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

The Virgin Queen and Her Last Lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Two Theatres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Love and Freedom with Death in the Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski