is filled with as many colourful acrobats, dwarfs and gypsies as you like (Fellini coming more to mind than ever with Kusturica), bicycles, tractors and caravans crisscross the stage, there’s a widescreen plasma TV, the essential accessory for the gangster in his bath and – yes, believe it or not, there are even live animals running around – a well-trained flock of geese, which earned an appreciative round of applause from the audience recognising this Kusturica trademark. The action is also raised up to fill the vertical space with a departing caravan scene over the hills, roofs held suspended over houses, Azra’s ascent to heaven and a full-length façade of the Milan cathedral above which the cast are elevated Miracle in Milan-style at the end of the opera.

Inevitably though much of the brilliance, charm and quirkiness of the original film is missing here, the cut-down libretto (in the original Romany) lacking the poetic resonance and off-centre humour of the movie through a modernisation that brings in references to David Beckham, George Bush, Fox and MTV. The poetic use of supernatural motifs is also all but gone – the wedding veil, the turkey, even Perhan’s powers of hypnotism and magnetism are only referenced through a projected clip from the 1988 film, the use of boxes becoming the main motif employed in the opera. Projections are used throughout to fill in gaps, drawing on footage from the original film for example in Perhan’s wedding dream sequence on the river with Azra, with the new cast members superimposed, but there is also some new footage, clips of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (“Are you talkin’ to me?”) and, most bafflingly, Maradona scoring against England in the World Cup in Mexico 1986. Consequently the delicate touch of one of Kusturica’s most balanced films is somewhat lost in favour of the freewheeling qualities of his later work.

The Time Of The Gypsies punk opera does however gain momentum after a slow start and benefits from some condensing of the material. One scene brilliantly combines Perhan’s robbery operations in Italy with a scene of his uncle Merzan’s seduction of Azra, filling her head with dreams of being a Hollywood starlet and working with Tom Cruise. The same uncle is shot quite spectacularly by Perhan at his wedding to Azra, the sudden shock precipitating her giving birth prematurely and dying. Perhan’s dream sequence while in Italy is also very effectively staged.

Inevitably however, where the opera really comes to life is in the music. Performed by the Garbage Serbian Philharmonica (stage left) and the No Smoking Orchestra (stage right, and occasionally straying onto the stage itself), the score has been almost completely re-written. It retains only two of themes from the brilliant original Goran Bregovic score, the musical credits here citing Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Janovic and Stribor Kusturica as the composers of the new piece. It’s those original themes however that are the most memorable in the opera – or perhaps just more recognisable - achieving a marvellous lyrical tone where the remainder of the new material settles in the main for foot-stomping oomp-pah-pah arrangements. In a live environment however it works as it should, particularly in the rousing wedding sequence. At the world premiere performance, the French opera-going audience clapped along rather self-consciously at first, but by the end were completely caught up in the infectious Neo-Primitivism gypsy-punk music, awarding the cast, musicians, production team and the director himself with a whole-hearted standing ovation.

Le Temps des Gitans runs at the Opéra Bastille in Paris for only fifteen performances until 15th July. It will be staged again at the Palau des les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain in June 2008.

The Time of the Gypsies
Written by Nenad Jankovic based on the original screenplay by Gordan Mihic and Emir Kusturica. In Romany with French surtitles.

Performance: 26th June 2007 (World Premiere)
Venue: Opéra Bastille, Paris

Director: Emir Kusturica
Music: Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic and Stribor Kusturica
Musical Direction: Dejan Sparavalo
Set Design: Ivana Protic
Costumes: Nesa Lipanovic
Lighting: Michel Amathieu

Ahmed: Nenad Jankovic
Brandes: Ognjen Sucur
Grandmother: Gorica Popovic
Danira: Marijana Bizumic
Dr Lorenzo: Dejan Sparavalo
Azra Milica: Todorovic
Perhan: Stevan Andelkovic
Gamblers: Stanko Tomic, Zlatko SakulskiI
Azra's Mother: Natasa Tomic
Peasants: Katarina Mrksic, Ivana Bizumic, Dragana Stanojevic, Tatjana Nikolic, Maja Martic, Brankica Ivankovic

The No Smoking Orchestra
and The Garbage Serbian Philarmonia directed by Zoran Komadina.

Co-production with le Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia.

Opéra National de Paris
Les Temps Des Gitans

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