Troparion is a chamber opera written for alto Helena Rasker and violinist Liza Ferschtman. The approx. 45 minutes long piece was commissioned by the Delft Chambermusic Festival and the Holland Festival. The first performance of Troparion took place on June 18th 2013 at the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ in Amsterdam, staged by Pierre Audi, in a double bill with Suster Bertken.
With the flood of your tears, you made the barren desert fertile…
A woman sheds her tears upon a dead branch and sprinkles it with holy water while praying incessantly, in the hope that God will breathe new life into it. It was the theatrical power of this image what made me decide to compose Troparion, which means ‘an oft-repeated verse’.
It caught my eye while I was reading about the lives of Byzantine saints, a genre which is very dear to me because of its exuberance, both of the miracles that are worked there as well as the deprivations that are endured.
In these legends, numerous accounts are to be found where this method of shedding tears proves successful, and a vine grows out of the dead branch :
‘it fills everything under heaven and is laiden with beautiful fruit.
All the birds of heaven come to eat of the fruit of the vine,
and the more they eat, the more the fruit increases.’
The Egyptian desert around Sketis (in the present-day called Wadi Natrun) forms the setting of Troparion. Around the year 400 A.D., countless hermits and ascetics gathered in this barren and desolate region. They had abandoned Roman civilization, where Christianity had become the establishment, and went on a search for integrity and authenticity, driven by a longing for unification with God. The libretto of Troparion is largely derived from the ‘Apophthegmata Patrum’ (‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’) and is sung in classical Greek, its original language.
I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks.
The music of Troparion consists of three movements, which together last about 45 minutes, and is written for a small ensemble ( flute, oboe, clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, viola and cello). The first movement bears a highly ritualistic character and is built up almost entirely out of weeping on the branch, murmuring of a troparion, and singing of prayers. The second part relates of a journey deep into the desert in which the woman encounters two naked men amongst the drinking animals at an oasis. They explain to her how to become a monk and ascetic. In the final movement a miracle occurs and the branch buds and bears the most delicious fruit, after which the music returns to the serenity of the beginning.
The central character in Troparion is anonymous, in accordance both with the nature of the desert as well as that of the ascetic, bearing in mind also the seventies-ballad ‘I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name’.
Since long I had harboured the desire to write a piece in which I could fully explore the unique timbre and vocal qualities of alto Helena Rasker. When violinist Liza Ferschtman joined forces and offered an opportunity to realize this plan at her Delft Chamber Music Festival, I felt confident and comfortable. With two such great musicians at my disposition, I dared to venture into the desert, and unfold a curious tale of hope, melancholy, perseverance and devotion to the most astounding level.
Rob Zuidam, December 2013