The musical drama "Uguns un nakts" ("Fire and Night"), which Jānis Mediņš (1890-1966) began composing on July 13, 1913, fully expressed his talent as melody maker as well as testified to his purposeful attitude. He let no hardship get into his way to bring the bulky manuscript on which he was working along in the lengthy sojourn in Siberia during World Was I after that to England and finally to the newly independent Latvia.

Along with "Baņuta" by Alfrēds Kalniņš, which premiered on May 29, 1920, "Uguns un nakts" was the first Latvian opera with artistic value.  The dramatic play by Rainis on which "Uguns un nakts" was based, had its extremely successful premiere in 1911 with singer and actor Ādolfs Kaktiņš playing male lead (as he would do also ten years later on the stage of the Opera. Milda Brehmane-Štengele who would later become famous in her role as Spīdola, the main female character, in the theater was just a singer in the girls choir. Jānis Mediņš was so impressed with Rainis’s play that decided to ask the poet’s (who at the time was living in exile in Switzerland) permission to set it to music.  

Mediņš did much of the work on the opera in the harsh setting of the life of a refugee. As he set all of Rainis’s text to music, initially the opera appeared as a dilogy, with the two parts premiering on May 26 and December 8, 1921, respectively, with Mediņš himself conducting. Gradually the opera was edited down: the instrumentation, influenced by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, seemed too heavy-handed and the dilogy format too bulky to its author. The second edition (premiere on February 2, 1924) was reduced to four acts and in 1927 Mediņš reworked the instrumentation. This last edition saw its premiere only on September 3, 1966, six months after Mediņš’s death in Stockholm.

Of the five productions of "Uguns un nakts" on the stage of the Latvian National Opera, Alvis Hermanis’s one, which premiered on December 14, 1995, stands out.  This production was the result of its author’s conviction that "it is necessary and possible to stage "Uguns un nakts" as a contemporary production, highlighting the topicality of the content of the original and bringing the issue of national identity to the forefront."

Mikus Čeže

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