From Boulez Hall to Hospital Hall

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

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

Pierre Boulez. Photo: Kai Bienert

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Wedd (Herman). Photo: Eric Berg

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Happy Danes Cry Over Auschwitz

Supposedly the Danes are the happiest nation in the world. They have a stable government, no problems with corruption, equal access to education and superb health care. They also have very high taxes and pay them with a big smile on their faces – convinced that an honest fiscal contribution has a positive influence on societal relations. The average Dane is involved in at least three organizations, takes care to ensure proper interpersonal relationships, is able to be content with little and enthusiastically practices the philosophy of hygge, by some compared to the Classical Chinese yin/yang concept; by others, with the French joie de vivre; by Poles – however wrongly – with any old mentality from under the banner of ‘it’ll all work out somehow’.

Wrongly, because the Danes – unlike many of our fellow countrymen – long ago abandoned dreams of power and, after numerous military defeats in the 19th century, went the route of a gentle Romantic nationalism. Guided by the wisdom of poet Hans-Peter Holst, they decided to reforge external defeat into internal victory. They occupied themselves with what had turned out most successfully in this ‘flat little country’: working the land and disseminating knowledge. Adherence to the idea of a tightly-knit community, attachment to tradition and the certainty that small is beautiful also helped them survive the difficult time of the German occupation. King Christian X manifested the independence of his homeland in a manner as modest as it was uncompromising: day after day, despite his 70 years of age and numerous health problems, he would set forth on horseback, riding through the streets of Copenhagen – in full military gear and without any bodyguards. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, which in 1943 fell on the night of 1–2 October, when the Germans ordered a universal deportation of Danish Jews, something extraordinary happened: the Danes joined together in a masterfully-organized campaign to transfer those being persecuted to neutral Sweden. Out of a total of nearly 8000 people of Jewish origin, there were not even 600 who didn’t make it to the other side of the Baltic. Some of them hid in Denmark until the end of the war, some ended up in the Theresienstadt camp, where despite everything no less than 425 people managed to survive. The number of Danish Holocaust victims remained one of the lowest in the occupied countries of Europe. While historians have pointed out the relative logistical ease of the rescue action, above all what they have noticed is the high degree of assimilation of the Jewish community and the universal conviction among the Danes that the action aimed by the Germans against the Jews was injurious to the integrity of the entire nation. It is characteristic that most participants in the campaign chose to remain anonymous – at Yad Vashem, there is just a single tree planted in honour of the King and the Danish resistance movement, whose efforts are also symbolized by the fishing boat from the village of Gilleleje used to transport the refugees, which is on display at the exhibition.

Stefania Dovhan (Marta), Daniel Szeili (Walther) and Dorothea Spilger (Liese). Photo: Den Jyske Opera

In August 2018, the stage of Den Jyske Opera in Aarhus was graced by Mieczysław Wajnberg’s The Passenger – for the first time in Scandinavia (after the triumphant parade of Pountney’s staging through Europe and the United States, after several realizations in Germany and Thaddeus Strassberger’s shocking production in Ekaterinburg), prepared in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and awarded two Golden Masks in April: for conductor Oliver von Dohnányi and the performer of the role of Liese, Nadezhda Babintseva. The première, the third thus far in the Mickiewicz Institute’s POLSKA MUSIC program, took place at Musikhuset Aarhus, a concert complex seating 3600, situated in the city center and erected between 1979 and 1982 according to a design by architectural studio Kjær & Richter. Up until 1977, Den Jyske Opera put on a mere two operas annually. It got a second wind after its move to Musikhuset in 1982 and a season that began with a staging of Richard Wagner’s complete Ring cycle. In May of last year, German stage director Philipp Kochheim became general manager of the Danish National Opera. After a few productions realized back in Bonn, Kassel and Braunschweig, he decided to open the new season in Denmark with Wajnberg’s opera: written in 1968, presented in 2010 in Bregenz and shortly thereafter acknowledged as one of the most important works of music theater in the last half century.

The success of the Danish endeavour was decided not only by artistic considerations: who knows if what won’t go into the annals of Den Jyske Opera is, first of all, the unprecedented educational campaign accompanying preparations for the Scandinavian première of The Passenger. The safe world of hygge was invaded by the trauma of the Holocaust, the memory of a Nazi death factory, a place of torture and death for political prisoners and the anti-Hitler opposition, a center for the extermination of over 1 million Jews from all over Europe. It is with this painful splinter that participants in the TalentU program – young choristers who support the regular Danish Opera ensemble – had to reckon. The 19-year-old Laurid Juul Langballe felt on her own back the weight of one of the SS uniforms sewn in the Hugo Boss AG sewing room by forced labourers employed at the camp in Metzingen. Frida Jørgensen Hvelplund and Inger Margrethe Holt Povlsen decided to shave their heads and donate their hair to make wigs for pediatric chemotherapy patients – so as to all the more consciously enter into the role of the mistreated prisoners at Auschwitz. The performer of the role of Tadeusz, young Norwegian baritone Leif Jone Ølberg, decided to play the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita no. 2 BWV 1004 without the aid of a stand-in – clumsily, out of tune, portraying powerfully for the audience the anger and pain of an artist degraded in the camp.

Eline Denice Risager (Kapo, spoken role) among the prisoners. Photo: Den Jyske Opera

Kochheim’s staging – compared to Strassberger’s brutal vision – seemed much smoother and more adapted to the sensibilities of the contemporary audience. The director toned down the contrast between the luxury of the transatlantic cruise liner and the revolting filth of Auschwitz. He needlessly emphasized the distance between the psychopathic Liese, devoid of reflective capacity, and the superhumanly good Marta – the Ekaterinburg production’s portrayal of the two protagonists as almost equal victims of the machine of oppression made a decidedly greater impression on me. He was not in total control of the performers’ acting: Liese’s hysteria, growing from the first scenes onward, took away from the credibility of both her dialogues with Walter and the half-dreamlike reminiscences from the camp intruding into the narrative. The Germans in this show are too evil; the transatlantic cruise passengers, excessively grotesque; the prisoners, too clean and unbelievably reconciled to their cruel fate. A few solutions, however, have taken a longer-term place in my memory: among other things, the brutal clang of the railing being knocked over onto the stage floor, designating the transition from the studied reality of the cruise to the dark world of Auschwitz, marked by disintegration; above all, however, the perfectly thought-out scene of Tadeusz’s rebellion, who plays out his death sentence in a circle of bullying SS men and is bade farewell by the increasingly full sound of the orchestra and the more and more desperate wailing of his beloved Marta. The finale again smacked of didacticism – the still beautiful though aged Marta meets her ugly persecutor, lost in a colourful crowd of young sightseers, at the Oświęcim station near the Auschwitz camp. The painful secret is replaced by easy journalism – perhaps justified in a country which is reckoning years later with the Holocaust nightmare contained in the opera score, but difficult to accept for Wajnberg’s fellow countrymen, who have still not been able to work through that nightmare to this day.

German mezzo-soprano Dorothea Spilger in the role of Liese took a long time to warm up, but despite this, she was not able to fully gain control over a harsh voice handled in too forceful a manner and insufficiently open in the upper register. Stefania Dovhan did a considerably better job in the role of Marta, gifted with a warm, peculiarly ‘Eastern’-sounding and very flexible soprano that I would enjoy hearing in one of Janaček’s or Martinů’s operas. Leif Jone Ølberg (Tadeusz) has at his disposal a baritone of uncommon beauty, but still not very big and sometimes lacking in overtones. Daniel Szeili did a solid job in the role of Walther; distinctive episodic roles were created by Tanja Kristine Kuhn (Katia), Anette Dahl (Old Woman) and Bolette Bruno Hansen (Bronka). Christopher Lichtenstein took the whole opera at quite blistering tempi, sometimes losing the character of Wajnberg’s allusions to folklore and Polish early music, but making up for this deficiency with exceptional subtlety in the vocal ensembles, especially in the intimate scenery of the women’s barracks.

Leif Jone Ølberg (Tadeusz). Photo: Den Jyske Opera

The last showing in Aarhus was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation. I joined in with the bravos with a clear conscience – less moved by the general artistic level of the show than by having observed the fascinating process of working through trauma via art. Rarely do I have to do with musicians for whom opera is a liminal experience comparable to a catharsis, a passage into the world of wise maturity. For these young people, an awareness that ‘it will all work out somehow’ is not enough. They truly empathize with the victims of Auschwitz – they want to light a candle for them, press a cup of hot coffee into numb hands, provide them with hygge in the hereafter.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Girl Who Thought She Couldn’t Be a Composer

Congratulations to Agata Zubel, who got awarded Europäischer Komponistenpreis (European Composer Award) 2018 for her recent work Fireworks. To celebrate the occasion, I am reposting my essay from six years ago, written before her monograph concert given as part of the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Cracow.

***

In Warsaw, newborn girls are dressed in pink and boys in blue. In Kraków, a blue layette is prepared for girls, for this is the colour of Our Lady. Agata Zubel is from Wrocław, I don’t know what the local customs are there. From a very young age, girls focus on the faces around them and listen more carefully to what is being said to them. This would fit Zubel. Boys like to fiddle around with everything they can lay their hands on. As a rule, they are more active, display greater interest in their surroundings and like experimenting. This also fits her. Girls at play enjoy the company of other children, while boys prefer to play with objects. Zubel was moping around in the yard poking the ground with a stick, so Mom sent her to school to study violin, even though musical traditions were not nurtured at home. At school, there were other children and many more interesting subjects than the violin – for example, percussion, to which Agata devoted herself unreservedly at primary school after two years of training with the violinists. But that is such a boyish instrument…

Boys most often receive a dressing-down at school for bad behavior, while girls have their substantive shortcomings pointed out to them. I don’t know if Zubel was a little rascal, but when her future husband – then ten years of age – averred that she could become a composer, she reportedly replied that it couldn’t be done, as there were no women in this profession. Well, maybe apart from Grażyna Bacewicz (patron of their school) and Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil (lecturer at the State Music College in Wrocław). Yet when a composing competition was organized at the school, she won it with the piece Wirówka for percussion ensemble. And when asked where the title came from, she told a tall tale about a migraine and a big load of washing (thereby letting them think she had a spin dryer in mind). Even though it is of course boys who tell lies twice as much as girls. (Evidently that wirówka was really supposed to be a centrifuge – but no one else had to know that, now, did they?)

Between at the TW-ON, 2010. Anna Sąsiadek and Mikołaj Mikołajczyk. Photo: Bartłomiej Sowa.

Agata Zubel is undoubtedly a woman and undoubtedly a composer. Attempts to place her œuvre in a context of feminist discourse are most often the expression of a gradual retreat from the masculine archetype, from collective conceptions men have about women and their œuvre. Interest in women’s issues in musicology – sparked by Theodor W. Adorno and Michel Foucault – was not well-received in Poland, unless we count the efforts of Danuta Gwizdalanka, who took up the gender studies thread already in the mid-1990s while working at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The main focus of investigations in feminist musicology – since the dawn of this discipline – has been the differences between male and female œuvres. Some researchers contend that there are essentially no differences. The rest argue that the narrative in the female œuvre is more communicative, less self-absorbed and based more often on collective than on individual experience. And that female composers devote more care and attention to the emotional layer of their compositions, using subtler means to build tension, but have problems with grasping larger forms and multilayered, expansive sound structures. Zubel’s œuvre gives the lie to both theses. It is as forthright and powerful as the most truly masculine music. It is as delicate and translucent as the most truly feminine music. In social discourse, it functions as effectively as the boldest feminist manifesto.

The phenomenon that is Zubel is all the more difficult to explain because she does not allow herself to be constrained by the limitations of a single field of artistic life. Agata Zubel was born in 1978 in Wrocław, and it is here that she finished both primary and secondary music school, before landing in the composition department at conservatory as a solidly-trained percussionist. Her choice of major field was determined by the aforementioned Wirówka, highly rated by Jan Wichrowski, who accepted the young neophyte into his studio. The peculiar evolution of Zubel’s musical imagination was determined by her years of experience with percussion – an instrument that sensitized her to rhythm and timbre, shielding her from the Modernist temptation to develop texture from melodic motifs woven into the harmonic fabric. When she became fascinated with the voice as an expressive tool, Zubel decided to take singing lessons with Danuta Paziuk-Zipser – yet she knew that what she wanted, above all, was to experiment, diversify, completely restack the building blocks and search for unexpected dramaturgy in her voice.

After her first ‘serious’ works, in which she employed an instrumental medium that she knew inside out (e.g. Variations for snare drum quintet from 1995 and, from two years later, Lumière for percussion, awarded 1st prize at the Andrzej Panufnik National Composers’ Competition, as well as the PWM Edition prize), the time came for compositions featuring the human voice. A Song on the End of The World for voice, reciter and instrumental ensemble, to words by Czesław Miłosz (1998) won two prizes –1st prize and the Polish Radio special prize – at the Adam Didur National Composers’ Competition in 2000. When American mezzo-soprano Christina Ascher – a splendid performer of microtonal music, graphic scores and live electronics who also collaborates with dancers and drama artists – came to Wrocław, the young composer wrote what became a career landmark for her, Parlando for voice and computer (2000). In this work, it is already possible to discern the most important elements in Zubel’s later vocal style: sonoristic use of the voice, building of drama from tensions and contrasts based on timbre, rhythmic latitude in measureless fragments, fluid changes in manner of sound production. Zubel, who has always thought that a composer should also be involved in performance and vice versa, shortly afterwards began to interpret Parlando herself with Cezary Duchnowski.

Between. Mirosław Woźniak, Agata Zubel, and Mikołaj Mikołajczyk. Photo: Bartłomiej Sowa.

Such were the beginnings of Elettrovoce – a duo composed of two Wrocław composers in which she seeks new ways of vocal expression, while he seeks novel contexts for traditional sounds, employing the latest computer technology to this end. Sometimes a piano also appears in this configuration, but always used in an unconventional manner – as a kind of sound building material for an intimate time-space in which the voice plays, the computer sings and the collaboration between the two composers assumes all the features of a compositional symbiosis. Elettrovoce do not content themselves with their own compositions: also appearing in their repertoire are compositions by Kaija Saariaho, Sławomir Kupczak and Michał Talma-Sutt; Zygmunt Krauze’s Star, in a version for voice and computer-generated sound; and songs by Derwid – i.e. Witold Lutosławski – for voice, cello, piano and computer. Sharp-tongued critics are beginning to grumble that there is more and more of Duchnowski in Zubel’s music, and more and more of Zubel in Duchnowski’s. Delighted admirers invite them to perform at concerts all over Europe and honour them with prizes at such events as the Dutch Gaudeamus competition for performers of contemporary music (2005).

Agata Zubel graduated from the Wrocław Academy with a Primus Inter Pares commendation and continued her education at the Conservatorium Hogeschool Enschede in Holland, before gaining a Doctorate of Musical Arts in 2004 from her alma mater. The very same year, she became involved in a venture which was initially beyond her imagination, but then turned out to be right on target: an experimental improvisation project at a concert during the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt. In 2005, she received Polityka magazine’s prestigious Passport award. This was the beginning of a triumphal procession of her works through festivals in Poland and abroad: Warsaw Autumn, Wrocław’s Musica Polonica Nova, Poznań’s Musical Spring, Musikhøst in Odense (Denmark), Alternativa in Moscow, Beethovenfest in Bonn (Symphony no. 2 for 77 performers, commissioned in 2005 by Deutsche Welle).

Zubel is increasingly distancing herself from a harmonic way of thinking – she emphasizes the primacy of expression achieved through her own means: a distinctive timbral polyphony, organization of chaos into colouristic groupings and controlled aleatoricism in the spirit of Lutosławski’s legacy. She dislikes speaking about her own music and doesn’t want to provide it with author’s commentary. She forces the listener to think. On occasion she admits to her inspirations. From Paweł Szymański, she has drawn her peculiar use of musical time – rejecting, however, the games with convention that he so favours. She owes her masterful juggling of rhythms not only to her percussion experiences, but also to her fascination with the œuvre of Stravinsky. Her experiments with timbre incline her sometimes toward Ligeti, sometimes toward the French Spectralists. She is continually searching and stresses that the distinctiveness of her works is actually rooted in that quest.

For some time, one could have gotten the impression that the critical establishment rated her vocal art more highly than her composing accomplishments. When she won Polityka’s Passport, the justification for the verdict emphasized that it is an ‘award for her extraordinary vocal performances and stage personality, as well as her ability to harmoniously reconcile the creativity of composition with the re-creativity of performance’. Music lovers associated her first and foremost with performances of contemporary music. The value of this marvelous performer was also confirmed in subsequent years. In 2006, she delighted audiences at the Musica Polonica Nova festival with her interpretation of Lutosławski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables, which was witty, dazzling and different from both Solveig Kringlebotn’s ‘canonical’ interpretation and Olga Pasichnyk’s charm-laden version. Three years later, she captivated listeners at Warsaw Autumn with a virtuosic performance of Bernhard Lang’s DW9. She has successfully taken on leading roles in new operas (La Malaspina in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Luci mie traditrici, the title role in Dobromiła Jaskot’s opera Phaedra and Madeline in Philip Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher, as well as a creation in Cezary Duchnowski’s opera Martha’s Garden, honoured in 2009 by the Association of Polish Musicians with an Orpheus prize).

Between. Photo: Bartłomiej Sowa.

Her voice, supple and vibrant, indeed amazes the listener by reason of its versatile expressive qualities, skill in highlighting the moods contained in the music and masterful weaving of timbral effects into their texture. Zubel employs it in an equally varied manner in her own works – from intimate dialogues with computer and traditional instruments (Unisono I for voice, percussion and computer and Unisono II for voice, accordion and computer from 2003, as well as Stories for voice and prepared piano from 2004), through sparkling, sonoristically sophisticated compositions for larger vocal-instrumental ensembles (of Songs to Biblical texts, for voice, cello, choir and orchestra, written and performed on commission from the Wratislavia Cantans festival in 2007), to extensive experiments featuring electronica, in which the voice expresses pure primal energy evoked by varied means: singing, whispering, murmuring, laughing and shouting (the opera-ballet Between for voice, electronica and dancers, staged in 2010 at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in Warsaw).

Fate likes to play tricks on music critics as well. Although the Polityka Passport jurors spoke of Zubel’s œuvre in quite a condescending tone and only mentioned it third when justifying their verdict, it was this award that enabled the young composer to sail out onto broad and sometimes restless waters. After the aforementioned Symphony no. 2, she was showered with commissions for other works, includingString Quartet no. 1 for four celli and computer for the Ultraschall Festival in Berlin (2006); Cascando for the Central Europe Music Festival in Seattle (2007); Symphony no. 3, written thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant (2009); Aphorisms on Miłosz for the Sacrum Profanum Festival (2011); The Streets of a Human City, commissioned by Deutschlandfunk (2011); Shades of Ice for the London Sinfonietta (2011); Labyrinth, commissioned by the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv (2011) and What is the word for Klangforum Wien and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (2012). Not I for voice, chamber ensemble and electronica (2010) is to be heard for the first time at today’s concert. In 2011, Zubel became composer-in-residence at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco; and for the past two seasons, she has also been a beneficiary of the Kraków Philharmonic’s residence program.

The opera-ballet Between defined the second phase of a close collaboration with stage director Maja Kleczewska – after her excellently-received musical setting for Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade at Warsaw’s National Theater. The music for a production of Babel (based on Elfriede Jelinek’s play) at the Polish Theater in Bydgoszcz went basically unnoticed – although single voices appeared stating that the highly expressive and expansive musical narrative did not suit Kleczewska’s obscene yet, paradoxically, overly aestheticized conception. A genuine storm broke out, however, after the première of Oresteia, a coproduction of the National Opera and National Theater in Warsaw. Some were tearing their hair out that Zubel’s composing potential had been wasted and instead of the anticipated ‘drama-opera’, we saw dreadful theater with a trimmed-down musical layer. Others were moaning that the music of Zubel – who works on abstract sound material and thinks in terms of timbre, structure and sonoristic effects – does not always work well in dramatic theater. Yet others claimed that if it were actually worth going to Oresteia at all, this was only due to the Wrocław composer’s predatory, suggestive music. One thing is for sure: the penultimate item of the Territories series left no one unmoved, while Zubel – unlike Kleczewska – emerged from this storm completely unscathed.

Agata Zubel is a touch-sensitized percussionist. She is a singer attuned to every dimension of the human voice. She is a composer sensitive to the build-up and discharge of tensions using sonoristic devices in isolation from traditionally-understood harmonic centers of gravity and tempo proportions. Someone once claimed that Zubel wrote Between in a language which does not yet exist or which we don’t understand. This is not true. Zubel writes in the language of women. For girls are more sensitive to touch and sound – they hear everything twice as loudly as boys. This is precisely how the feminism of this music manifests itself.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Fools, Gods and Death

Claudio – the titular fool from Hofmannsthal’s early Symbolist drama Der Tor und der Tod (1894) – stands in the window of an elegant apartment, looking at the sunset and sinking into deeper and deeper melancholy. He has never lacked for anything, but despite this, life has slipped through his fingers. He is torn away from his apathy by the sound of a violin. Claudio, who has previously not known even true joy, much less sadness, realizes with horror that the musician is Death. He tries to plead with Death, arguing that it is too soon to die, since he has not yet found out what life is all about. Death decides to teach Claudio the lesson that he has not previously managed to learn. Death summons up the spirit of his mother, whose love he was not able to appreciate; the ghost of a woman whose feelings he rejected like a child bored with the beauty of flowers picked in a meadow; the ghost of a betrayed friend. Claudio falls at Death’s feet and assures Death that in an hour, he has learned more than in his entire lifetime. Up until now, he has lived as if asleep. He has woken up from his sleep only thanks to Death, who is taking him away and is astounded at how wonderful people are: creatures who can explain the unexplainable, read what no one has written and find their way in complete darkness.

I heard Ariadne auf Naxos in Longborough and was amazed how many of these symbols made their way into the one-act opera with prologue of nearly 20 years later, which Strauss and Hofmannsthal – four years after the world première of the original version – transformed into an autonomous masterpiece. After the enthusiastically received Der Rosenkavalier, the composer-librettist pair immediately proceeded to realize two further endeavours: Die Frau ohne Schatten and Ariadne, the latter of which was conceived from the beginning as an expression of gratitude to Max Reinhardt, who had contributed immensely to the success of their first comedy, on the stage of Semperoper Dresden. The 1.5 hour-long Ariadne replaced the ‘amusing Turkish ceremony’ from Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme in Hofmannsthal’s adaptation, and was premièred in this form at the Hoftheater in Stuttgart on 25 October 1912, again under Reinhardt’s direction. Despite the splendid cast (Monsieur Jourdain was portrayed by great Austrian comedian Victor Arnold, associated above all with the role of George Dandin; the role of Bacchus was sung by Herman Jadlowker, a phenomenal Jewish tenor from Latvia), Der Bürger als Edelmann set to music by Strauss satisfied essentially no one. The bored audience fidgeted in their chairs (the show lasted nearly six hours), Strauss felt almost as frustrated as the Composer from the later version of Ariadne – even Hofmannsthal concluded that putting together a decent cast would involve such enormous expense that it would be better to transform this divertissement into a separate work preceded by an appropriate musical introduction, and move the action from Paris to Vienna. The revised version – not without resistance on Strauss’ part – was premièred at the Wiener Staatsoper on 5 October 1916.

Helena Dix (Primadonna/Ariadne) and Darren Jeffery (Music Master). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Alan Privett, the stage director of Ariadne at the LFO, did not resist the temptation to move the opera’s action to more contemporary times; according to the libretto, the opera takes place at the 17th-century residence of the ‘wealthiest man in Vienna – as one could surmise, in ‘yesterday’s world’, like something out the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, where all that remains of the past is whatever the creators have retained in their memory, having considered everything else unachievable or lost. A strong and commendable idea, except perhaps for the concept of characterizing the Majordomo as Karl Lagerfeld performing his speaking role in English – and that, with a heavy northern accent. The otherwise superb Anthony Wise went too deep into his role – personally, I would have preferred that the Haushofmeister be less involved in the decisions of his invisible master and that he convey them with comically justified indifference. The other accents in the prologue, however, were distributed masterfully: the Composer is sufficiently naïve and quick-tempered; the Music Master, sufficiently seasoned in stage combat; the scruffy Tenor and the Primadonna in curlers, ideally narcissistic; the Dance Master and the Wigmaker, like something straight from backstage at some second-rate theatre; Zerbinetta, ostentatiously vulgar; and the remaining members of the troupe, painfully kitsch. I probably need not add that the 1.5-hour picnic interval traditional at Longborough – in the case of Ariadne before the opera ‘proper’ – distinctly brought out the effect of distance to the theatre-within-theatre played out in the second part, intended by Strauss and Hofmannsthal. The production team left us with no doubts that the creators of Ariadne were consciously confronting the world of Greek myth with the Wagnerian ideal of limitless love exceeding all bounds of human understanding – stronger than death and only fulfilled by death.

Robyn Allegra Parton (Zerbinetta) and Clare Presland (Composer). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

And this is probably the most credit-worthy thing about Privett, stage designer Faye Bradley and lighting designer Ben Ormerod, whom I have praised here many times: that they allowed themselves to be convinced by the suggestions of visionary conductor Anthony Negus, whose interpretation focused above all on the character of Ariadne – a ‘one in a million’ woman, symbol of faithfulness ‘beyond the grave’, deaf to all of the voices of reason raised by the comics from the foreign world of opera buffa. Negus’ Ariadne lives in the past: she has time neither for the song and dance of flighty Zerbinetta’s suitors (‘Die Dame gibt mit trübem Sinn’), nor for the delicious, virtuosic monologue ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’. The daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, not having seen the day of Theseus’ return, now awaits only Hermes, the gloomy messenger of death, not realizing that this death – by the power of art and sacrifice – can be transformed into new life. ‘Es gibt ein Reich,’ sings Ariadne, and the name of this kingdom is Totenreich, the Kingdom of the Dead. The motif of the death-bearing Hermes winds its way obstinately through her entire monologue. The meeting with Bacchus, full of misunderstandings, is accompanied by the transformation motif leading both toward the transfiguration experienced by the lovers in Wagner’s Tristan. Bacchus confuses Ariadne with Circe; Ariadne at first takes the divine stranger for Theseus and to the very end does not betray her only love, going to her death in the embrace of the supposed Hermes – though the ‘new god’ swears that ‘Und eher sterben die ewigen Sterne, eh’ denn du stirbest aus meinem Arm!’. The production team purposely modeled Bacchus upon the Tristan from the memorable show directed by Carmen Jakobi. They purposely kept distance between the two of them until the final measures of the opera, so as to all the more strongly emphasize the ambiguity of Zerbinetta’s words: ‘Kommt der neue Gott gegangen, hingegeben sind wir stumm.’ Do we give up, or do we sacrifice ourselves? Without a word, or struck dumb by the silence of death?

The two most important characters in Strauss’ one-act opera – aside from Ariadne, brilliantly portrayed by the Australian Helena Dix, gifted with a flexible, sensuous yet powerful, truly Wagnerian soprano – are the Composer and Zerbinetta. The first was masterfully created, in terms of acting as well, by Clare Presland, whom I encountered for the first time two years ago in Rusalka at the Scottish Opera, where she was appearing in the episodic role of the Kitchen Boy. Since then, Presland’s voice has gotten stronger and taken on power in the middle register; however, it still sounds quite harsh in the upper register. Against this background, Robyn Allegra Parton acquitted herself decidedly better: a Zerbinetta nearly flawless in intonation, technically superb, compellingly musical, flirtatious but, at the same time, predatory and frustrated – this is probably the first time I have heard in this role a singer who beneath the mask of a cynical seductress was swallowing bitter tears of loneliness and humiliation. In the roles of the three nymphs, Suzanne Fischer (Naiad), Alice Privett (Echo) and the ravishing honey-voiced contralto Flora McIntosh (Dryad) came out very well. Jonathan Stoughton has reached full form since the June Dutchman and presented the thankless role of Bacchus in a secure, freely-shaped tenor, sufficiently metallic in colour, though still not developed enough in terms of volume. In the male portion of the cast, the most impressive to me personally was Darren Jeffery (Music Master) – a singer of extraordinary culture, having at his disposal a rounded baritone superbly supported in the low register. Separate words of praise are due to Aidan Coburn, wonderfully characterized and very vocally competent, in the role of Brighella.

Jonathan Stoughton (Bacchus), Helena Dix, Alice Privett (Echo), Flora McIntosh (Dryad), Suzanne Fischer (Naiad). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Negus interpreted Ariadne not so much as a virtuoso pastiche, rather as an erudite exercise in styles of earlier times – a melancholy journey into a past which in social and aesthetic terms closed behind Europe after the tragedy of World War I. He put the allusions to Italian bel canto, the œuvre of Mozart, Weber and Wagner contained in the score all the more consciously through the filter of Modernism – thinning out textures, bringing out dissonances, sometimes blurring listeners’ perception of the musical time. The orchestra, superb as usual, yielded to him completely, after the fireworks of the prologue gradually immersing itself in the poetic language of oneirism and dream phantasms so typical of Hofmannsthal’s libretti and the music of Strauss that is inseparably linked to them. Sleep is the cousin of death. Perhaps it is for this reason – now at the side of new gods – that we call in our sleep for lovers dead to us. Perhaps that is why Ariadne saw in Bacchus the irretrievably lost Theseus.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Garibaldi’s Trovatore

I delayed my report from Winslow for so long that a bomb exploded – only somewhere completely different. Not even a month before the opening of the new season in Bayreuth, the news broke that Roberto Alagna had withdrawn from the title role in the new staging of Lohengrin under the baton of Christian Thielemann, directed by Yuval Sharon. Apparently because of too many other obligations, he had not succeeded in learning his role in time. The grotesque nature of these explanations only confirms the fears I had from the moment the French tenor’s name appeared in the cast. But that isn’t the point here. The management of the Bayreuther Festspiele made an announcement in a tone of mild panic, informing the audience that they were ‘intensively’ searching for a replacement. How did that happen? Did the performer of such a major role in a house of that stature not have any understudy? No doubt he did, but in today’s day and age, the understudy is there not to come out on stage in such a situation, but rather to do the dirty work for the star during rehearsals for the show. At the world’s most famous houses, it is more and more often names that appear, rather than singers. It is names – not vocal artistry – that drive ticket sales and guarantee the endeavour publicity, as measured by the number of articles in the media, likes on social media portals and comments by ecstatic fans posing for pictures alongside operatic celebrities.

Opera has often gone hand-in-hand with poor taste, but it never used to happen at such cost to the artistic side. We shall shortly find out who will replace Alagna. We can already take bets, because only a few singers are under consideration. Let us hope that they end up with someone who can handle the part. Over a dozen others are waiting in line who haven’t the slightest chance of appearing on opening night, though they often are every bit the equal of the sure bets, and sometimes even better. It is for this reason that I insist on encouraging my readers to visit theatres that are more modest, yet more committed to the idea of the operatic form – with its intrinsic requirement of care for style and dedicated work in a team directed by a wise conductor. A singer’s class is not attested by the ability to scream out their role on a stage the size of an aircraft hangar. The so-called big voices reveal the fullness of their values only when they can diversify the timbre throughout the dynamic scale. Vocalists should understand what they are singing about and be able to communicate without difficulty with the conductor, the orchestra and the rest of the cast.

Il Trovatore at the Winslow Hall Opera. Vasile Chişiu (Count di Luna). Photo: WHO.

Fortunately, there are still such musicians and such production teams, though they normally have to tighten their belts and fulfill their dreams on a shoestring budget. Sometimes they end up with results vastly superior to those of the expensive productions on the big-league stages. Today, however, I shall write about something else: an endeavour that does not even think of competing with either the giants or with a handful of ambitious idealists. The Winslow Hall Opera, which I visited for the first time last year, in many respects bears the marks of grand caprice, but it does serve the common good – more precisely, it satisfies the cultural and social needs of the local community, offering it a clear theatre experienced up close, at least decent singing, though in the rendition of young or lesser-known artists, but in general: an encouragement toward further contact with opera, for example in London, less than 100 km away.

Oliver Gilmour, the brother of Winslow Hall’s owner and the Opera’s artistic director, prepares only one show per year – every time, these are works from the standard repertoire that are sure to attract local music lovers. The performances take place on a tiny stage under a tarpaulin mounted straight on the lawn of the residence, which during the intermission turns into a picturesque field for a picnic – a favourite pastime of English open-air opera attendees. This year, the choice fell upon Il Trovatore, for which – aside from aspiring singers from England – Gilmour invited soloists with whom he had had the opportunity to work previously abroad, among other places at the Bulgarian National Opera in Sofia, where he held the post of principal conductor in the 1990s. Tsvetana Bandalovska, the fine Amelia from last year’s Un ballo in maschera, turned out to be an even more convincing Leonora; also performing better was Vasile Chişiu in the role of the Count di Luna, though he took as long to warm up as previously in the role of Anckarström. All of the supporting roles were worthily cast – and here I shall point out in particular the superb acting and beautiful baritone of Piran Legg (Ferrando). Argentinian tenor Pablo Bemsch, from 2011 to 2013 a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, built Manrico’s character in a manner befitting a house considerably more ambitious than the Winslow Hall Opera: the singer has at his disposal a well-favoured, timbrally-balanced voice, produced freely with a large wind capacity. It is a pity that the phenomenally gifted Norwegian Siv Iren Misund didn’t put a little more effort into mastering the part of Azucena – her juicy, dense mezzo-soprano with a truly contralto low register would have made an electrifying impression on me, were it not for numerous textual errors. The reduced-size orchestra accompanied the soloists conscientiously, though without any special finesse – it is worth emphasizing, however, that Gilmour imposed faster tempi on them this year and put more work into organizing the harmonic verticals, to the benefit of the intonation and pulse of the whole.

The crowd scene with Piran Legg (Ferrando) in the middle. Photo: WHO.

The staging job again went to Carmen Jakobi. After Un ballo in maschera, with its plot set during the reign of the Swedish King Gustav III, the director shifted Il Trovatore into the realities of the Risorgimento, or more precisely, the Italo-Austrian war and the fierce conflicts between Garibaldi’s divisions and the armies of Major General Kuhn von Kuhnenfeld. And so the Count di Luna became an Austrian officer; and Manrico, a soldier in the Alpine Rifle Corps, whereby the competition of the two men for Leonora’s attentions gained an additional political dimension. On the other hand, Jakobi’s directorial maneuovre made the relationship between Manrico and Azucena more probable – a Garibaldi volunteer raised by a Roma woman does, after all, speak more powerfully to the imagination than a gypsy troubadour. The symbolism of the tragic conflict among the forces of vengeance, jealousy and love was highlighted by the stylish costumes, whose author (Penny Latter) had recourse to a certain anachronism: she dressed Manrico in the red shirt of the participants in the Expedition  of the Thousand, which is considerably more strongly associated with Garibaldi than are the Alpine Riflemen’s uniforms. The acting tasks – carried out, as usual with Jakobi, clearly and precisely – took place against the background of an abstract glow ‘borrowed’ from an etching by Francisco Goya entitled Escapan entre las llamas, from the cycle The Disasters of War (stage design by Paul Webb). Changes of scenery were suggested only by the lighting (Matt Cater) and the unveiling of individual panels of the background – in such a manner that the empty spaces reflected Leonora’s balcony, the monastery cross, the barred window of Manrico’s cell. Maximum theatre with minimal expenditures.

Tsvetana Bandalovska (Leonora), and Vasile Chişiu (Count di Luna). Photo: WHO.

It is difficult to compare the Winslow Hall Opera even with the unpretentious summer opera at Longborough. It is a truly neighbourly community theatre, evoking in me peculiar associations with the traveling cinemas of old. I well remember from my childhood those vans, thanks to which even the tiniest hamlet could – for a few hours – boast of its own cinema. Thanks to the Gilmour brothers’ initiative, for a few days a year Winslow – a town of a few thousand inhabitants in Buckinghamshire – can boast of its own opera house.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Two Tales of Transfiguration

‘And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them,’ we read in Mark’s Gospel. The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor was a real Verklärung. A terrifying brightness blinded Jesus’ three disciples and filled them with fear mixed with awe. It took them into another dimension, the brilliance of which icon painters have brought out via contrast, juxtaposing it with an image of a black sun. Wagner’s Tristan arrives from the world of night. And Wagner’s Dutchman, from the mists of the past, on a ship with black masts and sails as red as blood. Neither of them will find happiness in the human world of daylight. Both will unite with their loved ones through death and transfiguration, thanks to the redeeming power of love. In the finale of Der fliegende Holländer – amended by the composer in 1860, a year after finishing work on Tristan – we shall hear a luminous cadence bringing to mind inevitable associations with the final bars of Isolde’s Liebesverklärung. The darkness recedes, the music pulsates with a blinding brilliance, the audience freezes in silent awe. At least that is how it should be.

This time, I decided to combine my annual pilgrimage to Longborough – that is, the ‘English Bayreuth’ – with a visit to the ‘Bayreuth on the Danube’. The Budapest Wagner Days – initiated in 2006 by Ádám Fischer at the newly-opened Palace of the Arts, the design of which alluded loosely to the premises of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris – have over the ensuing years built themselves a reputation as one of the major festivals of the German master’s music. From the beginning, Fischer set himself the goal of competing with the Wagnerian theatre on the Green Hill. At the Palace of Arts, since 2014 called Müpa Budapest, he has at his disposal the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra (excellent, though not as good as the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by his younger brother Iván) and the Béla Bartók Concert Hall – with a concert stage that can be transformed into a quite expansive opera stage with orchestra pit, which permits Wagner’s works to be presented almost as if in a ‘real’ theatre. The big attraction for the audience is, above all, the names of the singers, which Fischer can take his sweet time choosing – though it is hard to call him an experimenter. Budapest is thus visited by often no-longer-young performers who have associated with this repertoire for years. This was also the case with this year’s Tristan, in which the title role was entrusted to Peter Seiffert, and the character of King Marke was portrayed by Matti Salminen. Anja Kampe (Isolde), announced in the original program, was replaced at the last minute by American soprano Allison Oakes, who among other things is preparing to appear in the dual role of Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser next season on the stage of Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan und Isolde at the Müpa. Allison Oakes (Isolde). Photo: Zsófia Pályi.

After last year’s Tristan with the Longborough Festival Opera, which will long – and perhaps forever – remain the model production for me, I traveled to Budapest full of anxiety. Some of them turned out to be justified, most of them turned out to be baseless, but most importantly: what awaited me was a short, unexpected and shocking experience on the order of my impressions from the little Bayreuth in the Cotswolds. I shall begin with the disappointments to put them behind me: the six creators of the staging (director Cesare Lievi, stage designer Maurizio Balò, costume designer Marina Luxardo and the three people responsible for the lighting and video projections) managed to litter the stage of the Müpa with a ton of distracting objects and images, while the singers were basically left to their own devices, at times indeed making it difficult for them to build dramatic tension. As a result, Tristan’s acting was limited to sitting and lying on an enormous purple sofa taken, as it were, straight from a Turkish lounge furniture catalogue (furthermore, the sofa gradually disintegrated: in Act II, it began to tip dangerously; and in Act III, all that was left of it was the frame), and the rest of the singers – though somewhat more mobile – did not enter into any relationships with each other. Furthermore, it would be tough to find that surprising, given that the protagonists had to perform their great duet against a background of colorful projections with jellyfish and seaweed, and Tristan’s death scene was dominated by a thicket of leafless trees undulating on the screen. Another thing that would have looked even worse in a real theatre, so I really shouldn’t complain.

Tristan und Isolde, the final scene. Boaz Daniel (Kurwenal), Peter Seiffert (Tristan), Allison Oakes, Atala Schöck (Brangäne), Matti Salminen (King Marke). Photo: Zsófia Pályi.

The playing of the Hungarian Philharmonic largely made up for the deficiencies in the staging. Ádám Fischer treats Wagner’s material completely differently from Krauss, Böhm or Negus – in terms of both the shaping of the architecture, and the building of the narrative as a whole. Instead of diversifying the colours, he consciously unifies them, avoids drastic expressive contrasts, ‘smooths’ the edges, doesn’t pour out the tale in a broad stream, but rather divides it up into smaller, self-contained mini-stories. But he has under his baton an ensemble sufficiently alert that such an interpretation is not disturbing to the ears, especially since the music flows forward quite fast, without getting bogged down in musical verbiage. In purely vocal terms, Fischer chose a dream cast: every role, even the most episodic, was assigned to a stylish performer with flawless technique. However, I would have preferred that Seiffert – astounding in the freshness of his tenor and very convincing in Act I – have taken more of an interest during Act III in his character’s inhuman suffering; and that Oakes – gifted with a dense and dark soprano – have really let us feel that she was experiencing a luminous transfiguration over the dead body of her beloved. I don’t know in what measure this is the stage director’s fault, and in what measure the conductor’s, because all of the soloists in the production struggled with similar problems in drawing their characters. With the sole, riveting exception of Matti Salminen, who managed to combine everything in King Marke’s monologue: imperious dignity, crushing disappointment and a desperate desire to understand something to which he has no access. The venerable Finnish bass gave us a creation complete in every inch which will long – if not forever – remain in my memory as an unattainable model of deep interpretation marked by the wisdom of age.

Two days after the Budapest Tristan, I landed in the bucolic scenery of the Longborough Festival Opera, which presented Der fliegende Holländer, the first of the season’s four productions, on an incomparably smaller budget. In all Wagnerian endeavours under Anthony Negus’ baton, one senses an extremely different approach to the matter: the music director of the LFO chooses the cast of his shows from among singers less well-known yet completely fitting into his vision of the work. And he works with them until they drop – as with the orchestra – polishing every phrase, bringing out all of the ‘peculiarities’ from the score, without trying to tailor them to the contemporary listener’s tastes. What I could expect from a Holländer in Negus’ interpretation, I already more or less knew after his appearance last year on the podium of the Philharmonisches Orchester der Hansestadt Lübeck. I got the same, but with interest. An overture in which – despite sporadic slip-ups in the brass – the wind basically smacked one in the face, the sails flapped, and the keel creaked under pressure from the water. The score’s Weberisms and Marschnerisms, highlighted with charm and all the more distinctly showing the contrast between the conventional world of ordinary mortals and the lushly Romantic, extremely individual musical language of the two protagonists. The superbly-prepared choral scenes, especially the beginning of Act III, in which Negus several times juxtaposed a deadly silence with a desperate fortissimo – thereby obtaining an effect worthy of the best horror films.

Der fliegende Holländer at the LFO. The Sailors’ Chorus. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

The revelation of the production turned out to be New Zealand’s Kirstin Sharpin in the role of Senta – a prizewinner at the Internationaler Wettbewerb für Wagnerstimmen in Karlsruhe and holder of a scholarship from the British Wagner Society, gifted with a sonorous soprano, of extraordinarily gorgeous timbre and beautifully open in the upper register. Simon Thorpe (Dutchman), phenomenal in terms of character, took a long time to warm up, to the detriment of the monologue ‘Die Frist ist um’ from Act I – nevertheless, in the ecstatic duet ‘Wie aus der Ferne’, he and Sharpin both reached the heights of vocal expression. A clear contrast with Thorpe’s gorgeous baritone was created by the deep and slightly gravelly bass of Richard Wiegold (Daland), set in the Singspiel convention. The indisposed Eric Stoughton had a few difficult moments in Act III: that said, it has been a long time since I have heard such a convincing Erik, telling his prophetic dream about the mysterious visitor (‘Auf hohem Felsen’) with such sensitivity and musicality. Separate words of praise are due to Carolyn Dobbin in the role of Mary, and especially to William Wallace, whose youthful, heartbreakingly lyrical Steersman brought to mind the Dutchman back in the days before he was cursed to wander eternally.

Simon Thorpe (The Dutchman) and Kirstin Sharpin (Senta). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

All of these musical miracles played out in an intimate space developed by stage director Thomas Guthrie, stage designer Ruth Patton and the inestimable Ben Ormerod, responsible for the stage lighting. Yet again, I have the impression that the creators of the Longborough productions are paying homage to the visionary ideas of Wieland Wagner from the golden seasons in Bayreuth. On a nearly empty stage painted with lighting, what reigns is theatrical illusion. Daland’s non-existent ship arrives on a non-existent coast, but despite this, we follow with suspense the sailors’ manoeuvres suggested by a slow parade of extras floating across the back of the stage, carrying the entire port city in their hands: miniature models of houses, a church, a lighthouse. The ghostly voices of the Dutchman’s sailors in Act III waft in on a primitive Bush transistor radio. Just before Senta’s ballad, when the musical narrative freezes in unbearable suspense, Mary nervously winds thread onto a spool – in the rhythm of the clearly accented, ostinato figures in the strings.

‘This is theatre. / And theatre exists / so that all will be different from before,’ wrote the recently-deceased Joanna Kulmowa in one of her poems. So that we will see in a ladder – a stairway to heaven; and in a bowl under the stairs – the moon. So that we will all experience transfiguration and rise above the earth in a dazzling blaze of rapture. Success again in Longborough. I have a feeling there will be success next year in Budapest too.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Longing for an Italian Zion

A true master of opera can compose not only a masterpiece for the stage but also his own biography. Giuseppe Verdi reached the absolute top in both respects. In the so-called Autobiographical Sketch, dictated to Giulio Ricordi of the Casa Ricordi in 1879, he stuck firmly to the rule he had formulated several years earlier in a letter to the Italian patriot Clara Maffei: “To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is much, much better.” Verdi was right. He published his memoirs having in mind the new, united nation – not to have the Italians believe everything, but to lay the foundations for a national legend that would sustain their identity, which was only beginning to take shape at the time. Verdi manipulated the facts, because society clearly expected it. His contemporaries knew what the truth was. Later scholars studying the composer’s oeuvre were taken in by this dramatic tale full of pathos and for years treated it as revealed truth. In fact, there was as much historical truth in it as in the libretto of Nabucco, a four-act opera about King Nebuchadnezzar and the beginnings of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

Printed playbill announcing performances of Nabucco at the Teatro Civico, Vercelli, 1868.

Indeed, towards the end of the 1830s Verdi was struck by a whole series of calamities, which were, however, spread over time a bit more than the Sketch would suggest. Both children from the composer’s first marriage did not live long beyond their infancy. Virginia Maria Luigia died in August 1838, at the age of sixteen months, while Icilio Romano, one year her junior, lived only fifteen months. Their mother, 26-year-old Margherita, died in early 1840, killed by a sudden attack of encephalitis. At that time Verdi was working on his second opera, with which he hoped to continue the success of Oberto, very warmly received at its premiere at Milan’s La Scala in November 1839. The failure of Un giorno di regno, staged at the same theatre less than a year later, was a result not so much of the complications in the composer’s private life but of his misdiagnosis of the audience’s expectations. Verdi composed a work that was by no means inferior to Oberto but its outmoded style of opera buffa determined the audience’s reaction. Verdi may have had doubts about his skill, but he most certainly did not swear that he would never compose an opera again. Just as unbelievable is his declaration that he changed his mind shortly after Bartolomeo Merelli, the La Scala impresario, forced him to accept the libretto of Nabucco.  In fact, Verdi had no intention of giving up the art of composition and after the death of his wife he painstakingly revised the score of Oberto – thinking about upcoming productions in Turin, Naples and Genoa.

However, it must be said that the later version of the events does speak to the imagination very strongly. Let us leave aside the description of the increasing fury which apparently accompanied him as he was returning home with the unwanted libretto. Furious, Verdi locked the door, threw the manuscript on the table and the manuscript opened itself – of course on the song of the Hebrew exiles from Act II. Seeing the words “Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate” (Fly, thought, on wings of gold) the composer melted. He became completely engrossed in the libretto. He tried to sleep but kept waking up and reading the text again and again. Before dawn he knew the whole libretto by heart. A magnificent founding myth, making it possible to draw an analogy between the oppression of the Jews in the Babylonian captivity and the situation on the Italian Peninsula.  Never mind that the Spring of Nations did not break out until eight years later and that the Unification of Italy did not begin in earnest until 1859 and lasted over a decade.

The legend was going strong as were the fabricated legends of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves being encored during the premiere of Nabucco in March 1942 (yes, there was an encore, but of the final hymn “Immenso Jehova”), of huge demonstrations following successive performances of the opera and of a ban, introduced by the Austrian authorities, on staging the opera within the territories they occupied (Nabucco was performed after the collapse of the Spring of Nations, as were Ernani and Attila, two other operas by Verdi which with time became part of the Risorgimento narrative). The legend was cultivated for a long time and effectively at that. It was used for political purposes. In 1941, after Italy’s military failures, Mussolini blew it up during the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of Verdi’s death, trying to rekindle the nation’s fading enthusiasm. The separatists from the Northern League, established in 1989, appropriated “Va, pensiero” as the anthem of the independent state of their dreams, Padania – obviously, with an appropriately “corrected” text.

Filippo Peroni, costume sketch for the role of the old member of the chorus, 1854.

Does this mean that Nabucco is worth little, that it is another early opera by Verdi, whose creative genius was revealed in its full glory only in the early 1850s with the famous “trilogy of feelings” comprising Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata? What does the audience’s rapture after the premiere matter, if the critics had mixed feelings about Nabucco? The problem is that a majority of the scathing opinions came from critics associated with the German composer Otto Nicolai, who had made an unforgivable mistake of rejecting the libretto, written especially for him by Temistocle Solera. Instead, Nicolai began to work on the opera Il proscritto to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, rejected by… Verdi. This time intuition did not fail the Italian composer: the premiere of Il proscritto at La Scala, less than a year before the premiere of Nabucco, was a complete flop. After the triumph of Verdi’s opera Nicolai lost his nerve. He called his rival a fool with the heart of a donkey, who could not even score decently, while his work was invective, an affront to the dignity of this musical form.

Fortunately, Nicolai’s opinion was that of a minority. With hindsight we can say that Nabucco was the first clear manifestation of “direct” musical narrative in Verdi’s oeuvre. Although stylistically still close to Rossini’s aesthetics, the opera emphatically marks the moment in which the composer decided to gradually abandon the traditional “number” opera in favour of a lively, dramatically coherent story. For the moment the composer pursued this goal still using simple means, focusing primarily on making the action “move forward” (which was one of the reasons why he warned the conductors of Nabucco against differentiating the tempi too much). His unerring sense of musical time prompted him to expand the role of the chorus, which in the opera is a fully-fledged protagonist of the drama, a collective embodiment of the people of Israel. An excellent example of this composing strategy is “Va, pensiero” with its lyrics loosely drawing on Psalm 137 and melody quite disarming in its simplicity and sung largely in unison. Rossini was spot-on in describing it as a “grand aria for sopranos, altos, tenors and basses”. Whenever multiple voice harmony appears in this aria, its form is one characteristic of Italian folk music – voices running in parallel thirds.

Verdi’s funeral, drawing by Fortunino Matania, 1901.

In addition, Verdi introduced important innovations in the arrangement of solo parts. The eponymous role of Nabucco, a man torn internally and gradually losing his mind, heralds the great baritone parts of Verdi’s later operas, including Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra. The most important counterbalance to the main protagonist is the high priest Zaccaria, vocally a direct descendant of Rossini’s Moses – the composer gave him an incredibly complex bass part with two culminations: in the powerful prayer from Act II and the inspired prophecy following the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. The lovers – tenor Ismaele and mezzo-soprano Fenena – are deliberately pushed to the background, against the initial suggestions of the librettist, who provided for a great love duet in Act III of the opera. When it comes to the usurper Abigaille, Verdi gave her a difficult and thankless part: the prima donna has just one aria, but throughout the opera she has to cope with huge interval leaps, finely embellished coloratura and a number of notes requiring a powerful and free sound both in the upper and the contralto-like lower register, going beyond the tessitura of an “ordinary” dramatic soprano.

With hindsight we can say that Nabucco was not only Verdi’s first opera in which the composer revealed his individuality. It was also a foundation stone for his true creative genius, a starting point for the famous eight “galley years”, during which he composed no fewer than fourteen operas, mostly groundbreaking and rightly regarded as masterpieces of the form to this day. In a non-musical context Nabucco became a symbol of Risorgimento – also thanks to the composer, who skilfully weaved the story of the work into the complicated history of the unification of Italy. So skilfully, in fact, that after his death in 1901, when the funeral cortège was passing through the streets of Milan, the passers-by would spontaneously burst into “Va, pensiero”. A month later, when the bodies of Verdi and his wife Giuseppina Strepponi, the first Abigaille, who had died in 1897, were solemnly transferred to a tomb in Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was sung by a chorus of nearly nine hundred conducted by young Arturo Toscanini.

The legend of Nabucco is still flying on wings of gold. It survived two turns of the centuries and continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of opera in uniting a community.  On the other hand, it would sometimes settle on a wrong hill. It is worth bearing this in mind in order to avoid following Il Duce’s example and turning this masterpiece into a tool of unthinking and dangerous propaganda.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Not So Merry Old England

Sacred vocal music developed during the Tudor era under the overwhelming influence of the Franco-Flemish School and the music of the Italian Renaissance. […] The English Baroque turned out to be a posthumous child of the beautiful but terrible era of the Tudors.

***

In 1485, the Wars of the Roses came to an end. In the Battle of Bosworth, King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, perished. The crown passed to Henry VII. A new chapter opened in the history of England: the Tudors would reign for almost one hundred and twenty years. That period would come to be idealised as ‘Merry Old England’ – an idyllic vision of pure Englishness, of a land of plenty, smelling of beer and Sunday roast with sage. Yet the wars left the kingdom in a lamentable state. The succession of armed clashes, beginning with the skirmish at St Albans thirty years before, had deprived it of its finest sons.

Fortunately, Henry VII – for all his ruthlessness – turned out to be one of the most effective rulers in English history. From the moment he took to the throne, he consistently pursued policies aimed not only at keeping the peace, but also at laying the foundations for future economic prosperity. He supported music, which became one of the crucial elements in the education of the nobility and the royal household. His son, Henry VIII, would be proficient on the lute, organ, flute and harp, and he composed and performed his own songs. His permanent royal chapel comprised mainly musicians brought from abroad: from Italy, France and the Netherlands. Henry’s example was followed by further Tudors: Philippe de Monte (1521–1603), born in Mechelen and educated in Italy, whose output was compared with the achievements of Orlando di Lasso, worked for many years at the court of Mary I.

William Byrd, Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadness and pietie (1588).

Sacred vocal music developed during the Tudor era under the overwhelming influence of the Franco-Flemish School and the music of the Italian Renaissance. Thomas Tallis (1505–1585), a veteran in the service of Henry VII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elisabeth I, who remained an ‘unreformed Roman Catholic’ to the end of his days, went down in the history books as the composer of the famous forty-part motet Spem in alium, written c.1570, which betrays influences from the Venetian School. Yet that same period gave us other masterpieces, in which Tallis deliberately referred to Flemish polyphony, subordinating melismata and counterpoint to the rhetoric of the text. In the motet O nata lux, rhythms, accents and scales merge. Harmonic dissonances appear on words that are key to salvation theology. Each work by Tallis became a musical debate on faith and the composer’s personal voice on the question of the English Reformation.

Tallis and his pupil William Byrd (1539–1623) enjoyed a monopoly on polyphonic music granted them by Elisabeth, along with a patent for printing and publishing sheet music. Tallis’s privilege covered the right to publish sacred works in any language. Byrd went several steps farther, assimilating the continental tradition in Masses and motets and forging a synthesis of the models that held sway on both sides of the Channel. He also remained faithful to Catholicism throughout his life, which may explain why his works, from the Eucharist hymn Ave verum Corpus to the lamentational Lulla Lullaby, tend to trigger associations with intimate prayer more than with public manifestations of faith.

Henry Purcell by John Closterman (date unknown).

The fortunes and creative paths of their successors unfolded differently. The first wave of Reformation in England, preceded by Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was of purely political foundations. The true reform came only with the rule of Edward. Mary’s attempt to restore Catholicism was followed by a violent turn of affairs under the reign of Elisabeth. The fate of the Catholics was determined by the outbreak of the war with Spain in 1588: from that moment on, they were seen as traitors. Opponents of the Anglican Church began to leave the island en masse.

Peter Philips (1560–1628) began as a chorister at St Paul’s in London. At the age of twenty-two, following his ordination, he went into exile in Italy, via Flanders; he died in Brussels. Richard Dering (1580–1630), of the next generation, spent most of his life in the Spanish Netherlands. Significantly, both men wrote vocal music in the Italian style. Philips adhered to the more conservative models of the Venetian School, whilst Dering took up a creative dialogue with the mannerists, including Sigismond d’India, which with time earned him a reputation as one of the pioneers of the English Baroque.

That era was yet to come, delayed by three English civil wars and the reigns of the Cromwells. Its beginnings were tortuous: rejected by the courts, which were preoccupied by conflict, it was derailed by its distinctiveness in relation to the Continent. It finally emerged, during the Stuart restoration, simpler and more plebeian than in Italy and France, and at the same time fragile and beset by contradictory emotions, like the alarmed Mary, mother of Jesus, from The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation by Henry Purcell (1659–1695), to words by Nahum Tate. The English Baroque turned out to be a posthumous child of the beautiful but terrible era of the Tudors. It only altered its appearance after the defeat of the Stuarts. But that is another story entirely.

Translated by: John Comber

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:

***

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