Oedipus of Tufnell Park

This opera was written out of youthful anger. And maybe even perversity as well, for Mark-Anthony Turnage did not at all want to write it. For his entire life, he has always tried to do something other than what everyone has expected of him. As a child, he was an unruly pupil and got bad grades in school even in music. During his studies at the Royal College of Music, he decided to tie his future career to commercial art. It is not out of the question that his fortunes would have taken a completely different turn, had he not won a scholarship in 1983 to study with Gunther Schuller and Hans Werner Henze in Tanglewood. At the time, he was writing instrumental works, light and transparent in form, often inspired by jazz and funk music. Henze appreciated their latent theatricality and proposed to Turnage that he compose an opera. Turnage refused, explaining himself with an organic disdain for the reactionary character of this bourgeois art. Henze, the author of the operas Boulevard Solitude and We Come to the River, which had scored glittering triumphs on international stages, laughed up his sleeve and reminded his student that he himself was a Marxist. As a basis for the libretto of Turnage’s future composition, he proposed a play entitled The Pope’s Wedding by Edward Bond, a luminary of the British theatre of cruelty.

Unfortunately – or fortunately – Bond did not reply to the young composer’s letter. The next choice fell to Steven Berkoff, an English actor and playwright, the author of a play entitled Greek – a perverse travesty of the Oedipus myth, maintained in the in-yer-face theatre tradition. Its protagonist, a certain Eddy, is growing up in a London hole in Tufnell Park, in the gloomy realities of the 1970s recession. When his parents tell him of a visit to a fortuneteller who has predicted that Eddy will kill his father and go to bed with his own mother, the boy rebels and runs away from home. Time passes, the country falls into decline, filled with the cancer of violence, strikes and overwhelming decay. Eddy, pursued by policemen dispersing a demonstration, finds shelter in a greasy spoon, where he gets in an argument with a waitress. The manager of the joint intervenes and, in the ensuing scuffle, ends up dying at the hand of the young intruder. The waitress turns out to be his wife. Despite the circumstances, she falls in love with Eddy: perhaps because the boy reminds her of her son Tony, who had gone missing in a pleasure boat disaster on the Thames. The truth comes out ten years later during Eddy’s parents’ visit to the happy couple. Tony and Eddy are the same person. The adopted parents had fished the boy out of the river and impulsively concealed the circumstances of the event. The matter ends somewhat differently than in Sophocles, but more about that in a moment.

Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn. Photo: Jane Hobson.

The opera Greek premièred in 1988 at the Munich Biennale. A month later, the work created a real sensation at the Edinburgh Festival – somewhat contrary to the intentions of the artists, including stage director and libretto co-author Jonathan Moore, who had hoped to evoke a scandal on the scale of The Rite of Spring. Meanwhile, the matter ended with over ten minutes of standing ovations in a theatre packed to the gills. Greek had arrived at the right time. Margaret Thatcher’s radical reforms had torn at the social fabric of the United Kingdom, dividing the country into enclaves of wealth and regions of true poverty, and resulting in a gigantic increase in unemployment that has never since fallen to pre-recession levels. Eddy became a figure of the contemporary Everyman; and the plagues besetting his country, a metaphor for the disintegration of the previous world order.

Much of the credit for this goes to the music itself, which in formal terms maneuvers between chamber opera, English musical and traditional folk vaudeville. The juggling of linguistic registers – from crude, vulgar Cockney to sublime phrases taken, as it were, straight from Shakespeare – is fully reflected in the score. Lyrical fragments loaded with eroticism flow in free bel canto phrases; aggression and violence culminate in ear-splitting brass parts and brutal interventions of the percussion. At the moments when Turnage breaks the narrative up with irony, both styles degenerate into pastiche. Among the characters, only Eddy maintains a uniform identity; the remaining vocalists play triple or even quadruple roles, deepening the protagonist’s disorientation. The singers speak, melorecite, vocalize, shout and scream, carrying on a constant play with colour and convention.

I had known this work only from recordings and been very curious how it would be received nearly 30 years later, this time on the wave of populism sweeping over Europe. The new Scottish Opera staging, which will appear in Glasgow only in February of next year, received a peculiar pre-première at the Edinburgh Festival. The staging’s creators – stage director Joe Hill-Gibbins, stage designer Johannes Schütz and costume designer Alex Lowde – decided to place the entire narrative in parentheses, directing the four singer-actors against the background of a revolving wall equipped with two doors, and substituting all props with real-time projections onto the wall. I bridled a bit at the sight of tabloid headlines with direct references to Brexit, and froze when live maggots appeared in the sea of ketchup displayed on the wall, evoking inevitable associations with Rodrigo García’s Golgota Picnic. I overcame my impulse to rebel and began to observe the projections more attentively. At a certain moment, I realized that the stage director duplicates the composer’s distanced treatment of the narrative. The tomato sauce is not real blood. The point here is neither real murder, nor real incest. Greek is an excruciating tale of people forced into roles imposed on them from above, of the impossibility of overcoming fate, of the defeat of free will in a world ruled by those with more stupidity and more power.

Susan Bullock and Andrew Shore. Photo: Jane Hobson.

We hear this in the waitress’ wonderful aria after her husband has been killed, which is clothed by Turnage in the form of the absurd lament of a woman mourning a man who will never again come home all plastered and vomit on the pillow, a plaint so beautiful in terms of sound that it could equal Dido’s lament from Purcell. We see it in the costume design concept, which reflects Eddy’s social advancement over the course of a dozen or so years in a change from a cheap football fan’s sweat suit to a luxury sweat suit, better cut and in a more elegant shade of red. We can feel all of this in the way the space is played out by the stage designer, who suggests the passage of time with revolutions of the empty, frightfully bare wall, which moves so fast in the finale of Act II that it is as if the surrounding world has gone insane.

Berkoff finished his play with ecstatic praise for the love that conquers all. Turnage was not convinced by that finale even 30 years ago. His Eddy wants to carve his eyes out in ‘Greek style’; then he wavers and throws a fearful question addressed to Oedipus from Sophocles’ tragedy out into space, unable to believe that one could do such harm to oneself; finally, he emerges from the abyss of despair, drawing out his monologue about the power of feelings – oddly uncertain, however: half-sung, half-spoken, against a background of fading single-instrument tremolandi in the orchestra. Eddy of Tufnell Park has no free will. He cannot even blind himself. He is a helpless puppet who prefers to pour ketchup in his eyes rather than stand face-to-face with the moral decay of the contemporary world.

Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore, Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn. Photo: Jane Hobson.

The unquestionable hero of the production turned out to be Alex Otterburn (Eddy), a young singer gifted with a gorgeously coloured and technically flawless baritone, a superb actor, compared to previous performers of this role considerably more delicate and human in the role of a contemporary Oedipus who has no influence on his own fate or on that of his loved ones. In vocal terms, he was fully equaled by Allison Cook in the quadruple mezzo-soprano role of the Wife, Doreen, Waitress 1 and Sphinx 2. Both Susan Bullock in three soprano roles and Andrew Shore in three baritone roles – most convincing as Eddy’s tragic adopted parents – were in a class by themselves. Stuart Stratford, director of the Scottish Opera, led his chamber orchestra in a manner that had seduced me already two years ago on the occasion of their première of Jenůfa – logically and precisely, but at the same time with a passion that permitted a certain angularity and apparent ‘ugliness’ of sound, in this context completely justified.

While the Edinburgh theatre was not packed to the gills, even so the show ended with a standing ovation. The critics announced a few days later that thanks to the staging of Turnage’s opera, the Festival had again risen to heights the likes of which we had not had the opportunity to experience in several seasons. It is characteristic that the opera, written out of youthful anger, continues to awaken unbridled anger in the audience. Characteristic and sad that older people have seen in it a truly Tiresian prophecy of Brexit.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Consolation of Country Philosophy

For some years now, I have been writing about English country-house operas, attempting to treat this phenomenon not only in a musical, but also in a historical and sociological context. I have finally realized that I am a pretentious aesthete. I review productions of the operas that, for various reasons, are the closest to my heart and sensibility, paying no heed to the obvious fact: that behind most of those crazy endeavours stand ‘plebeian’ productions mobbed by local music lovers hungry for music familiar from recordings and BBC3 programs. That working for each Jenůfa is a Traviata, and even the most beautifully-performed Wagner cannot do without the support of Mozart. And suddenly my world was turned upside down. I decided to come down to earth and immerse myself in the main current flowing with masterpieces that speak with equal power to laypeople and to the most refined opera critics.

I had been planning my trip to Longborough for Die Zauberflöte under the baton of Anthony Negus for a long time. I did not expect, however, that two days before, I would land at the Winslow Hall Opera for Un ballo in maschera directed by Carmen Jakobi, the creator of a phenomenal staging of Tristan at the LFO. One of the youngest ‘country’ operas in England, it puts on a mere one title annually. The productions play out under a tarpaulin tent on the expansive lawn of a residence erected in 1700, most probably according to a design by Sir Christopher Wren. Up until the mid-19th century, the estate was passed down to successive heirs of William Lowndes, Secretary for the Treasury and chief monetary expert during the reign of William III of Orange. Later, it was the headquarters, in turn, of a coeducational boarding school, an insane asylum, a bottle factory and the RAF Bomber Command. After World War II, it passed from hand to hand until finally, in 2010, it ended up under the care of Christopher Gilmour, son of Ian, a distinguished Conservative Party activist, Defense Secretary in the government of Edward Heath and Lord Privy Seal in the first cabinet of Margaret Thatcher. Two years later, together with his family, the owner moved into the restored building and decided to launch his own theater in Winslow – together with his brother Oliver, a graduate of the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna and a former principal conductor of the Bulgarian National Opera in Sofia.

Un ballo in maschera. Vasile Chişiu as Anckarström (on left) and Veronica Anușca (Oscar). Photo: Winslow Hall Opera.

To date, they have put on six productions, from Le nozze di Figaro to this year’s Un ballo in maschera. The endeavour is developing slowly and brings to mind associations with the beginnings of the Longborough Festival Opera: a tiny open-air stage, an orchestra part in a special arrangement for smaller ensemble, a solo cast comprised of singers from the younger generation or not yet known in the British Isles. I admit that getting used to a Verdi score written out for a mere 30 instruments took me a bit of time. And I do not completely understand why Oliver Gilmour decided, despite this, on quite slow tempi, mercilessly laying bare the bizarreness of this version. Battling cognitive dissonance, I decided to focus on the theatrical work. Carmen Jakobi once again did not disappoint my expectations. She paid attention to the Shakespearean features of the libretto’s original version, which resulted from the fact that the commission from the Teatro di San Carlo came at a moment when Verdi and Somma were working on a never-realized idea for an opera based on King Lear. She set the action back in the context of events preceding the assasination of Swedish King Gustav III, who was a great lover of opera and drama, and gave himself over to his passion with sincere enthusiasm: he even took part in several productions of the royal theater at Drottningholm. Gustavo in Jakobi’s perspective is the most genuine Player King, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a ruler overcome not so much by feelings for Amelia, as by just the idea of love as a theatrical construct. The impulsive Count bears many traits of Jacob Johan Anckarström, the Swedish officer who shot the king to death at a masked ball at the Stockholm Opera on 16 March 1792. Ulrica alludes to a historical figure: Anna Ulrica Arfvidsson, a famous fortune-teller who once warned Gustav to be on his guard against a ‘man with a sword’ who was after his life.

The intelligent and visually beautiful stage design of Jacob Hughes – who utilized, among other things, fragments of Rococo paintings, as well as the famous ceiling with the signs of the zodiac from Munich’s Villa Stuck (in Scene 2 of Act I) – created an appropriate frame for the director’s concept, limited by the microscopic space of the theater in Winslow. All the more admiration is evoked by her care in outlining the relationship between the characters, which found fullest expression in the finale of Act II, in the shocking ‘shame scene’ featuring conspirators mocking Anckarström’s nighttime tryst with his own wife. Jakobi works using the method of Stanislavski, who emphasized that there are no small roles – there are only small actors. This is probably what I miss the most in contemporary theater – not only opera: precision in shaping every episode, even the least essential, which results in the emotional truthfulness of the entire narrative. It is characteristic that the only singer who broke with rehearsal discipline and arrived in Winslow at the last minute, after performances in Berlin, is the one who turned out the worst in the cast. The name of Rosalind Plowright was supposed to attract an audience; meanwhile, her Ulrica was disappointing in every way: played without conviction, sung with an unbalanced voice, without proper breath support, at times just plain out of tune. I got the impression that Plowright – otherwise a great artist – did not allow herself to be convinced to this crazy endeavour and felt simply uncomfortable onstage in Winslow. Fortunately, the remaining soloists performed in an exemplary manner, chief among them a pair of Romanians – Veronica Anușca in the role of the seductive Oscar, bursting with youthful energy; and Vasile Chişiu, who portrayed the role of Anckarström in a baritone now a bit tired, but nevertheless gorgeous in timbre – along with Tsvetana Bandalovska (Amelia), gifted with a spinto soprano of expressive character, though sometimes not sufficiently open at the top. The biggest surprise of the evening, however, turned out to be Stephen Aviss. Until recently associated with dramatic theater, he began systematic training as a singer quite late and, for the moment, performs only on small stages. And that’s a pity: as Gustavo, he displayed everything essential to this hellishly difficult part – a charming lyric tenor, precise articulation, intelligent phrasing and uncommon musicality.

Die Zauberflöte at LFO. Beate Mordal (Pamina) and Colin Judson (Monostatos). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

And now I shall change my tone and state with conviction that I spent a wonderful evening in Winslow: admiring the performers’ enthusiasm, observing the audience’s exuberant reactions and participating in them myself, making small talk with strangers during the intermission. Some of the people I chatted with turned out to be residents of surrounding towns; others, high-class experts who had dropped in to Buckinghamshire not only for professional reasons, but also – and perhaps above all – in order to escape from the routine of predictable stagings at the big theaters. Among supporters of summer opera festivals, there is a preponderance of people thirsty for real emotions, courageous enough to admit that they miss the times when opera played a similar role to that now played by films downloaded from Netflix. With the one and only difference that a show watched live always has been and always will be an unrepeatable phenomenon.

Two days later, I returned to Longborough as if to the home of old friends. I expected that the atmosphere accompanying the shows of Die Zauberflöte would be diametrically different from the lofty mood of the previous Wagner celebration; despite this, I did not suppose that I would be drawn into it like a child, completely convinced that the theater is a place where miracles happen. Much of the credit for this goes to stage director Thomas Guthrie, who came onstage right before the show and addressed us like a group of overgrown preschoolers. He stated simply that he would be grateful to us for our collaboration in creating sound effects; he explained at what moments we should stamp our feet, imitating the sound of thunder, carried out a short acoustic test, and then disappeared into the wings. We entered the world of the vivid imagination of Guthrie, Ruth Paton (stage design) and Wayne Dowdeswell (stage lighting) without any prejudices. It has been a long time since I encountered theater in which every shadow, every glimmer of light and visual symbol became a full participant in the drama, a disembodied personality carrying on lively dialogue with the viewer. Guthrie mixed conventions as effectively as Mozart wove together musical styles in his masterpiece. He laid bare the fairytale operating mechanism already in the first scene, atop the sounds of the overture. He showed a boy in bed reading a book, the narrative of which gradually invades his bedroom – in the form of Tamino, chased by a snake puppet with eyes made of lightbulbs manipulated by two separate puppeteers – so as to, over time, drive away from it all elements of reality. The fairytale being read comes to life, constantly maneuvering on the boundary between wonders, adult fantasies and childish fears. In an empty picture frame appears the real Pamina. Props circulate about the stage as if in a naïve folk theater: supernumeraries build a sky from stars and moons stuck onto poles; they create a forest from leafless branches held in their hands; they plant fluttering paper birds in trees. Papagena covers her face with a papier-mâché head of a hideous old lady. Monostatos’ retinue parades about in scruffy kitchen helpers’ costumes – the nightmares of every child sent away from home to a boarding school. The world of civil order appears in the form of a classical garden. Nothing here matches, and that is why it hangs together so well.

Julian Hubbard as Tamino. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Guthrie entered into his role as creator of the show to such an extent that he even staged an unexpected technical intermission during Act I. When we had had enough of watching the workers fix the stage horizon, he asked us as if nothing had happened whether we wanted to hear the Queen of the Night’s aria again. Five hundred respectable music lovers answered with a roar en masse: ‘Yeeeesssss!!!’ I am afraid that the musicians did not share our enthusiasm. Nerves were in evidence, so it was only in Act II that I could fully admire the singers’ artistry – as usual in Longborough, cast aptly and with true expertise – and the brilliant concept of Anthony Negus, who confirmed my suspicions that a conductor who discovers such riches in Wagner’s scores will miss no pearl in the treasury of Mozart’s legacy. Julian Hubbard has at his disposal a tenor considerably more ‘heroic’ than the voice normally associated with a performer of the role of Tamino – whereby he managed to create a character of flesh and blood, a prince boiling with human emotions, not excluding fear and doubt. A wonderful counterweight to the male romantic lead turned out to be Colin Judson (Monostatos), a true character singer, with such a vis comica that, were he a baritone, I would be ecstatic to cast him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Gifted with a warm and bright baritone, Grant Doyle portrayed the ‘plebeian’ Papageno, enriching his creation with delicious German. He also found a worthy partner in the flirtatious, refreshing soprano of Sarah Gilford (Papagena). Benjamin Bevan did an excellent job with the Speaker; Jihoon Kim turned out somewhat worse as Sarastro, not always resonant at the bottom of that hellishly low role, but nonetheless impressive with a beautiful, velvety timbre in the middle register. Hannah Dahlenberg (Queen of the Night) revealed the full values of her voice only in ‘Der hölle Rache’ – in the aria ‘O zittre nicht’, out of necessity performed twice, she sounded timid and did not manage to avoid a few slip-ups in intonation. A brilliant show of ensemble singing was given by both the Three Ladies (Katherine Crompton, Sioned Gwen Davies and Carolyn Dobbin), and the wonderfully ethereal Three Boys (Tristan Locket-Green, as well as Inigo and Osian Guthrie, privately the stage director’s sons). In a class by herself, however, was Beate Mordal in the role of Pamina. Superb in terms of character – delicate and girlish but, at the same time, brave, loyal and constant in her feelings – in vocal terms she turned out to be perhaps even better than her stage partner. Her full, though movingly soft soprano charmed me, especially in ‘Ach ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden’ – a heartbreaking lament of lost love.

But despite all that, the real hero of this rendition of Die Zauberflöte turned out to be Negus and his orchestra. That the conductor had decided on blistering tempi was immediately apparent, in an overture played faster than the already energetic perspectives of Fricsay. However, not for a moment could one feel any shortness of breath. Negus’ improbable sensitivity to textural detail found expression already in the fugato segments of the first Allegro, where the musical fabric began to sparkle and shimmer like moiré silk. The priests’ march from the beginning of Act II flowed forth with a rapid, yet dignified wave. The final triumph of light over darkness (‘Die Strahlen der Sonne vertreiben die Nacht’) broke through literally every note of the score. I don’t know whether I have ever heard a live interpretation so daring but, at the same time, so coherent and consistently executed – from musicians putting their full trust in the person standing on the conductor’s podium.

Because this opera gives not only joy but, above all, faith. It helps one endure the worst. I understood this yet again in the Arcadian scenery of the hills of the Cotswolds, where Pamina and Tamino’s love fulfilled itself as beautifully as one could possibly dream of.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Ersinken, vertrinken – unbewusst

I have not had many opera experiences in my lifetime that I could describe with a clear conscience as formative: shows that were memorable and, at the same time, shaped my peculiar sensitivity to sound and to the contexts surrounding the music. My most recent such illumination, after a long break, was the Longborough Tristan und Isolde, a production that shook me to such a degree that for the next year, I returned to it again and again – in essays, columns and reviews from completely different stagings. A year later at a dress rehearsal of Tannhäuser, I was confirmed in my conviction that Anthony Negus is one of today’s most distinguished interpreters of Wagner’s œuvre. The news that he was planning to open the new season with a revival of Tristan put me in a huge quandary. I felt like a soul who had gone through the Last Judgment, ended up in heaven, and then found out that something had gone wrong and it would be necessary to repeat the Judgment. And what if there would be no salvation this time?

But there was. It happened not only in the theatrical plane – the only one about which I had mild reservations – but also in the musical one, this time so close to musical perfection that at moments I really had the impression of contact with the unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’. Stage director Carmen Jakobi decided to dispense with the pair of dancers – ‘Jungian’ doubles of Tristan and Isolde – who had previous introduced unnecessary confusion into the opera’s only superficially static narrative. The singers were left alone on a nearly empty stage, in a space masterfully painted with light, face to face with the audience gathered in the little opera house. What began was true theater – faithful to the score, based on the word, intricately built around the relationships between the characters. Jakobi did not stop at just removing the dancing ‘shadows’. She shifted certain accents, all the more emphatically underlining the Wagnerian masterpiece’s departures from its literary prototype. With the performers, she worked through every move, every gesture and every exchange of glances, at moments creating such a suggestive atmosphere of intimacy that we didn’t know where to lay our eyes – we, accustomed to viewing sex, nudity and all manner of perversions in opera, but so pitifully helpless in confrontation with the view of pure, though staggeringly intense emotion between two people. Three scenes from the production should go down in operatic history. First of all, the finale of Act I, in which the lovers torn out of their ecstatic exhilaration behave as if they are still in a trance, not grasping and not wanting to grasp what is going on around them – the short exchange of lines between the reeling Tristan and the stupefied Kurwenal (‘Wer naht?’, ‘Der König!’, ‘Welcher König?’) was literally breathtaking. Secondly, the duet from Act II, the exquisite, eroticism-laden love scene of which Grotowski’s best actors would not be ashamed. Thirdly, Tristan’s great monologue in Act III, ending with his death in Isolde’s arms: a realistic and shocking image of agony the likes I have never seen either in the theater, or even in the cinema. And never want to see in real life.

Act I. Peter Wedd (Tristan) and Lee Bisset (Isolde). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

The most beautiful thing was the spirit of collaboration that hovered over the whole production. Jakobi’s directing melded with the musical work like those two yew trees with the church portal in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold. In the singers’ acting, I recognized gestures observed during other shows featuring them – this time, however, chiseled out with truly Shakespearean care. The staging does not diverge even one iota from the conductor’s concept. And that concept, already brilliant two years ago, has undergone further evolution. At the time, I compared Negus’ interpretation with the legendary perspectives of Karl Böhm, noticing the blistering tempi, but above all the exuberant pulse of the performance, making the audience realize that torment and longing are immanently linked to the score and there is no need to additionally slow it down. This time, I had the impression that Negus had gone even further, becoming part the forgotten or disregarded performance tradition of the 1930s. Initially, I thought of Reiner; then I went back even further in my thoughts, evoking the memory of the legendary recording of the prelude to Act I in the rendition of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Richard Strauss. In Negus’ prelude, we heard the same devastated, carved-up waltz; the textures were equally light and bright; the wonderful portamenti of the ’celli revived the memory of times long past and a sensitivity to sound that has since that time been lost. In Act II, the ‘hunting music’ was enchantingly laden with the subtle power of natural horns; in Act III, the Shepherd’s song was accompanied by the nasal, frightfully sad tone of the tárogató. In this production, the orchestra did not accompany the singers – it created a separate quality, almost sublime in the prelude to the final act, where the violins in the initial Todesschmerz motif literally ‘rebound’ with a tritone off of the F in the ’cello chord, and the desolation motif gliding upward in thirds created such an overwhelming impression of boundless emptiness that I had shivers running up and down my spine. The mood was complemented by the stray thrush in the garden who decided to echo the English horn melody from the prologue to Scene 1.

Act II. Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

In this year’s cast, there were basically no weak points, which inspires all the greater admiration that the show was put on four times, every two days, featuring the same singers. Wonderful roles were created by Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal), known from the previous staging, gifted with a baritone of quite peculiar timbre, nonetheless superbly carried and technically flawless; and by Harriet Williams, a warm and velvety Brangäne, perhaps even better than Catherine Carby, whom I praised to the skies two years ago. A fantastic debut in the roles of the Young Sailor and the Shepherd was turned in by Sam Furness, whom I have had the opportunity to admire three times in recent seasons: as Števa in the Glasgow Jenůfa, the Novice in the Madrid Billy Budd and Joaquino in a concert performance of Fidelio in Paris (in a few days, he will be portraying this character in a new staging of Beethoven’s opera at the Longborough Festival Opera). Some critics complained of tiredness in the voice of Geoffrey Moses, in my opinion wrongly: his King Marke fully convinced me to the concept of the tragic ruler faced with a betrayal exceeding all bounds of imagination. I am certain that this was a conscious choice on Negus’ part, supported furthermore by the experienced bass’s enormous vocal culture and unquestionably beautiful instrument.

Act III. Stuart Pendred (Kurwenal), Peter Wedd and Sam Furness (Shepherd). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

I fear that I will run short of compliments for the two title characters. Lee Bisset, who debuted in the second cast in 2015, turned out to be the Isolde of my dreams, finished in every inch, felt to the very depths. This is one of those singers who rivet one’s attention from their first entrance onstage, engage the listener not only with perfect mastery of their part, but also with an accurate feel for the words and fantastic acting. Bisset pulled off something that Rachel Nicholls had previously been unable to manage – to show Isolde as an equal partner to Tristan, a strong woman aware from the outset of her feelings, with which she initially fights as fiercely as she later yields to them. Her dark, expressive, strikingly powerful soprano sparkles with every hue of emotion: it sounded one way in the fiery, furious duet with Brangäne, another way in ecstatic union with Tristan, for whom she had longed for years. The latter was again portrayed by Peter Wedd, who created probably the most captivating role in his career thus far. He went straight into his role with a secure and open voice, carrying over the dense textures with a sonorous, trumpet-like squillo. In Act I, Scene 5, both of them were stupendous: one would look in vain for a ‘Du mir einzig bewusst, höchste Liebeslust!’ sung like that in the archives of contemporary opera houses. In Act II, Wedd began to play with timbre: after the phenomenal duet, he brought out the famous phrase ‘O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen’ in a manner that I had been awaiting for years: searingly lyrical, yet at the same time masculine, gradually sinking into a darker and darker abyss. In ‘Dem Land, das Tristan meint, der Sonne Licht nicht scheint’, he sang with a voice so dark, it was as if every sun in the galaxy had been snuffed out. In the Act III monologue, he went through every tone of despair, hope and torment: I don’t know if there is another tenor in the world who would be able to with such a beautiful voice and yet so precisely reflect the delirium of Tristan, at a certain moment thrashing about in an extremely disturbing 5/4 metre – used in mad scenes by, among others, Händel. When the knight had finally died in Isolde’s arms, the Verklärung began – the love transfiguration of Isolde, by Wagner fans erroneously referred to as the Liebestod. Both Negus and Jakobi pointed out this false reading, for which Liszt had been to blame. Lee Bisset sang her last monologue in an ecstasy bringing to mind associations with Bernini’s famous sculpture, looking with awe at Tristan’s corpse, frozen like a wax figure. And then, in the orchestra, miracles again began to happen. During the ‘Mild und leise’ monologue, the ‘voice’ of the dead Tristan circulated beneath the skin, like the song of the dumbstruck Rusalka from Dvořák’s opera almost half a century later. And in the penultimate measure, Isolde’s heart stopped: just before the final B major chord, the oboes are left alone for a moment, holding out a long, piercing D-sharp – like the flat line on the monitor announcing the irreversible stoppage of circulation.

Again I ended up in heaven. Only what am I going to do there without such a Tristan?

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Music from before the World Existed

Spring has returned again. The earth
is like a child who’s memorized
poems; many, so many … It was worth
the long painful lesson: she wins the prize.

Her teacher was strict. We liked the white
in the old man’s whiskers.
Now when we ask what green or blue is, right
away she knows, she has the answer!

Earth, lucky earth on vacation,
play with the children now. We long
to catch you, happy earth. The happiest will win.

Oh what her teacher taught her, all those things,
and what’s imprinted on the roots and long
complicated stems: she sings it, she sings!

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, I, 21, tr. A. Poulin.

The Feast of the Annunciation

On the Feast of the Annunciation, falling on 25 March, shortly after the arrival of the astronomical spring, the earth would open itself up to receive the seed. In eastern parts of Poland, that moment was celebrated as the Day of Our Lady of Opening (Matka Boska Roztworna), who helped worms to emerge from the soil, streams to burst through splitting ice, the mouths of frogs and snakes to open, bees to awaken in their hives and storks to return to their nests. Peasants would release their flocks onto barely green pasture. They would symbolically fertilise the earth, sowing it with pea seeds, irrepressible in their will to sprout. They would repair storks’ nests and have the womenfolk bake ‘busłowe łapy’ – ritual cakes in the shape of birds’ feet, which they then placed in those nests to precipitate the arrival of the sluggish spring. From the same dough, the women would also form shapes like human legs, which, after baking, they would distribute to unmarried maidens, so that they might, on healthy pins and as quickly as possible, marry hard-working men. At this time of the year, the cycle of life and death came full circle. Over Our Lady of Opening hung the memory of the old pagan cult of the dead. The earth opened up not just to take seed, but also to free the ancestors’ souls, trapped by the winter, and enable them to return to their own domain. Particular care was taken with new, fragile life, as if out of fear that mortals’ meddling would nip that life in the bud. Eggs set to hatch would not be touched, and grain seeds and potato tubers were left in peace for the day, so that water and light would draw forth their sprouts by themselves. It was forbidden to spin or to weave, and poppy seed would be strewn around houses to ward off evil forces. People waited for the slow miracle of birth: new crops from the seed-laden earth, new livestock from inseminated herds, new people from women’s wombs. The world rose from the earth, before returning to it once again.

Towards the end of March, the earth really does open up. It does not even need to be mutilated with a plough. In the warm rays of the sun, enigmatic telluric creatures – protozoa and fungi – produce substances which the human nose associates with the smell of soil. Before more easily comprehensible aromas appear in the vernal world – the scent of opening blossom, of leaves bursting from buds, of the slime-covered coats of newborn calves – the source of our inexplicable annual euphoria are odours spurting from the still tawny earth, the same earth in which, before the winter, we buried the remains of the previous life. For something to be born, something must die.

The Great Goddess

I am not a philosopher. My ancestors were peasants, and I have inherited from them a superstitious veneration for the rich March soil, ready to take the seed, stinging one’s nostrils with a smell as sensuous as the truest pheromone. I later transferred that simple peasant sensibility, on occasion, to my literary acre, cultivated just as conscientiously and with a respect for certain taboos, as did the Podlasian peasants of yore. Not long ago, I suggested that Roger Scruton, author of the recently published The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, and John Eliot Gardiner, praised by the critics for his monograph Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, write so sagely about music because they associate the labour of composing with the eternal cycle of the seasons, with begetting, surviving, sustaining life and dying, because they see the composer as a farmer, who cannot bring a masterwork into the world without occasionally spattering himself with soil and manure.

Yet before I matured into reading philosophers, I was already troubled by the paradox of the state that obtained prior to the ordering of the elements of the universe. How to imagine nothing? How to get one’s head around the existence (or non-existence?) of the Chaos from which the original Greek deities, the protogenoi, arose? Was Chaos a void, a yawning chasm, or – as Hesiod’s Theogony suggests – also a place, or even a being capable of procreation? Did Gaia – the ‘wide-bosomed’ Mother Earth – emerge out of nowhere? Was she the firstborn of some undefined Chaos? One way or another, that mighty, self-regulating being gave birth to dozens of other gods – by herself, under various guises, of amorous union with her sons, grandsons and great-grandsons, from the blood and seed of the mutilated Uranus. From her womb, she pushed forth mountains and seas, hundred-handers and titans, rebels, avengers and ash-tree nymphs, the guardians of foundlings. Wagner’s Erda bears traits of both the Greek Gaia and the Nordic Jörð, an icy giantess personifying the earth, lover of the world’s co-creator Odin, who only gained the status of father of the gods in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.

Demeter mourning for Persephone, by Evelyn De Morgan.

Attempts to personify any Great Goddess were beyond the powers of my imagination. Whenever I heard Erda’s words from Das Rheingold (‘I know all that was, is and will be’), I was overcome by a metaphysical fear. Yet the presentiment grew within me that the World – understood as the reality around me – was something other than the mysterious, secretive Earth that alternately opened and closed, that all art, including music, must arise somewhere on the edge of existence, must erupt from the depths, like a stream of headily aromatic organic compounds, must mature beneath a thick layer of humus, germinate and be born of some primary, telluric impulse – spontaneously, in a way not entirely predictable, even for the creator.

And then I began to read Martin Heidegger.

The dispute between the earth and the world

In The Origin of the Work of Art, based on a series of lectures given in Zurich and Frankfurt during the 1930s, Heidegger considers the essence of creative activity in terms of being and truth. In every work of art, a fierce dispute rages between the World and the Earth. The World – the great and the small, the world of the individual, the world of one’s family, the world of a larger community or of a whole nation – is revealed in creative output. The work of art adopts the role of the subject, itself creating such ‘worlds’ big and small, and at the same time opening them up to the beholder. In its deepest layer, however, the work refers to the Earth, marked by being its own essence, yet itself remaining concealed. It is the backdrop, the foundation, on which every creative artist writes, paints or composes his or her own world:

‚To the work-being belongs the setting up of a world. Thinking of it from within this perspective, what is the nature of that which one usually calls the ‘work-material’? Because it is determined through usefulness and serviceability, equipment takes that of which it consists into its service. In the manufacture of equipment – for example, an ax – the stone is used and used up. It disappears into usefulness. The less resistance the material puts up to being submerged in the equipmental being of the equipment the more suitable and the better it is. On the other hand, the temple work, in setting up a world, does not let the material disappear; rather, it allows it to come forth for the very first time, to come forth, that is, into the open of the world of the work. The rock comes to bear and to rest and so first becomes rock; the metal comes to glitter and shimmer, the colors to shine, the sounds to ring, the word to speak. All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of the stone, into the firmness and flexibility of the wood, into the hardness and gleam of the ore, into the lightening and darkening of color, into the ringing of sound, and the naming power of the word.

That into which the work sets itself back, and thereby allows to come forth, is what we called ‘the earth’. Earth is the coming-forth-concealing [Hervorkommend-Berdende]. Earth is that which cannot be forced, that which is effortless and untiring. On and in the earth, historical man founds his dwelling in the world. In setting up a world, the work sets forth the earth. ‘Setting forth [Herstellen]’ is to be thought, here, in the strict sense of the world. The work moves the earth into the open of a world and holds it there. The work lets the earth be an earth.’ (Martin Heidegger, ‘The origin of the work of art’, in Off the Beaten Track, ed. and tr. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, CUP, 2002, 24.)

Heidegger’s way of seeing art is exceptionally close to my heart, although I would not myself express it in such a florid language of metaphors resulting from a conviction that it is impossible to illuminate the essence of being through the traditional language of European philosophy. In all creative output, the same occurs: the composer transfers that which lies hidden in the earth to ‘the open’ of the world. He explores its mystery as far as the earth allows him to. If everything was pulled from it, if everything was consumed and exposed to the merciless inspection of the world, the earth would cease to exist. And the world would cease to exist. The one is inextricably linked to the other. Worlds, microworlds and communities have no raison d’être in isolation from the original mystery of the earth; the earth’s secret would lose all its charm if the world did not strive to ‘hold it in the open’.

The earth as thus understood on one hand bears all the hallmarks of the Dionysian element, fiercely defending access to its secret, which it reveals only at the right time and in suitable circumstances. On the other hand, it holds the unshakeable foundation of all human existence, including artistic existence. Every person connected with music cyclically experiences the phenomenon of the Feast of the Annunciation. The composer ponders the source of inspiration freed from beneath the ice as he might a damp, freshly turned ridge of soil. He imbibes the intoxicating scent of something that he does not entirely understand. In a crucial moment of forgetting, he throws himself from the heights of Apollonian order into Dionysian ecstasy. In order to create something truly new, he must first kill his Orpheus, cut off his head, tear the singer to pieces – like a horde of crazed Maenads. Only then will the seed germinate. The performer must lavish particular care upon that harbinger of new life: first leave it in peace, until the interpretation matures, then carefully cast the seed into the furrow and immediately rake it over, to prevent the earth drying out. It only remains for the listener to observe how the delicate plant grows: to feed it with soil, to clear the weeds around it and finally to reap the harvest. This slow recurring miracle of the birth of a musical work has been going on forever. Works emerge from a ridge of inspiration, go out to pasture and then grow old and die irrevocably – or else they move back and forth between the openness of the world and the closedness of the earth, like Persephone in her eternal wandering between Hades and Demeter.

Alienation

The closer we come to the present day, the more difficult it is to associate the earth with fecundity, as the giver of all life, a mighty and imperturbable carer. It becomes increasingly difficult to spin out a musical narrative in the peasant rhythm of the seasons, to paint the beauty of creation in a language referring directly to natural phenomena. There will be no more breathtaking Haydnesque tableaux of the birth of light and humankind – as in The Creation – or the sensuous earthly theatre that exudes from the score of the Symphony in G minor, No. 39, one of the first compositions associated with the ‘storm and stress’ period in his oeuvre. There will be no more wonderful ‘Pastoral’ than the one created by Ludwig van Beethoven – a composer who preferred to spend his time in the company of trees than people.

Gustav Mahler, the autograph manuscript of the piano reduction of Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.

At a certain moment in time, musicians stopped singing of the earth and began to yearn for it, to bid it farewell, to feel alien upon it, as if oblivious to the sensuous aroma of ploughed furrows in March, overcome only by the November smell of burned leaves and rotting stubble. Such is the portrait of the Great Goddess, deep in mourning, that emerges from the pages of Das Lied von der Erde, written by a Gustav Mahler crushed by the anti-Semitic witch-hunt at the Staatsoper in Vienna, broken by the death of his beloved daughter Maria, alarmed at the diagnosis of a congenital heart defect. ‘Mein Herz ist müde’ (‘My heart is weary’), sings in the second song the Lonely One, for whom the autumn is dragging on too long. Reflected in the mirror of ‘Mahler’s most wonderful symphony’, as Leonard Bernstein called The Song of the Earth, is a forgotten masterwork by another Viennese modernist: Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, a cycle of seven songs with orchestra to words by Rabindranath Tagore. Mahler, in his composition, used translations of Chinese poetry from Hans Bethge’s anthology Die chinesische Flöte. Zemlinsky turned to the output of the Indian Nobel Prize winner. Both sowed their scores with beautiful and swollen, but foreign seed. Both had the two soloists sing of the torment of separation and disappointment in love, trudging through the entire narrative utterly alone, without meeting one another even in the middle of the laboriously tilled field.

A further association is evoked by the music of Béla Bartók – an urban seed, which gave a fertile crop on the field of Hungarian folksong, dug over for centuries. Bartók’s plants sent their roots deep down, shattering rocks hidden in the subsoil, flowering with a rampant, original harmonic language, which depicts equally distinctly the horror of Judith, the torment of Duke Bluebeard and the cruelty of the pimps mistreating the Chinese mandarin, kept alive by his desire for a beautiful streetwalker.

Béla Bartók

Strength

The earth has grown old. It has begun to yield its fruits in pain, to lament its lovers, the lost harvest of its passions, the arduous years – exhausting, but beautiful in their simplicity – when the pea always sprouted in the swollen furrow, the bees always woke in their hives, and the storks unerringly returned to their patched-up nests, filled with ritual cake. And yet, in spite of everything, it continues to open its bosom and to lure, with its mystery, creative artists who crave to move it and hold it in the open of their world. And often – having drunk its fill of their love – it leaves them defenceless, disorientated, unaware of where their inspiration came from and why it deserted them, having found a path in other regions … for instance, under the roof of the castle belonging to Gabriel Branković, one of the protagonists of The Architect of Ruins, a now irreverent, now deadly serious Dedalus novel by the recently deceased Austrian writer Herbert Rosendorfer. Branković turns out to be a vampire, craving spiritual immortality, and his victim is the brilliant young composer Felix Abegg:

‘Although tired from the ride, Felix began his composition that night, a choral work called “The Hours”, a setting of a poem by a certain Raimund Berger […] The poem, in short stanzas, consists of prayers for the Hours of a night watch from the ninth Hour through to the ninth Hour again. The first verse,

O Babel, tower to man’s pride,

God’s wrath hath scattered far and wide! …

was sung by the whole choir in unison, to an apparently simple chorale-like melody. In the following verses the voices divided into combinations ever more rich in meaning and harmony. Inversion, regression and complex interweaving built up into a carpet of counterpoint in which, as if by chance, at particular points where the voices converged like carefully-placed knots, there appeared the pattern of a melody that was not sung by any one single voice and yet was clearly audible. Then in,

At the first hour

A call resounds and echoes o’er

The plain: “This once and then no more” …

the piece reverted to a powerful unison, which was renewed with each Hour until it reached its resolution at the return of the “Ninth Hour”,

The long dark night of sin is past:

On Golgotha – redeemed at last.

Felix had long since worked out the piece, had composed it in his head during the long rides through the forest, with all the subtle play of counterpoint, and had then let it rest in the womb of his remarkable memory until this night, when he set about putting it down on paper, not suspecting that someone else had already done so.

Again the Foehn was raging and tearing at the shutters. Felix sat for a long time at his table writing until, once again, it seemed that the wind had loosened one of the shutters from its catches. He went to the window. Outside – it was a very steep drop, the tops of the tallest spruce trees did not reach the overhang – outside on the narrow window-ledge sat Brankovic. Scarcely had Felix torn open the window than the Professor scurried head first on all fours down the precipice. Felix saw him disappear into the seven-sided oriel window …

The next morning Abegg woke to find himself in his bed, although he could not remember how he got there. On the table lay the manuscript, completed in a similar, yet different hand.’ (Tr. Mike Mitchell)

***

The conclusion? Listening closely to the whisper of the open March earth, one must be alert. Sometimes, its mysteries lie too deep. Just a moment’s inattention, and it will close over the reckless creative artist and, with the malice of an old woman, betray its secret to somebody else. I admire the earth, and I love the music that flows from the depths of its primeval entrails. Only sometimes I fear her a little.

Translated by: John Comber

The Wretched Son of Parsifal

The picturesque Krefeld on the Rhine – in the 18th century one of the most flourishing centers of the textile industry in Europe – awaited the Knight of the Swan almost as long as did Warsaw. Lohengrin inaugurated the 1952/53 season in the freshly-opened building of the Staatstheater, erected according to a design by Eugen Bertrand on the foundation of the unfinished garrison theater of the British occupation forces. The makeshift building was supposed to undergo further expansion which was delayed by the architect’s sudden death. Its present, late Modernist form was given to it by Gerhard Graubner, who provided it with a characteristic three-dimensional façade made of glass lozenge panels, retaining the original design for the auditorium and the stage. Graubner’s theater opened its doors in 1963, two years after the next staging of Lohengrin, which continued its run until 1977. The return of Wagner’s Romantic opera after a 40-year absence was announced as the biggest event of the season in Krefeld – from my viewpoint all the more interesting that the knight of Elsa’s dreams was supposed to arrive in the person of the same singer who portrayed the role of Lohengrin at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National opera in April 2014. Peter Wedd had debuted in this role somewhat earlier, at the Moravian-Silesian National Theater in Ostrava; most opera lovers, however, associate him with the poetic staging, laden with hidden meanings, of Antony McDonald. It was time for a change: the third post-war Lohengrin in Krefeld was directed by Robert Lehmeier, an experienced music theater person, formerly an assistant to Harry Kupfer in work on the Ring at Bayreuth in 1988.

The first rehearsal pictures augured the worst: a typical German Regieoper with the ladies in business attire, the gentlemen in three-piece suits, and the title character in an absurd costume like something out of a cheap sci-fi film and an even more absurd wreath of roses adorning his temples. Meanwhile, Lehmeier’s staging turned out to be in many respects a beautiful catastrophe. I had the impression that the director had undertaken a risky attempt to dialogue with McDonald’s concept – an attempt on the whole unsuccessful, with several ideas far beyond the bounds of his charge, but realized reasonably consistently in two parallel narratives: the power crisis in the face of impending conflict, and the loss of illusions on the part of the two innocent lovers. Lehmeier – in collaboration with stage designer Tom Musch – played out his Lohengrin in an abstract space, nevertheless intelligently suspended between contemporary times and the world of medieval legend. The castle in Antwerp is crowned by defensive crenellations, but the decor of the room in which the divine judgment of Elsa will take place evokes unambiguous associations with UN headquarters in New York. The wallpaper on the walls and the curtain hung at the rear are a near-literal imitation of the fabrics designed by Else Poulsson that adorn the interior of the Security Council meeting room. Near-literal, because the director and stage designer substituted the motif of three ears of grain – symbolizing the hope of rebirth – with a perverse version of a caduceus, with the two snakes wrapped around a sword. The courtiers’ formal costumes and the Brabant warriors’ field uniforms contrast sharply with the floral accents in the clothing of the two main protagonists, outsiders as lost in reality as American flower children at the first Woodstock festival (costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth). Visually, it would have made up a quite convincing whole if it weren’t for Lohengrin’s grotesquely ugly ‘space suit’, which at least until the end of Act I effectively distracted one’s attention from the singing floating out from the stage.

Izabela Matuła (Elsa). Photo: Thomas Esser.

But we must grant Lehmeier this: that he guided every one of the characters very competently and breathed real life into them. Whether he did this in line with the composer’s intentions, is quite another matter. McDonald also reinterpreted the work in a quite daring manner: his Lohengrin leaves Brabant to the disenchanted Gottfried, who turns out to be completely immature in his leadership role and begins a mortally dangerous war game. But that isn’t until the finale. In Lehmeier’s rendition, Heinrich der Vogler doesn’t care a whit about Elsa and Lohengrin’s love from the very beginning – he sees the mysterious visitor in the silver armour exclusively as a tactical ally in the impending conflict. Thus, Gottfried’s final entrance with machine gun in hand does not evoke the expected effect. In McDonald’s rendition, Lohengrin is touchingly awkward, thirsty for love, torn between knightly obligation and husbandly duty. In Lehmeier’s rendition, he is a ‘chip off the old block’ with respect to Parsifal – and that, from the first act of Wagner’s opera. He really knows nothing at all: neither what to do with a sword, nor how to fulfill the expectations of that strange being who called him from Monsalvat. To the sounds of the orchestral prelude, a pantomime plays out: Elsa loses sight of little Gottfried, who is wearing the same kind of flower wreath as Lohengrin does later, and submerges herself in an erotic fantasy about a naked youth with roses adorning his temples and a shining sword in hand. Throughout Act I, she remains in a strangely drugged state. Her fantasy is finally fulfilled, but only superficially. In the subsequent plot process, we observe Elsa’s progressive disappointment with the mysterious visitor, who clearly is fit neither for battle nor for bed, nor even for the most ordinary human friendship. When Lohengrin loses his flower (in other words, he loses his innocence by killing Telramund), Elsa again gives herself over to dreaming and presents both his wreath and his sword to a symbolic figure of her lover, who again appears at the rear of the stage.

But despite everything, it’s still watchable. From the morass of overwrought, controversial and simply erroneous interpretations, one picks out a few brilliant scenes, a few gorgeous theatrical shortcuts. In Ortrud and Telramund, Lehmeier has discerned characters yet more tragic than McDonald suggested. Running through the background of their conspiracy in Act II is the authentic determination of two people who must carry out a double play in order to defend their convictions. In Ortrud’s later dialogue with Elsa, one clearly senses the moment when Telramund’s wife breaks down and truly sympathizes with the unfortunate bride. In Act I, just before Lohengrin’s entrance, the dismayed choristers begin to literally ‘crawl’ with feathers: they pull them out of their hair and the nooks and crannies of their clothes, and disgustedly brush them off their stockings and shoes. A superb metaphor for surprise bordering on panic, considerably more convincing than the hands waving overhead that have been played to the point of boredom. During the wedding night scene in Act III, Lohengrin tries to catch the fleeing Elsa and for a moment, he succeeds: in a horrifying gesture of immobilizing a wild animal that freezes in his embrace as if paralyzed.

Eva Maria Günschmann (Ortrud) and Izabela Matuła. Photo: Tomas Esser.

Nevertheless, as much as the theatrical side left a lot to be desired, the musical layer exceeded my boldest expectations. The Niederrheinische Sinfoniker ensemble under the baton of Estonian Mihkel Kütson, since 2012 the artistic director of Theater Krefeld und Mönchengladbach, played with nerve, at superbly-chosen tempi, but at the same time subtly, with a wonderfully soft sound that beautifully lit up the texture, especially in the wind parts. Four ‘Königs-Trompeten’ in C, brought in from Bayreuth, lent an appropriately powerful sound to the fanfares. The expanded chorus was impressive in its diction, clear vocal production and skill in dynamic diversification of phrasing. In the solo cast, there were basically no weak points, except perhaps for Andrew Nolen in the role of Herold, who was insufficiently expressive and often insecure in intonation. Matthias Wippich, gifted with an extraordinarily charming and overtone-rich bass voice (somewhat resembling the young Gottlob Frick in colour), convincingly portrayed the role of the charismatic and, at the same time, demoralized Heinrich der Vogler. Johannes Schwärsky created a Telramund of flesh and blood: here arrogant, there demonic, sometimes shockingly helpless in conflict with reality. His thick bass-baritone is astonishing in its flexibility and sonic power – at times too big, especially in his duet with Eva Maria Günschmann, who has at her disposal a deep, superbly balanced in terms of registers but all in all quite delicate mezzo-soprano voice. In terms of the acting, her Ortrud turned out to be a masterpiece – if the singer had been able to distribute her strength better and save up reserves for Act III, she would have built a character perfect in every detail.

The performers of the two lead roles would be a jewel adorning any production of Lohengrin: on any stage, not only in Europe. I write this with full conviction, and pleasure all the greater that the role of Elsa was sung by Izabela Matuła, a graduate of the Academy of Music in Kraków, a memorable title character in Maria from shows of Roman Statkowski’s forgotten work, prepared in 2013 under the baton of Łukasz Borowicz on the stage of the Baltic Opera. Her soprano has always been enchanting in its charm, peculiar dark colour and soft, somewhat ‘old-world’ vocal production. Now it has gained in refinement, taken on security of intonation and dramatic expression, thanks to which the singer succeeded in building an Elsa who, over the course of the narrative, goes through an amazing transformation from a teenager floating on clouds to a bitterly-disappointed woman. Peter Wedd, who had sung Lohengrin three months before in Athens with a voice as if from Götterdämmerung – truly heroic, indeed overwhelming in its authority – this time rediscovered layers of intense lyricism in his role, supported by superb breath control and feeling for phrasing. The director set him a difficult task, squeezing him into the role of a disoriented honest-to-God simpleton – despite this, Wedd emerged from this trial victoriously, proving that he is now not only in control of the power of his Heldentenor, but also able to diversify its sound. In the Krefeld Lohengrin it resounded with silver; in Athens, steel; in the Karlsruhe Die Walküre, the brilliant golden blaze of brass. This is a case, rare in today’s vocal world, of a singer who identifies completely with his characters and is able to shape a role with purely musical means.

Johannes Schwärsky (Telramund) and Peter Wedd (Lohengrin). Photo: Thomass Esser.

If Lehmeier’s staging had equaled the sonic plane’s coherence in the Krefeld Lohengrin, I would be the happiest opera critic in the world. But there are no miracles. Apparently that was what this show was supposed to be about. That the good of nations does not depend on dubious men of the moment. That love cannot be built upon one’s own imaginations concerning one’s beloved. That one should not count on a revelation, but patiently forge one’s lot in life. The musicians succeeded. The stage director needs to put in more work.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Vacation at a Morgue

Aschenbach is dead. And has been for quite some time. This is attested by an enormous photo in a black, encrusted frame – a blurred photo covered in fungi like a porcelain portrait on a forgotten gravestone. In front of the photo stand flowers in vases and a tripod holding up a snow-white wreath. Alongside, a black matte-painted grand piano and rows of chairs occupied by neatly-dressed mourners. On the right, a pile of monstrously huge tulips with indigo petals. In a moment, the writer seized by a creative block will meet the Traveler, who will encourage him to travel south. Are we at the gates of a cemetery chapel in Munich, or in some weird funeral home where the ritual has been going on for so long that the photograph of the deceased has managed to grow fungi?

The narrative of Britten’s Death in Venice fills two acts, divided into scenes moving from one to another abruptly, a bit as if in a dynamic film montage – at first glance without any relationship to each other, similar to hallucinations or phantoms in a dream. The composer and the librettist Myfanwy Piper were trying in this way to escape the trap of literality that Mann avoided thanks to the use of literary irony and ambiguous play between the author and the reader trying to follow the meanings. Britten’s opera can thus be interpreted as a record of the writer’s agony in which ‘figures of death’ (the Traveler, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Hotel Barber and the Leader of the Players), the ominous Voice of Dionysus and the ambiguous Voice of Apollo, and even Tadzio himself, turn out to be just the effect of the increased activity of a dying brain. However, Graham Vick, the director of the most recent staging at Deutsche Oper Berlin, has gone a step further. It seems that his Aschenbach has returned from the hereafter to yet again stand eye to eye with death and recreate his nightmarish journey into abject degradation.

Seth Carico and the choristers. Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

The problem is that there is no space in Vick’s concept for the vision of pure beauty that surreptitiously invades the writer’s neatly-arranged life. From the very beginning, the stage is drowning in colors of decay: purulent yellows, dead green, bluish purple and matte black (stage design by Stuart Nunn, lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel). There is no contrast between the sunny Lido beach and the gloom of the foul-smelling Venetian canals. There is no Venice at all. All of the plein-air scenes are replaced by a pile of overgrown tulips; all of the indoor episodes play out beneath the black frame, from which even the photo of Aschenbach disappears in Act II. The protagonist, oddly distanced from his surroundings, thrashes about among a small number of unchanging props. The chairs set in rows replace the ship’s deck, the hotel restaurant and the barber shop. The funeral wreath of white flowers ends up at a certain moment around the neck of Tadzio, the winner of the boyish ‘games’ at the beach. In barely-sketched, difficult-to-identify spaces, lust and death reign absolutely. The band of sellers surrounds the writer like a crowd of horny whores and pimps, making gestures of unambiguously erotic connotations at him. Aschenbach is not disgusted by the street stench or the scent of disinfectants – only by his own sexual urges. The specter of Indian cholera hanging over the city becomes a metaphor of moral decadence. The point here is not beauty and truth, nor the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus, but rather the pitiful drama of a widower who in his old age has discovered within himself a homosexual and a pedophile.

Such a shallow, basically bourgeois and prudish interpretation of Death in Venice is astounding in the second decade of the 21st century. To make things even worse, Graham Vick has decided to kill off Tadzio, who dies in the finale at the hands of a band of his rowdy peers. Aschenbach holds him as Our Lady holds the dead Christ, and then lays his corpse aside and slips away into the wings. Has Apollo finally fallen in the conflict with Dionysus? Did Tadzio have to die in order for the writer to dare to show him tenderness? Or maybe this whole tale was just a warning from the hereafter not to give in to one’s own drives? I have no idea. In the final scene, I saw rather the weakness of a stage director who has decided to at least close off a chaotically-constructed narrative with an iconoclastic conclusion. The only thing in this staging that inspired my genuine admiration was Vick’s decision to give the roles of Tadzio, his family and friends not to dancers, but to actors ideally cast in terms of physicality (the tiny Rauand Taleb and the two-heads-taller Lena Natus as his mother), realizing their pantomime with full involvement and, at the same time, a charming and very convincing clumsiness (superb choreography by Ron Howell).

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio). Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

Fortunately, the musical side of the production fully recompenses the unsuccessful stage direction. The Deutsche Oper ensemble plays with a glittering, selective sound ideally balanced in proportions between sections and, at the same time, beautifully diversified in the separate orchestral planes distinguished by Britten – in the ‘Asiatic’ gamelan-style music of Tadzio, the somber harbingers of death (where the woodwinds are combined with the tuba), the caricatured combination of the plague motif with the ‘unearthly’ portrait of the boy (Aschenbach’s feverish dream scene). While conductor Donald Runnicles did not avoid dragging in a few spots in Act I, one must admit that the opera itself only picks up the tempo at the moment when the writer chokes out a bashful ‘I – love you’ at the end of Act I, Scene 7. Paul Nilon, a superb lyric tenor, known above all for roles in Baroque and Classical operas, debuted in the role of Aschenbach in 2015 at the Garsington Opera. The small dimensions of that stage, along with Paul Curran’s transparent stage direction, no doubt facilitated his task. With the difficult acoustics of the Berlin theater, he struggled for a long time, initially in a voice with excessive vibrato and sparse overtones. In Act II, he gave it his all: he created a character of immeasurable psychological complexity, supporting his interpretation with enormous power of expression and flawless diction. The real hero of the evening, however, turned out to be Seth Carico in the seven roles of the writer’s alter ego and the Voice of Dionysus: a true bass-baritone of gorgeous tone, resonant in all of its registers, including the mocking falsetto. Tai Oney (the Voice of Apollo), a full and colorful male soprano, acquitted himself worse, however, with an excessively hysterical sound. Among the secondary characters, Andrew Dickinson (the Porter) stood out; since last season, he has been permanently associated with DOB, where he has shone in, among other roles, the Novice in the recent production of Billy Budd directed by David Alden. The choir deserves separate praise – for its great vocal production, musicality in phrasing and well-blended sound.

Paul Nilon (at the center). Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

In 2009, when Runnicles took over as artistic director of the Deutsche Oper and announced that he would introduce Britten’s works to the Berlin house’s permanent repertoire, voices of opposition reverberated: ‘Britten? That won’t be accepted here.’ Fortunately, he did not listen. In just under four years in Berlin, he has put on Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia and Death in Venice. In December 2016, his contract was extended to 2022. We shall see how things go in the future, though after my experiences with Vick’s staging, I would prefer just to listen.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Unlearned in the Scriptures

Before the audience gathered in the hall of the Teatro Real, and the orchestra began to tune, a strange figure appeared at the right edge of the proscenium. A disheveled man sitting with his knees apart, hunched over an angular object with which he didn’t really know what to do. He stood it upright, turned it round and round, then laid it flat again; for the most part, however, he gripped it in both hands and scraped it on the floorboards, as if trying to scrub away some stain from them. When the first notes of the prologue to Billy Budd sounded and Captain Vere appeared onstage – dressed in a modern Royal Navy uniform, bursting with youthful energy, with a face unmarked by traces of suffering – I understood that the poor, shabby wretch from the proscenium was his alter ego. And I rightly expected that the director would develop and close out this concept in the epilogue.

It is difficult to avoid the temptation to compare the two most recent stagings of Britten’s masterpiece – the October one from Leeds in the rendition of Orpha Phelan, and the Madrid one authored by Deborah Warner. Phelan has great experience in the opera theater; Warner is better known for radical productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht and Beckett, which does not change the fact that each of the over a dozen operas she has directed has met with a lively response from critics. More importantly, this is now Warner’s third encounter with Britten’s œuvre – before, she worked on The Turn of the Screw (Barbican Theatre, 1997) and Death in Venice (ENO, 2013). The one that evoked the most admiration was the latter – with its faithfulness to the libretto and the score, its clarity of stage gesture, its suggestive illusion of time travel, of imagination and space. As a rule, the British director plumbs the depths of a work and delves into it mercilessly, laying bare the innermost emotions, drives and aims of her protagonists. However, none of the aforementioned operas is so complex and multifaceted a work as Billy Budd, as I wrote earlier on the occasion of its première at Opera North.

Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd). Photo: Javier del Real.

Some have criticized Phelan’s concept as being too static. With all certainty, there is no way to say this about Warner’s production. In a clean, masterfully-lit space (with stage design by Michael Levine) crisscrossed by a network of elements intersecting at right angles – cables, ladders, masts, mobile platforms – groups of deckhands milled about, sails were spread, the rigging knocked about, the deck rocked. The director mixed no less than 30 actors in among the choristers, creating the impression of a densely-packed crowd teeming at every level. In this staging, the Sisyphean labor of the sailors – that is, the scrubbing of the deck, normally only ‘played’ during the chorus ‘O heave away, heave’ from Act I – runs in the background throughout the whole narrative, organizes and brackets it with an activity as essential as it is vain. The precision with which Warner builds the individual episodes, not infrequently raising them to the level of a symbol, evokes admiration mixed with enchantment. I especially remember the scene in which the Friend comforts the cruelly-beaten Novice. Previous concepts notwithstanding, Warner played it on an empty stage: the blood-soaked, half-paralyzed Novice (the vocally and theatrically phenomenal Sam Furness, the memorable Števa from the Glasgow Jenůfa and the wonderfully capricious Joaquino from the Paris concert performance of Fidelio) crawls in from the left wings of the stage; and from the right, his Friend (Borja Quiza) slowly approaches him. They meet more or less in the middle of the platform. From that moment onward, each move of the Novice, marked by inhuman pain, causes the Friend to take a step backward. Instead of vain words of comfort for the boy, who behaves like a broken animal, we received a premonition of the terrible betrayal that the Novice would commit at Claggart’s behest – out of panic-stricken fear of yet more suffering and shame. A similar masterpiece of theatrical work became evident in the scene where Billy is woken up by the Novice – torn alternately by a feeling of guilt and his unwanted mission.

In this staging, Warner created two memorable characters – all the more convincing that they were supported by the musical artistry of ideally-cast performers. Claggart in the rendition of Brindley Sherratt turned out to be the most real fallen angel possible, a tragic being chased out of earthly paradise for his free will, incomprehension of God’s plan, ungainly craving for love. Sherratt has at his disposal a bass voice with a gorgeous tone, but at the same time oddly broken and unstable, which bothered me a bit in his recent interpretation of Prince Gremin in Onegin at the Garsington Opera, but completely enchanted me in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro at the Scottish Opera, where the singer portrayed the role of the forlorn King Alfonso. Jacques Imbrailo, one of the few superb boy sopranos who have managed to make a bravura career after their voice change, revealed an equally tragic picture of the title character onstage. In ‘Billy Budd, king of the birds!’ from Act I, his dark, dense baritone, while it did not sound as convincing as the radiant, joyful voice of Roderick Williams from the Leeds production, it nonetheless gained in power of expression with each successive scene, to finally break our hearts in the ballad ‘Billy in the Darbies’, in which Imbrailo in the end just broke down and brought the matter to its end in the voice of a hurt child – while remaining scarily secure in intonation and flawless in technique.

Jacques Imbrailo and Sam Furness (Novice). Photo: Javier del Real.

And now it is time to move on to my reservations addressed to the third of the drama’s main protagonists. Deborah Warner, despite her declarations that she intended to place Captain Vere, as it were, between Evil and Good incarnate, actually pushed him into the role of a jaded, pretentious aesthete, a person insufficiently mature for any kind of relationship, devoid of authority, unlearned both in the Scriptures and in the Articles of War, as well as the language of ordinary human desires and erotic preferences. It was grating in purely theatrical terms – when Vere received Redburn and Flint in his cabin in a state of undress, just after getting out of the tub, in his bathrobe; and then yet again, when Billy, summoned to give explanations, unceremoniously sat down on a chair in front of the Captain. I don’t think that Warner was unaware of these codes: I suppose that she infringed upon them purposefully, attempting to focus her vision around the homoerotic triangle of the three main protagonists. What was worse was that the part of Vere was cast with the otherwise superb Toby Spence, who carried his part with a clear, clean voice, quite repulsive in its perfection, devoid of any sign of existential conflict.

And here, finally, I was assailed by doubts of a general nature. Can Billy Budd – like Wajnberg’s The Passenger – be presented in an indeterminate space divorced from historical context? Is this opera, though it bears a universal message, able to speak in a full voice, since the director has pushed the rebellions in the Spithead and Nore anchorages into the background, without helping us to get to the bottom of the drama? I have my doubts, especially when I hear from the stage that the tragic events took place in 1797, a year memorable to any British person well-acquainted with the history of the Empire. My doubts are all the greater that Warner – oddly in spite of Britten’s text – ignored the characteristic gap in the narrative between the announcement of the sentence and Billy’s ballad. The famous ‘Interview Chords’, 34 chords in the orchestra – perhaps the most intriguing clue in the ambiguous ‘matter’ between Britten and Melville – fell into an unexpectedly empty space. Despite Ivor Bolton’s otherwise masterful rendition, they sounded hasty, unreflective, as if the conductor had taken Warner’s suggestion: that there is no secret there, that Vere simply announced to Budd what awaited him, and revealed before the innocent deckhand the boundlessness of his powerlessness and of his egoism propped up by authority.

Toby Spence (Captain Vere). Photo: Javier del Real.

But after all, Bolton had in general handled the narrative with an intuition worthy of the most sensitive interpreter of Britten’s masterpiece. Under his baton, the orchestra sounded softer than in Leeds, especially in the strings; in Billy’s ballad, the flute stumbled and ‘stuttered’ almost as convincingly as in the legendary recording of Hickox; the chorus – prepared by Andrés Máspero – cried out its opposition more boldly and in a fuller voice than at Opera North. However, it looks like the conductor finally gave in to Warner’s brilliant, though fractured concept.

In the epilogue, Captain Vere’s shabby double reappeared. This time, we figured out that the angular object was the Bible on which the witnesses to Claggart’s killing were sworn in. Was the mad Captain really aware of Billy’s final blessing before his death? Did his mistake result from incomprehension of the letter of the Holy Scriptures, or else from the eternal inability to distinguish good and evil, innocence and corruption, love and hate?

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

 

Slayers of Dragons and People

I have already proven not a few times – and that, not only on these pages – that I am perverse. When everyone else is heading north, I fly south. When they are enthusing about yet another première at some famous theater, under a conductor who has won a lion’s share of prestigious competition prizes, I get on a train or plane and travel to some hole-in-the-wall where that same opera is being led by a conductor known to a tiny coterie of admirers, in a production featuring young or unjustly ignored singers. I discover, I admire, I seek out new experiences, I let myself be carried away by new performance trends.

This time I have a feeling I have gone a bit too far. Encouraged by the musical success of Die Walküre in Karlsruhe, I decided to follow it up by dropping in to Dresden for a presentation of Siegfried with stage director Willy Decker, conducted by Christian Thielemann, and then set off for Athens for a performance of Lohengrin in the staging of Antony McDonald which, after its première at the Welsh National Opera, appeared twice at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera and then huddled away somewhere in a corner for over two years, waiting to be rediscovered. Dresden’s Semperoper is one of the best opera houses in Germany, a mecca for Wagner maniacs who are increasingly disappointed with the theatrical quality of the Bayreuth productions. Tickets for next year’s festival Ring in Dresden apparently sold out in less than 24 hours. The Greek National Opera – like the country as a whole – is struggling with the effects of the crisis that in recent days has also affected the theater’s management: a few months before its move to new headquarters at the Kéntro Politismoú Ídryma Stávros Niárchos, Minister of Culture Lydia Koniordou removed previous artistic director Myron Michailidis and named as his successor the composer Giorgos Koumentakis, previously director of the Opera’s small stage.

David and Goliath. I probably need not add that since the beginning, my sympathies have always been with the underdog. For years, I have had trouble appreciating the craftsmanship of Thielemann – an artist without doubt competent, but in my opinion derivative, drawing mindlessly upon the German conducting tradition of the mid-1950s. His interpretations have reminded me here of Furtwängler, there of Klemperer or Karajan; but they have been devoid of individuality – and, even more importantly, authentic experience, that peculiar tension that puts listeners in a trance and makes them indifferent to the ‘inhuman’ dimensions of Wagner’s scores. About Michailidis’ abilities, I knew nothing aside from the fact that the Crete-born conductor had studied at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, prepared Tristan und Isolde two years ago in Athens, and is apparently about to mount a production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety.

My Dresden prejudices lightened up already in the first few measures of the prelude to Act I. The local Staatskapelle – in comparison with the ensemble of the theater on the Green Hill – plays with a brighter and softer sound, especially in the strings; aside from that, on account of the peculiar layout of the interior and the orchestra pit, the sound is more exposed and ‘defenseless’. Thielemann – compared with previous takes on Siegfried from Bayreuth – conducted the orchestra at slightly more blistering tempi. He chiseled the texture down to the last detail, assembling it from masterfully shaped and polished slivers fitted into their places as if in an ancient mosaic. Today, Thielemann’s Wagner is clean and clear, following all the rules of the art of building a convincing musical narrative. It contains sublimity and pathos; there are intense, but restrained emotions; there is no place for breaking discipline. To put it briefly, it is not my Wagner – the one that can overflow like an ocean under the baton of Böhm or Negus. A matter of taste. I am well aware that the Dresden ensemble’s wonderful, well thought-out interpretations represent the very highest standard of Wagner performance. So if I complain that in the finale of Act III, I missed that flaw on the surface of the jewel, that characteristic trait that would underline the momentousness of Brunnhilde and Siegfried’s discovery of that most powerful and primitive emotion – fear – then it is only because in the Ring, I am looking for somewhat different meanings from the overwhelming majority of ‘Wagnerites’.

Dresden Siegfried. Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and Stephen Gould (title role). Photo: Klaus Gigga.

What I missed in Thielemann’s interpretation, I was repaid with interest in the singing of nearly all of the soloists, chief among them the dependable Stephen Gould in the title role, who got better and better with each act. I find his Tristan wearisome; but his Siegfried – golden in tone, with superb intonation, evolving wonderfully from spoiled brat to passionate lover tormented by doubts – completely enchanted me. Another hero of the show turned out to be Gerhard Siegel (Mime), a phenomenal actor, vocally brilliant, confirming me in my certainty that this is a role not for a character singer, but rather for a distinguished tenor who has managed to pass through all the degrees of Wagnerian initiation. Nina Stemme is Brunnhilde incarnate, lived in every inch, though her beautiful dramatic soprano has now lost a bit of its previous brilliance and has taken on a too-wide vibrato. To this day, I have the heavenly song of the Waldvogel in my ears – the youthful Finnish artist Tuuli Takala breathed the entire freshness and precision of her Mozart coloratura into this role. Christa Mayer was in a class by herself in the role of Erda: a mezzo-soprano with contralto tessitura, ideally balanced in its registers, beautifully resonant at the bottom of the scale. The only one who disappointed me was Markus Marquardt (The Wanderer): yet another ruler of Valhalla lacking in divine authority and – compared with Renatus Mészár, heard recently in Karlsruhe – in the musicality essential to this role.

The now-legendary staging of Willy Decker (whose Dresden Ring premièred in 2001) has not aged even one iota, and proves the to some extent wasted potential of the German Regieoper. Despite a few almost-overblown ideas – chief among them the giant teddy bear found in the forest by Siegfried – it is coherent, conceptually polished, economical and refined in visual terms (stage design by Wolfgang Gussmann) and, most importantly, faithful to the text. Decker deftly maneuvers among irony, pathos and mystery. He builds suggestive signs and images, set in context, that other stage directors have been mindlessly aping for the past 15 years or so. He makes wise allusions to tradition, for instance in Siegfried’s breathtaking fight scene with a dragon comprised of black plywood boards painted with phosphorescent paint, animated by invisible supernumeraries. A similar illusion of three-dimensional reality, but featuring live mimes, was created by Étienne Decroux, one of the pioneers of physical theater, in his shows.

Three days after the Dresden Siegfried, I landed in Athens, rather hoping for a sentimental return to the world of Antony McDonald’s riotous imagination, than expecting great musical impressions – aside from Peter Wedd, the Lohengrin to this day inseparably connected with the Welsh National Opera/Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera coproduction. The Greek National Opera ensemble took the bull by the horns with indubitable enthusiasm, considerably greater than that of the Warsaw theater’s musicians. The effects of their work are in certain respects impressive, though one could sense that Michailidis is only taking his first steps in the Wagnerian field. While the orchestral details were carefully polished, one could not see the forest beyond all those trees. The choir made every possible effort, but nevertheless was lost in the dense textures, which had its effect on both the intonation and the rhetoric of the message. To make the singers’ task easier, the conductor pressed forth like a bat out of hell – at the expense of the narrative’s coherence. I was at a performance featuring the second cast, in which Telramund (Valentin Vasiliu) was disappointing in every way; the beautiful, musical bass voice of Petros Magoulas (Heinrich der Vogler) had to outshout the orchestra in Act III; and the experienced Romanian soprano Iulia Isaev (Elsa), whose phrasing is superb, was often under pitch in Act I and basically never did entirely get into her role. Julia Souglakou, who was rewarded with a hurricane of applause, in my opinion created a caricature of Ortrud. While the singer does have a proper soprano falcon, ideal for this part, she makes dubious use of it: stentorian, piercing high notes; low notes growled out from her very bowels; the quite peculiar approach to intonation issues all combined to create a flat, indeed operetta-like image of the nasty witch. And yet McDonald had made every effort for none of the protagonists of this Lohengrin to turn out unambiguously as either a devil or an angel.

Athens Lohengrin. Julia Souglakou (Ortrud), Peter Wedd (title role), Iulia Isaev (Elsa) and Petros Magoulas (Heinrich der Vogler). Photo: Vassilis Makris.

And that is how he handled the title character of this cruel fairytale from the beginning – instead of an indomitable knight in shining armor, trying to see in him a delicate being from another dimension, longing for ordinary love, losing everything in conflict with a heartless human intrigue to which he is, even so, not able to get to the bottom. Three years ago, Wedd was an ideal vehicle for such a concept. Since then, his voice has changed diametrically. The character who strode onstage was a proud warrior, the hope of Brabant, totally aware of his role as the savior of Elsa. He left the stage as an enraged demigod – with the feeling of a mission unaccomplished. The intimate farewell episode with the swan was lacking in tenderness; the duet in Act III breathed an air of Northern cold. Wedd found himself fully only in the Gralserzählung, one of the most beautiful – if not the most beautiful – that I have heard in my life. The calm, dignified ‘In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten’, delivered in a voice of not even baritone, but indeed bass timbre; the mistily enchanted ‘Alljährlich naht vom Himmel eine Taube’; the enraged ‘Sein Ritter ich’, in which new wine almost burst the old wineskins – these are only some of the elements of this masterfully-shaped narrative, which would be a triumphant crown for not a few performances of Lohengrin on the world’s stages. In McDonald’s poetic staging, marked by metaphysical sorrow, it sounded a bit out of place. Wedd has now outgrown it. And in the end, that is very good news, because it means that he is ready for every other possible staging.

Travel educates, and sometimes teaches us a lesson. Small is not always beautiful. Big does not necessarily mean oppressively weighty. As long as music is surprising, it is worth listening to. And drawing conclusions.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Elusive Structure of the Crystal

There is so much emotion in music we are incapable of restraining.

***

[W]hile the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. If this be true, praise the moist southern winds for the birth of Kaija Saariaho, whose music – whether through weakness of active force, or through indisposition of musicological material – has been consistently eluding all analysis and seducing listeners around the world for almost thirty years.

In 2001, Nick Kimberley, critic and columnist for the influential London Independent, wrote a short preview of a monographic Saariaho concert series with the characteristic title “The Music of Dreams (and Sometimes Nightmares)”. This text is remembered chiefly for one clever formulation about “the most important Finnish export product since Nokia”. Less attention has been paid to the words of the composer herself, though she confessed to Kimberley that she recalls the majority of her dreams: “Sometimes I dream music and I can recall it when I awake. Other times I just remember its mood and color. This doesn’t mean that I write music in an unreal dream-world poetic language. Rather, I treat dreams as a gateway to concealed essences – death and love, for example – basic things of which we have no idea.”

Photo: Maarit Kytoharju.

Kaija Saariaho was born in Helsinki, on 14 October 1952. She displayed creative abilities even as a child, learning how to play several instruments, attending drawing and painting classes. Alongside her musical education, she took up studies at the capital’s Academy of Fine Arts, but soon quit to devote herself entirely to the art of composition. Her first mentor was Paavo Heininen, a Finnish dodecaphonist and post-serialist a generation older than she. In 1977, she co-founded the “Korvat auki!” [“Open Your Ears!”] artistic association with other Sibelius Academy students, including Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Its aim was to popularize contemporary music in Finland. While her friends soon set off into the mainstream of Finnish New Wave music, Saariaho continued exploring and, after leaving the country in 1981, took up further compositional studies, attending courses in Darmstadt and at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, where she honed her skills under the watchful eyes of Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber.

Only a year had passed before the composer was on her way to Paris, where she settled permanently, having finally found ideal conditions for work and creative development. At the famous IRCAM, she could devote herself entirely to researching new instrumental techniques, to computer analysis and sound synthesis, engaging in the lively discourse between Modernism and Spectralism. For all her respect for Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy’s New Complexity, Saariaho never concealed her adoration of the work of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, two icons of spectral music, co-founders of the famous Ensemble l’Itinéraire. The roots of her fascination reach deeper, however: all the way back to the work of Henri Dutilleux – imbued, on the one hand, with the spirit of Neoimpressionism; and on the other, inspired by Bartók, Stravinsky and jazz, and yet astonishingly distinct, pure and precise.

Since the end of the 1990s, Saariaho has more and more frequently been returning to purely acoustic sounds, flirting with melody, and creating atmospheric, quasi-tonal spaces – and yet, in spite of her apparent Linearism, she writes music marked first of all with color, full of the most diverse associations, including those from beyond the realm of sound. Her compositions are increasingly accessible to listeners, and increasingly hermetic to interpreters of music.

Dawn Upshaw as Clémence in the Peter Sellars’ production of L’Amour de loin, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2001. Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert.

To give a work a credible analysis, one must first establish its point of departure, establish its conclusion, distinguish its various phrases, contrasts and culminations. But it is precisely these that are most difficult to isolate in the works of Saariaho, who avoids clear gestures and sharp contours, focusing on what goes on inside, between sounds, on the level of timbre and sonorities. In daydreaming, she opens the gate to other worlds, trying to reveal new and intangible dimensions that elude hard analytic rules. It is difficult to evaluate and categorize the œuvre of a composer who does not for a moment think of “evolving”: in this œuvre, there are neither “juvenile” nor “mature” compositions. Nymphéa, written in 1987 for string quartet and electronics, sounds just as fresh and compelling as Terra Memoria from 2006 – for the same instruments, just minus the electronics. In the former work, Saariaho seeks new colors, weaves sound masses into structures delicate as silk, creates the musical image of a water lily in the most diverse dimensions – from monochromatic wave forms to colorful planes. In the latter work, she stresses the linearity of the composition, which is dedicated to those who have passed away. Some elements – like the memories that haunt our dreams – remain unchanged. The rest of the sound material undergoes constant modification, colliding, vanishing, only to resurface seconds later, just like the illusory memory of the dead, who, after their demise, start to live new and unpredictable lives in the hearts of their loved ones. There is an extreme variety of techniques, a similar impression of imagery, an unbridled sonic vision and an expansive, one is tempted to say, “feminine” emotionality.

Saariaho sometimes bristles at critics’ and theorists’ constant drawing of attention to the coloristic aspects of her music. She accuses them of superficial analysis, reminding them that color and sound are the most obvious, the most “audible” aspects of a composition – beneath which, however, is hidden a complex tangle of other meanings, such as the tension that builds between sound and background noise. Shifts in intensity of sound, therefore, serve less to modify the coloristic values of a work than to build a peculiar form – one based on significantly subtler and more elusive principles than traditional resolutions of harmonic dissonances into consonances. It is no wonder that Saariaho takes such pleasure in writing for the human voice, as well as for the flute and the ’cello – instruments whose wealth of sound permits the erecting of structures that are mighty and powerful, but at the same time subtle and mysterious, like the network of ionic bonds in a crystal.

Eric Owens (Jaufre Rudel) and Tamara Mumford (Pilgrim). Robert Lepage’s production of L’Amour de loin at the Met Opera, 2016. Photo: Ken Howard.

In Laconisme de l’aile of 1982, a work for reciting flutist, the tension between the transparent sound of the instrument and the raw sound of the human voice evokes the suggestive feeling of a bird in flight. In Près for ’cello and electronics, written ten years later at the IRCAM studios, the “pure” sounds of the ’cello create an increasingly dense mixture with sounds synthesized on a computer, bringing to mind the swoosh of the surf, the tranquil energy of rising and falling tides, the eternal rhythm of drought, rising water levels and floods. The sounds used by Saariaho give her work the traits of peculiar Neoimpressionism: in lieu of the uniform, garish colors of individual instrumental sections, the composer introduces broken shades of musical whites, grays and browns, voices “dirtied” with electronics, sounds muffled by background noises, tones covered with a glaze of silence.

In her latest compositions, Saariaho tries to make us understand that all divisions into vocal, instrumental and electronic planes miss the mark. The medium retires to the background, what become most important is the message, rendered so suggestively that the listener ceases to pay attention to the source of the sound and its physical attributes, and instead begins to explore its taste, color and smell. The composer leads us into unknown worlds, full of mysteries and violent, often ambiguous emotions. The vibrating polyphony of two hearts beating in a different rhythm in Je sens un deuxième cœur from 2003 is a reflection of the joyous expectations of a pregnant woman who recognizes the pulse of a growing fetus growing inside her body. The spastic, stifled “I am, I am, I am” in From the Grammar of Dreams is, in turn, the despairing conclusion of would-be and future suicide Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar, who listens to the rhythm of her own heart and in terror repeats “I am”, though she would so much prefer not “to be”. The same topos of the beating heart, completely different sentiments: fear and hope, tenderness and revulsion.

The world premiere of Only the Sound Remains, directed by Peter Sellars. Philippe Jaroussky (Tennin/Angel), Davone Tines (Fisherman), and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance). De Nationale Opera Amsterdam, 2016. Photo: Ruth Walz.

The eternal motifs of death, love, solitude, intimacy and the passage of time have found their fullest expression in Saariaho’s operatic œuvre, beginning with the famous L’Amour de loin from 2000 – for some, the tale of a troubadour, a princess and a pilgrim; for others, a treatise on happiness, imagination and melancholy. In this vast ocean of orchestral colors and orientalized vocal melismas, one hears the influence of Debussy – the remote echoes of his Pelléas et Mélisande; and yet, the devices the composer uses to build her Neoimpressionism hail from the arsenal of the latest achievements in sound technologies – from the mighty power of the Macintosh computer to the eight-octave MIDI keyboard, and concluding with sophisticated software. In her subsequent theatrical efforts (Adriana Mater from 2005 and Émilie from 2008), Saariaho abandoned electronics in favor of a more restless vocal/instrumental texture. In both operas, she resolved to plumb the depths of female longings, fears and frustrations. Adriana Mater is the story of a raped woman who brings up her child, torn between maternal love and hatred toward her assailant – in the music, the emotions grow little by little, emerging from a web of ’cello glissandi, a choral lament devoid of words, and percussion interventions that swell like an ulcer. The epistolary Émilie is a monodrama of the Marquise du Châtelet, a beautiful and brilliant woman, one of the creators of the principle of conservation of energy and author of the formula for kinetic energy. At the same time, she was a lover of many wealthy, influential and outstanding men of her era. Economy of means and transparency of texture all the more clearly reflect the drama of a lonely woman isolated from the world of men, who completed her translation of Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica a few days before giving birth and then died in labor. The motif of pregnancy and fear of the “alien” in one’s own body continually recurs in the work of Saariaho, who is herself the mother of two children.

This split, so peculiar to men, appears throughout the life and work of this Finnish composer, who once impressed Krzysztof Kwiatkowski as a pessimist who does not lose hope. Saariaho never believed in the success of the “Korvat auki!” association and continues to be surprised by the fruits of its activities. Saariaho never supposed that someone would compare her with Nokia’s product line. Saariaho is incapable of shutting her eyes and ears to the atrocities of this world, and is continually afraid that the music she has created will soon lose its raison d’être. I suspect that she must sometimes feel like the protagonist of her fellow countrywoman Tove Jansson’s Moominland Winter, who suddenly awoke from hibernation and noticed that “the valley was not green, only white. Everything that had once moved was motionless. All living sounds had fallen silent. Everything that was angular had become round.”

If Saariaho should awake one day in such a world, I hope she will act like Moomin, who “walked onward, leaving the first tracks on the bridge, and further, on the mountain slope. These were very small tracks that led straight between the trees, to the south.” In the right direction – to where the moist wind blows.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Promised Opera

Down all the roads, gleaming with the puddles of spring waters, leading from all the furthest corners of the world to that promised land, down all the footpaths, meandering across the greening fields and blossoming orchards, across forests filled with the scents of young birchtrees and of spring, through obscure villages and impenetrable marshes – crowds of people flocked, hundreds of carts creaked, thousands of train carriages flew like lightnings, thousands of sighs rose and thousands of flaming gazes fell into the darkness, seeking with craving and fever the contours of that promised land.’

That is one of the last paragraphs of Władysław Reymont’s famous novel, published as installments by the Warsaw daily ’Kurier Codzienny’ and later in book form by Gebethner and Wolff’s Publishing House in 1899. The fortunes of Polish, Jewish, German and Russian factory-owners kept growing, while the several hundred thousand city suffered: ignored by the Tsarist authorities, tragically short of investment funding, socially undeveloped, deprived of modern infrastructure. There was a lack of a sewage system. There was a lack of waterworks. There was no lack of paupers and illiterates. ‚For the sake of that polypus, villages were being deserted, forests died, the soil was losing its riches, rivers dried up, people were being born, while it sucked everything in (…) and in return gave useless millions to a handful, and hunger and strife to the masses.’

The German and Jewish elites met their cultural needs elsewhere: either in nearby Warsaw or distant Berlin. In November 1918, when Łódź became part of the reborn Polish state as the second largest city in the country, Poles constituted just a little over a half of its population. Once again, it lacked support from outside: the mission of the metropoly’s development was left solely in the hands of the local authorities. Teachers began to come to ‚the city of illiterates’ – as Reymont’s promised land was sometimes called – mainly from the former Austrian Partition. Together with the representatives of free professions, they made up the nucleus of the Łódź intelligentsia. They began their mission at grass-root level: by introducing compulsory school education and organising a modern school network. In 1922, the first public children’s library was founded. In September 1927, the premiere of the film titled Łódź – the City of Labour, directed by Edward Puchalski, a pioneer of Polish cinematography, took place at the ‚Luna’ cinema in former Przejazdowa Street. Three years later, in the City Hall in Plac Wolności (Freedom Square), the exposition at the City History and Art Museum was opened, one of the first museums of modern art in Europe, which in 1929 began to collect the works of the so-called grupa a.r., a leftist avantgarde group of artists gathered around Władysław Strzemiński, his wife Katarzyna Kobro and Henryk Stażewski. The Radio Broadcasting Station (Radiowa Stacja Przekaźnikowa) began transmitting its programme in middle waves in February 1930.

Karl Wilhelm Scheibler’s factory complex in Łódź, late 19th century litograph.

Yet artistic studies and experiences had to be sought in other centres. The City Theatre (Teatr Miejski), taken over from the former authorities, the Popular Theatre (Teatr Popularny) founded in 1923 and the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski), opened thirteen years later but lacking its own premises, all struggled with constant financial stringencies which were also translated into low artistic quality of productions. Despite pompous plans to open a Polytechnic as well as commercial, textile and medical schools of higher education, in pre-war Łódź there was only a private College of Social and Economic Studies, a Teacher Training College and a local department of the Free Polish University, the only school of higher education whose graduates could seek to obtain a Master’s degree, but not in all fields of study.

It was impossible to live without music, though: even in the intestines of an industrial monster, which ‚ground and chewed people and things in its mighty jaws’. Moniuszko’s Flis and Verbum Nobile had been put up in Łódź already in the days of the Tsar, at the initiative of the ‚Lutnia’ Singing Society. More or less at that time, the Construction of the Polish Theatre Joint-Stock Company was founded, which sold shares for the price of 25 rubles. The theatre failed to be built, but in 1915, the Łódź Symphony Orchestra came into being, organised by Tadeusz Mazurkiewicz. The first concert took place in the wooden Grand Theatre in Konstantynowska Street, and the original cast included Paweł Klecki and Aleksander Tansman. Three years later, in cooperation with the local Chopin Society, the Orchestra musicians organised an Opera Section. Most of the shows they put up were conducted by Teodor Ryder, a graduate of the Darmstadt conservatory, conductor at the Lyon Opera and at the Warsaw Philharmonic. In his days, the citizens of Łódź had the opportunity, among others, to watch and listen to Moniuszko’s Halka and Verdi’s Il trovatore. Critics reacted to those performances with mixed feelings, despite the participation of such Warsaw stars as Ignacy Dygas and Stanisław Gruszczyński. The level of the makeshift ventures, in which a medley of musicians took part to support the Łódź Orchestra, was not exactly breathtaking, yet they were hugely popular with the audiences.

The old Grand Theatre. Postcard from the beginning of 20th century.

Up to a moment. The Grand Theatre, built in 1901 to the design of the Łódź architect Adolf Zeligson, with its wonderful neo-Renaissance façade and 1200 seats in the audience, was completely burnt down on 20th October 1920. Six years later, Aleksy Rżewski – the first President of the city in the inter-war period – set up the Łódź Opera Society. Another inkling of hope for a regular stage dawned. The aforementioned Teodor Ryder became the artistic director and inaugurated the society’s activity with a show of Halka at the City Theatre (7th March 1926), performed by local ensembles and soloists from the Vilnius opera, dismantled a year earlier, and conducted by Daniel Kleidt. The initiative soon withered away, though Łódź citizens would still for a long time recall the later performance of Madama Butterfly starring Teiko Kiwa, presumable Japanese, whose name was really Laetitia Klingen and who was the daughter of a Dutch chemist and his half-blood Japanese wife. The singer was immensely popular in the role of Cio-Cio-san, whom she played on the stage over seven hundred times.

Attempts to instal the opera on the stage of the just renovated City Theatre in Cegielniana Street, undertaken by Ryder in the 1930’s, ended in a fiasco. The proudly announced premieres of The Haunted Manor, Tosca and La Traviata never took place. Then the war broke out. The city had to wait until 1954 for its first proper Opera House. The institution, officially founded on the 1st of July by the act of the local National Council, was first and foremost a fruit of passion and involvement of Władysław Raczkowski, pianist, organist, choir master and conductor, who organised the first rehearsal of the ensemble in his own flat. Sabina Nowicka, former deputy director at the Polish Army Theatre (Teatr Wojska Polskiego) in the reign of Leon Schiller, and then of the newly-founded Stefan Jaracz Theatre (Teatr im. Stefana Jaracza), became the managing director of the Opera. Mieczysław Drobner, musicologist, composer and pedagogue, lecturer at the Higher State School of Music in Łódź, became the Opera’s musical director. The activities were inaugurated on the 18th of October 1954 with The Haunted Manor conducted by Raczkowski and directed by Jerzy Merunowicz, the latter a member of the original troupe at the New Theatre (Teatr Nowy) – the stage that had taken turns with the Stefan Jaracz Theatre to host the Opera’s productions. There were young singers in the newly created ensemble who with the passage of successive seasons contributed to the excellent renown of the Łódź Opera – such as Zofia Rudnicka, one of the most beautiful and technically perfect sopranos on the post-war Polish stages, and Weronika Kuźmińska, memorable Hanna in The Haunted Manor mentioned above, equally wonderful Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in 1956, and Mařenka in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride staged two years later.

Lidia Skowron (Halka) and Jerzy Jadczak (Janusz). The opening night of Halka at the Łódź Grand Theatre, 1967.

In 1966, the Opera – renamed The Grand Theater in Łódź – began moving to its new premises in Plac Dąbrowskiego (Dąbrowski Square). The construction of the building, designed by Józef and Witold Korski and Roman Szymborski as a dramatic theatre, lasted with intervals for eighteen years. The National Theatre, for that was originally to be its status, was destined to become an opera in 1954, when the Act of National Council, founding the Łódź Opera was passed. The project evolved, but its authors and those who were implementing it from the very beginning intended to organise the vast area of the square in line with the principles of socialist realism, situating in its northern frontage one of the biggest and most representative objects of the new architecture in the country. The form of the building was to be heavy and at the same time harmonious: huge pillars run along two storeys of the edifice, set at equal intervals, bringing to mind associations with symmetry in the ancient meaning of the term, synonymous with the then conceptions of beauty and moderation. The theater’s interior, with its audience originally designed for almost 1300 seats, was a prominent example of a dialogue – and sometimes of an architectural argument – with the traditional model of an opera hall, identified by the distinctive horseshoe-shaped arrangement of galleries and balconies piling up around. The audience in a way ‚grew into’ the stage, penetrated inside the proscenium arch; the sumptuous composition of the plafond, made up of characteristic, suspended ‚kites’, was to replace the interplay of light from a monstrous crystal chandelier, customarily fixed in the centre of the ceiling. Łódź saw its theatre as a huge one – second in size after the Grand Theatre in Warsaw and one of the biggest in Europe.

The managing director Stanisław Piotrowski, and his artistic counterpart Zygmunt Latoszewski – musicologist and an experienced opera conductor, since 1965 professor at the Warsaw Higher State School of Music – had planned four premieres for the opening, staged day after day. Thus, the first was Halka, on the 19th of January 1967, the twenty second anniversary of the liberation of the city. On the following day, Borodin’s Prince Igor was presented, then The Haunted Manor and, finally, Carmen by Bizet. Soon special trains were set up to run between Warsaw and Łódź, bringing opera lovers unsatiated by the impressions they had carried out from the capital’s Teatr Wielki – the opera house heaved up from the ruins, expanded and put into operation almost a year and a half earlier.

Łódź was awakening once again, just as in Reymont’s novel. The opera promise had finally been fulfilled.

Translated by: Katarzyna Kretkowska