No War Today

Thus reads the diary of the Queen’s Westminster 16th regiment for 25 December 1914. On the Western front, a positional war was in progress – the parties to the conflict were facing each other in a continuous line of trenches, shelters and barbed wire entanglements. The night before – near Ypres, where the first major battle of the Great War had played out a month earlier – a little group of privates and non-commissioned officers had made a spontaneous attempt at fraternization. The initiative had come from the Germans, who had decorated their trenches with lights, and then begun to shout out holiday wishes to the Welshmen dug in on the other side. Shortly thereafter, they began singing carols together. Then the soldiers moved on to the sadder part of Christmas Eve – they buried their fallen in a common grave on neutral ground, finishing the ceremony with a performance of Psalm 23 accompanied by a bagpiper from the Gordon Highlanders 6th battalion. The officers proclaimed a truce until dawn of the second day of the holidays, commanding their subordinates to remain in their trenches. The soldiers did not obey – for the whole next day, they exchanged provisions, alcohol and little presents in the strip between the fortified lines. Reportedly, they even played a soccer match. After the truce was over, they didn’t even think of returning to battle. At some points on the front, they managed to extend the cease-fire up to 3 January. The idyll in the trenches was cut short by snipers shooting at anyone who tried to get through to the enemy side. From that moment on, the commanders moved their divisions from place to place more often, in order to prevent further incidents of fraternization with the enemy.

This truce really did happen, and has been commemorated in dozens of plays, songs, novels and films. Kenneth Branagh wove it into the action of the cinema version of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which was transported into oneiric scenery from the Great War. In 2005, it served as the basis for the war film Joyeux Noël directed by Christian Carion. A few years later, Mark Campbell refashioned the film script into the libretto for the opera Silent Night, commissioned by the Minnesota Opera in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. The music was composed by Kevin Puts, a just under 40-year-old graduate of the Eastman School of Music and Yale University. The world première in November 2011 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota was received with thunderous applause. A year later, Puts’ debut opera received a Pulitzer Prize. In 2014, it saw a staging in Wexford. Three weeks ago, as part of musical celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the armistice in Compiègne, it came to Opera North, presented in a semi-staged version in the auditorium at Leeds Town Hall, a building which – in the opinion of Zygmunt Bauman – imitated simultaneously ‘pharaohs’ palaces, Greek temples and princes’ courts’.

Geoffrey Dolton (Ponchel) and Quirijn de Lang (Lieutenant Audebert). Photo: Tristram Kenton

Yes, Puts’ music is rather a brilliant pastiche than the product of the composer’s original creative imagination. It is true that Campbell’s libretto rehashes an array of cultural and literary stereotypes. But nevertheless, the one combined with the other is electrifying – it touches the most sensitive strings of the viewer’s heart, reflexively bringing before the eyes a picture of the war that destroyed the bodies and souls of millions of people, trivialized violence and brought to life the demons of totalitarianism. Puts masterfully builds up and then stratifies the narrative. The pseudo-Mozartean duet in the prologue, when the decision to invade Belgium and France interrupts a show at one of Berlin’s opera houses, drowns in a massive orchestral sound that brings to mind associations with the scores of Stravinsky and Varèse. In the extraordinary aria of French lieutenant Audebert – who cannot concentrate on counting up the losses in his division, broken as he is by longing for his wife and their baby born in his absence – one hears ominous echoes of Pelléas et Mélisande. The sonic atmosphere in the German trenches is dominated by references to the idiom of Richard Strauss; and in the British ranks, to the œuvre of Britten. What emerges from an apparent chaos of wartime lullabies, sung simultaneously in three languages, is a masterful, charmingly peaceful polyphony.

If this work were staged without conviction, it would border on kitsch. However, the soloists and ensembles of Opera North treated it in a manner consistent with its creators’ intentions: as an homage to a Europe that no longer exists and has passed into oblivion, taking with it polished forms, conventions and styles. Silent Night talks about this Europe in a language that would easily have reached the hearts of the men going into the trenches like cattle to the slaughter, and the women left at home quaking at the sound of each knock on the door. Stage director Tim Albery got this and resisted the temptation to ‘literalize’ the battlefield scenes, focusing instead on very precise definition of the characters and collective protagonists. The soldiers gathered on the auditorium stage are separated by a distance symbolic rather than physical – highlighted by the differences in uniforms and accessories (superb costumes and very economical stage design by Hannah Clark), the language barrier, the peculiarities of body language. The space dividing up the individual groups of choristers and orchestra musicians brings to mind associations with a dense network of ditches and trenches. There is neither blood nor spilled guts, but even so, one can see who is dead (the wonderful scene in which a few soldiers lie down onstage as if to sleep; a moment later, their comrades in arms come to bury them). The rest is filled out by suggestive lighting (Thomas C. Hase) and fragments from historical film chronicles projected onto the façade of the City Hall organ.

Stuart Laing as a German soldier with Richard Burkhard (Lieutenant Horstmayer). Photo: Tristram Kenton

Essentially all of the singers – except perhaps for Máire Flavin, whose soprano is not sufficiently focused and beautiful to be convincing in the role of great opera diva Anna Sørensen – managed to create memorable characters. Gifted with a clear, highly resonant tenor, Rupert Charlesworth phenomenally conveyed the transformation of Nikolaus Sprink from an idol of Berlin’s stages to a soldier broken by the cruelty of war. Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang, impressive in his subtle and cultured phrasing, turned out to be ideal in the role of the melancholic Audebert. Richard Burkhard and Adrian Clarke were perfect in the other two baritone roles: Lieutenant Horstmayer and Father Palmer. The audience’s heart, however, was stolen by Geoffrey Dolton in the role of Ponchel, Audebert’s orderly, who made the best coffee in the world, carried an alarm clock in his bosom so as not to forget about his family home, and finally fell victim to friendly fire while returning from a secret visit to his mother behind the German front line. The entire musical narrative was deftly taken in hand by Nicholas Kok, who united the Opera North orchestra and several choral ensembles under his baton.

Alex Banfield (Jonathan Dale), Christopher Nairne (William Dale), and Rupert Charlesworth (Nikolaus Sprink) with the Chorus of Opera North, Students of the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North Youth Chorus, and the Soldiers’ Chorus – Community Singers. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In one of the final scenes of Silent Night, Ponchel dies in Audebert’s arms and passes the message to him that his newborn son’s name is Henri. A moment later, the furious French general disciplines Audebert and, as punishment, sends him to another military operation post. Audebert is the general’s son. His father sends him to Verdun – a place even a lame dog has never heard of, where the lieutenant will have no opportunity to fraternize with the enemy. Thus ends this opera about a short reconciliation with tragic consequences. Thus ends hope that the melancholic lieutenant will ever return from the front and meet his child. Thus begins the bitter irony of the Great War that was meant to put an end to all wars.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The 1001st Night in Bilbao

A certain enterprising culture manager and former director of several leading opera houses in Poland went on a trip to Bilbao, after which he contended that there is no opera there. At least that is the conclusion to be drawn from his column of four years ago, in which he did not resist the temptation to make biting comments about a certain director who happened to succeed the author in one of his more important director’s posts.  The columnist marched off to the Teatro Arriaga, found some ‘dramas, comedies, musicals, operettas and zarzuelas’ in the repertoire, but as far as operas were concerned, spotted only two unfamiliar titles. The problem is that the gorgeous Neo-Baroque building on the banks of the Nervión River was never a real opera house to begin with. The heart of opera in Bilbao beats somewhere completely different. The columnist’s hated competitor has collaborated with the local ABAO-OLBE association and directed at least three productions in the capital of Vizkaya province, among them Szymanowski’s King Roger with Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role and Łukasz Borowicz on the conductor’s podium.The existence of all of the aforementioned parties cannot be denied; neither can that of Artur Ruciński, who sang the role of Marcello in La Bohème no more than a month ago and this was by no means his first performance in Bilbao.

It all began in 1953, when four opera enthusiasts – José Luis de la Rica, Guillermo Videgain, José Antonio Lipperheide and Juan Elúa – formulated the statute of the Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera and went out into the world to find performers for their first post-war season. The program included five titles (Tosca, Aida, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Favorite), under the baton of Giuseppe Podestá and with casts comprised mostly of soloists from La Scala Milan. The festivals took place annually until 1989. The shows were accompanied by recitals of true stars: Maria Callas herself performed on 17 September 1959 with the orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. In 1990, the association opened its first opera season, comprised of six productions – among others, Stefania Toczyska and Alfredo Kraus shone as Léonor and Fernand, respectively, in a revival of La Favorite. Until 1999, the Bilbao Opera was headquartered at the Coliseo Albia theatre, which presently houses an elegant restaurant and a casino. A year later, the shows were moved to the brand new Palacio Euskalduna, built according to a design by Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios – the reddish steel construction in the shape of a grounded ship was erected in the place of the former shipyard, not far from the famous Guggenheim Museum. The palace boasts the largest opera stage in Europe – over 600 m2 larger than the supposed record-holder, namely Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera. The ABAO-OLBE association gives a total of about 50 shows per season; for over ten years now, it has had no debt, and over half of the financing for its productions comes from own coffers. As far as performance quality is concerned, critical opinion places it among the top three opera houses in Spain, alongside the Teatro Real and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Let us add that over 20 opera ensembles are active in the country.

Tiji Faveyts (Rocco), Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Jaquino), Anett Fritsch (Marzelline), and Elena Pankratova (Leonore). Photo: E. Moreno Esquibel

And so, in the course of 60-odd years, they accumulated 999 shows. ABAO management decided to celebrate their 1000th night at the opera with a staging of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, about which I once wrote that it had de facto three premières, four overtures and two titles, but even so, the composer was not satisfied with its successive corrections and revisions. This peculiar and, in many musicologists’ opinion, internally broken masterpiece gained new life after World War II. Considered (not entirely rightly) as a universal apotheosis of peace, freedom and marital love, it was heard already in September 1945 on the stage of Berlin’s Theater des Westens – the only house to survive the wartime turmoil. Ten years later, Karl Böhm re-inaugurated the Wiener Staatsoper’s operations with a production of Fidelio. In 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the audience of a new staging in Dresden received the prisoners’ chorus with applause that, at each successive showing, began increasingly to resemble a political demonstration. The première in Bilbao – the largest city in the land of the Basques, a people without a country – was set for the day before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. A year previously, the stage of the Palacio Euskalduna had hosted a production from the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville, with stage direction by José Carlos Plaza and stage design by Francisco Leal. I arrived in time for the next, 1001st show.

Plaza and Leal have been collaborating with each other for years – in 2000, they created a riveting vision of Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun for the Teatro Regio in Turin. Their Fidelio is equally ascetic, awakens the imagination in the same way and is painted with light in a similarly suggestive manner. Almost throughout the show, the stage is dominated by a rough cuboid – a symbolic wall between the prison and the outside world – which alternatingly opens slightly, rises, hangs just over the head of Florestan, and in the finale, at last gives way to a somewhat foggy and still ominous-looking distant panorama of Seville. In the purely visual plane, the staging works impeccably. The theatrical gesture and drawing of the characters left a bit more to be desired – the director gave the performers a limited number of tasks, which were played over and over again without any special conviction.The otherwise interesting idea to show scenes of violence in modern prisons (from the torturers of the Franco regime to the bestial electroshock tortures at Abu Ghraib), in the background in slow motion, somewhat disturbed the musical narrative in Act I. Jaquino – without regard for the libretto and at variance with the composer’s intentions – was created as a thoughtless brute, triumphing in the finale over Marzelline, who has been cruelly mocked by fate. Leonore raising a shovel at Don Pizarro – instead of threatening him with a pistol – triggered a paroxysm of laughter on my part that, while short, was hard to stop. But these are details, all the easier to forgive in that – on the huge stage of the Palacio Euskalduna – the production team managed to create an oppressive, stifling mood of prison claustrophobia and a feeling of gloom that nothing would chase away.

Peter Wedd (Florestan) and Elena Pankratova. Photo: E. Moreno Esquibel

I did not expect, however, that the Basque Fidelio would make such an impression on me in musical terms. The indisputable hero of the evening was Juanjo Mena, who – leading the Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa with clockwork precision, at balanced tempi, with Classical moderation – brought out considerably more nuances from the score than one finds in ‘proto-Romantic’ perspectives that suggest not-entirely-justified associations with the later œuvre of Meyerbeer and Wagner. While Mena – following Mahler’s example – decided to insert Leonora III before the finale of Act II, he did not try to convince us that he was thereby recapitulating the whole. Rather, he focused on the purely colouristic values of this overture, which were brought out with the same solicitous care as the often-neglected episodes in Act I (chief among them the phenomenally played out quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’, in which each of the protagonists shows completely different emotions: enchantment, fear, jealousy and generous consent). With equal awe, I observed how Mena led the soloists – in the, despite everything, difficult acoustics of the Palacio Euskalduna. Elena Pankratova (Leonore) repeated her success from Seville – with a dramatic soprano balanced throughout its registers, free and beautifully rounded at the top. Anett Fritsch created a deeply moving character of Marzelline, captivating in her lyrical phrasing. She was decently partnered by the intonationally secure, comely tenor of Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Jaquino). An experienced performer of the role of Don Pizarro, Sebastian Holecek sometimes charged ahead a bit too much, but in the duet with Tiji Faveyts (Rocco) in Act I, both singers managed to scale the heights of interpretation. Egils Siliņš breathed an unexpected warmth into the episodic role of Don Fernando. Peter Wedd created probably the most convincing Florestan in his career to date – with a secure, at the same time dark, consciously harsh and very mature voice. His singing now contains echoes of the later interpretations of Jon Vickers; I think it is high time that opera house directors try him out in the heavier Britten repertoire – above all, the title role in Peter Grimes.

Finale. Photo: E. Moreno Esquibel

Opera exists in Bilbao. It makes itself known much more confidently and wisely than not a few vainglorious and too generously-financed houses in Europe. It understands convention, it appreciates that Fidelio is a reflection of ideas, a musical picture of demons with which the composer himself struggled. It takes such masters as Juanjo Mena and his collaborators for the ideas to speak to us louder than the people.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

A Marathon for a Hundred

Every year with an eight at the end – the so-called “osmičkový year” – is a time of important anniversaries for the Czechs. Mostly bleak anniversaries. In May 1618 two imperial envoys and their secretary were thrown out of a window of the Hradcany Castle. The victims of the second Defenestration of Prague (or, in fact, the third, because the second one, of 1483, is hardly mentioned by Western historians) did not suffer much, but the incident led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. In March 1948 the body of the then Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, was found next to the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – a month earlier the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had seized power in the country, following a coup d’état. An official investigation delivered the verdict of suicide, but the Czechs knew better and, as it turned out, they were right. The accident during which Masaryk “jumped out of the top floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, closing the window behind him”, was regarded as a political murder and became known as the third defenestration. August 1968 was marked by the beginning of Operation Danube, a fraternal invasion of the Warsaw Pact forces, which put an end to the Prague Spring.  In August 1928 Janáček went on a trip to Štramberk with Kamila Stösslová and her son, caught a cold, then went down with pneumonia and died – in Doctor Klein’s sanatorium in Ostrava. Ten years later Czechoslovakia was forced to accept the terms of the Munich Diktat, as a result of which Germany seized the Sudetenland and northern Moravia, while Poland took Zaolzie.

It might seem that it is difficult for the Czechs to celebrate even the centenary of their independence, as the state proclaimed on 28 October 1918 has long ceased to exist. Fortunately, our southern neighbours have both a sense of humour and distance from their own history. When Ostrava was preparing for a parade of historic vehicles and was building a replica of a city district from the 1920s, the city was decorated with posters advertising the Leoš Janáček Music Marathon featuring a long-distance runner with the composer’s head, headphones in his ears and starting number 100 on his tank top. The programme of the four-day festival, launched by the local Philharmonic, featured sixteen concerts (including three outside Ostrava) and one opera performance – in total, forty works by the patron of the festival performed exclusively by the natives. For our southern neighbours have another pleasant character trait – they are authentically proud of their musical heritage, have magnificent performing traditions and no complexes whatsoever. In other words, when an important jubilee approaches, they do not have to inaugurate it with a concert featuring foreign stars. They will play and sing their Janáček themselves – and will usually do it better than many imported musicians of international renown.

Photo: janacek2018.cz

This is all the more remarkable given the fact that the Ostrava Philharmonic Orchestra does not even have a decent concert hall. It will have to wait for it until at least until 2023, after a competition, whose entrants include the Katowice-based architectural Konior Studio, has been decided. In the meantime the orchestra works and performs in the local Culture Centre (DKMO) – a gloomy relic of a bygone era, erected in the late 1950s after a socialist realist design by Jaroslav Fragner, an otherwise excellent architect, who parted with the aesthetics of functionalism for good after the war. Chairs in the auditorium are placed as needed, the organ case is installed diagonally by one of the walls, sound travels as it wishes – and yet the six concerts at the DKMO played to a nearly full house, while the performers and organisers worked miracles to curb the capricious acoustics of the interior.

I came to Ostrava to attend the whole marathon and listen to as much Janáček as I could. The regrettable absence of this composer from Polish opera houses and concert halls is something I write about whenever I can (let the Czechs not be misled by the guest appearance of Poznań’s Teatr Wielki at this year’s Janáček Brno Festival: Jenůfa was added to the repertoire of the Poznań company primarily because of Alvis Hermanis’ famous staging). The situation is much better in other countries, but no one has come up with the idea of organising a separate festival devoted to Janáček with a programme featuring compositions rarely performed even in the Czech Republic (e.g. juvenile pieces for string orchestra and Žárlivost, still “Dvořákian” in spirit, which was initially intended as an overture to Jenůfa). Even the best staged and musically perfect operas will not seduce the listeners with the unique melody of the Czech language, which can be conveyed only by Janáček’s compatriots. The same applies to songs, choral works and oratorios. Less obviously, the Czechs do not give in to the temptation to “prettify” his instrumental oeuvre, which in most foreign interpretations sounds too smooth, too rounded, without properly highlighted colour effects and textural contrasts.

Tomáš Kořínek (right) and the Czech Philharmonic Chorus from Brno. Photo: Martin Kusýn

I will long remember the performance by the Pavel Haas Quartet, especially their interpretation of String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” – aggressive, sometimes violent, using broad bow strokes to paint a musical picture of a conflict between corporeality and need for true affection. The mastery of the four Prague musicians found an excellent acoustic setting in this case: the concert was held in one of the buildings of the former Hlubina coal mine in Dolní Vítkovice, a huge industrial site  included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Once again I was able to see that the best conductors are recruited from among truly versatile musicians – Ondřej Vrabec, who conducted the Ostrava Youth Orchestra and the wind Marathon Ensemble during two concerts at the DKMO, is also an eminent French horn player, a soloist with many orchestras, including the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a member of the PhilHarmonia Octet and Brahms Trio Prague. I was able to admire the enthusiasm and youthful virtuosity of Jan Mráček, who two days after his dazzling performance in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto led the Janáček String Orchestra from the pulpit in Idyll and Suite, the patron’s youthful works; I also admired the profound emotionality and architectural mastery in the playing of Jan Bartoš, a brilliant interpreter of Janáček’s piano legacy. What brought me the greatest joy, however, was Czech singing. At a concert at the Church of St. Wenceslaus the tenor Tomáš Kořínek and the Czech Philharmonic Chorus from Brno, conducted by Petr Fiala,  treated me to a very interesting polonicum: five-part Otčenáš inspired by a painting cycle by Józef Męcina-Krzesz, who was so mercilessly mocked by Boy-Żeleński in his A Word or Two (“Whole Poland on this day rejoices afresh / While singing loud praises to Kręcina Mesz”). After his slightly underwhelming performance in The Eternal Gospel at the opening evening, Ľudovít Ludha, an experienced tenor, bowled me over completely in Zápisník zmizelého with a performance that was spot-on when it came to Janáček’s vocal idiom. Kateřina Kněžíková, a singer with a bright, beautifully open soprano, and Roman Hoza, who added to it his velvety, very lyrical baritone, gave a magnificent concert of Moravian and Hukvaldy poetry in songs – I was consumed with envy, because, listening to two Czechs, I could understand more than when listening to Karłowicz’s songs interpreted by many Polish singers.

Osud at the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre. Photo: Martin Popelář

There was also a moving trip to the nearby village of Hukvaldy, where the composer was born. We were accompanied by Jiří Zahrádka, the curator of the Janáček collection at the Moravian Museum in Brno and author of many critical editions of his works, including Osud. I saw this three-act opera for the first time last year at Opera North. Despite an excellent cast and fine orchestral playing I was inclined to agree with most musicologists that it is one of weak items in Janáček’s oeuvre. In Ostrava I began to appreciate the unique dramaturgy of the piece – more thanks to the music than the conventional and not quite polished staging by Jiři Nekvasil at the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre. After less than ten days from the premiere the soloists had not yet eased into their roles (especially Josef Moravec singing the fiendishly difficult part of Živný) and the orchestra, conducted by Jakub Klecker, did occasionally stumble – but it was a genuine Janáček, without unnecessary alterations, swinging between drama and grotesque, with a plethora of brilliantly drawn characters and excellent dialogues. I have long been saying that Polish directors do not tackle Janáček, because none of his operas can be dismissed as a silly story.

The marathon ended on the centenary of the proclamation of Czechoslovakia’s independence. The Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Jiří Rožeň, a young and promising conductor. There was the national anthem, there were the official speeches – short, to the point and not read out – there was Taras Bulba (not played in Poland also for patriotic reasons) and at the end a truly rousing rendition of Sinfonietta, one of the greatest masterpieces of musical modernism.  I really envy the Czechs: they can celebrate their jubilee with a piece known to any cultured citizen of the world, if only from reading Haruki Murakami.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

The Need for any Kind of Festivity

On Saturday, 24 November, a four-part chamber cycle Life Without Christmas by Gia Kancheli will be performed on one long day, at times corresponding to the names of the individual „prayers” – as part of the Nostalgia Festival in Poznań. Below, you can read my essay, reposted by kind permission of the Festival (http://www.nostalgiafestival.pl/en/news/o-potrzebie-jakichkolwiek-swiatbrdorota-kozinska-2).

***

What would life without Christmas be like? According to Christian theologians, it would be a gloomy existence, stripped of the hope for the coming of the Saviour who would wipe away the tears of sinners and show them the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. It would be a life in the constant turmoil of war, for if Christ would not be born, there would be no death on the cross, and thus no exoneration of humanity through faith and reconciliation with God. The darkness of a life without Christmas would not be brightened by any good news: neither the joyful news of sins being forgiven, nor even the consolation that someone would help us bear them beforehand.

What would such a world be from the point of view of children or the less attentive adults of simple faith? A world without gifts? Perhaps there would be another opportunity to give them. But what would the attraction be if our homes would never smell of Christmas trees, and in our kitchens, there would be no aroma of ripe gingerbread browned in the oven. Without Christmas, we would not be able to dream, even in our adult years, to at least once see the mechanical nativity scene at the Franciscan Fathers’ Church at Bernardyński Square in Poznań. There would be no point in hanging mistletoe over the Christmas table. We would not call our forgotten relatives and friends once a year. We would not leave an additional place setting for the stray wanderer. We would forget that people should never be alone.

Photo: Isabelle Francaix

Giya Kancheli grew up in a country where real Christmas no longer existed. Contrary to popular opinion, the Soviet authorities did not introduce an official ban on the winter festivities but made every effort to appropriate the earlier tradition. In the 1920s, still with the best-intended desire to fight superstition in mind, outstanding avant-garde artists joined the campaign. A few years before the onset of the great terror, members of the League of the Militant Godless went into action as one of the most effective Bolshevik instruments for fighting religion and religious organisations. Special patrols followed fellow citizens and reported on discovered instances of holding home-based sochelniks (Christmas Eve suppers). The activists demanded that the guilty be punished for these ‘embarrassing situations.’ Churches, both Orthodox and of other denominations, were closed down and used to accommodate the infamous museums of atheism. Objects of worship were destroyed. True repressions began after the liquidation of the New Economic Policy and the replacement of this hybrid doctrine with a command-and-distribution system. Combating the Church’s influence was supposed to facilitate the fight against peasants. The celebrators went underground.

The one to bring them back to the surface was Stalin, who commanded the celebration of a secular New Year. In 1935, the same year in which Giya Kancheli was born, he surrounded Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square and the Kremlin courtyard with Christmas trees. The victims of the propaganda machine were mainly children, showered with cheap gifts delivered to the most remote places in the USSR by the same activists as before, and fed with stories of kolkhoz farmers, brave heroes of the civil war and udarniks (shock workers). The victims of the coercive apparatus were mainly adults, among them prisoners of Stalinist gulags, who had to celebrate this terrible Non-Christmas to a strictly defined scenario under the knout of the communist party propaganda department.

Kancheli remembers that his mother and grandmother secretly took him to church primarily to drag the boy away from his passion for playing football. It helped in so far as little Giya never became a real militant atheist. Since then, he has been entering the space of the sacrum: in churches, mosques and synagogues, to enjoy the absence of worshipers, the faith-charged silence, and the emptiness, which, in his opinion, hold more prayers than a temple filled to the brim during a service.

New Year’s Eve in the Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital in Moscow. Photo by Pavel Krivtsov (1988)

It was not until the glasnost policy and Gorbachev’s reforms that Western musicologists started to seek hidden meanings in the works of Soviet composers, to track signs of writing between the lines, giving a voice to others or hiding in the shadow of suppressed religion. The time arrived for a redefinition of the legacy of Shostakovich, whose brassy overtones turned out to be only the tip of an iceberg of emotions and never externalised yearnings immersed in the depths of an icy ocean. The time arrived to decipher the painful symbols contained in the music of Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina and Vyacheslav Artiomov. People and their tragedies began to emerge from the mysterious clusters of sounds. A cry arose from the depths of Kancheli’s symphonies and operas, from his theatre and film music, voicing mourning, fear and solitude, a regret for what had been lost, his nonacceptance of violence and a simple childlike innocence.

Kancheli emigrated from Georgia in 1991, shortly after the election of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, overthrown on 22 December by the coup of the paramilitary organisation Mkhedrioni, most likely linked to the Russian secret service. He moved to Berlin as a beneficiary of a grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), the German Centre for Academic Exchange, financed mainly from public funds of the Federal Republic of Germany. Four years later, he became a composer-in-residence for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in Antwerp and settled permanently in Belgium. During the transitional period, even before leaving his homeland, he began composing the cycle Life without Christmas, consisting of four ‘prayers’ for the subsequent times of day: morning, daytime, evening and night-time. If these are prayers, they are so in a very broad, extra-liturgical sense. Within them, Kancheli does not refer directly to any religion, but calls for a spirituality that searches, does not submit to any creed, and wakes up at night with a scream, ‘Where is God (if He exists at all)?’ It is music echoing with the voices of angels that had never been heard. It is a song of innocence in an uneven struggle against aggression, violence and evil.

One can laugh at the repetitive structures, their shameless tonality and allegedly banal melodic phrases, until the listener realises that these are all prayers for a lost Georgia and, in a less obvious way, for a lost Soviet Union: for friends and colleagues escorted to the other bank of the Styx, for Avet Terterian, who is still unappreciated in the West, and for Alfred Schnittke, who is still not fully understood in Europe. For a multitude of composers who were banished, killed, stripped of their identity and condemned to a silence from which they can only be brought to the light by the cry: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It is the musical prayer of the righteous person who is suffering. The listener must now decide individually whether suffering is a punishment for sins and proof of the superior being’s disfavour, or proof that someone, without really knowing who it is, is always next to us, even when hope has died.

What would life be without any festivities? What purpose do festivals actually serve? To celebrate something or, perhaps, to partake in some fine entertainment? Where does the need to hold cultural festivities come from? Is it just about strengthening our sense of community, and if so, what kind of community? An aesthetic or national one or, possibly, one that is rooted in a wider geographical context? One that is connected by the same model of sensitivity, a similar worldview, blood ties or a collective subconsciousness?

New Year celebration in the Tbilisi Palace of Sports. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Regardless of the reasons, festivals are associated with a kind of religious experience, even by agnostics and atheists. They have their own rite and order. They recur at the same times, like the first snow, the vernal equinox or the moment when the leaves on trees start turning yellow, as if they were marking a symbolic turning point, a time when a cycle concludes to be reborn soon afterwards. During a harvest of festivals, a sacrifice must be made to the deities: those of theatre, music or literature. And then we must dive into a whirlpool of intense experiences, to listen, watch and read up a stock to last until the time before the next harvest, to help survive the time of sowing and give us strength to gather fertile crops, for which we will give thanks again the following year. In the same temple, guided by equally dignified priests, together with an ever-increasing number of artistic followers.

It all sounds anachronistic, because the world is developing. A loud street party took place a few hundred meters from my home. I tried to separate myself from it in the comfort of my studio with windows facing the courtyard, but it attacked me unexpectedly with posts on one of the social media sites. The noise coming from the neighbourhood created a jarring sonic background for dozens of images on Instagram, photos taken using selfie sticks and videos shot with mobile phones. This made me all too aware that even if I cut myself off from the community, it will still sweep me into the arms of virtual friends. Could it be that the new technologies, and the subsequent growing pace of life, as well as the need for increasingly more powerful experiences, will soon transform our existence into a continuous, all-embracing festival where there is no longer any room for reflection or giving thanks?

The actual word ‘festival’ has a relatively short history and appeared in English only in the late 16th century, borrowed from Old French where the adjective ‘festival’ referred to something joyous, closely related to the atmosphere of a major church holiday. But the predecessor of this form of art worship can be traced back to ancient Greece. In Delphi, a tribute was paid to Apollo during the Panhellenic Pythian Games, held since 582 BC in late August and early September, in the middle of the Olympic cycle, namely in the third year of the Olympiad. The tradition, however, goes even deeper to the rituals in honour of Apollo, organised every eight years and accompanied by the famous musical agons: competitions for the most accurate interpretation of a paean with the accompaniment of the kithara. Unlike the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games were, first and foremost, an arena for musicians and actors. With time, the set of competitions was extended with aulete contests, singing tournaments, and solo performances of kitharodes, as well drama, poetry and painting contests, to which the chariot races and wrestler battles provided only a picturesque backdrop. The winners were rewarded with wreaths of bay laurel branches, the holy tree of Apollo gathered in the Thessalian Tempe Valley.

Echoes of the ancient agons resounded later in medieval singing tournaments and were brought back to life in the collective European imagination by works such as Wagner’s Tannhäuser. From knightly manors, the contests gradually moved down the social ladder, turning into specific ‘tests of bravery’ for musicians belonging to specific communities. These were competitions where the participants could hope not only for the evaluation of their skills, but also for advice from the true masters of their respective professions and the spontaneous applause of the listeners gathered at the tournaments. The competitive element became secondary to the exuberant need to participate in a joyful musical celebration that fulfilled the role of some kind of catharsis and was also an integrative and educational event.

Are we taking part in joyous or, perhaps, a painful festivity? After all, the Nostalgia Festival is a celebration of musical memory: a thin albeit strong thread connecting us with what comes back to us, even though sometimes we would prefer to forget it. But we should not forget. I have just remembered that in the 1970s, my father was a guest at the Georgian Rustaveli National Theatre in Tbilisi, where Giya Kancheli was the music director. The guests from Poland were given a truly Georgian reception. Toasts were raised until dawn. The wives went to bed earlier. In the morning, my mother entered the bathroom to find the bathtub full of red roses. An apology for the drunkenness of the night before. An apology for a world where the lack of Christmas had to be offset with an attempt to provide some other festivity. A festivity which found its musical equivalent only after the death of the Soviet Union. The hated, enforced homeland of many great composers whose oeuvre we must – and should – discover many years after the fall of the ominous empire.

Translated by: Marta Walkowiak

Who Goes There? The Huguenots!

At the age of 25 Louis-Désiré Véron became a doctor of medicine and went on to work in Paris hospitals for a few years. But he did not enjoy a great career as a doctor. One’s position in the medical world at the time was determined not only by knowledge and skills (Véron wasn’t lacking in this department; he even published a monograph on the treatment of oral thrush in infants), but primarily by wealth. Véron did not come from a rich family, nor did he have an endearing appearance. But he did have a flair for business. After the death of an apothecary, he took over the patent for making cough candies and made quite a fortune.  In 1829 he founded the literary magazine Revue de Paris, whose collaborators included Eugène Scribe, a master of pièce bien faite, one of the most talented, influential and prolific librettists in the history of opera. Two years later Véron acquired a franchise for the Paris Opera, privatised by the government of the July Monarchy. He admitted openly that he knew next to nothing about music. But he knew whom to ask for advice and, above all, he had an excellent sense of public feeling. The five years of Véron’s directorship is regarded as the beginning of the golden era of grand opéra – a time when the Parisians’ collective imagination was moved by the compositions of Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy, the dazzling set designs of Henri Duponchel and the phenomenal voices of Adolphe Nourrit and Cornélie Falcon. It began with the premiere of Robert le diable, after which Chopin announced the birth of a masterpiece of a new school, while Słowacki enthused in a letter to his mother, “never in my life have I seen such a big church like the one created by the theatrical illusion”. Encouraged by this success, Véron commissioned Meyerbeer to write another opera, Les Huguenots, loosely based on Prosper Mérimée’s Chronique du règne de Charles IX.

Work on the piece lasted nearly five years. At that time Meyerbeer was well-established as a composer and had amassed a considerable wealth, so he could afford the luxury of unprecedented source studies (he began with in-depth studies of 16th-century musical manuscripts), hiring two librettists, Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps, and consultations with Gaetano Rossi, with whom he had earlier worked on his Il crociato in Egitto (1824). The premiere took place after Véron’s resignation as director of the Paris Opera, on 29 February 1836. It was an even bigger triumph than that of Robert le diable: even envious fellow composers not always well-disposed towards Meyerbeer proclaimed Les Huguenots to be the crowning achievement of the genre, although Berlioz could not resist a snide remark that the score resembled a “musical encyclopaedia” and that there was enough material for ten separate operas. Three years later the work was presented on the other side of the Atlantic. It was staged all over the world, sometimes with different titles to avoid religious conflicts. After several productions in the Soviet Union a suggestion was made to adapt the libretto and turn Les Huguenots into an opera about the Decembrists, but the idea was never put into practice. In the 1890s the opera was presented at the Metropolitan Opera as a “night of the seven stars”, with the cast including the likes of Lilian Nordica, Sofia Scalchi, Reszke brothers and Pol Plançon. The thousandth performance at the Paris Opera took place in May 1906; over the next three decades the opera was performed 118 more times and then it disappeared from the capital for over eighty years.

Les Huguenots at the Opera Bastille. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Why? It is commonly believed that staging this monster requires an incredible amount of effort, while finding a decent Raoul borders on the impossible. Indeed, we are well past the glory days of grand opéra, a time when the principal tenor earned twenty-five thousand francs a year, the principal conductor three times less, and the minor members of the corps de ballet had to resort to prostitution in order not to starve. Indeed, the last tenor capable of singing all the high notes in the main role of Les Huguenots cleanly, freely and in full voice may have been the late lamented Franco Corelli. Yet this does not change the fact among all the composers of the genre Meyerbeer has suffered the most at the hands of history, and his operas began to return to the stage only in this century. It seems that this was caused not only by musical factors – but also by a systematic rise of anti-Semitism in France, from the Dreyfus Affair to the establishment of Vichy France.  After the war grand opéra declined rapidly and is only now recuperating. Meyerbeer’s turn came last – it is good that his famous Les Huguenots opened the 350th anniversary season at the Paris Opera, organically linked as it is to the very term of grand opéra.

The staging was entrusted to Andreas Kriegenburg, the famous self-taught German director (a carpenter by profession and former member of the technical staff in Magdeburg), who acquired most of his directing experience in drama theatre. He got into opera more or less ten years ago, but has been quite active in the field, recently mainly in Dresden and Munich. Kriegenburg regards himself not as a deconstructionist but as a storyteller, although – as he confessed in a conversation with Iwona Uberman – “I don’t want to be just a servant to the author, I prefer to decode the spirit of the play and present it on stage, looking at it from my perspective and through myself as a person. In fact, I always try to get closer to a work, even when I seemingly go further and further away from it.” It sounds a bit non-committal – as does, in a way, the Paris production of Les Huguenots. Apparently played out in a not too distant future (at least as that is what is suggested by the director’s prologue before the curtain rises), but, in fact, it happens everywhere and nowhere, in Harald B. Thor’s minimalist decorations and Tanja Hofmann’s historicising costumes. There would be nothing wrong with this, if Kriegenburg had not overdone the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt and instead had gone a little deeper into the meaning of the work.

Yosep Kang (Raoul), Lisette Oropesa (Marguerite de Valois), Ermonela Jaho (Valentine), Paul Gay (Saint-Bris), and Florian Sempey (Nevers). Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The result? The director’s cold, calculated vision clashed painfully with the powerful emotions of the score. Kriegenburg likes to work with the bodies of the actors and re-enact certain situations ad nauseam with the persistence and tenacity worthy of Marthaler – so he has turned Les Huguenots into a nearly four-hour abstract ballet, pushing into the background not only credible psychological portraits of the protagonists but also the narrative itself. Before I sussed out who was who at the great feast at Count of Nevers’, I was half an hour into Act I. Act III began quite coherently, but ended grotesquely: the Catholics and the Protestants whacking each other looked more like school girls from good families fighting with their dainty umbrellas. The idea of turning cold steel in the famous Blessing of the Daggers scene  (“Gloire, gloire au grand Dieu vengeur!”) into a phallic symbol and making the oath resemble an act of collective masturbation would not perhaps be so stupid, if it were not for one tiny detail – the scene lasts for more than a quarter of an hour. We know Kriegenburg’s penchant for slapstick and convention breaking, but the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in the finale was too suggestive of Peter Sellers and his immortal portrayal of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther.  However, there were some gems as well: for example, the horribly dynamic death of one of the victims of the massacre, who, after being struck with a sword, begins to spin on the upper platform like a balloon, broken free and suddenly pricked. Alas, concepts that work well in postdramatic theatre fall flat in opera – I’m afraid that the spinning girl may have been missed by many spectators.

I have to admit, however, that Kriegenburg’s staging proved fairly innocuous and did not spoil the musical side of the performance. And there were things to worry about, because the production seemed to have been cursed. In August Diana Damrau cancelled her appearance as Marguerite de Valois and less than two weeks before the premiere Bryan Hymel withdrew from the fiendishly difficult role of Raoul. My suspicion is that both replacements were a blessing for the Paris Huguenots, though the results are difficult to compare. With her crystal clear, technically immaculate and very agile soprano Lisette Oropesa brought the entire house down. The audience was less enthusiastic about Yosep Kang, brought at the last moment from Deutsche Oper Berlin – unjustly, in my opinion, because he coped with the role of Raoul well, both when it came to singing and acting, with his ringing tenor heroic in colour and beautifully rounded in the middle register. True, he played it safe with the high notes and they were not always clean, but this stemmed primarily from nerves and overuse of his vocal resources during rehearsals and successive performances. That Kang is well aware of his shortcomings and knows how to mask them cleverly was evidenced by how he phenomenally paced himself in the lovers’ duet from Act IV (“O ciel, ou courrez-vous?”). As Valentine, Ermonela Jaho was less impressive – she was excellent acting-wise, but has a voice that is too light and too lyrical for the role, written for a soprano falcon  (incidentally, Raoul’s beloved was first sung by Cornélie Falcon). Karine Deshayes was a magnificent Urbain. The French singer, who started out in Baroque music, has a lovely, even mezzo-soprano that deserves far more appreciation from international opera companies. It was more difficult to find real stars among the men: those deserving an honourable mention were certainly the bass-baritone Nicolas Testé, who despite some deficiencies in the lower register was convincing as Marcel; the velvety-voiced baritone Florian Sempey as Nevers and the bass Paul Gay as Saint-Bris, perhaps not expressive enough but with a very elegant sound. Worthy of note is also Cyrille Dubois, a singer at the beginning of his career: a fine actor and typical “French” tenor, who appeared in the episodic roles of Tavannes and First Monk.

Nicolas Testé (Marcel) and Ermonela Jaho. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The man in charge of the last performance was Łukasz Borowicz – his appearance at the conductor’s podium at the Bastille should be remembered as historic for at least two reasons. Firstly, no other Polish conductor had led the orchestra of the Paris Opera before. Secondly and, in my opinion, more importantly – Borowicz, despite participating in the seven-week rehearsals before the premiere, working diligently with the soloists, conducted the performance having had not a single orchestral rehearsal. Michele Mariotti, the music director of the production, must have trusted him immensely – irrespective of Diana Damrau’s earlier recommendation. I cannot really compare the conducting of the two gentlemen, but after what I heard during my one-day visit to Paris, I am convinced that Borowicz has an excellent feel for Meyerbeer’s idiom. He led the soloists and the Opera’s fine chorus and orchestra with a firm hand, not for a moment losing the inner pulse and brilliantly highlighting the constant play of contrasts in the work as well as its sometimes not very obvious innovations (for example in the Blessing of the Daggers scene, in which the voices of six soloists alternately come together and emerge in smaller ensembles, cutting through the orchestral fabric with a cappella fragments only to push through the orchestral tutti with a powerful chorus in the reprise. I hope this was not Borowicz’s only appearance at the temple of grand opéra.  Waiting for the next ones, I will happily watch him in other productions of Meyerbeer’s masterpieces, especially my favourite Robert le diable.

One thing worries me, though: that I will have to leave Poland to do that. I like travelling. But I’m fed up with having to escape from the daily mediocrity of our domestic opera companies.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

An Operatic Treasure Trove

Whenever high art ceases to be associated with high style and begins to be associated with high-handedness, it stumbles, tumbles down several storeys and becomes an object of ridicule. A few years ago a certain musical institution in Poland – an institution with otherwise beautiful traditions – decided to outsalzburg Salzburg and announced that “casual elegant” would be a mandatory dress code within its walls. Garments to be banned from that moment on included jeans and sweaters. The initiative was rightly mocked and the organisers quickly abandoned the “rules” they had so hastily formulated. The festival remained a democratic event, where we are more likely to meet true music lovers in freshly laundered jeans and tasteful sweaters than bored officials in suits smelling of mothballs.

This is not surprising: philharmonic halls and other concert venues have long been reaching out to their audiences with increasingly broad and varied repertoires – from medieval music to contemporary works, played and sung by various ensembles and artists cultivating very different performance styles. Listeners have a lot to choose from and can without any major difficulty expand their knowledge thanks to analyses of works in programme booklets, radio programmes, broadcasts and internet streams, meetings with musicians as well as comparisons of interpretations presented live with the rich and easily accessible discography.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Wrocław Opera. Photo: Krzysztof Bieliński

Potential opera goers are in a far less comfortable situation. Putting on a full staging brings with it huge costs, incomparable to the costs of organising an “ordinary” concert. This is also why it is difficult to access complete opera recordings, not to mention video recordings of performances. Ordinary music lovers prefer to save up for a ticket to a concert hall rather than risk going to the theatre, where they will see their beloved Tosca in costumes and sets that have nothing to do with the musical concept. Ordinary theatre lovers prefer to see a performance of a play in which they will understand every word spoken on stage and will not have to wonder why the gentleman on stage is still singing a quarter of hour after he was mortally stabbed in the heart. Ordinary snobs will be bored for a much shorter time in a concert hall, from which they can escape between movements of a work, for example.

Opera as a theatre genre is in crisis all over the world, but there are very few countries where the crisis is as worrying as it is in Poland. Successive rumours about the death of opera, spread by philosophers and culture scholars for at least one hundred years, have turned out to be as exaggerated as the news of the death of Queen Bona from Tuwim and Słonimski’s unrivalled satire. The convulsions of the alleged agony only signalled a need for a through revamping of the convention. The process is painful everywhere, but is beginning to produce results: most “revitalisation” work is done in the purely theatrical layer, the approach to which increasingly varies, beginning with attempts at historical reconstruction of old productions, through references to the classics of modernist theatre and ending with progressive and often invasive practices of Regietheater. All over the world there are disputes– often fierce – over the validity of staging concepts, but no one mocks the theatrical nature of operas themselves. No one mocks librettos, in the logic of which “no one in their right mind will believe”, as one Polish director put it. No one remains indifferent to the practice of making cuts, changing the order of the various “numbers” in the score and introducing additional sound effects not provided for by the composer – some sing loud praises of such interventions, others protest until their last breath. No one thinks, as another Polish artist put it, that they are watching “a silly story”, no one feels “blackmailed by the very respectability of the operatic art”.

Despite various experiments and sheer iniquities committed by directors today against the living and lively body of this form, despite the demise of true stars and decline of the old art of singing – opera per se is doing better and better in the postmodern reality. It satisfies people’s longing for fairy tales, it allows them to escape into the land of magical thinking, provides a release for emotions unavailable in the dark, popcorn-smelling cinema room. For ordinary consumers of Western culture going to the opera is as important as element of spiritual nourishment as reading books and watching various shows on Netflix. Well-behaved Europeans will admit to not knowing Oscar-winning films rather than admit to not being familiar with the intrigue of Carmen or Un ballo in maschera.

Verdi’s Nabucco, the open-air superproduction at the Wrocław Opera. Photo: Maciej Suchorabski

In Poland, on the other hand, opera goers are getting increasingly polarised. On one extreme we have fans of opera stars and the commotion which usually accompanies their performances, and on the other – enthusiasts of spectacular, Hollywood-style productions by fashionable directors. Interestingly, representatives of both extremes care little about the phenomenon of operatic music as such. The former are quite satisfied with the celebrities showing up and singing, while the latter treat the musical layer of a production as a kind of soundtrack to a non-existent film. Between these two extremes wanders an increasingly small, increasingly lonely and often ridiculed group of fans who really cry over the fate of the wretched Halka, really know Nabucco inside out and really can appreciate the quality of a performance – sometimes in comparison with many forgotten archive recordings and in the context of changing interpretation practices.

What has brought this on? After all, the parents of my mates from primary school – even if they did not want to or were ashamed to go to the opera – knew who Callas, Chaliapin and Caruso were. After all, we all laughed in front of our television sets when the “famous Siamese tenor” sang Jontek’s aria in Stanisław Bareja’s comedy series and we heard a translation back into Polish (“My life, though young, is sad, for there is a grudge in my heart, I don’t accuse anyone in particular except for my girl…” etc.).  After all, the post-war premiere of Lohengrin at the Warsaw Opera must have also been a great social event, if Jeremi Przybora alluded to it in Kabaret Starszych Panów (Elderly Gentlemen’s Cabaret).

I will not repeat the clichés about long term effects of the decline of music education in schools. But I will weigh in with my opinion about the unreasonable policy of the directors of many opera companies in Poland, who during the transformation period looked up to the West, without taking into account the distinct determinants of our culture. Having concluded that we could not afford the German-Austrian repertoire model, in which productions – created by soloists, chorus members and orchestra musicians working well together on a daily basis – were added to the repertoire for many seasons, they opted for the Italian stagione system. Yet putting on an expensive production featuring singers contracted especially for the purpose and then presenting just three or four performances has little in common with a genuine stagione, in which a production is presented even a dozen or so times, is preceded by months of intense rehearsals and after a while is revived at home or moves to another opera house.

Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Wrocław Opera. Photo: Krzysztof Zatycki

The Wrocław Opera is one of the last companies in Poland still trying to stick to the repertoire system – which is beneficial to both connoisseurs and novices taking their first steps in the magical world of opera. Over the last two seasons things have sped up: the company has added Italian bel canto works, neglected in Poland, to its repertoire; there have also been more contemporary works; young directors previously not allowed on the big stage have been given a chance; works which cannot yet hope to attract crowds have been given meticulously prepared concert performances. The Wrocław Opera is building its repertoire wisely, respecting the audience’s varied tastes: it alternates “traditional” productions with examples of well thought out although sometimes controversial Regietheater. It invests in the education of children and adults. It invites the curious among them backstage and to various technical rooms. It goes out with music into the urban space.

In the upcoming season it will transfer to the opera house two of its open-air superproductions: Verdi’s Nabucco directed by Krystian Lada and Gounod’s Faust directed by Beata Redo-Dobber. It will present a new staging of Moniuszko’s Halka. It will tackle Phantoms in a production entrusted to Jarosław Fret, the founder of Teatr ZAR and director of the Grotowski Institute. It will present Mozart’s Don Giovanni after a concept by André Heller Lopes, one of the most interesting opera directors in Latin America, who for several years has been successfully presenting Janáček’s operas in Brazil. Bel canto enthusiasts will be served a concert performance of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, fans of superproductions – a new production of Traviata, advocates of intergenerational education – Zygmunt Krauze’s family opera Yemaya, lovers of the Terpsichorean art – classical Giselle choreographed by Zofia Rudnicka and Ewa Głowacka as well as two modernist ballets by Stravinsky, Card Game and The Rite of Spring, to be presented by Jacek Przybyłowicz and the Swedish dancer Sigge Modigh.

There will be a lot to choose from, especially given the fact that the company’s repertoire will also feature productions premiered in its extremely busy last season, alternating with the best productions from previous seasons. Soon Wrocław opera lovers will start exchanging jokes like those of the Opera North patrons who regularly compile lists of New Year’s resolutions for the protagonists of operas presented in Leeds. Last season Fiordiligi and Dorabella made an appointment with an ophthalmologist, while Siegfried promised Brünnhilde he would spend more time with her at home. Opera can teach, entertain and move to tears – provided you are in touch with it on a daily basis.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Do you know it? We do! So then listen…

It is possible not to be enthused by the directorial style of David Pountney (which Stefanos Lazaridis, his regular collaborator in the times of the English National Opera’s greatest post-war splendour, described as ‘distorted traditionalism’); however, one cannot deny that he is a true opera animal. His love for the queen of musical forms reportedly has a very long history. It all began on a vacation in Berkshire that the five-year-old David spent with his parents among the participants in a summer music camp. One evening, he was crouched down in the corner of an old barn and suddenly, in complete darkness, he heard a solitary voice. The singing of the invisible tenor made an electrifying impression on him, which is no surprise in that what he was hearing in the barn was Florestan’s aria from Act II of Fidelio. For several years, the young Pountney was a trumpeter in the National Youth Orchestra, sang in the choir at St John’s Chapel and, while studying at Cambridge, made friends with Mark Elder and decided to become an opera stage director – among other things, in order not to get in the way of his colleague who had significantly better prospects as a conductor. He entered the world of great fame thanks to a staging of Kát’a Kabanová at the Wexford Festival, and throughout his career, has effectively promoted Janáček’s œuvre. He has directed over a dozen world premières of contemporary operas. He has contributed to the greatness of the Bregenz Festival. He translates libretti from four languages and uses translations in his own productions. In 2011, he became executive and artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, to which he gave a very distinctive profile, often turning to works unknown, neglected or forgotten by the British audience. Last season, the WNO put on 115 performances, most of them on tour; its turnover amounted to over 17 million pounds, and the number of newcomers in the audience exceeded the number of old regular attenders. At the beginning of 2018, the Opera’s board decided not to extend Pountney’s contract. No official reason was given. Suggestions have appeared that the director was imposing too-ambitious repertoire on the theatre, thereby threatening it with bankruptcy in the difficult period after the Brexit referendum, not to mention growing competition from the country house operas and fringe theatres.

There are also opinions circulating to the effect that the formula proposed by Pountney has simply worn out. This year’s seasons were planned, as it were, more cautiously, without the usual watchwords, combining première performances with absolute sure bets that have been scoring triumphs on the world’s opera stages for years. It is difficult for anyone to assign blame for this: a house of this standing is not meant to present just rarities, and superb stagings of the classics should not be pulled from the stage after a few showings. Against the background of propositions from the Scottish Opera and Opera North, however, the WNO’s repertoire comes out quite bland – especially in comparison with several truly outstanding productions from previous years.

La Cenerentola. Tara Erraught (Angelina). Photo: Jane Hobson

Yet again, I was not able to get to Cardiff, instead traveling to Oxford for the autumn season. I will not deny that after months of contact with Regieoper in an unbearably pretentious rendition, I expected a bit of rest at tried-and-true stagings of La Traviata and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. I admit it was with impatience that I awaited Prokofiev’s War and Peace under the direction of Pountney, known for his predilection for operatic ‘Slavdom’. However, first in line was La Cenerentola, a WNO, Houston Grand Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Théatre de Genève co-production revived after 11 years. During that time, the production of two Catalonians – Joan Font and collaborating stage designer Joan Guillén – had managed to win the hearts of audiences at Brussels’ La Monnaie and several opera houses in the United States. And rightly so, for the directing concept of Font – founder of the collective Els Comediants, known to Polish audiences above all for his brilliant setting of the closing ceremony to the Olympic Games in Barcelona – gets to the heart of this masterpiece. Especially in combination with Guillén’s colourful, half-fairytale, half-surreal visual concept derived from commedia dell’arte and other folk theatre traditions, but filtered through the experiences of artists associated with the Ballets Russes, primarily Bakst, Picasso and Miró. Emotion went hand-in-hand with the grotesque; hearty laughter, with moments of reflection. If any charge can be leveled at this staging, it would only be the delightful ubiquity of six dancers dressed as mice who too often ‘stole the show’ from the singers. There were basically no weak points in the cast, starting with the warm and flexible mezzo-soprano of Tara Erraught (Angelina); the stylish, though sharp-timbred Matteo Macchioni (Don Ramiro), the vocally and theatrically phenomenal Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini); the superbly contrasting Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe in the roles of the two sisters; the technically superb Fabio Capitanucci (Don Magnifico); and finishing with the impressively cultured phrasing of Wojtek Gierlach (Alidoro). The entirety was conducted by Tomáš Hanus, presently music director of the WNO, who not only disciplined the orchestra and chorus in an ideal manner, but also gave the soloists plenty of room to display their artistry, especially in the gorgeously-blended ensemble numbers.

I took away similar impressions from La Traviata directed by David McVicar, revived 10 years after its première at the Scottish Opera. The production, equally visually tasteful (stage design by Tanya McCallin) and equally subtly led by the conductor (James Southall) as in the case of La Cenerentola, provided yet more evidence of the vitality of traditionally-conceived opera theatre. McVicar moved the action a few decades forward, into scenery taken – as it were – straight from the painting of fin-de-siècle portrait artists, sensual and dark, with a spectre of consumption and neurasthenia lurking in the corners of the salons. He populated this scenery with a crowd of ambiguous characters, internally broken, by turns ruthless and generous, cruel and tormented by guilt feelings, vulgar and angelically pure. This time, the cast was dominated by the gentlemen: the fantastic Roland Wood in the role of Giorgio Germont and the distinctive Kang Wang, with his dark, beautifully rounded tenor, as Alfredo. Anush Hovhannisyan had considerable difficulty getting into the role of Violetta, who from the beginning, in McVicar’s perspective, hides despair under a mask of provocative self-confidence. She revealed the full values of her expressive soprano, rich in dynamic shading, only in Act II, effectively building tension in the shocking dialogue with Alfredo’s father. The final tragedy – played out in a bedroom into which the sun will not shine even after the window curtains have been opened – would have squeezed tears out of a rock. The production team more than satisfied my embarrassing need for melodrama.

La traviata. Philip Lloyd Evans (Marquis d’Obigny), Rebecca Afonwy Jones (Flora), and WNO Chorus. Photo: Betina Skovbro

With regard to War and Peace, however, I had higher expectations, especially bearing in mind the circumstances in which the last of Prokofiev’s operatic masterpieces was written. The composer and his wife Mira Mendelson – co-author of the libretto – performed a true miracle. From Tolstoy’s magnum opus, which the author himself did not want to call a novel and which with each successive volume more and more resembles an expansive philosophical treatise rather than a work of literary fiction, they selected barely a few threads, leaving future audiences to speculate and draw their own conclusions.  The work took shape in stages. The first sketches for War and Peace were written at the beginning of the 1930s. The work as a whole went out into the world under the duress of the moment: first in a spontaneous impulse of patriotism evoked by Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union; and later, in the face of stronger and stronger pressure from the Council of Ministers’ Committee on the Arts. At the WNO, the opera was presented in English, but on the basis of a new critical edition of the score prepared by Rita McAllister and Katya Ermolaeva, taking into account most of Prokofiev’s original plans and, as a result, considerably shorter than the final version. Anyone who takes on the staging of War and Peace must realize that this is a non-uniform work, in many ways uneven – one in which references to the great Russian tradition, led by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky, are woven into a whole with Prokofiev’s own idiom; sometimes, they fight for the better with national heroics and repulsive models of Stalinist propaganda.

Pountney’s staging – unlike the opera itself – is astoundingly coherent and consistent. And for precisely this reason, it gives the lie to the composer’s plans. Prokofiev tackled a holy book of Russian literature and forged it into something with a completely different quality. Pountney returned to the point of departure and showed the great stereotype of imperial Russia – drawing liberally upon his own productions and upon other people’s pictures that evoke appropriate associations in the mind of the average viewer. He organized the stage space exactly the same way (and with the help of the same stage designer, Robert Innes Hopkins), as in Iain Bell’s opera In Parenthesis of two years earlier. At the time, the half-circular wooden shape symbolized the trenches by the Somme – now it was equally effectively incorporated into the scenery of Russian aristocratic homes and of the battlefield at Borodino. Where the action was taking place, we figured out from projections displayed in the background: in Part II, these were extensive fragments of War and Peace directed by Sergey Bondarchuk. The stage was populated by characters from the pages of the novel, in the military episodes mixed with participants in the Great Patriotic War (in order to introduce the audience to the context in which the opera was written). Everyone was in costumes, as it were, from a historical reenactment show or from the recent BBC miniseries – if Natasha, then in a white dress of gauze; if Kuragin, then in an operetta uniform with gold braids; if Kutuzov, then in a forage cap with a brass telescope in hand.

War and Peace. Lauren Michelle (Natasha) and Jonathan Mc Govern (Andrey) Photo: Clive Barda

If we consider Prokofiev’s War and Peace to be an epic propaganda fresco, praising the unity of the Soviet people in conflict with the foreign invasion, then Pountney executed his task masterfully. If we go back to the sources of inspiration and follow how the composer drew the protagonists by purely musical means – then he suffered an ignominious defeat. The opera was presented with a choice cast; despite this, most of the singers were not able to breathe life into their paper characters. It is difficult to be surprised, given that several soloists had to perform in multiple roles:  Simon Bailey, with his light, completely ‘un-Russian’ bass, thrashed back and forth between Balaga, Marshal Davout and the grotesquely-constructed character of Kutuzov. The otherwise splendid David Stout changed costumes from Denisov into Napoleon, along the way portraying Dolokhov and General Rayevsky. American soprano Lauren Michelle in the role of Natasha did not go beyond a ditzy airhead stereotype. Jonathan McGovern was not able to fully show the transformation of his Bolkonsky (and a pity, because he is a sensitive musician with a high, well-handled lyric baritone). Paradoxically, the one who came out best was Mark Le Brocq in the role of Bezukhov – a powerful role written by Prokofiev for spinto tenor, requiring no small ability to reconcile singing with a convincing vision of a good-natured loser who undergoes an amazing metamorphosis over the course of the narrative.

We had to wait almost until the end of the opera for the one and only scene in which Pountney reminded us of his former greatness and, at the same time, got to the heart of the musical message. In the episode of Bolkonsky’s death, I had before my eyes his former productions with the English National Opera. The vertically hanging bed, the skewed lines, the completely disturbed perspective, and in the middle, the feverish Andrey, dying to the ghostly accompaniment of the chorus singing from the wings. And then suddenly it became as if in Tolstoy, whose delirious prose Prokofiev translated excellently into the language of sound: ‘But perhaps it is my shirt on the table,’ thought Prince Andrey, ‘and that’s my legs, and that’s the door, but why this straining and moving and piti-piti-piti and ti-ti and piti-piti-piti… Enough, cease, be still, please.’ Another matter that it was in this scene that the orchestra scaled the heights of interpretation under the baton of Tomáš Hanus – a compliment all the greater that the conductor took in the whole work with an admiration-worthy feel for style, at splendidly-chosen tempi and in strongly contrasting dynamics (separate words of praise for the WNO chorus).

Soon it will be spring; and with it, Pountney’s next, no doubt last staging at this theatre – Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Will there again be gold braids, epaulets and bandoliers crossed over chests? Or maybe the director will surprise the audience with something else after all? Maybe he will leave behind an impression that he has not yet said it all?

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Life with a Dead Thing Inside

If it was not for the tragedy that happened less than a half a year after our return, I would have remembered Afghanistan as a land of surprising colours, amazing scents, and above all outstanding people – mature above their age, tireless in the pursuit of their aims, sensitive and responsible. We had a unique occasion to enter their community and enjoy its kindnesses: we, two teachers from the West, carrying out our original teaching programs with a group of teenagers in a school in the remote countryside, we who were guests in the house of a local social activist for several months. As it turned out, despite long and seemingly professional preparation, we came to Afghanistan with a burden of countless stereotypes. I had written about it in my reportage Good Desert: about the bias of noble mujahideens and cowardly Talibans; about the sexist stereotype of a woman hidden under burqa by her jealous man; about the feminist stereotype of a woman enslaved by a traditional division of masculine and feminine roles. We left this place with clear heads, full of hopes for the future. We did not even think that the most deeply rooted bias – the stereotype of a coloniser, the goodhearted visitor muzzling the native population with education – will let down our guard and will put our Afghan host at risk of vengeance by the people who had seen us as intruders from the beginning.

And so the memories from Afghanistan were outshouted by a desperate cry of a daughter who called me from the other corner of the world, lamenting over her father’s corpse, who died just a moment ago in an assassination. In that moment, I have changed my perspective on educational and aid campaigns in countries at war. I am distrustful towards initiatives that are undertaken far away from the injustices they are aimed against, the injustices that mainly target children and women. I share the doubts of female activists of Afghan local organizations – such as members of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who accuse Western feminists of protectionism and narrowing down their horizons merely to problems existing in their culture. When Krystian Lada, a director, librettist and dramaturge, known for his work in the Great Theatre—National Opera in Warsaw and Wrocław Opera (Poland), invited me to Brussels to watch the opera-installation Unknown, I Live With You, I accepted the invitation immediately, but certain doubts remained. I knew from the start that the libretto would be based on poetry of anonymous Afghan women, members of  New York-based the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, supported by RAWA. I was worried that their shocking confessions would disappear in the flood of cheap journalism; instead of opening people’s hearts to the experience of Afghan tragedy, they would strengthen the belief in our superiority over the cursed civilisation of the barbarians.

Gala Moody. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

The day before the premiere, straight from the airport, I went to the dress rehearsal to Les Brigittines – a former chapel of Bridgettines, desacralised in the end of 18th century and for over 200 years used as: a storage place, an arsenal of weapons, a prison and a marketplace with a ballroom on the second floor; and finally converted to the Centre d’Art contemporain du Mouvement et de la Voix. The centre started its activity at full speed in 2007, after maintenance works of the interior of the baroque temple and building of an additional annex with a modern edge, designed by Italian architect Andrea Bruno. I entered this space in the dark, surrounded by the music of Katarzyna Głowicka: minimalistic, hazy, but at the same time bursting with underlying emotion. A moment later, from the sounds of string quartet and live electronics, human voices emerged – the register-wandering voice of Lucia Lucas and the poignant scream of dancer Gala Moody. All good and bad memories from Afghanistan crossed my mind. The trauma was back. My doubts were gone. I knew already that the next day I will come face to face with the musicians, who profoundly experienced the tragedy of Afghan women and do not want to just reinterpret it, but to simply understand it.

Each of the three parts of this piece of music is sung by a different opera singer and each reveals a different story, woven from the poetry of a few Afghan women (hiding under aliases: Roya, Meena Z., Fattemah AH and Freshta). Małgorzata Walewska personated the role of a woman deprived of dignity, in a forced marriage, degraded as a human being. This creation is more harrowing than many performances in the “real” opera. Rape, violence and experience of motherhood are tackled in the appearance of the aforementioned Lucia Lucas – herself a transgender woman who inherited from her past incarnation a masterfully guided  velvet bass-baritone voice (in this part of triptych it is interwoven with a falsetto, which gave a seismic effect of a dialogue between executioner and his victim, in one person). Raehann Bryce-Davis, phenomenally talented mezzo-soprano singer with a thick, specific “black” voice, after a short prologue began an eerie grievance of a girl wounded in an explosion. Her lamentation grew, it peaked, it died down, and then it finally unloaded in a quasi-ballad about wild car driving – a dream of many young Afghan women, especially in the countryside, who are not allowed to drive due to the custom.

Raehann Bryce-Davis. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

To shook the listener, the poetry would be enough, accompanied by a well-fitting music and altogether creating a coherent dramatic whole. Nevertheless, the authors went a step further. Krystian Lada and other authors of the installation (Natalia Kitamikado – production design; Maarten Warmerdam – lighting; Pim Dinghs – video projections) placed the narrative in a space resembling a morgue. The performers, including the members of The Airport Society String Quartet (Tomasz Aleksander Plusa, Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, Clara Sawada and Natania Hoffman) and music director Pedro Beriso, are dressed in blue, hospital gowns. Everyone, except for the dancer, but I will come back to that in a moment. On the black floor of the chapel merely a few props: a movable metal cart, a galvanized bucket with water and a sponge. On the cart Gala Moody, deadly pale, lies down in a nude-colored leotard. The corpse evokes imagination of the narrators whose profession is corpse washing – the act that is at the same time tender and deeply degrading. The dead, who upon hearing their poetry comes back to life, cries in pain, defends itself from rape, looses legs, in the finale strongly pushes the metal cart – as a substitute of real car ride. That is the reality of everyday life in Afghanistan destructed by conflicts. There, no one knows what is the border of death. No one knows if life even differs from death.

The final scene. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

After such an experience it is hard to talk about joy, but I cannot name otherwise this overwhelming feeling of seeing the reaction of the other spectators – those curious, often unaware participants of Brussels’ Nuit Blanche (the Museum, Gallery and Theatre Night in one). They cried. They closed their eyes. The more and more people were showing up on succesive parts of the Unknown. Maybe they will understand one day that Afghanistan is not a country from which one brings pictures of savages in turbans and boys armed with Kalashnikovs. It is a country that was humiliated, profaned, degraded. The country in which the ideas of good and bad, of friendship and hostility have a much different meaning than in the West. Helping this country is as hard as helping a woman that was raped. And this country needs the help as desperately as she does.

Translated by: Natalia Copeland

From Cradle to Grave

My short essay from the CD booklet of Russian Album (Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky / Agata Schmidt, Bartłomiej Wezner) – just released by Academy of Music Feliks Nowowiejski in Bydgoszcz.

***

On the surface, they had nothing in common. Modest Mussorgsky came from the unruly boyar aristocracy, descendants of the Rurik dynasty whose knyazes (princes) gave birth to Kievian Rus’ and ruled the Grand Duchy of Moscow until the beginning of the 17th century. In keeping with the family tradition, Modest took up military career in the famous Preobrazhensky Regiment, a breeding ground for the command elite of the tsar’s army. He was excellent on the piano (he began to learn at the age of six, under his mother’s guidance), but as a composer he was self-taught. He got his first experience in the field in the cadet school, where he would entertain his peers by playing at dances – mixing lively polkas and sweeping waltzes with his own piano improvisations. While serving at the St. Petersburg military hospital, the seventeen-year-old Mussorgsky met Alexander Borodin, five years his senior. Thus began his association with the Mighty Handful, a group of composers inspired by the operatic heritage of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky, who with time would contribute to the consolidation of the Russian national school in music. Mussorgsky quit the army, joined the civil service, made some extra money as an improviser and accompanist, but, above all, he composed. He wrote music which his contemporaries found strange – seemingly romantic in spirit and seemingly deeply rooted in Russian folklore, yet shocking in its innovative use of technical devices which in many respects were ahead of the achievements of the French composers from the turn of the 20th century. Over the years Mussorgsky’s chaotic oeuvre turned out to be the most complete embodiment of the ideas of the Handful, although its other members – including Rimsky-Korsakov – regarded him as somewhat of a dilettante.

Tchaikovsky photographed probably by Władysław Pachulski in 1890.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was born in a family of well-to-do, though still modest, tsarist officials. Ever since his great-grandfather, the Cossack Fyodor Chaika, distinguished himself in the Battle of Poltava, successive generations of Tchaikovskys had dutifully entered into the service of the Empire. Pyotr’s education followed a well-established model of the day: first piano lessons at the age of five, boarding school started at the age of eight and then law school at the university. Tchaikovsky began to study music regularly, under Anton Rubinstein, only after he turned twenty, enrolling in the newly opened St. Petersburg Conservatory one year later. Soon after he made the brave decision to commit himself wholly to music. He graduated with honours and practically right away started teaching at the conservatory. He was in touch with members of the Mighty Handful, although their ideals were completely alien to him. He felt stifled in Russia and travelled extensively, also overseas. It was his ambition to write music that would preserve the features of the Russian style, yet so perfect technically that it would be appreciated by the fastidious Western audiences. Essentially, he was an academic – in contrast to the composers of the Handful, none of whom received regular conservatory education. He referred to Mussorgsky as a “hopeless case”, a man whose great talent was equal only to his narrow mind, completely devoid of aspiration and a desire to develop. He failed to see Modest’s work as an expression of rebellion against the fossilized status quo. Mussorgsky, on the other hand, could not understand that Tchaikovsky’s cosmopolitanism was a sign that he did not belong to any group.

And yet the West would come to love both of them and consider their oeuvres as a distinct reflection of the mythical “Russian soul”. Where does this strange affinity between two extremely different personalities come from? These omnipresent folk melodies, scales and rhythms – in Tchaikovsky’s case filtered through the Western sensibility, and raw, awkward and painfully real in Mussorgsky’s works? Perhaps this is because every child of 19th-century Russian landowners would take their first steps and learn about the world under the care of a nanny – usually an illiterate serf woman who would put the young masters to sleep, singing folk lullabies, and when they were bad, frighten them with monsters from Russian fairy tales. No one referred to this tradition with more emotion and understanding than Mussorgsky: at first directly, in the song cycle The Nursery (1868–71) set to his own lyrics, and then in a less direct manner – identifying the nanny with the ominous figure of Death – in the Songs and Dances of Death to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1875–77). Both these cycles, as well as the songs from the Sunless cycle, written between them, make up a striking picture of human life – from the cradle to the grave. Both represent a “vocal theatre” of sorts, with a masterful dramatic structure and stage directions provided by the composer. The Nursery begins with a short scene in which the little boy Mishenka is begging his nanny for a fairy tale. He then proceeds to mess with her knitting, for which she makes him stand in the corner; he finds a large beetle and, with a flushed face, tells the nanny his adventure; for a while he lets a little girl lulling her doll to sleep take his place, only to come back on a wooden horse and prevent the cat from hunting the canary; he then daydreams a bit, and finally quarrels with his sister. In the Songs and Dances the nanny turns into Death: at first as a caring figure, rocking a dying baby in her bony arms, then as a seductive lover, tempting a young woman to follow him into the underworld; then, cunning and deceitful, luring a drunk freezing in the snow with a vision of fields filled with flowers, and finally, cruel and triumphant over the world, as a regiment commander leading his soldiers to die on the battlefield.

Photograph of Mussorgsky, taken in 1880 or 1881, a few months before his death.

‚My music must be be an artistic reproduction of human speech,’ Mussorgsky himself wrote. In all the songs the musical material is condensed to the utmost; there are no empty digressions, each structure represents a particular emotion. The composer does not use long phrases but much shorter sections, at times consisting of just a few words, at other times framed by a single word or even a single vowel-exclamation. The accompaniment merges with the vocal line into an inseparable, organic whole. The metre changes all the time, the accents shift, the intonation fluctuates like in a real-life exchange in a conversation between people. A masterful performance of Mussorgsky’s songs requires immaculate voice projection, perfect enunciation, and ability to handle dynamics and colouring, not to mention great acting skills.

It is no wonder that artists, both during recitals as well as on records, frequently intersperse this dense narrative with Tchaikovsky’s songs – with their equally obvious references to folklore distilled in the composer’s retort down to a drawing-room romance – a uniquely Russian answer to the German art song. It is also a one singing actor show, only slightly gentler, more organized, devoid of any features of cruel grotesque, shying away from realistic representation. Which does not mean that underneath this mask of refinement no muted emotions are brewing. Finally, it would be difficult to find a better song to bring a recital programme to a close than Where art Thou, Little Star?, written by Mussorgsky when he was barely eighteen – on the one hand, a still stanzaic piece based on the strict rules of functional harmony, and on the other a work heralding the innovation of the composer’s future cycles with its complicated chromatics, bitter fatality of the lyrics and despair lurking among the notes.

A melancholic cosmopolitan and a descendant of Russian boyars drinking himself into a stupor in sleazy joints. At first glance, they had nothing in common. In reality, they shared a longing for a lost childhood and a caring nanny who imperceptibly, too early for both of them, turned into death.

Translated by: Maciej Wacław

From Boulez Hall to Hospital Hall

I did not suppose that a short trip to Berlin before the season-opening production of The Queen of Spades in Oslo would come to occupy any longer-term place in my memory. I intended to see the Pierre-Boulez-Saal, opened a bit under 1.5 years ago at the new Barenboim-Said-Akademie, and assess its acoustics on the occasion of a concert by Ensemble intercontemporain as part of the Berlin Musikfest – at which Boulez’ legendary Le Marteau sans maître was preceded by Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op. 5 and Grisey’s Vortex temporum. And after the charms of contact with the intimate, superbly-designed chamber music hall seating a bit under 700 – where every person in the auditorium follows the performers’ efforts from a distance not exceeding 14 meters – to experience the completely different atmosphere at Operahuset, which in 2008, after over 700 years, deprived the Gothic cathedral in Trondheim of its status as the largest public building in Norway. And there, in this Neo-Modernist wonder of steel, wood, white granite, Carrara marble and glass, growing out of the waters of a fjord like an iceberg – to see and hear Tchaikovsky’s blood-chilling opera in a production from Toulouse, freshened up after ten years and directed by Arnaud Bernard.

Meanwhile, the modest evening in Berlin provided me with material for lengthy reflections. For instance, on respect for the music of the Boulez-Saal’s patron and its accompanying contexts. Boulez took quite some time to familiarise himself with Berg’s œuvre; for this reason, it was a wonderful idea to include the latter’s miniatures for clarinet and piano on the program, in the superb interpretation of Martin Adámek and the ever-dependable Dimitri Vassilakis, who skillfully highlighted the dramaturgical potential contained in these pieces written in a still Webern-like spirit. In turn, Grisey – despite his respect for Boulez – criticised the premises of his compositional technique, opposing to it his own concept of spectral music. All the more, therefore, do I appreciate the decision to present Vortex temporum, a synthesis of the mature period of his œuvre, based on three forms of a sound spectrum and three levels of tempo, reflecting the different time of people and animals – a phenomenal work and outstanding performance under the baton of Matthias Pintscher, with the sensational Vassilakis at the retuned piano. Le Marteau sans maître, presented after the intermission, induced me in turn to reflect upon the art of adaptation. Boulez embodied the idea of total serialism, expanded to all parameters of the work; he deconstructed the solo vocal part, blurring the boundaries between voice and instrument; he broke with linearism of narrative. All of this in order to create an equivalent to the poetry of René Char – far from musical illustration of the text. It is a hammer not so much without a master, as taken over by another craftsman, namely Maître Boulez, as Salomé Haller – gifted with a distinctive though not too beautiful mezzo-soprano – highlighted perfectly, weaving the large intervallic leaps, glissandi and murmurandi in her part into the shimmering instrumental texture.

Pierre Boulez. Photo: Kai Bienert

It is in similar terms – as an adaptation – that we must treat Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. I previously wrote about the divergences between the libretto and the text of Pushkin’s novella on the occasion of the superb staging at Opera Holland Park in 2016. Out of professional obligation as a reviewer, I pointed out that in several episodes, director Rodula Gaitanou had too hastily set out on the path of Stanisławski and Meyerhold, who were the first to attempt to ‘reconcile’ the opera to its prototype. In order to convince oneself that that is not the way to go, it will suffice to have a look at the score, and then – for that extra bit of certainty – take a glance at the libretto too. The literary Countess is no demon: she ‘did not have a wicked soul; but she was capricious, as a woman spoiled by high society, stingy, and sunk in cold egoism, like all old people, whose time for love is in the past, and who are strangers to the present’ (tr. Richard Pevear). The opera’s Herman has little to do with the stingy, calculating, sometimes irrefutably ridiculous officer from Pushkin’s tale. He is a tragic figure with whom Tchaikovsky himself identified; furthermore, as Tchaikovsky’s correspondence shows, he all but boasted of this: Herman is a metaphor of the Russian intelligentsia member, a person with no prospects, aware that the spectre of extinction floats over the Empire. Tchaikovsky’s Herman falls into a gambling addiction because he is as poor as a church mouse – and he knows that only a win at the casino will open the door for him to marry his beloved Liza.

And indeed, he falls – and that, very gradually. The first symptoms of nervous breakdown appear in Herman only at the beginning of Act III. Meanwhile, in Oslo, the curtains parted on the sounds of the overture, revealing a regular madman shaken by convulsions, in a costume resembling a straitjacket. In the finale of Act I, Herman threatens Liza with a revolver – and that, a tiny one just right for a woman’s handbag; let us recall that according to the libretto, the scene finishes with a passionate embrace of the lovers. The tension does not grow, because there is nothing for it to grow out of – unless anyone was surprised by the episode with the Countess’ ghost appearing in the morgue, Liza’s death in the shower at the bathhouse with walls dripping with blood, or the sight of Herman dying from a suicidal shot in the crotch.

The Queen of Spades in Oslo. Svetlana Aksenova (Liza). Photo: Eric Berg

From the very beginning, I had the impression that I had seen it all somewhere before, and it had been equally nonsensical. Then I remembered: in the production of Lev Dodin, an otherwise superb theatrical stage director who has worked little in the opera, and only outside of Russia – not counting the staging of The Queen of Spades that premièred in 1998 in Amsterdam, made its way onto several other European stages, and then reopened a year ago in Moscow. Where it encountered withering criticism – for the aforementioned reasons. Dodin read Pushkin to the very end, recalled that Herman ‘sits in the Obukhov hospital, room 17, does not answer any questions, and mutters with extraordinary rapidity’ (tr. Richard Pevear), and decided to correct Tchaikovsky. In his version, the action plays out in the madhouse and in the protagonist’s sick imagination. Exactly as with Bernard, who juggles the narrative between the psychiatric hospital rooms and the interior of the decaying palace (admittedly, beautiful stage design by Alessandro Camera). So that it won’t be boring, he organises the pastorale from Act II at a Soviet commune set up ‘as an artist from the West imagines the daily life of a poor civil servant in the USSR’. The episode with Liza’s friends looks like it is taken straight from some Onegin production; and the finale at the casino, like a scene from the American film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago. To sum up, this entire conglomerate of hackneyed clichés, interpretative errors and overt plagiarism could only do harm to the musical plane of the show, especially in the ‘corrected’ version – that is, the perspective pushed to the limits of the absurd from Oslo.

A pity, because with such a cast, one can move mountains. Count Tomsky – the technically sensational Boris Statsenko, gifted with a sonorous and beautifully rounded baritone – emerged from the oppression reasonably unscathed. Yeletsky – in the person of the young and eminently promising Konstantin Shushakov – was characterized more as a pimp than a prince, and came off somewhat worse; even so, his ardent interpretation of the aria ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ from Act II was one of the brighter points of the production. Svetlana Aksenova – with a velvety yet movingly girlish, focused and intonationally very secure soprano at her disposal – would have been the Liza of my dreams, were it not for the increasing gulf between her part and what was happening onstage (and sometimes also in the orchestra pit, but more about that in a moment). The same applies to Herman (Peter Wedd), who has clearly toughened up in vocal terms since his London debut: he built the tension ideally in the arioso ‘Prosti, nebesnoye sozdanye’ and was enchanting with his fluent phrasing and deep lyricism in the excellent duet with Liza in Act III (bravos for both protagonists). His uncommon musicality and the beautiful, baritone-like tone of his voice make him eminently predisposed for this part – on the condition that he polishes his still artificial-sounding Russian and finds a director who will not encumber him with a multitude of acting tasks as awkward as they are unjustified. I was again disappointed by the Countess (Hege Høisæter) – yet another wonderful mezzo-soprano who realises this shocking part in a manner resembling the Witch from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. However, I shall address many warm words to Tone Kummervold, who debuted in the role of Polina.

Peter Wedd (Herman). Photo: Eric Berg

It is a pity that the conductor as well – Lothar Koenigs, who is after all very experienced and highly rated by the critics – got in the way of these wonderful singers. He conducted The Queen of Spades like Götterdämmerung – with a heavy hand, without the characteristic Russian ‘sing-song’, not maintaining eye contact with the soloists, choosing bizarre tempi. The ghostly first scene of Act III slipped by, as it were, imperceptibly; the heartbreaking chorus in the finale – the composer’s intimate farewell to his beloved Herman, a superfluous man, the victim of a Mother Russia grown monstrous – ended as if cut off with a sharp knife. They covered Herman with plastic wrap for corpses, strapped him to the bed and rushed off into the wings. No one prayed for his tormented soul. No one prayed for Tchaikovsky.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski