Longing for Innocence

The song cycles of Schumann and Britten share a longing for innocence, an adult’s attempt at regaining childishness. One and the other reflect the myth of the first stage in a person’s life as a path of no return, lamented like some paradise lost. After the outstanding success of Ian Bostridge in Katowice:

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For the child to exist, it had to be invented. Before childhood began to be regarded as a separate stage in human life, many languages did not even have a word to define this curious miniature person. That does not mean to say that no one was concerned with children or that their biological needs were widely neglected. Yet a kind of preselection was made, depending on various factors: social, economic and even political. A child could be put to death, abandoned or excluded. It could be separated from its mother in the same way that six-month-old foals are taken from suckling mares. The dawn of an emotional approach to little human beings was marked by fear: those delicate creatures of God required not only care, but conversion. They were as weak, mindless and primitive as cattle. They stirred no more emotion in observers than trained monkeys. They were often mere playthings in adult hands. They were accompanied everywhere, ate what their carers ate, slept with them and observed their sexual activities, and matured through work.

In the eighteenth century, they gained autonomy. It was a peculiar autonomy at first: adults began to look at children as if in a mirror, perceiving in the little ones their own lost innocence, treating childhood as a prefiguration of adult life, with all its ups and downs, and regarding a child as a being suspended between two worlds, a metaphor of infinity, a bridge to God and heaven.

Clara Schumann and her children (1853).

The first attempt to create an international system for the protection of children’s rights only came in the early twentieth century. In 1924, the General Assembly of the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration, the most crucial postulate of which read that ‘the child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured’. The myth of a romantic childhood, derived from the ideas of Rousseau, dominated throughout the nineteenth century, and in some people’s awareness it lasts still today: the image of the first stage in human life as a trail of contradictions, a path of no return, often marked by suffering, yet lamented like a lost paradise.

The song cycles by Schumann and Britten share this longing for innocence, adults’ attempts at regaining their childishness. None of these songs is suitable for performance by a child: at most, one might sing it to a child, but only a mature listener will penetrate its deeper layers of meaning. Schumann wrote his Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op. 79 in 1849, when he already had behind him a long history of depression, the grave illness of his third daughter and the death of his eagerly awaited first son. This cycle – although peopled by numerous figures from a child’s imagination – is too long for a child’s perception; at times, it even seems too exhausting for an adult singer. Meanwhile, the Five Songs to Words by Andersen (in loose translations by Adelbert von Chamisso), Op. 40, composed ten years earlier, in the year of his wedding with Clara Wieck, come across rather as a homage to his young wife’s lost childhood. Schumann fell in love with Clara when she was just twelve, and for the next ten years or so he struggled to win consent for their marriage from her father, who was interested mainly in his daughter’s career as a pianist. That may explain why the piano is more prominent in this composition, and it is the instrument – not the words – that articulate the ‘childishness’ in the poetry: the musical equivalent of the creaking of a cradle, a boy’s marching like a soldier, someone crying over a first betrayed love. A similar idea appears to have informed the cycle of piano miniatures entitled Kinderszenen (1838) – these are not ‘easy pieces’ for children, but tales from a child’s room, told in songs without words.

Edith Britten and her children (1915).

Britten treated his text completely differently. Both in Winter Words (1953), to poetry by Thomas Hardy, and in the cycle Who Are These Children? (1969), composed to verse by the Scottish poet William Soutar, he assumes the role of translator rather than interpreter. If he does interfere in the verbal material, he does so like Janáček, employing deliberate repetition, reinforcing the expression of the message. The first cycle is a melancholy, thoroughly Romantic journey from the state of childish naivety to the bitter self-awareness of old age. The second is a modernist trip around the by-ways of life, from childishness told in Scottish dialect to a sad adulthood of polished English and back again – the story of an outcast torn between the innocence of a boy and the hard-heartedness of a grown man.

In Britten’s songs, we begin to observe a significant crack in our relationship with the idea of childhood – a breach that has accompanied us to this day. It is the sense that the child has been forcefully banished from the world of adults, enclosed by our overprotectiveness in a safe haven, from which it will one day emerge unprepared for the cruelty of adulthood. We should be thankful that at least composers try to fill that chasm of misunderstanding.

Translated by: John Comber

The Daughter of Fornication and the Awful Prophet

It appears that Opera North is able to turn any adverse situation to its own advantage. Because the orchestra pit at the Grand Theatre is not able to fit a large orchestral ensemble, during the last part of the season the musicians focus on only one work – and that, one of the most demanding in terms of the number of performers required – and tour England with it, starting at the impressive auditorium in Leeds City Hall. In order to satisfy an audience thirsty for theatre, they present the work in a semi-staged version, without expensive props and costumes, discreetly stage-directing the singers gathered in the foreground in front of the orchestra. This requires considerably more precision and imagination than a traditional opera staging, but it yields superb effects, as is attested by the successes of Der Ring des Nibelungen from two years ago and last year’s Turandot. It sometimes happens that Opera North puts its money on the wrong horse and wins despite that: I have in mind its last music director, who in April 2017 broke his contract in quite mysterious circumstances, thereby giving Turandot and the crowning work of the current season, Salome, into the hands of another conductor. But we shall speak about that in a moment.

As I write these words, Richard Strauss’ scandalous drama is still on tour with the Opera North ensemble. I managed to catch Salome at the Warwick Arts Centre on the University of Warwick campus. The university, located in suburban Coventry, numbers among the seven ‘plate glass universities’ erected at the beginning of the 1960s on the initiative of the University Grants Committee. The name ‘plate glass universities’ attached itself to them on account of their modernist architecture, sharply contrasting with the appearance of Oxford’s and Cambridge’s medieval buildings and with that of later brick layouts from Industrial Revolution times. The University of Warwick occupies a surface area of nearly three square kilometers, and is a self-sufficient campus with splendidly-functioning infrastructure. Anyone who gets bored of studying in the 24-hour library or lying out on the grass among the tamed wild geese can take advantage of the abundant offerings of the Arts Centre, the largest British ‘cultural combine’ after London’s Barbican. The building is also home to the freshly-renovated Butterworth Hall – with its intriguing pseudo-industrial decoration, superb acoustics and functionally-designed auditorium with over 1500 seats.

Jennifer Holloway (Salome) and Oliver Johnston (Narraboth). Photo: Robert Workman.

Even so, the orchestra – though still slimmed down by about a dozen instruments included by Strauss in this mammoth score – took up nearly the entire stage. In comparison with previous Opera North ‘semi-stagings’, the concept for Salome turned out to be even more economical (stage director: PJ Harris; lighting: Jamie Hudson). It was missing not only Jokanaan’s head, but also the dance of the seven veils. There was also a lack of clear interaction between the characters. Which is all well and good – because in this work, there is no such interaction. No one here converses or sympathizes with anyone. The only human figure in this bloody story – populated by degenerates ruled by animal instinct and by repulsive fanatics – seems to be the young, lovesick Narraboth. The stage director made the wise decision to leave these monsters to themselves and lay bare their emotions. Each one had to build their character from scratch: with singing, gesture and body language. In this Salome, there is no dirt, jewels or blood – but for all that, there is pure hatred, lust and desire for vengeance. And enough ambiguities to provoke the viewer to independently put the narrative together into a single whole.

PJ Harris’ concept would have misfired, were it not for the commitment of the soloists, who in most cases gave properly-finished creations. I did not expect to hear a world-class Salome at Butterworth Hall. The American Jennifer Holloway began her career as a mezzo-soprano, gradually involving herself in more and more difficult roles scored for dramatic soprano. Today, she has a voice that is ideally balanced, with a splendidly open top register and sonorous low notes (including the famous contralto G-flat in the final monologue), but above all, dark and sensuous, thanks to which she was able to create a princess close to Strauss’ ideal. This was no spoiled girl, but rather a passionate woman panting with sexual desire – to this day, my ears resound with the phrase ‘Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan’, with the last syllable of the prophet’s name accented so lecherously that even I flinched with revulsion. Beyond this, Holloway is a wonderful actress and a beautiful, strong woman in ironclad vocal condition. Jokanaan in the person of Robert Hayward literally quaked at the sight of her, though I must admit that with his phenomenal acting, he was making up a bit for the deficiencies of his now slightly worn bass-baritone. Mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus likewise paled in comparison with Salome, though even so, her vengeful Herodias attained far-above-average heights. Arnold Bezuyen, a superb character tenor gifted with an unerring feel for the Strauss idiom, turned out to be a perfect Herodes. Basically, there were no weak points in this cast: separate words of praise, however, are due to Oliver Johnston (Narraboth), who sang out his unrequited love with one of the purest and most golden-toned lyric tenors I have heard in recent times.

Arnold Bezuyen (Herodes) and Katarina Karnéus (Herodias). Photo: Robert Workman.

The collective hero of the evening turned out to be the orchestra under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong – playing with a beautiful, shimmering sound, in unity without smothering the individuality of the musicians, aptly bringing out the kaleidoscopic variety of this score. Much of the credit for this goes to the experienced conductor, a distinguished connoisseur of the scores of Verdi, Strauss, Janáček and Wagner who served as assistant to, among others, Solti, Kubelik and Klemperer during the golden years of the ROH. Armstrong also led last year’s Turandot, having substituted at the last minute for the Opera North music director, who had left his post a few months after being hired. But after the première of Der Rosenkavalier, with which he opened his first season, the critics predicted a superb career for him in the Strauss repertoire and awaited him impatiently on the podium in Salome. Is it the curse of the Fitelberg Competition, whose winners cannot later make a name for themselves on the music market? For the name of the conductor who disappeared was Aleksandar Marković, who took 1st place ex aequo with the Lithuanian Modestas Pitrėnas in Katowice in 2003. But let us not jump to conclusions; maybe he will hit the big time yet. The example of Sir Richard Armstrong appears to indicate, however, that real opera conductors should not be sought among competition winners, but rather among people whom opera once ‘hit right between the eyeballs’. I cite Armstrong’s own words with which, in an interview, he once summed up his first encounter with the queen of musical forms.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Virgin Queen and Her Last Lover

The most powerful men in the world – among them King Philip II Habsburg of Spain; Eric Vasa, later king of Sweden; and the archdukes of Austria – Ferdinand I Habsburg and his son Charles of Styria – vied for her hand.  She refused them all. The court was abuzz with gossip and her enemies called her ‘the whore of Europe’; meanwhile, Elizabeth I consistently cultivated her status as the Virgin Queen, a woman not subject to any man, thanks to which fact she could rule the country independently. It was more difficult for her to maintain a reputation as a woman immune to flights of feeling. She was always surrounded by favourites, from Robert Dudley, the ‘sweet Robin’ with whom she fell in love back in her childhood, and whose premature decease she mourned so long and painfully that her courtiers had to break down the door to her chamber. She was fascinated by beautiful, intelligent and ambitious men. Increasingly younger with the passing years. In 1587, she received Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – Dudley’s godson and later stepson – into her group of favourites. Robert was captivatingly handsome… and rotten to the core. He whispered false compliments into the queen’s ear, danced the galliard with her, played cards and chess with her until all hours of the night, in an effort to relax her vigilance and attain a better position in the ruthless battle for power. In 1599, right in the middle of the Irish war against English rule, he convinced Elizabeth to put him at the head of an army of 16 000 and entrust him with the mission of quashing the rebellion. He squandered the campaign and entered into treasonous alliances, but when he realized his error, it was too late. This time, the queen did not forgive him. She divested him of all privileges, and finally sent him under the executioner’s hatchet. She died two years after the decapitation of her last favourite: numb, indifferent to the world, submerged in deep depression.

The tragic story of their relationship – viewed through the prism of Freudian psychoanalysis – was described by Lytton Strachey in his book entitled Elizabeth and Essex. It was this book which became the main source of inspiration for William Plomer, librettist for the opera Gloriana, the greatest failure Britten experienced in his lifetime. Elizabeth II, daughter of George VI, was proclaimed as queen on 7 February 1952. A few weeks later, Britten and Peter Pears went skiing in the company of the Earl of Harewood, at that time director of Covent Garden. Harewood, encouraged by the recent success of Billy Budd, suggested that the composer write an opera in honour of the coronation planned for the next year. Britten threw himself into a frenzy of work. In May 1953, a few weeks before the planned première, the players of the lead roles – Pears as Essex and Joan Cross as Elizabeth – presented selected fragments with piano accompaniment to the royal couple at the Harewoods’ London residence. Already then, the singers sensed an impending catastrophe. Cross was shocked by the complete lack of interest on the part of the audience, hidden beneath the mask of court etiquette. From the beginning, Pears had felt uncomfortable in the role of Robert – so much so that Britten reportedly considered transposing it for a bass voice and engaging Bulgarian singer Boris Christoff. The production was received icily. There was a shower of accusations that the creators had offended the queen even just with their selection of subject matter for the opera. The critics reproved the dramaturgical weaknesses of the libretto, as well as the imitative and pompous character of the music. Gloriana was omitted from the recording of Britten’s complete works conducted by composer. It has returned to the stage sporadically and often in unfortunate circumstances. A chance for it to take its place in the mainstream repertoire was seen only in 2013, on the occasion of Britten’s 100th birthday celebrations and the new staging prepared at the Royal Opera House as part of them.

Gloriana in Madrid, Act I. Photo: Javier del Real.

Sixty years after the world première, most of the charges leveled against the opera appear to be pointless. The supposedly imperfect libretto is astounding in the panache and psychological depth of its characters. The score holds true pearls – the wonderful monologue of the queen torn between feelings and duty, ending with an ardent prayer (‘Forgive and protect me, O God, my king, that I may rule and protect my people in peace’); the brilliant pastiches of court dances in Act II; the heartbreaking duet of the protagonists from Act III, shortly after Essex bursts into Elizabeth’s bedroom and is shocked to discover her shameful old age. The main axis of the drama is designated by the same motif as in Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – a forbidden love whose object must be gotten rid of or destroyed. Except that in this opera, the unfulfillable feeling concerns the queen: the personification of duty to the state and the nation, a providential being whose weakness it was unsuitable to display in the decade of the country’s rise from the ashes of wartime destruction. Gloriana had to wait for its chance. A few days ago, it made its entrance on the stage of the Teatro Real, conquering yet another barrier – the Spaniards’ aversion to the queen responsible for the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Scottish stage director David McVicar organized the space around a gigantic mobile astrolabe, or more properly, armillary sphere – a device that in this conception appears to symbolize not only the power of the authority wielded by Elizabeth, but also its limitations. The sun never sets on the empire: it circles endlessly over the round map of the world appropriated by the queen and trod by her subjects. It does not set because it is imprisoned in this sphere. The circles of the astrolabe turn about their own axis and emerge in various planes, but the construction holds firmly together. The entire evil – the intrigues, the lies, the treasonous instigations – are born outside and mercilessly infiltrate the depths of the sphere. Robert Jones’ stage design is complemented by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes, clearly inspired by the portrait painting of the period, and above all, by the masterful light design (Adam Silverman), highlighting not so much the splendour as the thickening gloom of the final years of Queen Gloriana’s reign. McVicar played out his stage gesture with typically British solicitude, having found a very intelligent ally in the person of Colm Seery (choreography), who did his thing in the court masque and ball scenes. The singers did an excellent job with their acting tasks, and chief among them Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elizabeth), who moved about the stage with a stiffness characteristic of a sickly woman crushed beneath the weight of age.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elizabeth). Photo: Javier del Real.

Antonacci’s voice took on full expression only at the end of Act I; however, her colourful, beautifully-aging soprano was an ideal match for the role assigned to it by Britten. I was somewhat less convinced by Leonardo Capalbo in the role of Robert Devereux, who possesses a tenor of not particularly memorable sound, at times over-vibrated and not too secure in intonation. In the duet from Act III, however, both of them rose to the heights of interpretation, carrying on their dialogue in two different shades of despair – Essex’s laden with desperate fear; and the queen’s, with painful resignation. Wonderful supporting characters were created by Duncan Rock (Mountjoy), Leigh Melrose (Robert Cecil), Paula Murrihy (Frances), and especially Sophie Bevan (Penelope), whose terrifying scream after the queen signs the sentence upon Essex rings in my ears to this day. Deserving of separate mention is Sam Furness in the small role of the Spirit of the Masque – sung in a tenor bringing to mind associations with the first person to play this role, William McAlpine. A year ago on this stage, Furness portrayed the role of the Novice from Billy Budd, another character created by McAlpine. Every time I hear him, I have an impression of continuity in a beautiful vocal tradition, carried on by a singer intelligent enough to resist current fashions.

Anna Caterina Antonacci and Leonardo Capalbo (Robert Devereux). Photo: Javier del Real.

The true revelation of the Madrid première, however, turned out to be the conductor. Ivor Bolton led Gloriana completely differently from his few predecessors. Instead of highlighting the ‘Elgarisms’ contained in the score, of underlining its pathos and sharp rhythmic contours – he delved into the depths of Britten’s inspirations. And then, it suddenly turned out that all those madrigals, anthems and lute songs are there for a reason. That Britten’s composition is not a spectacular medley of pseudo-Elizabethan melodies, but rather a deeply thought-out, sometimes ironic, sometimes melancholic, every now and then brutally blunt pastiche. In the pavane played in this way, one heard a foreshadowing of the impending tragedy. In Elizabeth’s prayer presented in this way, the desire for a peaceful reign clashed with the spectre of a painful past. All the more forcefully that Bolton had under his baton alert, sensitive musicians who reacted to every nod of his head.

The ovation after the première was surprisingly restrained. Two days later – now in Warsaw – I heard a broadcast of the third showing, received considerably more warmly by the audience. The ‘slighted child’, as Britten himself called Gloriana, is slowly emerging from oblivion. Let’s hope no one scares it away again.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Two Theatres

The constantly-repeated attempts to prove the superiority of Wagner’s output over Verdi’s œuvre (or vice versa) are condemned to failure from the outset. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to point out the similarities linking the composers, which are more than significant and tell us not so much about them in themselves, as about the era in which it was their lot to live. Born the same year, both were carried away by slogans of national unity and were equally disappointed with the fruits of the Springtime of Nations. Both were bitten by the bug of French grand opéra in their youth, and tried to allude to it in their works – in a frequently surprising, but always non-obvious manner. In the same year, 1859, they wrote works that grew out of their œuvre like dead-end branches of evolution – beautiful ‘black sheep’ that stirred up more in subsequent music history than in their own artistic careers. At that time, Wagner wrote Tristan. Verdi wrote Un ballo in maschera – living proof of the effectiveness of mixing styles as a vehicle for dramatic action and construction of complex human portraits using purely musical means. Both almost got to the heart of the matter, and then moved off in another direction, as it were overawed by how on-the-mark their activities turned out to be.

So it was all the more enthusiastically that I took the opportunity to get to Der Ring des Nibelungen in Karlsruhe via a somewhat roundabout route, passing through the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy along the way. The new staging of Ballo, prepared in co-production with the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Angers-Nantes Opéra and Opera Zuid in Maastricht, is a decidedly better match for this place than David Himmelmann’s staging of Kát’a Kabanová. The theatre in Nancy – hidden behind the 18th-century façade of the bishop’s palace, with the rich, historical-looking decoration of its reinforced concrete interior walls – is itself, after all, a building in costume, an edifice pretending to be something completely different. The production’s creators – Flemish stage director Waut Koeken, recently named executive director of the opera in Maastricht, and stage designer Luis F. Carvalho, a Portuguese man who has resided in London for nearly 30 years – went all out with the suggestion of theatre-within-theatre contained in the opera. Their Ballo plays out more or less in the era when the work was written, though the characters have had their original identity ‘restored’ from Scribe’s libretto to Auber’s opera Gustave III, which served as a model for Antonio Somma. A quite risky endeavour, especially since the production team decided to make references in a few scenes to the creators’ problems with censorship (for example, stylizing Gustavo as Napoleon III, who narrowly escaped falling victim to an assassination attempt that resulted in further intervention in the libretto from those days’ guardians of political correctness; and in the final account, in the breaking off of the creators’ collaboration with the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples). So instead of the Earl of Warwick in Boston from the times of Charles II, we got the king of Sweden in a 19th-century tailcoat, who dies at the hands of Anckarström not at the Stockholm Opera, but rather in San Carlo – for the final ball scene plays out against the background of the ceiling of the Neapolitan opera house, framed by rows of box seats like a stage proscenium. The action of the entire opera, furthermore, plays out as part of a peculiar performance within a performance – either on a stage shown onstage, or in the wings of said stage – forming a dual communication among the fictional characters, as well as between the singers and the audience. A procedure as old as the world itself – and that, executed masterfully, all the more so that the production team ensured not only beauty of costumes and scenery, but also believability of theatrical gesture.

Un ballo in maschera. Photo: Opéra national de Lorraine.

In the otherwise quite aptly-chosen ensemble, the most doubts were raised by the creators of the two lead roles. The experienced Stefano Secco (Gustavo) sang with a tired voice, strained and unattractive in timbre – and to make things worse, he did not succeed in lifting the weight of his character, who was missing both royal majesty and ‘solar’ ardour in his feelings for Amelia. The latter (Rachele Stanisci), in turn, was lacking in the technique necessary to meet the difficult demands of her role as the king’s beloved. Gifted with an otherwise well-favoured soprano, the Italian battled an excessively wide vibrato, closed high notes and ill-blended registers for the entire performance; she was able, however, to smooth out her vocal deficiencies with fine interpretation, especially moving in the Act III aria ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’. Oscar was played by Hila Baggio, impressive in freshness of voice and lightness of coloratura, but not too convincing in terms of character: instead of reflecting the ‘flighty’, hidden side of Gustavo’s personality, she played the role of the royal jester. About the remaining soloists, I can speak only in superlatives. Ewa Wolak sang Ulrica with a most genuine contralto – velvety in the middle, open and intonationally secure at the top, with an almost tenor-like sound in the low register. More importantly, however, she built this mysterious character with taste and an unerring feel for style, confirming that this is one of the most versatile singers in her unusual voice category. Giovanni Meoni (Anckarström), despite now slightly ‘smoky’ high notes, can still be considered a model Verdi singer – his superbly-placed baritono nobile is enchanting not only in softness of phrasing, but also in perfect understanding of the text and feel for the peculiar idiom. In the roles of the evil conspirators, Emanuele Cordaro (Horn) and Fabrizio Beggi (Ribbing) came out superbly – especially the latter, gifted with a sonorous, beautifully open bass and superb stage presence. The whole was complemented by the splendidly-prepared choir and the orchestra, which – under the baton of Rani Calderon, music director of the opera in Nancy – played in a truly inspired manner: with finesse and a rounded sound, pulsating in the rhythm of the Verdi phrase and not losing the tempo of this extraordinarily complex narrative even for a moment.

Das Rheingold. Matthias Wohlbrecht (Loge). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

The day after the performance of Un ballo in maschera, I completely immersed myself in the world of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Badisches Staatstheater. The leap was supposed to be reasonably gentle – after a visit to see Die Walküre in December 2016, I knew more or less what to expect of the whole cycle, which in line with the latest fashion was realized by four different stage directors – in this case, rising stars of the international stage. As much as Un ballo in maschera is a perfect match for the eclectic edifice of the Nancy opera house, the timeless Ring, suspended between two worlds, appears to fit perfectly into the Modernist space of the theatre in Karlsruhe. After the almost ecstatic experiences of nearly a year and a half ago, I was at least certain that musicians would not disappoint. I did not expect, however, that Die Walküre – about which I had, after all, reported more or less serious reservations – would remain the most deeply thought-out and best-polished segment of the Ring in theatrical terms. And what is worse, the only one in which the production team managed to get to the heart of the Wagnerian myth. Das Rheingold and Siegfried could be characterized as proper, sometimes witty, but basically quite banal director’s theatre. Götterdämmerung proved the stage director’s unparalleled arrogance – all the more horrifying that in terms of technique, the performance was basically flawless. The director knew what this masterpiece is about, and with a cruelty worthy of a barbarian decided to torture it to death.

Die Walküre. Peter Wedd (Siegmund). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

Das Rheingold promised to be quite a good show. David Hermann came up with the idea to ‘summarize’ the entire Ring in the introduction, weaving key motifs from its subsequent parts into Wotan’s gloomy visions. Unfortunately, led by his unerring instinct as a German post-dramatic director, he saddled his concept with an array of stereotyped solutions played ad nauseam – starting with the introduction of additional characters, and finishing with a partial ‘update’ of the plot that boils down the initial conflict to a business issue between a dishonest investor and two disappointed building developers. Fortunately, the down-to-earth world of Wotan-the-businessman clashes with the fantastic world of myth, which at certain moments creates quite convincing dramatic tension – not sufficiently powerful, however, to provide an effective counterweight to the tension contained in the score itself. In this combination, the dreamlike, symbol-laden Die Walküre directed by Yuval Sharon comes out more than positively. I refer interested parties to my previous review: I shall just add that in a few places, Sharon introduced corrections, generally justified, though I am not entirely sure if replacing the allegorical scene of Siegmund’s death, in which the son dropped dead at his father’s hand, with a literal duel scene with Hunding, was indeed a change for the better. Siegfried in Þorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s rendition again moves in the direction of banal reinterpretation of the myth – in other words, intergenerational conflict and the defeat of tradition in the battle with modernity. Mime’s forge is a peculiar rubbish heap of history, cluttered with a host of objects evoking the most diverse associations with German culture. In this mess, Siegfried carefully hides the attributes of teenage rebellion. Similar contrasts form the basis for the production’s entire concept, which essentially boils down to a confrontation of several different visions of theatre. In the finale, a Siegfried like something out of a comic book awakens a Brünnhilde taken, as it were, straight from a cheap oleograph. All in all, nothing special, though I must admit that the idea for the sword scene, in which Siegfried waits for Nothung to forge itself, contains much psychological truth and does, in a way, get to the heart of Wagner’s message.

Siegfried. Erik Fenton (Siegfried). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

I am a bit afraid I shall lose my temper describing the Götterdämmerung with which Tobias Kratzer regaled us, so I shall keep this short. For the three Norns, characterized as the stage directors of the preceding parts of the Ring, the idea for finishing off the cycle breaks off as suddenly as the rope of destiny. Which does not mean that the three directors (en travesti) will disappear from the stage for good. They will appear every now and again – as Valkyries, as Rhine maidens, as a women’s chorus – desperately trying to save a situation that has spun out of their control. And indeed, it has. Siegfried vows Brünnhilde love until death them do part… then starts to masturbate; Alberich gets the feeling that he will have something in common with Klingsor from Parsifal… and proceeds to castrate himself; Grane the horse appears onstage first alive, then dead (fortunately in the form of a mannequin), and finally gets eaten during a jolly grill party; the magic elixir turns out to be vodka, so Siegfried falls in love with Gudrun while drunk – and so on, until the final scene of mass destruction. Which boils down to Brünnhilde putting everyone straight: she herself sits down on the director’s chair and takes the action back to the point of departure. In other words, to the moment before Siegfried dug himself out from between the sheets and went out into the world. In my lifetime, I have seen stagings less in agreement with the letter of the libretto and the score. But I have never in my life seen a staging so vulgar that there were moments it took away my desire to listen to the music I adore. Kratzer managed to pull that off.

My grudge against him is all the greater that in musical terms, the Karlsruhe Ring is truly one of the best in the world. The Badische Staatskapelle under Justin Brown plays with verve and enthusiasm reminding one of Clemens Krauss’ interpretations from the golden years of Bayreuth – with a clear, saturated sound, masterfully diversifying dynamics, meticulously weaving textures, clearly layering sonorities. The soloists toughened up and, in most cases, built characters finished in every inch. This time Renatus Mészár, a singer of extraordinary intelligence and musicality, was completely in control of his velvety bass-baritone and reflected all of the stages in the fall of the king of the gods: from anger, to despair, to exhausted passivity. Heidi Melton as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre was almost perfect; while her dark and rich soprano betrayed signs of exhaustion in Siegfried, it regained its vigour in Götterdämmerung, though not quite totally open high notes did appear here and there. Katharine Tier got better and better with each performance – a quite good Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; heartbreaking with Erda’s sad prophecy in Siegfried; in terms of voice and character a daring Norn, Waltraute and Flosshilde in that wretched Götterdämmerung. The juicy and youthful, though in some people’s opinion a bit over-vibrated soprano of Catherine Broderick (Sieglinde) created an ideal counterweight to the ardent and, at the same time, surprisingly mature singing of Peter Wedd in the role of Siegmund. His Heldentenor is slowly ceasing to be jugendlich: with evenly-blended registers, tremendously sonorous, supported by a large wind capacity and, at the same time, dark and increasingly authoritative in sound, it gives him all of the predispositions necessary to perform the heavier Wagner roles, and opens up the path to a few other roles in the standard Helden-repertoire. Wonderful supporting characters were created by Avtandil Kaspeli (especially as Hunding) and Jaco Venter (Alberich).

Götterdämmerung. Katharine Tier (Waltraute, First Norn, Flosshilde), Dilara Baştar (Second Norn, Wellgunde), An de Ridder (Third Norn). Photo: Matthias Baus.

I have said nothing yet about Siegfried: in the third part of the cycle, Erik Fenton – gifted with a voice relatively small for this role, but well-favoured and beautifully, broadly phrased – did quite a nice job. In Götterdämmerung, I was not thrilled with Daniel Brenna, a singer whom one can fault for basically nothing – except for this: his interpretation leaves the listener perfectly indifferent. This is the first thing for which I fault the cast of this Ring. After a Siegmund with a voice like a bell and a role built from the foundations up to the roof, we got two Siegfrieds who did not equal him either in volume or in skillful shaping of their characters. I have more serious reservations about Loge. I do not know whose idea it was to give this role to an outstandingly character tenor – the otherwise technically and theatrically superb Matthias Wohlbrecht, who sang a daring Mime in Siegfried. After all, Loge is a beautiful, dangerous and scarily wise being. In a way, he is the axis around which the entire narrative revolves, a deity ‘almost ashamed’ that he has to identify with the other gods, a creature able to command respect even from Wotan. In the subsequent parts of the cycle, he is a great absence whose seductive voice will thenceforth be heard only in the orchestra. It is not without reason that Furtwängler and Böhm cast Windgassen in this role – and that, at the peak of his vocal powers.

But enchantment won out after all. Both in Nancy, and in Karlsruhe. At two theatres with such superb ensembles, such sensitive conductors and such a faithful, music-loving audience that they will yet survive more than one fashionable stage director, and more than one little casting error.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Love and Freedom with Death in the Background

One of them was born in Brno; the other spent most of his life there. Aside from that, they differed in every respect. Die tote Stadt – an opera by the 23-year-old Erich Korngold, the compositional Wunderkind whose ballet Der Schneemann had scored triumphs ten years earlier at the Vienna Hofoper – was sought out by two theatres at once. The world première took place on 4 December 1920, simultaneously in Hamburg and Köln. The Köln production was conducted by Otto Klemperer himself, and the roles of Marie/Marietta and Juliette were played by his wife, Johanna Geisler. For the next several years, the work scored an uninterrupted series of triumphs all over the world. Despite its enthusiastically-received première at the Národní divadlo in Brno (23 November 1921), Kát’a Kabanová – a mature masterpiece by the 67-year-old Janáček – suffered disaster a year later in Prague; and a week later, at the same Theater in der Glockengasse in Köln under the baton of the same Klemperer, an even worse one – so ignominious that the second showing never came to pass. Die tote Stadt appeared at the right time – it helped people to overcome their mourning of sons, husbands and fiancés killed during the Great War, as well as the victims of the deadly Spanish flu epidemic that had moved from the front and the POW camps to the civil population. Kát’a was a record of Janáček’s personal tragedy – his obsessive, unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová, the young married woman who also stood behind every note of The Cunning Little Vixen, the Glagolitic Mass and String Quartet no. 2.

I had been gearing up for the new staging of Kát’a Kabanová at the Opéra National de Lorraine for a long time. I had let someone drag me to a showing of Korngold’s opera at Semperoper Dresden a week before the première in Nancy, above all hoping to erase my bad impressions from the production at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera: the horrifically-cast role of Paul, the orchestra playing without the faintest idea of the youthful Austrian Jew’s sources of inspiration, not to mention Mariusz Treliński’s directorial perspective, which was as spectacular as it was nonsensical. Unfortunately, David Bösch did not resist the temptation to ‘literalize’ the libretto, which is loosely based on threads from Georges Rodenbach’s Symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte. The gloomy Bruges, covered by a network of slimy canals, is above all a metaphor for possessive femininity – both in the literary prototype and in the somewhat trivialized text of Die tote Stadt. It manipulates the mind of the widower in deep mourning, ‘returns’ his beloved Maria to him in the form of an imperfect double, pushes him to commit a crime – in Rodenbach’s work, a real one; and in Erich and his father Julius’ libretto, playing out in Paul’s tormented imagination. For all of this to strike an equally tender chord in the viewer as nearly 100 years ago, this tale needs to be left in a sphere of ambiguity. Meanwhile, Bösch lays out for the audience in the simplest possible terms that everything is taking place in the protagonist’s head. Instead of leaving us eye to eye with the monster-city, he treats us to a Freudian psychoanalysis with elements of Gestalt therapy. In his vision, there is no place for any contrast: everything is tainted by decay. Paul is stuck in his neglected petit bourgeois apartment, staring at a hideously ugly portrait of Maria, finding no comfort either in the words of his faithful servant Brigitta, who is more like a slovenly cleaning lady, or in the tirades of Frank, who is as broken as he himself is, and imprisoned in a wheelchair. He sees his dead wife in a woman too vulgar: oddly angular in motion for a dancer, clothed in a tacky-looking dress, behaving like a juvenile nymphomaniac. The production takes on a bit of colour in Act II, when Paul wanders in the night among the canals of Bruges – subtly suggested by Patrick Bannwart’s stage design – ending up among parades of nuns and commedia dell’arte characters, mixed in with figures of omnipresent death. It culminates in a procession scene illustrated with spectacular projections in Act III, after which it again sinks into the stuffily disordered apartment of Paul, who in desperation commits the supposed murder of Marietta. In the finale, there is no hope: the ‘resurrected’ dancer returns for her umbrella and leaves; the widower – after a final conversation with his friend – curls up in a ball in the dirty floor, cradling a curl of Marie’s golden hair. The mourning continues – contrary to the composer’s intentions and the sounds of the celesta dissolving into nothingness.

Die tote Stadt. Burkhard Fritz (Paul). Photo: David Baltzer.

In musical terms, on the other hand, the Dresden production took me to seventh heaven. The Staatskapelle, under the baton of Dmitri Jurowski, probably managed to convince all undecided parties that Korngold’s score is closer to the works of Zemlinsky and Mahler than to the hits of the Viennese operetta. In its transparent textures, swinging rhythms and subtly-shaded colours of individual orchestra sections lurked evil and salvation, longing for times past and sadness overcome by hope for a better tomorrow. In the rendition of Burkhard Fritz – possessed of an intonationally secure, not too expansive in terms of volume but surprisingly warm-sounding Heldentenor – Paul turned out to be a fragile but at the same time mature man, able – the director’s concept notwithstanding – to face his own emotions. In vocal terms, he surpassed Manuela Uhl (Marie/Marietta), a big dramatic soprano tainted by quite stentorian vocal production and horrific diction, though I must admit that in ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from Act I, she came out surprisingly well in her duet with Fritz, trying rather to melt into the lyrical phrasing of her partner than to outshout him. Beautiful creations of Frank and Fritz were produced by Chistoph Pohl, who sings with a round, superbly-placed, though in terms of dynamics not-too-nuanced baritone. Among the players of the supporting roles, worthy of mention is the deep contralto Tichina Vaught, perfect in terms of character in the role of Brigitta.

Christoph Pohl (Fritz) and Manuela Uhl (Marietta). Photo: David Baltzer.

My trip to Dresden confirmed me in my conviction that their musicians are masters, while the Warsaw production wasted the potential of Korngold’s youthful score – which, while perhaps not too innovative, is technically superb and very well planned-out in dramaturgical terms. I went to Nancy with the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera’s shocking production of Kát’a Kabanová from nearly eight years ago (directed by David Alden with Expressionist stage design by Charles Edwards) in my memory. In the capital of Lorraine, Janáček’s masterpiece was to take on a form proposed by David Himmelmann – a German known to Polish music lovers above all for a fragment from a Bregenz production of Tosca that played a prominent role in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. His most recent staging, from a bit under a year ago, a Tosca at the Osterfestspiele Baden-Baden, did not inspire any great enthusiasm among critics; however, it must be admitted that Himmelmann is an experienced stage director with a solid musical education, which is perhaps why he felt justified in picking a bit at the material of the work.

However, one must also bear in mind that picking at Janáček’s ideally-constructed operas can turn out to be of disastrous effect. Kát’a Kabanová superficially gives the impression of an older and more bitter sister of Jenůfa. Kabanicha appears to be a ghostly caricature of Kostelnička; the title character, the hounded victim of a narrow-minded community that will finally drive her to suicide; her two men, Tichon and Boris, distorted emanations of the characters of Števa and Laca, the two perpetrators of the misfortune of the dishonoured girl from a Moravian village. This is not the way to go. As I wrote some time ago now, the key to understanding both Kát’a and its literary prototype, i.e. Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Tempest, is knowledge of the social history of Russia. Into this precise analysis of the conditions lying at the foundations of Russian despotism, into this commendation of passive resistance and painful hymn to freedom regained by death, Janáček wove the experience of his own unhappy feelings for Kamila Stösslová. Kát’a Kabanová is, however, a perversely optimistic opera: it is not Jenůfa, but the unfaithful wife of Tichon who shatters the found order of things. She overcomes fear, shame and moral scruples to admit with reckless courage to her guilt. Kát’a knows that the truth is going to come out regardless, so she takes matters into her own hands. She throws off the yoke imposed upon her and sets off on a journey. It is a pity that in her case, it will be at once her first and last – into the dark current of the Volga – but after all, one has to begin somewhere.

Kát’a Kabanová. Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Kudrjaš) and Peter Wedd (Boris). Photo: Opéra National de Lorraine.

Russian libertarians understood Ostrovsky’s message, as did Janáček – giving Kát’a perhaps the most expansive and internally-nuanced role in his entire operatic œuvre. Most stage directors, even if they don’t have a thorough knowledge of this text’s conditions, do instinctively distribute the accents in accordance with the composer’s will. Himmelmann decided to do otherwise. He placed the entire action of the opera in an enclosed space – otherwise phenomenally arranged on a two-level stage and, thanks to the masterful work of the technicians, maintained in continual silent motion – probably with the intent of emphasizing the atmosphere of growing oppression (stage design by David Hohmann). As a result, he weakened the tension contained in the libretto and the score, for it is not without reason that Janáček shifts the action back and forth between the banks of the Volga and the stuffy interiors of the merchant’s home. The German stage director shifted the action into the unspecified realities of Eastern Europe and equally indeterminate contemporary times (judging from Lili Wanner’s costumes, the 1980s). He shut his protagonists up in a two-floor hotel-boarding house clearly run by Kabanicha. When there was no more reason for the protagonists to be present onstage, he packed them into the elevator, closed the hotel room doors behind them, or threw them into the wings. He turned all of the characters into one-dimensional caricatures. Kabanicha is a truly farcical hag; Tichon, a pitiful mama’s boy; Boris, a common coward; Varvara and Kudrjaš, a pair of thoughtless egoists who will flee to Moscow at the first opportunity; and Kát’a, a neurotic, sexually frustrated woman overtaken by guilt feelings. This interpretation of the main protagonist was emphatically highlighted by Himmelmann in the finale: when the scenery had finally disappeared from the stage, revealing the black abyss of the Volga (actually a very good idea), the farewell with Boris turned out to be a hallucination of Kát’a, who was obliged to dialogue with a partner hidden in the wings.

Helena Juntunen (Kát’a). Photo: Opéra National de Lorraine.

It is amazing that with this kind of stage direction, the soloists did not get lost in their roles, and put on a masterful display of singing in accordance with Janáček’s idiom. Helena Juntunen – a technically superb Finnish soprano gifted with a dark and deep voice, but surprisingly girlish in expression – created a well thought-out interpretation of the character of Kát’a, highlighted by a perfect understanding of the text and skill in picking out its characteristic micro-motifs (with phenomenally ‘torn’ sentences in the scene preceding the suicide). Superbly blended with her dense soprano was the metallic tenor of Peter Wedd (Boris), who –  thanks to abundant experience in the Wagner repertoire – did not fall into falsetto even once, and in several places showed a today-rare ability to sing a sonorous piano on a long, beautifully-closed phrase (for example, the brilliant ‘Jste to vy, Katerino Petrovno?’). In vocal terms, Éric Huchet fully equaled him as Tichon – brighter in tone, superb in articulation, convincing as an actor in the completely unconvincing role imposed upon him by the stage director. Leah-Marian Jones, who too often replaced singing with noisy melo-recitation, did not do as well. I don’t know, however, if anyone would be able to adapt the role of Kabanicha to such a concept for the interpretation of this character. An excellent performance was turned in by Eléonore Pancrazi and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths in the roles of Varvara and Kudrjaš. Aleksander Teliga once again successfully portrayed Dikój, though his Czech sounds as enigmatic as the Polish of Mestwin in the recent Poznań staging of Legend of the Baltic.

The real hero of the evening, however, turned out to be the conductor. Mark Shanahan brought out of this score the entire essence of Janáček’s late style: the contrasts of textures and motifs; utilization of instruments in unusual registers and, accordingly, surprising colouristic effects; polyrhythmic linking of measures; sudden changes of tempo. Most importantly, however, he did not try to forcibly ‘prettify’ Kát’a or smooth out its rough edges. Where necessary, he told the instruments to scream; elsewhere, to sob; yet elsewhere, to flow in waves like the Volga. And when the narrative required silence, he masterfully played silence in the orchestra. I do not doubt that he worked with equally meticulous care on the shape of every vocal phrase.

What I ought to do now is wrap both of these shows up with a metaphorical ribbon and carefully place them in the treasury of my memory. I shall not hear such intelligently and solidly prepared performances any time soon. With all certainty – and that, soon – I shall see less intelligent stagings.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Candide: or, Optimism Ridiculed

“O Pangloss!” cried out Candide, “such horrid doings never entered thy imagination. Here is an end of the matter. I find myself, after all, obliged to renounce thy Optimism.” „Optimism,” said Cacambo, “what is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “it is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” Volaire’s tale of Candide – an alleged bastard of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh’s sister, a good-natured simpleton who lived peacefully in a Westphalian castle until he rashly kissed Cunegonde, his host’s daughter, and was expelled – probably would not have seen the light of day, if everything had been going well in the world. From Voltaire’s point of view, the world was in dire straits.  This was the time of the Seven Years’ War, which came to be regarded as the turning point in the Franco-British conflict over overseas domains. Europe was still unable to recover after the tragic earthquake in Lisbon, which took the lives of nearly 100,000 people. The aftershocks could be felt even as far as Venice, a fact recorded in his memoirs by no less a figure than Giacomo Casanova.  Portugal’s capital was reduced to a heap of rubble, as was the doctrine of optimism based on the theodicy of Gottfried Leibniz, who did justice to God and concluded that we lived in the best of all possible worlds and if black thoughts overwhelmed us, it was only because we did not have God’s insight into everything. The final straw was the famous Lettre sur la Providence by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in 1756 read Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Disaster and “formed the mad project of making him turn his attention to himself, and of proving to him that everything was right”.  The French philosopher lost patience. He decided to prove to Rousseau that his project was indeed mad. He got down to writing Candide and in January 1759 he published it simultaneously in five countries. The work, allegedly published to amuse the few witty readers, contains withering criticism of state structures and religious institutions of the day. Voltaire set his protagonist on a roguish journey across the worst of all possible worlds, in which survival was possible only thanks to a practical philosophy of common sense. Like in any other intricate satire, in Candide, too, the funnier it gets, the more terrible it gets. The naive youth eventually abandons his optimism and it is not quite clear what he chooses instead. It is probably the only book in the history of literature, with regard to which it is really hard to say whether it ends happily or not.

Candide fled as quickly as possible – the 1787 edition of Candide, illustrated by Jean-Michel Moreau.

The story has had numerous adaptations, including Candy (1958), a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, in which a naive female Candide finds herself in increasingly comic situations featuring a band of mad and oversexed men. It has inspired masters of black humour, anti-utopias and the Theatre of the Absurd. It also inspired Lillian Hellman – an American playwright and screenwriter, partner of Dashiell Hammett, the author of popular detective novels – who in 1950 appeared before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. She refused to testify against her colleagues who sympathised with the Communist Party USA, as a result of which she was blacklisted in Hollywood, alongside such distinguished figures as Orson Welles, Dorothy Parker, Irwin Shaw and other stars of the Dream Factory. The trauma prompted her to make the English adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark – a story of Joan of Arc with a happy ending. Leonard Bernstein wrote the incidental music and, encouraged by the success of the production on Broadway, persuaded Hellman to work with him on a “comic operetta” based on Voltaire’s novella. As the method employed in American theatres demanded, the project was carried out in a multifaceted fashion: Hellman created the book and the spoken dialogue, Bernstein composed without close collaboration with the author, sung parts were written by the so-called lyricists (including John Latouche, Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur), and the whole was orchestrated by Hershy Kay.

Candide was premiered in December 1956 at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway. It was directed by Tyrone Guthrie, co-founder of the famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, who also had a background in opera. The conductor was Samuel Krachmalnick, Bernstein’s pupil from Tanglewood. Given Broadway standards, the production was a flop: there were “only” seventy-three performances in two months. The critics complained primarily about the gap between Berstein’s light, witty, pastiche-like music and the dead serious libretto by Hellman, who preferred to crush the demons of McCarthyism in her own way, rather than to create a perverse modern equivalent of a naive simpleton’s journeys. The production closed, but the music appealed to the audience, which continued to listen to a recording of the premiere for years. People hummed the “Venetian” waltz What’s the Use, in which a group of swindlers and extortionists complained about insufficient proceeds from their rascally activities; laughed out loud, listening to Dear Boy from the Lisbon episode, when Pangloss – Candide’s mentor – remains imperturbably optimistic despite catching syphilis from the beautiful maid Paquette; admired Glitter and Be Gay, an extremely difficult and extremely funny parody of the “jewel song” from Gounod’s Faust sung by Cunegonde, who settled surprisingly well into a life as a mistress of a Parisian cardinal and a Jewish merchant. Famous for its crazy changes of metre, the overture to Candide was conducted by the composer at a New York Philharmonic concert already in 1957 and within two years became part of the repertoire of nearly one hundred American orchestras, used as a dazzling concert opener, i.e. a work beginning the first part of the evening.

Leonard Bernstein, 1955. Photo: Getty Images.

Yet attempts to resurrect Candide on stage were not very successful. The first London production, in 1959, at the Saville Theatre, briefly transferred to Oxford and Manchester, ran for sixty performances. In the United States the work was presented several times in concert and there were two productions by minor theatre companies from Los Angeles. In the early 1970s Lillian Hellman, dejected, withdrew from the project and forbid any revivals featuring her original book. A new, one-act version was created by Hugh Wheeler – it contained additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was shorted by nearly a half in comparison with the original and the orchestra was reduced to thirteen musicians. The staging (on several platforms to avoid set changes) was by Harold Prince, a seasoned director of popular musicals. The performances were conducted by John Mauceri, who went on to accompany all future metamorphoses of Candide. The premiere took place in 1973 at the Chelsea Theatre Centre in Brooklyn and was an instant hit. One year later the production found its way to Broadway, where it ran for over seven hundred performances over two seasons. Initially a somewhat heavy, overly didactic tale as presented by Hellman, Candide became just the opposite: it was transformed into mad tomfoolery, sending the spectators into successive paroxysms of laughter.

The soprano Beverly Sills, director of the New York City Opera, demanded that this musical amusement be expanded to truly operatic proportions. Before the 1982 premiere at the NYCO another two-act version was created, with added scenes by Wheeler and with restored numbers from the original version mixed incoherently to the detriment of not only the dramaturge of the whole but also of the music itself. Who knows what would have then happened to the piece, if it had not been for Mauceri, who, when preparing a new staging for the Scottish Opera (1988), rearranged the material and restored the right proportions between laughter and tears, joke and bitterness, emotion and grotesque. The final revision was done by Bernstein himself – two concerts of the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre  featured Christa Ludwig as the Old Lady and Nikolai Gedda as the Governor. A recording with the same cast released by Deutsche Grammophon sparked another wave of popularity of Candide, which has since been presented in dozens of productions across the world. It came to Poland in 2005 in a staging by Tomasz Konina for Teatr Wielki in Łódź conducted by Tadeusz Kozłowski.

The playbill for Candide at the Broadway Theatre, 1974.

In Voltaire’s novella, which, in a way, is a parody of a classic romance and a picaresque novel, the scenery and situations change in a kaleidoscopic sequence. The protagonists of Candide – and the readers with them – fall into the clutches of the Portuguese Inquisition, rush on horseback to Cádiz, sail across the Atlantic to Paraguay, find themselves in Eldorado, return to Europe, wander across the Ottoman Empire only to settle on a small farm on the banks of the Propontis. The protagonists of Bernstein’s work travel across the ocean of Europe’s musical tradition. There are as many references to Lehár, Viennese Strausses and Offenbach as there are allusions to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian comic operas, works by Mozart and Smetana, Protestant chorales, klezmer music, Spanish flamenco, Czech polka and Scottish gigue. Any attempt to pigeonhole Bernstein’s Candide is doomed to failure. Is it a musical or an operetta? A singspiel or a comic opera? The director of the premiere, Tyrone Guthrie, once said, referring to the work that “Rossini and Cole Porter seemed to have been rearranging Götterdämmerung”.  A compliment or an insult? Is Candide a masterpiece or a delicious prank of an otherwise excellent musician?

In the finale of the book the indefatigable Pangloss warns that grandeur “is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers” and proceeds to list kings who were assassinated, hanged by the hair of their head, run through with darts and led into captivity. At some point Candide stops the litany with his famous pronouncement: “Neither need you tell me that we must take care of our garden.” Perhaps Bernstein did not aspire to grandeur either? Perhaps he preferred to take care of his garden? Whatever that means, for, as I have written earlier, the greatest minds have been wrangling over the meaning of the last words of Voltaire’s novella.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

In a Forest Frightfully Remote and Dark

Rusalka has returned to Leipzig after 47 years of silence. In scenery like something out of a fairy tale: on the first Sunday of Advent, under the full moon, in a cloud of flakes from the first snowfall. Not even a week later, before the second showing, the city was preparing for another snowstorm. In such windy and cold weather, it was that much easier to realize how very cruel a fairy tale it is. The presence of Rusalka was palpable everywhere. Looking out from the posters hanging in the streets was a half-naked nymph with sad eyes rimmed with dark circles from waiting in vain for her beloved. The Leipzig Opera – unassuming in the daytime and blossoming in its full beauty only at night, like Vodník’s daughter – had distanced itself even more from the Gewandhaus building, soulless as the Prince, standing on the opposite edge of the square. Between the late-born child of Socialist Classicism and the icon of DDR brutalism, a thick forest of Christmas trees and market stalls had grown up, taking the place of the long-since-emptied pond with the fountain. Despite the appearances of carefree holiday cheer, it would be difficult to find a better metaphor for loneliness and alienation.

Since the world premiere of Dvořák’s masterpiece, nearly 117 years have passed. Rusalka has stood the test of time. Today, there are few who dismiss this gloomy tale of devotion and egoism, of vain transgression of boundaries and love that comes too late. A true fairy tale, impossible to play out at any specific time and place, which would destroy the universality of its message. It was aptly interpreted by Antony McDonald, the creator of one of the most beautiful stagings of the last quarter century, recently revived on the stage of the Scottish Opera. In his perspective, the ‘wrong-side-out siren’ came out of the fairytale woods straight into the decadent early 20th-century bourgeois world. Dutchman Michiel Dijkema, a stage director and designer who has for years been active mainly at German theaters, went a similar route, but distributed the accents differently. In the Leipzig Rusalka, it is the Prince who is trying to find his place in a world foreign to him. The action plays out in a forest so dark that you can’t even see the trees; in clouds of fog enshrouding an invisible lake; in a kingdom of primal forces to which not only human beings, but even a water spirit pretending to the name of human will be subject. Dijkema’s Rusalka is no red-haired beauty: she is a grotesque, lizard-like creature with a comb on her back and membranes between her fingers, as similar as two drops of water to her father Vodník (costumes by Jula Reindell). Her companions, the wood nymphs, have taken the form of hideous swamp demons with broad hips and long, sagging breasts. The witch Ježibaba brings to mind associations with the Slavic demon of death and transgression: a being gifted with great wisdom that she is able to use against daredevils impinging upon the natural order of things.


Tuomas Pursio (Vodník in the premiere cast) with Magdalena Hinterdobler, Sandra Maxheimer and Sandra Fechner as Wood Nymphs. Photo: Kirsten Nijhof

The Prince steps into this fairy tale and does not want to leave, even though it is he who is the intruder. In pursuit of the white doe, he unceremoniously drives into the forest in an all-terrain vehicle and shines his headlights in the animal’s eyes. He does not invite guests to his palace, but rather organizes his wedding reception at the edge of the lake. The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Boy prepare the game in the open air, under cover of night, after which they sneakily pack it into a van labeled ‘Čerstvé kvalita masa’. But after all, Dijkema is not suggesting a simple clash of the contemporary world with that of myth. He is rather unveiling a mechanism of mutual, though disproportionate ‘inculturation’ of the two worlds. Ježibaba would look like she had been taken straight out of Les Ballets Russes’ Le coq d’or in Goncharova’s staging, were it not for one detail: in Act III, Dijkema and Reindell have supplemented her gaudy, lavishly embroidered costume with a down vest. Meanwhile, the Prince comes out onstage in an extravagant antique crown, like a fairytale prince. In the manner of a rich tourist in the Himalayas who parades on the trail in Nepali silk trousers, driving before him a porter in a baseball cap. No one here feels at home. Everything is laced with fear. The dark forest has slipped out of the locals’ control, and treats new arrivals with open enmity.

There are a few extraordinarily powerful theatrical gestures in this show. The moment when Ježibaba unwraps Rusalka from the blood-soaked quilt, takes a knife and mercilessly scrapes the rest of the scales off the half-conscious girl. The moment when the Prince tries to attract this injured creature to himself and begins making stupid faces. There are several superb and well-played ideas, among them the subtly-made suggestion that the Foreign Princess and Ježibaba are one and the same person: the witch’s matted mane is entangled with a chicken foot with a bone sticking out, while the perfidious seductress appears at the wedding in a chicken claw-shaped brocade hat. Dijkema had a bit more difficulty outlining the characters of the individual roles – aside from the titular Rusalka, who was polished in every detail. The Prince too lightly spurns Rusalka – and that, in favour of a Princess completely bland in character. Vodník pities himself more than he despairs over the loss of his daughter. The concept of the finale – despite minor inconsistencies – is nonetheless stunning. The Prince finds Rusalka not after a few days of madness, but after years of wandering: broken like a character from a Shakespeare tragedy. He is truly looking for death and happily finds it. Despite everything, a bitter relief is hidden in the final duet of the old man and the grey-haired Rusalka, though the nymph will pay a higher price for her past hasty decision.

Olena Tokar (Rusalka) and Peter Wedd (Prince). Photo: Kirsten Nijhof

It has been a long time since I have heard and seen onstage such a convincing creator of the title role as the very young Olena Tokar, who by some miracle managed to combine girlish vocal expression with a beautifully round, darkly-coloured voice, intonationally secure, enriched with a warm and soft vibrato. Aside from this, Tokar is a superb actress, conscious both of her own body and of the dramatic potential brought into the narrative by the act of singing in and of itself. I still have in my ears and before my eyes her desperate ‘Ježibabo! Pomoz!’, not to mention the final ‘Za tvou lásku, za tu krásu tvou’, which in her interpretation sounded almost like the love transfiguration of Isolde. Peter Wedd – the only guest in the premiere cast, otherwise comprised exclusively of soloists from Oper Leipzig – certainly supported her in this concept with his own experience as Tristan. I have the impression that this singer is undergoing another metamorphosis – his deep, metallic tenor is maturing more and more; it sounds like the voice of a man who carries an enormous ballast of experiences in his soul, but despite this still does not lose his youthful ardour. In Glasgow, Wedd sang on a somewhat broader breath and with a more open top register: the minor deficiencies of the Leipzig performance, however, I shall chalk up to the process of familiarizing himself with a new, considerably more interesting concept for of the role of the Prince as a tragic character. In the role of Ježibaba, Karin Lovelius did superbly, though in Act I, she had a bit of trouble making fluid transitions between registers. A somewhat weaker performance was turned in by Kathrin Göring, whose role as the Foreign Princess clearly is not a good match for her, even in terms of acting – I was particularly disappointed with her final duet with the Prince from Act II, where sparks should be simply showering the audience from the stage. Words of sincere recognition for their musicality and sense of humor are due to the performers of all of the character roles: Jonathan Mitchie (Gamekeeper), Mirjam Neururer (Kitchen Boy) and the three wonderful Wood Nymphs (Magdalena Hinterdobler, Sandra Maxheimer and Sandra Fechner). Gifted with a gorgeous, well-managed bass-baritone, Vladimir Baykov (whom Varsovians remember as a superb Mephistopheles from Faust under stage director Robert Wilson at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera) created a moving character of Vodník, though he could still do with more paternal authority.

Act III, finale. Olena Tokar and Peter Wedd. Photo: Kirsten Nijhof

The soloists performed their tasks considerably better than expected – despite the very difficult acoustics of the Opera in Leipzig and negligible support from conductor Christoph Gedschold. The Gewandhaus-Orchester played, as always, competently and with a beautiful, clear sound, but decidedly too loudly, disregarding most of the dynamic and agogical nuances in this extraordinary score; but more importantly, without looking at the singers. The most tender piano passages and masterfully-shaped phrases were sometimes drowned in a flood of tutti; the conductor either didn’t give the soloists time to bring the sound out properly, or quite the contrary – left them on the battlefield with an occasional harsh note. Dvořák’s masterpiece, instead of breathing and pulsating with the rhythm of an enchanted forest, went evenly from measure to measure, moving inexorably toward a far-from-subtle finale. It is a pity that a true specialist in the Czech composer’s music didn’t occupy the podium – a pity all the greater that, having at his disposal such a cast and such an experienced orchestral ensemble, he could have crushed hearts of stone. And even turned the accursed Rusalka back from her way to the depths of the lake.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Prince of Monte Rotondo

I am happy to announce – just before Christmas – that recordings of Poniatowski’s music, made during 12th edi­­tion of the Fe­­sti­­val of Po­­lish Mu­­sic in Cracow, have started to appear on the market. The selection of highlights from his opera Don Desiderio is already on sale (http://www.fmp.org.pl/en/wydawnictwa/). The next album to be released soon by Ars Ope­rae Agen­cy and Association of Polish Music will feature Poniatowski’s Mass in F, performed by Monika Mych-Nowicka (soprano), Anna Lubańska (mezzo-soprano), Juraj Hollý (tenor), Lukaš Zeman (baritone), Grzegorz Biegas (piano), and Polish Radio Choir, conducted by Mateusz Walach. Below is my text that will be published in the CD booklet.

***

It is difficult to be a prophet in one’s own country. And all the more difficult for cosmopolitan types who haven’t wanted to, been allowed to or been able to put down roots anywhere. This is exactly how it was with Józef Michał Poniatowski, about whom one can read today that he was Prince de Monte Rotondo, of the noble clan of Ciołek and a close blood relative of his namesake, Józef Poniatowski, the protagonist of a quintessentially Polish version of the Napoleon myth. The truth – as always – is more complicated.

Our prince-composer was the illegitimate son of Lithuanian treasury official Stanisław, who was an extraordinarily picturesque figure, a favorite of King Stanisław August, a confidant of his lover Empress Catherine II, a member of the Targowica Confederation, which over time began to be considered a symbol of treason. After the Partitions, Stanisław Poniatowski settled first in Austria, and then in Rome, where he bought a splendid residence on the Via Flaminia. Opposite the villa lived the modest Cassandra Luci, the wife of a brutish shoemaker who abused her mercilessly. The thoughtful prince took the poor woman under his care. From this care, five illegitimate children came into the world. One of them was Józef Michał Ksawery, born in 1816. Three years later, Stanisław gathered his informal family at his newly-acquired Monte Rotondo estate in Tuscany; in 1830, he finally married the widowed Cassandra; and in 1833, he died as the last aristocrat legally authorized to bear a Polish princely title.

Józef Michał was acknowledged by his father already at age 6; for the legal sanction of his ancestry, however, he had to wait until 1847, when Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, intervened on his behalf – in order to name him Prince of Monte Rotondo. Poniatowski spoke no Polish at all. He was a Tuscan state envoy to Brussels, London and Paris; in 1854, he became a French citizen and received the office of senator from the hands of Napoleon III. After the emperor’s dethronement, he traveled together with him into exile to Chislehurst, in the English country of Kent. The last ruler of France died in January 1873, which hastened Poniatowski’s decision to emigrate to the United States. In June of the previous year, it had been written on the pages of The New York Times that his pitiful situation was ‘a striking example of the mutability of affairs’. Unfortunately, the prince survived Napoleon by barely six months, and died prematurely at age 57. He was laid to rest at the cemetery in Chislehurst, within the borders of today’s London.

Stanisław’s illegitimate son had been fascinated with music since childhood. He continues to be dogged by a reputation as a self-taught composer and homegrown singer, but the truth was completely different. Poniatowski trained under Fernando Zeccherini, maestro di cappella at the cathedral and professor at the Academy in Florence; he was an esteemed tenor whose craft was compared with the artistry of Giovanni Battista Rubini, one of Bellini’s favorite singers. He was the author of twelve operas which, while held in contempt by Berlioz, were praised by Rossini and Michele Carafa. Sir George Grove, initiator and editor of the legendary Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, wrote in an appendix to the dictionary’s first edition that Poniatowski’s music is tremendously theatrical and attests to a deep understanding of the potential and limitations of the human voice. Grove praised its originality and flickering spark of true genius – all the more enthusiastically that Poniatowski was also a person of exquisite manners and a favorite at the salons.

His Mass in F, composed in 1867 and dedicated to Luís I Bragança, King of Portugal, was discovered in the collections of the British Library and performed in Poland for the first time in Kraków in 2011 at the initiative of the Association of Polish Music. The work is rooted in the spirit of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle: it was written barely four years later and scored – as was the original version of the Petite messe – for four soloists, small choir and organ, harmonium or piano. Intimate in expression (which Poniatowski additionally emphasized using the key of F major, which expresses humility and resignation), with fragments of dazzling beauty (the soprano aria ‘Et incarnatus’; the dialogue of the baritone with the choir in the ‘Agnus Dei’; the virtuosic instrumental introductions to the individual movements, bringing to mind the œuvre of Chopin and Liszt), betrays both influences of operatic bel canto style, and attachment to the Italian tradition of vocal musica da chiesa (the polyphonic texture of the final, majestic ‘Amen’ movement). Despite its charm and lightness, Poniatowski’s composition is a typical jewel of mature age: a passionate musical confession of faith in God and the power of love.

It is astounding that from the pen of the same composer came the opera Pierre de Médicis (which in its time scored a real triumph in Paris), the lyrical and expressive Mass in F, and The Yeoman’s Wedding Song, a ballad popular in England that was good-naturedly mocked by P. G. Wodehouse himself in his humoresques. It seems that the uncertain national identity of the Prince of Monte Rotondo also made its mark on his œuvre.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

A Prophet By No Means False

I have already wrung my hands so many times over the fate of composers wronged by history and of their operas – unjustly eliminated from the repertoire and returning with difficulty to the world’s stages – that I have no words left for Meyerbeer. This Jew born in Germany, educated in Italy, scoring triumphs in Paris in the heyday of grand opéra’s glory, became the victim of a tangle of exceptionally unfortunate circumstances. Meyerbeer’s downfall was caused by, among others, Wagner – his one-time protégé who at first declared that he owed his mind, heart and lifelong gratitude to him for pointing his creative work in a salutary direction, but after the première of Le Prophète made an abrupt about-turn expressed in, among other things, the infamous pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik. And here he had drawn upon this music in fistfuls, not only in Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer: without Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, there would have been no Act II of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Chopin proclaimed Robert le diable a masterpiece right after its Paris world première; a year later, he composed the Grand Duo concertant for piano and ’cello, one of the few chamber pieces in his œuvre, based on motifs from a Meyerbeer opera. Shortly after the success of Le Prophète, Liszt wrote the monumental Fantasy and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ – the chilling chorale stylization sung by the Anabaptists. Meyerbeer – the father of full-blooded music drama, a peerless master of orchestration, a phenomenal melodist who squeezed the last drop of sweat out of the singers, while never fighting against the natural capabilities of the human voice – fell into oblivion together with the twilight of grand historical opera; and since he had taken that genre to the limits of perfection, with the passage of successive decades, hopes for the resurrection of his œuvre grew dimmer. Meyerbeer’s operas disappeared from stages even before World War I. The last Polish production of Les Huguenots took place in 1903 in Lwów [modern-day Lviv, Ukraine].

Noel Bouley (Mathisen), Andrew Dickinson (Jonas) and Derek Welton (Zacharie) among the members of the Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: Bettina Stöß

Le Prophète, which once triggered a veritable paroxysm of composer’s envy in Wagner, is today mentioned above all anecdotally: as the work whose 1849 world première featured the Paris Opera stage lit for the first time in history with electric lamps, as well as dancers on roller skates in the ballet on the frozen lake at the beginning of Act III. The fact that Meyerbeer wrote the mezzo-soprano role of Fidès for Pauline Viardot, a distinguished singer and pianist, a student of Liszt and Anton Reicha, the latter of whom introduced her to the mysteries of composition, a polyglot and writer, a friend of Turgenev and Clara Schumann; that the creator of the libretto was Eugène Scribe, one of the most prolific and sought-after authors of the time, who also contributed to the successes of Robert le diable and Les Huguenots; that the subject matter of the opera fit ideally into the atmosphere of moods after the February Revolution and the bloodily suppressed June Days uprising of 1848, the failure of which put an end to the Spring of Nations in France – these things are mentioned, as it were, less often. The story of Jean de Leyde [John of Leiden], the Anabaptist leader who – after the imprisonment of Melchior Hofmann, who had proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God in 1533 – decided to take matters in his own hands and institute the Parousia by force, brought to mind inevitable associations with the views espoused by Utopian communists who demanded recognition of the role of the proletariat and the establishment of a classless society. The libretto of Le Prophète is gloomy; the love thread, pushed into the background; the motif of a mother loving her wayward son despite all circumstances, highlighted beyond normal measure; and the character of the protagonist, boiled down to an anti-hero role bringing to mind associations with the considerably later operas of the great Russians: Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. Le Prophète poses a multitude of performance problems and, at the same time, is hellishly complex in dramaturgical terms. It is no wonder that it has only sporadically returned to contemporary stages and then quickly disappeared. There is no way to modernize it, nor to produce it with its original splendour – not to mention the difficulties of finding appropriate singers.

Elena Tsallagova (Berthe) and Clémentine Margaine (Fidès). Photo: Bettina Stöß

Almost everyone has now forgotten the first resurrection of Le Prophète on the stage of Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1966, with Sandra Warfield as Fidès and James McCracken in the role of Jean. The staging of the opera’s most recent première was entrusted to Olivier Py, a French director known for religiosity as well as for a tendency to introduce contemporary political allusions into his productions. In his famous Paris Aida of four years ago – to the horror of some critics and audience members – there appeared Ku Klux Klan fighters, Holocaust victims, immigrants, as well as an impressive-looking, camouflage-painted tank. His concept of Le Prophète, though equally over-simplified, turned out to be considerably more coherent: Py set the opera’s action in the realities of an indeterminate metropolis shaken by unrest, in which all of the pathologies of revolution are concentrated: physical and psychological violence, debauched sex and equally frisky religious fanaticism. It is not at all bad to watch – even, wonder of wonders, in the famous skaters’ ballet scene, played out in the form of a brutal pantomime on a rotary stage spinning at a frenzied tempo. Certain details, however, are a bit offensive – above all, the forcible introduction of the stage director’s ‘signatures’ (a half-naked angel taken, as it were, straight out of Mathis der Maler at Opéra Bastille; the final orgy in bordello red lighting; anal sex on the hood of a car – a hackneyed idea, though at least automobile lovers had the pleasure of admiring a black Mercedes W115, known in Poland by the pet name of puchacz [‘eagle owl’]). I must admit, however, that the action played out fluidly, the stage movement did not disturb the singers, and in the healing of the sick scene – accompanying Jean’s coronation in Act IV – the wheelchairs finally found proper use.

Gregory Kunde (Jean de Leyde). Photo: Bettina Stöß

But never mind Olivier Py’s controversial concept – we got a show so superbly prepared in musical terms that Wagner probably had apoplexy yet again, this time in the hereafter. Enrique Mazzola, an Italian bel canto specialist, brought every possible treat out of the score: wonderfully transparent textures, surprising details of orchestration, deep dynamic contrasts. He took Le Prophète at lively tempi, without even for a moment losing the pulse of the work as a whole, deftly highlighting Meyerbeer’s thematic play (the phenomenal entrance of the three Anabaptists with a pseudo-chorale that appears in distorted form in Act II, when Jean tells about his dream, rolls through the chorus part like a storm in Act III, and then returns as an ominous memento during the coronation scene). What turned out to be the second, collective hero of the evening was the chorus, prepared by Jeremy Bines, which sang with alertness, as well as beautiful, fluent phrasing and superbly rendered text. The third, perhaps brightest star of the show was Clémentine Margaine: her mezzo-soprano, thick as tar and velvety in sound, flowed forth with such freedom that everyone in the audience forgot about the legendary reefs and shoals in the extremely difficult role of Fidès. The light and bright soprano of Berthe (Elena Tsallagova) blended quite well with it, though in the duets, especially Pour garder à ton fils le serment’, the young Russian did have a few slip-ups in intonation. Gregory Kunde (Jean) took a long time to warm up, to the detriment of my favorite aria ‘Pour Berthe, moi je soupire’, but in the triumphal hymn from the finale of Act III (‘Roi du ciel et des anges’), I felt like getting up from my seat and accompanying the false prophet. Kunde has superb technique; nonetheless, his top register lacks freedom and the spinto brilliance essential for this part – another matter that I’m not sure if anyone besides him today would be in a position to sing this role even decently. Of the three sinister Anabaptists – superbly chosen in every way – Derek Walton (Zacharie) stood out. Walton has at his disposal a beautiful, round bass-baritone, though unfortunately not sufficiently resonant at the bottom of his range. The only disappointment was Seth Carico in the role of Le Comte d’Oberthal – perhaps because a few months ago, he was so enchanting in Death in Venice. This time he too often fell into a caricature that concealed deficiencies in the musical preparation of his part.

A production of any Meyerbeer opera at such a level requires enormous financial expenditures and tons of solid work. The occasion to obtain the former was no doubt the riotously celebrated 500th birthday of the Reformation. The zeal and professionalism of the musicians, however, cannot be overestimated. There is hope. A pity that not here in Poland, where even musicology professors are afraid to reveal their love for the composer in whose work – as Chopin wrote in a letter to Tytus Wojciechowski – ‘through the tuba sings the devil, souls from graves rise up to revel’.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

For such is the soul of opera

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” – this famous quote from Gertrude Stein’s poem Sacred Emily is usually interpreted as a manifesto of anti-symbolism. Things should be seen as they are. Regardless of what has happened in the course of the evolution of this musical form, opera is opera is opera is opera. In the previous century it was buried alive many times. Obituaries announcing its successive deaths were published, bitter tears were shed, dancing over its grave took place – and yet every time it rose from the dead and returned to the stage. True, increasingly poor, increasingly mauled, increasingly less certain of its identity, but still somehow distinct from the other varieties of vocal music. It was dealt the heaviest blow by modernism, an aesthetic movement in which were brought into focus all premonitions that the end was near. A certain order of civilisation did indeed pass away or rather died a violent death: in the trenches of the Great War, in the blaze of the Bolshevik Revolution, on the battlefields and in the death camps of the Second World War. Yet the world survived and moved on, although not always hand in hand with opera – which critics and philosophers began to blame for complicity in the recent catastrophe.

They also included Theodor W. Adorno, who pointed out that opera was a model product of the “culture industry”, which sought profit and not true art. He accused opera of escaping reality, of being slavishly attached to the convention and prone to showiness. He lambasted operagoers: childish lovers of The Magic Flute and Il Trovatore, who liked only those melodies they had already heard. Unfortunately, he went a little bit too far: in wanting to criticise primarily the “bourgeois” institution, he also condemned the musical form as such. Theatre quickly reformed itself, perhaps even too much. Today it is difficult to find a staging without women and men in suits, while the audience – instead of demanding chariots and dragons in Händel’s operas – laughs out loud on seeing a swan in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Music has not managed to keep up. A Romantic opera in modern sets sometimes seems more conventional and surreal than productions from the 1950s which so irritated Adorno. The audiences have accepted the fact that they have to grow out of Mozart, but they do not want to face Berg, Britten or Pendrecki. Directors of opera houses complain of poor results at the box office and lack of interest in contemporary music.

Composers do what they can. They give up writing operas altogether. They write shorter works for smaller line-ups, often easier to understand and combining various genres. Patiently, they listen to explanations that the old convention has become obsolete and no one has yet come up with a way to attract the attention of new audiences used to a completely different speed of life. They nod in agreement but they do not really believe it. They disguise their works, calling them musical theatre, stage action, performance. They long for a possibility of writing a “real” opera: with a large orchestra and chorus, numerous soloists, captivating libretto. Others try to prey on the genre’s past glory: they compose pieces that have nothing to do with opera. Without text, without singing, without sets, sometimes even without live performers at all. They try to convince us they have redefined the form. And yet opera is opera is opera is opera. And it will remain so as long as there are musicians capable of composing and performing it, audiences willing to listen to it and – last but not least – opera houses daring to present it.

Immanuel Kant. Photo: FRU Media / Bartłomiej Dębicki, Jacek Piątkiewicz / Opera Wrocławska.

Why are so few new operas being written? Why do they disappear from the repertoire so quickly? It is enough to ask ordinary lovers of Traviata. They will reply that they do not understand this cacophony of sounds and find no pleasure in listening to their favourite singers in parts which, in their view, do not make a logical whole. In Poland there are still thousands of music lovers for whom Wozzeck, written nearly one hundred years ago, is too avant-garde. It would take too long to consider the causes of such a state of affairs now. It is better to reflect on what can be done about it.

The best thing would be to start with a work that is compact in its dramaturgy, and features music that may by “strange” but is vivid and consistent with the libretto. If the novices wince at Pendrecki’s The Devils of Loudun, give them one of Zygmunt Krauze’s operas, easier to understand. Go back in time to works by Britten or Stravinsky. Do not push anything. The novices get tired – return to Verdi. And then show them the miracles happening here and there in Puccini’s late scores, the novel solutions appearing in Janáček’s masterpieces. Suggest “borderline” compositions, in which they will be able to capture references to their favourite melodies they have already heard – for instance, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Do not hurry. Sooner or later the novices will reach for Berg, if only out of sheer curiosity.

It is also possible to use a trick. To introduce music lovers to the world of contemporary opera, alternating it with Monteverdi, French Baroque opera, groundbreaking works of Gluck the reformer. Hopefully, the music lovers will cease to listen endlessly to the beautiful tunes from the core repertoire and instead will start exploring the structure of the pieces, will comprehend their inner logic, will understand that the 21st-century opera composers often employ the same methods as the masters of the past. They will appreciate elements of pastiche in Péter Eötvös’ works and will no longer associate them with caterwauling cats.

La voix humaine. Photo: Krzysztof Bieliński / TW-ON.

For various reasons, not only patriotic, it is good to start the education well with works by Polish composers – with comprehensible, well-delivered text, which the listeners will not have to read from the surtitles projected above the stage. Because of similar considerations soloists should be required to work diligently with vocal coaches and sing their parts with respect for the words, regardless of the language. After all, opera is primarily drama, and the ease of following the libretto helps greatly with following the changes in the musical narrative. An opera should captivate like a novel, shock like a tragedy by Shakespeare, terrify like a horror film, amuse like the best cabaret. Paradoxically, the technological revolution may boost the popularity of contemporary opera. What we will miss in the opera house, we can listen to in a recording or watch on YouTube. We can enjoy comparisons between various versions of a work that is just emerging – assuming a slightly different form in each staging, in each performance. Nothing can stop us from suggesting an idea for a new composition to a composer, suggesting an unlikely source of inspiration, on one of the numerous online fora for example. From debunking this bizarre myth that opera is a dead art, a closed chapter in the history of music, a galvanised frog that will stop moving as soon as directors of opera houses give up the temptation to occasionally present a new work and spend the funds they have managed to save as a result on yet another premiere of Traviata.  In suits of course.

Jokes aside. We are writing about serious matters. About a chronic disease of a form that could flourish, if we realised at last that opera is not a museum piece and that its musical potential lies in every one of us. Through it, it is still possible to spin social allegories, discuss important dilemmas of the present, tell stories from the lives of scholars and car mechanics – supported by the power and depth of emotion probably no other art has at its disposal. Provided we find an opera house that will welcome it with open arms and just as open mind.

Such an opera house turned up in Wrocław. Nine years ago Ewa Michnik, the previous director of the Wrocław Opera, decided to bring together works already in the company’s repertoire and present them during a Contemporary Opera Festival. The programme of the first festival featured Zbigniew Rudziński’s Antigone, two operatic double bills – Tadeusz Baird’s Tomorrow paired with Joanna Bruzdowicz’s The Penal Colony, and Esther by Tomasz Praszczałek (today writing under the pseudonym PRASQUAL) coupled with Hagith by Karol SzymanowskiSzymanowski’s King Roger directed by Mariusz Treliński, a much more interesting production than his earlier staging for Teatr Wielki-National Opera, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Paradise Lost. The set was complemented by a ballet production featuring The Saragossa Manuscript by Rafał Augustyn, who also reconstructed the second part of the bill, Devil’s Frolics by Adam Münchheimer and Stanisław Moniuszko, the full score of which was lost during the Second World War. Apart from Esther, a chamber work that won a prize at a composing competition in St. Petersburg in 2002, these are all works by established and eminent composers, works that should appear regularly in the repertoires of Polish opera companies. The first festival was very well received by the critics and began to be seen as one of Ewa Michnik’s most important initiatives – especially given the fact that the company’s director had no intention of becoming content with just one edition.

Ubu Rex. Photo: Tomasz Zakrzewski / Opera Śląska.

Two years later, thanks to a co-production with Prague’s Národni Divadlo, we could for the first time see Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Hry o Marii (premiered in Paris in 1934). Yet what came to be regarded as the most important event of the 2nd Festival was the presentation of La libertà chiama la libertà, part three of Eugeniusz Knapik’s operatic triptych The Minds of Helena Troubleyn, in a production that was taken over – from the author of the idea of the project, the Flemish multimedia artist Jan Fabre – by a young and very promising director, Michał Zadara. The consternation caused by the inclusion in the programme of Giacomo Orefice’s mediocre Chopin of 1901 (justified solely by the celebrations of the Chopin Year) was alleviated by a very successful production of Hanna Kulenty’s The Mother of Black-Winged Dreams, prepared by Ewelina Pietrowiak, another talented Polish opera director. Wrocław also hosted Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher, Barbara Wysocka’s debut at Teatr Wielki-National Opera, which won the Polityka weekly’s prestigious Passport Award. This time there was no ballet – the programme was complemented by King Roger and Paradise Lost.

The 3rd Festival, in 2012, again featured intriguing novelties: a concert performance of Peter Eötvös’ opera Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s famous Pulitzer-winning play (conducted by Bassem Akiki); the chamber opera Zítra se bude by Aleš Březina, who composed music to Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated film Divided We Fall (a production from Prague’s Národni Divadlo w Pradze); another production directed by Ewelina Pietrowiak – Zygmunt Krauze’s The Trap after Tadeusz Różewicz’s play inspired by the biography of Franz Kafka; and the opera-performance Martha’s Garden by the Wrocław composer Cezary Duchnowski, with Agata Zubel singing the solo part. Operatic themes were also to be found in a guest production from Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Bluebeard’s Secret, a ballet fantasia based on Bartók’s masterpiece, and featuring music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Philip Glass.

The 4th Festival, organised as part of the 2014 World Music Days, was surprisingly modest, although critics wrote favourably about both Angels in America (this time in a staged version) and the premiere of PRASQUAL’s Songs from the Cage to Różewicz’s poems with excellent performances by Jadwiga Postrożna, Mariusz Godlewski and the actor Jerzy Trela.

Three years passed. The director of the Wrocław Opera changed. As did, radically, the company’s repertoire plans. The next edition of the festival started by Ewa Michnik will be launched under a slightly perverse title of Contemporary Opera Festival+. The plus sign means that its formula will be expanded again: to include, for example, symposia devoted to the future of opera and a ballet production of Eufolia/Ambulo with music by Kilar, Górecki, PRASQUAL and Andriessen, choreographed by Jacek Przybyłowicz and Jacek Tyski. Pendrecki’s Ubu Rex from the Silesian Opera in Bytom, winner of the Golden Mask, needs no special introduction. Poulenc’s La voix humaine from Teatr Wielki-National Opera sharply divided the critics. I did not like it, others were really enthusiastic. The premiere of Immanuel Kant, Leszek Możdżer’s “jazz opera”, will certainly attract crowds – if only because of the fact that the piece became one of the first victims of the new repertoire policy at the Warsaw Chamber Opera under the helm of Alicja Węgorzewska-Whiskerd and has had to wait before being revealed to the world.

I do not know about you, but for me all this makes up a logical whole and I hear no cacophony in it. Opera is opera is opera is opera. Even contemporary opera. Especially contemporary opera.

Translated by: Anna Kijak