Prince of Monte Rotondo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

A Prophet By No Means False

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

For such is the soul of opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ubu Rex. Photo: Tomasz Zakrzewski / Opera Śląska.

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Little but Moving

Life is too short to waste time on boring performances. This is especially clear to opera house directors, who not infrequently have trouble filling the hall for shows of works from outside a narrow canon – but after all, they would like to put on something more than just La Traviata alternating with Die Zauberflöte. Opera North has decided to do something about this, finding a solution tempting not only to novices, but to discriminating connoisseurs as well. Thirteen years ago, it offered a season under the slogan Eight Little Greats: eight short operas staged by two directors, David Pountney and Christopher Alden, in collaboration with one stage designer, the now late Johan Engels, under the baton of three conductors – Martin André, David Parry and James Holmes. While the shows came in pairs, tickets were sold for individual titles – and that, at half price. It was possible to leave during the intermission or appear only during the interval. Not counting I Pagliacci, only rare works were presented at that time, among others Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini and Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf. The endeavour ended in partial success: the level of the stagings turned out to be uneven, and the individual compositions – despite their modest dimensions – too hermetic and inaccessible to convince undecided parties to fritter away an evening in the company of Les Troyens or Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Opera North has drawn conclusions from that previous lesson and returned to the Little Greats idea in 2017, but on slightly different premises. This time, there were six titles, including three from the warhorse repertoire (Cavalleria rusticana, I Pagliacci and L’enfant et les sortilèges), but combined in classic double-bills. It is another matter that the combinations sometimes turned out to be surprising; besides that, the ‘road shows’ were comprised of different elements from the première shows in Leeds. The common denominator was, once again, the stage designer – Charles Edwards, who in the case of I Pagliacci took responsibility for the entirety of the staging. All told, five stage directors were engaged, and four conductors, including Anthony Kraus, who led L’enfant et les sortilèges alternating with Martin André, a veteran of the 2004 series. Ravel’s lyric fantasy was the only work that audiences could go to separately, as part of a family matinée at the opera.

I Pagliacci. Richard Burkhard (Tonio) and Peter Auty (Canio) Photo: Tristram Kenton.

When I looked at the program of Opera North’s autumn season, what I noticed above all was Destiny (Osud) – a very rarely-performed opera by Janáček that I knew only from recordings. In Nottingham, where the Little Greats series ended up at the beginning of November, it was paired with the one-act L’enfant et les sortilèges, presenting in one evening both of the productions directed by Annabel Arden. After thinking about it for a bit, I decided to travel to the capital of the East Midlands – the temptation to see and hear these two pearls at the local Theatre Royal, one of the most beautiful Victorian theatres in the Isles, where the world première of Agatha Christie’s legendary The Mousetrap took place in 1952, turned out to be irresistible. Since I was supposed to come to Nottingham a day early anyway, I decided to go to Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci, presented in a pair as usual, except in reverse order. In this case, I was motivated by curiosity about how Polish stage director Karolina Sofulak had managed with Mascagni’s opera, since she had made the quite bold decision to shift this gory tale from Sicily to the realities of the boorish Polish People’s Republic. Now I regret having forgone the two remaining elements of the series: Leonard Bernstein’s gloomy ‘musical’ Trouble in Tahiti and the comic opera Trial by Jury, one of the first fruits of the collaboration between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, two of the greatest theater stars of Queen Victoria’s era.

Charles Edwards spared no effort to ensure that audiences remembered the Little Greats as – appearances notwithstanding – a coherent series, combined into a whole with numerous, sometimes very ingenious inside allusions. His I Pagliacci plays out in the rehearsal room of a contemporary theatre, on the walls of which hang the designs of the scenery and costumes for all six shows. The frustrated Tonio – the stage designer and, at the same time, director’s assistant – spreads out a mockup of Cavalleria rusticana on the table. The face of the clock from which the Child tore off the pendulum in Ravel’s one-act opera materializes as a symbol of the passage of time in Janáček’s opera. A shabby upright piano wanders from the studio of composer Živný to the room of the unruly Child, in which all of the objects damaged by the Child will shortly come to life. The director of the troupe from I Pagliacci sings the prologue against the background of a curtain with a group picture of the artists, which appears as an immutable prop in all of the shows in the series.

Cavalleria rusticana. Phillip Rhodes (Alfio) and Katie Bray (Lola) with the Chorus of Opera North. Photo: Robert Workman.

Of the two double-bills I saw in Nottingham, in theatrical terms Destiny paired with L’enfant et les sortilèges came out decidedly better. In Ravel’s fantasy, Annabel Arden’s vivid directorial imagination gained worthy support from both the stage designer and from Theo Clinkard, who was responsible for the stage movement. This is probably the first staging of this opera that I know of in which the contrast between the claustrophobic atmosphere of the child’s room and the seductive horror of the garden bathed in moonlight was so intelligently brought out. The excellently-directed singing actors provoked the audience to attacks of spasmodic laughter: it is difficult to keep a straight face at the sight of the Teapot with a vigorously erect spout between its legs, or the Tree Frog in pitifully stretched-out green stockings; it is even harder to forget the flirtations of the Tom Cat and the Female Cat, maintained in the poetic language of Pink Panther cartoons. Arden had a bit worse of a time with Janáček’s Osud, which is in large measure the fault of the composer, who also co-authored the libretto – it is difficult to believe that almost parallel to Jenůfa, he was creating an opera so dramaturgically incoherent and pretentious in terms of the text. Fortunately, it is not lacking in flashes of true musical genius, brought out by the stage director in Act I, which was played with bravado and at times gave one the impression of watching a Jiří Menzel film. The next two, however, dragged on mercilessly – the introduction of completely baseless allusions to Communist Czechoslovakia in the last one only made things worse.

I treated I Pagliacci in Edwards’ staging rather as an intelligent introduction to the remaining parts of Little Greats than as an innovative attempt to reinterpret the work. Shifting the action to contemporary realities spoiled nothing, but neither did it bring anything particularly new into the story of the bored Nedda, the crazy-jealous Canio and the vengeful, humiliated Tonio. The most interesting things took place in the third plane – among the blasé stage workers, killing time reading newspapers and munching on sandwiches, the distracted choristers and the talkative director’s assistants. Edwards skillfully plays out the details: for instance in the prologue, when the disheveled director walks onto the proscenium with coffee in a paper cup and the shopping in a plastic bag from Sainsbury’s hypermarket. All in all, it was a decent show, consistently planned-out and executed with a bit of a conspiratorial wink, which cannot be said of the deadly-serious Cavalleria rusticana in Sofulak’s staging. I don’t know how my English professional colleagues took it – at times, I had the impression I was watching Bryll’s Christmas Carol Night, and not a verismo opera. I found the gigantic fiberboard cross in the middle of the stage and the little red Fiat with Skierniewice registration plates that replaced Alfio’s wagon somehow bearable. I couldn’t stand Santuzza characterized as Maja Komorowska, or Mamma Lucia selling kiełbasa on ration cards in a shop with yawningly empty shelves, lit up by a red-and-white neon sign reading ‘Sklep Lucyna’ [‘Lucyna Shop’ – in Polish!]. Maybe I am not objective. It is not out of the question that my fellow countrymen and -women abroad get away with such ideas.

L’enfant et les sortilèges. Quirijn de Lang (Tom Cat), Wallis Giunta (Child) and Katie Bray (Female Cat). Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Let us drop a curtain of silence on the unfortunate vision of Mascagni’s opera and focus on the biggest trump card of Opera North’s autumn season: the phenomenal work of the entire ensemble, the commitment of the soloists, the ideal preparation of the chorus and orchestra. The latter came out much better under the baton of Martin André than in the Cav/Pag tandem led by Tobias Ringborg, which does not change the fact that both evenings were well able to satisfy not only a novice, but a spoiled opera connoisseur as well. The star of I Pagliacci was Richard Burkhard, a velvety-voiced, extraordinarily expressive Tonio who turned out the next day to be an equally convincing Lhotský in Janáček’s Osud. The otherwise superb Elin Pritchard (Nedda) and Peter Auty – a Canio with a ‘short’ top register, but sufficiently conscious of his role to bring the audience to its knees with his interpretation of the famous aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ – paled a bit in comparison with Burkhard. Silvio in the person of Rhodes was charming rather in his musicality than in the beauty of his voice – as in the later Cavalleria rusticana, where he portrayed the role of the betrayed Alfio. In Mascagni’s one-act opera, the front runners were the two ladies: Giselle Allen (Santuzza), a superb actress gifted with a dense soprano spinto rich in overtones, and Katie Bray (Lola) – a mezzo-soprano bringing to mind associations with the voice of the young Janet Baker, dark and shimmering like liquid gold. Both of them, furthermore, appeared the next day: the former as Míla in Osud, and the latter in the triple role of the Louis XV Chair, Female Cat and Owl in L’enfant et les sortilèges. Very young, but already showered with awards and sought-after by the managers of the world’s opera houses, Wallis Giunta turned out to be the Child of my dreams – sufficiently boyish in manner, but at the same time, wonderfully fresh in the purely vocal sense. It would take a long time to mention all of the soloists who appeared during these two evenings. So I will just mention two more veterans: the wonderful Britten tenor John Graham-Hall, who made me laugh until I cried in Ravel’s fantasy (as the Teapot, Arithmetic and Tree Frog) and moved me to even more abundant tears in the role of Živný; and Rosalind Plowright, who again disappointed me as Mamma Lucia, but on the other hand completely seduced me as the demonic Míla’s Mother, superb in terms of character and voice, in Janáček’s opera. I don’t understand why this great singer ‘flees’ into mezzo-soprano and contralto roles, since she still has at her disposal a deep dramatic soprano with characteristic sound, brilliant in less physically demanding parts that are, on the other hand, much more difficult in terms of expression.

Osud. Giselle Allen (Míla) and Rosalind Plowright (Míla’s Mother). Photo: Alastair Muir.

I was at four of the six shows in the Little Greats series. Little shows, but deeply moving. I admit that I was also moved by the attitude of Karolina Sofulak: a stage director who was the only one to break out of the production team and demolish the coherent concept of the whole. And after all, Tonio in I Pagliacci took such tender care of the little red Fiat model that was to play a taxi after the intermission in her Cavalleria rusticana…

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Angelology and the Wild Blue Yonder

The narrator of Richard Wagner’s novella A Pilgrimage to Beethoven mentions a performance by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient with an admiration bordering on rapture. Her interpretation of the part of Leonore in Fidelio opens up the heavens before him. It frees him from the bondage of the night and brings him out into the light of day – like Beethoven’s Florestan. And no wonder: the comely singer turned out to be the first real German dramatic soprano, an artist who breathed the spirit into this oddly fractured masterpiece of Beethoven’s, and gave the wonderful tradition of Wagnerian and Straussian voices its beginnings. Did the youthful Wagner really see her onstage in this role? Highly doubtful. However, he certainly did have to do with her later, as a conductor and composer, and twelve years after the soprano’s death, he dedicated his sketch Actors and Singers to her. Schröder-Devrient also created several characters in his own works. In 1843, the memorable Leonore sang Senta at the Dresden première of Der fliegende Holländer.

Seeking out affinities between Fidelio and the earliest of Wagner’s operas to enter into the canon of his œuvre is a task as fascinating as it is dangerous. Fidelio was Beethoven’s only excursion into the world of the opera form, a work corrected many times by the dissatisfied composer and, if only for this reason, considered by many to be an unsuccessful experiment. In turn, Holländer is considered to be the vanguard of all of the wonderful things that appear in Wagner’s mature dramas. There is a bit of truth in this, and a bit of tall tale. I am more interested in the coincidences, chief among them the ‘instrumental’ treatment of the human voice, which in both operas must struggle with resistant material, carry over a dense orchestral texture, avoid the traps of an uncomfortable tessitura. There is a similar idea behind this procedure: Fidelio and Holländer mark successive stages in the departure from number-based opera in favour of continuous and coherent musical narrative. What is more interesting, however – especially from the viewpoint of contemporary stage directors – is that these are two operas about angels. Determined angels of deliverance in the form of women who put a stop to the torment of men. In Wagner’s œuvre, this motif later underwent a lengthy evolution. In Beethoven’s legacy, it appeared only once. It turned out to be so suggestive, however, as to give Wagner’s Senta a clear outline of Leonore moving towards the goal in spite of the outside world’s oppression, despite the doubts of her beloved chosen one.

I decided to leave myself the Wrocław Fidelio for later. On première day, I settled comfortably into my seat in the auditorium of a completely different house: the Art Nouveau-style Theater Lübeck, erected in 1908 according to the design of Martin Dülfer of Dresden – in place of the previous 18th-century building in which Thomas Mann experienced his first operatic rapture at a performance of Lohengrin. My choice had fallen upon Der fliegende Holländer, which returned to the Lübeck theatre in June, in a new staging by Aniara Amos. I had planned the expedition well in advance. It had been difficult to resist the temptation to see Wagner’s ‘marine’ opera by the Baltic coast, in the main port of the Hanseatic League – on top of that, under the baton of Anthony Negus, who had led two shows there in October, before the production of Holländer planned for the next season at his home house, the Longborough Festival Opera – with the forces of the same team that prepared this year’s performances of Die Zauberflöte.

My concept of the theatrical career and achievements to date of Amos, a Chilean resident in Germany, was quite vague: aside from having started as a dancer, she studied operatic stage directing with Achim Freyer and Peter Konwitschny; after that, she did a dozen or more shows in Austria, Denmark and Berlin, as well as at smaller German houses. They were received quite coolly by the critics. And no wonder: the ambitions of Amos, who had taken the entire weight of staging the Lübeck Holländer on her shoulders, did not translate into artistic success. In a chaotically planned-out and predictably-lit space, a veritable pandemonium of Regieoper played out. Instead of a tale of a wandering sailor’s sins being redeemed by Gottes Engel in the person of Senta, Amos proposed the story of an (up to a point) passive woman who falls victim to mass violence. Senta (to whom the director assigned three alter egos – a little girl, a teenager and a live figurehead on the prow of the ghost ship) is abused by everyone: the paedophile Daland, the Dutchman manipulated by him, the possessive Erik, the beastly spinners and the lecherous sailors. The grotesquely-clothed characters gleefully squeeze all of the Sentas into the two bathtubs placed on the stage, representing not only the element of water, but also a symbolism drawn from homegrown psychoanalysis (white bathtub – innocence; red bathtub – lust; several people in the tub – sexual act). Just in case, Amos provided the men with phallic attributes, from a shotgun, a red paddle, telescopes dangling from the sailors’ belts, to a gigantic lobster attached to the crotch of an apparition from the Dutchman’s ship. To make things even worse, she made the Steersman the prime mover of the entire narrative, characterizing him half as Death, half as Klaus Nomi – the androgynous icon of 1980s pop culture. In the finale, Senta tears the weapon out of Erik’s hands, rids herself of her persecutors, takes her alter egos by the hand and goes off into the wild blue yonder. To hell with angelology.

Der fliegende Holländer in Lübeck. Oliver Zwarg (Dutchman) and Miina-Liisa Värelä, Senta from the premiere’s cast. Photo: Olaf Malzahn.

Nothing left to do but close one’s eyes and listen. And there was plenty to hear. The strongest point of the cast turned out to be Maida Hundeling in the part of Senta – a beautiful, dark soprano of powerful volume, with a wonderfully open top register and broad legato. Paling a bit against that background was Oliver Zwarg (Dutchman), a very musical singer with superb technique, but not sufficiently expressive in the role of the gloomy sailor condemned to eternal wandering. On the other hand, it had been a long time since I had heard such a good Daland (Taras Konoshchenko), gifted with a bass of extraordinary beauty, but at the same time flexible and deployed fluidly enough to bring out all of the expected and less-expected ‘Weberisms’ from this part. Bravos for Wioletta Hebrowska, who was able to restore at least a bit of believability to the character of Mary with her excellent vocal craft. A solid performance was turned in by Daniel Jenz, a tenor perhaps too light for the part of the Steersman, which he paid for at the beginning with a few flaws of intonation, but still: his tone was cultured and nicely rounded in the top register. The only disappointment among the soloists was Zurab Zurabishvili – a shrill Erik with a heavy tone and forced vocal production. I was also not thrilled with the chorus – while the ladies more or less handled ‘Summ und brumm’, the gentlemen were thoroughly disappointing in ‘Steuermann, lass die Wacht’, singing with an ugly sound, without conviction and often dragging behind the orchestra. A pity, because Negus – after barely a few days of rehearsals with the local philharmonic – put the whole thing together into an extraordinarily convincing narrative, captivating in its energy and rhythm from the first measures of the overture. The sharp staccati of the strings, the ‘wind’ of the flutes blowing up a storm in the rigging, the thundering tympani, juxtaposed a moment later with the heartbreaking lyricism of the redemption motif – all of this confirmed yet again the class of this extraordinary conductor, who reads every score like a novel, not as a collection of musical sentences masterfully composed but empty in expression. Let us add that Negus’ reading of Holländer had a surprisingly large dose of Meyerbeerian horror, accentuated by skillful diversification of the orchestral textures and colours.

I returned to Poland with my heart in my mouth – the dissonance between the opinions of musician and music-lover friends on the one hand, and the first press reports after the première of Fidelio on the other, knocked me solidly off balance. The greatest blows were taken by the creators of the staging: costume designer Belinda Radulović, and artistic director Rocc of the Slovenian National Opera – which prepared the show in co-production with the Wrocław Opera – who was responsible for the concept as a whole. In one respect, I must agree with the critics: in removing the spoken dialogues, the directing team did violence to the substance of the work. All the more difficult to forgive in that it disturbed the already convoluted narrative, which for many listeners not familiar with the work became completely incomprehensible. It was not much help to substitute them with fragments from Beethoven’s letters to the ‘Unsterbliche Geliebte’, which introduced greater confusion and were justified only in the context of this staging’s general message. To my amazement, however, that message turned out to be surprisingly innovative, depicted clearly and perhaps even getting to the heart of the composer’s intentions. Rocc decided to turn Fidelio into a metaphorical parable about the angel of salvation. Realized in a gorgeous minimalist stage design, superbly accentuated by the stage lighting, against the background of which played out a tale bringing to mind associations with the world of mysteries and miracles of ages past, full of references to Christian pictorial symbolism. Leonore appeared in two forms – as a woman-angel and as her mysterious emissary who descends into the dungeon in order to free Florestan. The golden emissary (in the person of actress Karolina Micuła) brings to mind Renaissance portrayals of the angel who came to give succour to St. Peter, arrested by Herod. Don Pizarro – like the Biblical Herod – is evil incarnate, a person rotten to the core, a soulless brute to whom all concept of morality is foreign. The story told by Rocc sounds like an ending to the episode from the Acts of the Apostles which is basically the last report from the life of Christ’s companion. St. Peter did not go free, but rather entered another dimension, from that time on teaching in the form of an angel. Florestan died, and with him, Leonore and all the other characters of Fidelio. The finale is a plebeian image of Paradise, in which the once-degraded prisoners, deprived by Pizarro of gender, identity – and finally, life – dance about in colourful raiment, gifted with white lilies symbolizing innocence and resurrection. This entire miracle was performed by ‘Ein Engel Leonore’ and Florestan, whom she had saved – they were clothed in gold, the splendour of paradisiacal light, a colour accepting no shadow, divorced from all that is earthly. ‘My Angel, my All, my own self,’ as Beethoven wrote in his letter to the Immortal Beloved.

Fidelio in Wrocław. Saša Čano (Rocco), Jacek Jaskuła (Don Pizarro), Peter Wedd (Florestan), and the two Leonores: Karolina Micuła and Sandra Trattnigg. Photo: Marek Grotowski.

It is astounding that in the case of Fidelio, director’s theatre fans – of whom there are not a few in Poland – demanded an unshaven Florestan in rags, chained to the wall of the dungeon. I am also amazed that the expectations of some critics did not coincide with the musical interpretation of Beethoven’s only opera. While joining in the praise for Maria Rozynek-Banaszak (Marzelline) and Aleksander Zuchowicz (Jaquino), I shall also take the liberty of pointing out the superb performance of Jacek Jaskuła in the part of Don Pizarro and the two superb episodes of the Prisoners (Piotr Bunzler and Mirosław Gotfryd). I hasten to report that Jakub Michalski, a recent graduate of the Voice and Opera Faculty at the Academy of Music in Wrocław, turned out considerably better in the role of Don Fernando than most of his counterparts familiar from recent performances of this opera. I will admit without duress that I do not share in the admiration for Saša Čano (Rocco), who has at his disposal a bass of quite ‘well-like’ vocal production, to make matters worse rhythmically insecure. Sandra Trattnigg (Leonore) is captivating with a gorgeously-coloured voice that is slowly evolving in the direction of a true dramatic soprano – for this reason, I will forgive her slight fluctuations in intonation and not completely open top register. I heard nothing reprehensible in the singing of Peter Wedd, who presented a somewhat different vision of Florestan – more youthful and ecstatic – a year ago in Paris. This time, he was a broken prisoner, whose coming out into the light was lengthier and more arduous – but fully in harmony with the vision of the stage director and of conductor Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski, who led his Fidelio at sensible tempi pulsating with energy, at moments considerably slower than those to which such conductors as Fricsay have accustomed us, at moments as exuberant as those familiar from the best performances of Beethoven’s masterpiece. This applies in particular to the finale, in which the Wrocław Opera chorus displayed not only a full sound and balanced vocal production, but also superb diction and understanding of the text.

During the intermission after Act I, I allowed friends to talk me into moving downstairs from the balcony to the ground floor. Thanks to this, I had the opportunity to hear all of the details of the deeply thought-out, dynamically and expressively nuanced interpretation of Florestan’s aria, but also to fully appreciate the acting artistry of Wedd, who realized one of Rocc’s most interesting directing concepts in a riveting manner. His Florestan sings ‘Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!’ in a full light that he does not see – blind after his long stay in the dungeon. The moment when the blind prisoner regains his sight, when Leonore kisses his eyes, is a picture worth a thousand words. I myself no longer had any words – perhaps out of amazement that the effort of the Wrocław Opera’s ensembles slipped by so sadly unnoticed – as if everyone had gone deaf and blind.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

At the World’s Opera House

The model of a Baroque box stage makes a staggering impression: meticulously reproduced at almost 1:1 scale, with a beautifully-painted proscenium, side decorations hidden in the wings and a few rows of wooden waves on the stage. Everyone cranes their neck to get a look at the immobilized elements of theatrical machinery. Having heard a delicate grinding noise, the viewers take a step back. The blocks begin to turn. A caravel hidden at the rear of the stage sails out onto the rolling wooden sea. A little closer to the proscenium, two sirens are playing in the waves. Their seductive soprano song is also heard from the earphones that visitors received at the entrance. The sound track has neither beginning nor end: the sensors installed in the transmitter localize the exhibits being viewed and play opera fragments associated with them. In this case, the beginning of Act II of Händel’s Rinaldo, in which the title character falls into the sirens’ trap. The guests return to the model several times each, crowding before it like children after a puppet show. The creaky noises of the blocks and winches echo all over the gallery.

Perhaps 15 or so meters further, yet another wonder, particularly meaningful to viewers who have never sung in a choir. On a wall bent into a half-circle, 150 photographs by Matthias Schaller, creator of the famous Disportraits. Each photo presents the auditorium of a different Italian opera house. In our earphones, we hear the song of the Jewish exiles from Verdi’s Nabucco, played in the form of a suggestive acoustic installation. Sound engineer David Sheppard provided the choristers of the Royal Opera House with separate microphones, so that the listener has the illusion of finding themselves among the crowd of singers onstage. I uncover my ears for a moment. Everyone around me is crooning ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’ – probably not realizing that viewers standing nearby can hear them.

Photo: Dorota Kozińska.

Even just for these two installations, it is worthwhile to visit the Opera: Passion, Power & Politics exhibition that opened on 30 September at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. However, the overwhelming power of this exhibition, organized in collaboration with the opera at Covent Garden, lies elsewhere. It is not just a tale of the history of the form, now over 400 years old: it is an attempt to place it in the context of the history of transformations in politics, society and mores in Europe; and in a more distant perspective, an attempt to give a solid answer to the question of what its future will be in a world globalizing at lightning speed. The idea to organize the exhibition was born five years ago during a meeting of Kate Bailey, the newly-hired curator in the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance; Danish stage director Kasper Holten, the freshly-appointed director of the Royal Opera House; and Martin Roth, at the time director of the museum, who resigned his post before term, in 2016, as a protest against the results of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. The initiative was brought to fruition thanks to the determination of Bailey and Holten – the latter of whom, by the way, left the London opera in March, having rejected an offer to extend his contract. Roth died prematurely at age 62, less than two months before the exhibition opening: after a short and severe illness that doctors diagnosed shortly after he submitted his resignation from his post at the V&A.

The curator and the opera director were united in their vision to organize a so-called performance exhibition that would draw the viewer into a scrupulously-arranged space and give him or her a feeling of participation in this peculiar show. The museum director turned out to be the brains of the endeavour: having gotten his doctorate in Tübingen with a dissertation on museology and the art of exhibition in imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, he had spent his entire life afterward studying the historical and political conditions of art reception. Bailey proposed the framework for the exhibition: to show the complicated fortunes of Europe through the prism of seven opera premières in seven cities. The choice turned out to be difficult and could appear surprising to many music lovers, all the more so that Orfeo was missing – after all, the première of Monteverdi’s masterpiece at the Gonzaga court in Mantua on 24 February 1607 is considered the symbolic birth date of the opera genre. However, this was intentional on the part of the organizers:  to begin the narrative at a moment when the new form had left the palaces of the aristocracy and entered into public space. And it did so faster than expected, even within the lifetime of the composer, who acquired the appellation of its founding father.

Photo: Dorota Kozińska.

Over 300 exhibits, including installations, sound materials and video recordings, were gathered in the newly-opened Sainsbury Gallery – an underground gallery comprising part of the visionary Exhibition Road Quarter establishment, executed with panache by the young London design office of Amanda Levete Architects. Visitors wander in semi-darkness through an enormous space covering over 1000 m2 in surface area, moving fluidly from era to era, from one aesthetic to another, from the city where the first gamblers’ den opened to the former capital of a certain empire that to this day carries on a dangerous game with the world’s fortunes.

The tale begins in Venice in 1642 at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, with the première of L’incoronazione di Poppea – one of the first operas based on historical events, featuring characters of flesh and blood, which continue to speak to the imagination and sensitivity of a culturally-inclined European. In each object on display lurks an ambiguity similar to that in Monteverdi’s morally ‘uncertain’ opera.  Richly-adorned zoccoli, footwear on high wooden platforms, served both humble Venetian wives, protecting their feet from the waste matter of Venetian backstreets, and Venetian courtesans, who lured their customers with simulated height, hiding imperfections in their figure beneath the folds of richly ornamented gowns. The shapes of hand-blown glassware bring to mind equally sensual associations as the bluntly literal portrait of composer Barbara Strozzi, painted with viola da gamba in hand and voluptuous, flirtatiously exposed bust line. From Venice, we move to London at the beginning of the 18th century, to the city where the whole world’s trade routes intersected, where Italian opera – thanks to the genius of Händel – was gaining an entirely new dimension reflected in, among other things, the engravings of Hogarth, who masterfully conveyed the transient triumph of castrato singing and brilliant stage machinery over the tradition of Shakespearean theatre and the legacy of other English authors. The circumstances of the Vienna première of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in 1786 make viewers aware that the outbreak of the French Revolution was rather a failure than a fulfillment of European Enlightenment ideals. Milan – shown on the example of Nabucco, the early Verdi opera that brought him real fame, performed for the first time in 1842 at the Teatro alla Scala in that city – is revealed to the be composer’s destiny, a city which during the Risorgimento traveled a road as long and bumpy as that traveled by Verdi himself, and finally, 60 years after the première, escorted his remains on their final road to the Casa di Riposo to the sounds of ‘Va, pensiero’ under the baton of the young Toscanini. Hidden behind the calamity of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861 is the story of the great renovation of the capital by Georges Haussmann. Richard Strauss’ Modernist opera would not have resulted in a wave of mad ‘Salomania’ if Salome’s première in 1905 had taken place anywhere besides Dresden – a bastion of European Expressionism. The convoluted fortunes of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – presented with enormous success at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Leningrad in 1934, and crushed two years later, during the Great Purge, when Stalin demonstratively left the show at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre after Act III – are one of the clearer illustrations of the havoc wreaked by censorship in totalitarian states.

Photo Dorota Kozińska.

The stupefied viewers move on to the next room, where they can sit down for a moment and immerse themselves in the sounds of 20th-century and contemporary operas: from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin. I don’t know how other visitors found their place in this acoustic landscape – I had the impression that the operatic masterpieces from after World War II revolved obsessively around the theme of aggression and violence. I am just as pained by the whistle of the guillotine in the final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, as by the cries of the drowned boys from Britten’s Peter Grimes and the percussive machine gun salvos in John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, an opera based on the dramatic events that played out in October 1985 on the deck of the MS Achille Lauro, hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.

But after all, opera – that most genuine, with a large orchestra, choir and a host of soloists – is still a living form and speaks to the deepest layers of human emotion. In Poland, a country with a tenuous tradition in this art form, directors obstinately try to convince us that that is not the case, that the only alternative is to ‘resurrect’ past masterpieces through theatrical directing, or seeking out new means of expression in compositions from the intersection between performance art, sound installation and visual theatre. All the greater impression is made by the statements of critics, theorists and artists collected in the London museum’s exhibition catalogue. People who are thinking about the position of opera in the development of contemporary cities make reflective conjectures about the role that the creators and audiences of today’s shows should play in this work. They repeat ad infinitum that listeners should be acquainted with this art form from childhood, and if it happens that parents or teachers have neglected their education in their youth, then just keep making the effort. Drag stone-deaf friends to the theatre, convince politicians to opera who are stuck in a mistaken conviction that they are dealing with an elite variety of art inaccessible to the listener. But above all – continually deepen their knowledge, listen, respond, focus on what is happening onstage, absorb the music with an open mind.

There are those who can do that. Evidence of this is the short essays preceding the more thorough discussions of the individual segments of the exhibition in the catalogue. The shaping of the character of Poppea is discussed in a lively and zestful manner by Australian soprano Danielle de Niese; the building of bridges between 18th-century and contemporary audiences, by Robert Carsen, stage director of the production of Rinaldo for the Glyndebourne festival in 2011; the intricacies of the score to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, by ROH music director Antonio Pappano, who directed their production in 2012; why a tenor idol of the world’s stages decided in his elderly age to take on the part of Nabucco, by Plácido Domingo; the corporeality of Tannhäuser, by stage designer Michael Levine; the traps of feminism in the interpretation of Salome, by conductor Simone Young; and the darkest corners of the feminine soul, by Graham Vick, stage director for two productions of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth.

I viewed the London exhibition with a growing sense that I am sometimes the Columbus, sometimes the Cassandra of Polish opera criticism. For years, I have been discovering stage directors, conductors and singers unknown in our country. For years, I have been crying, like Priam’s daughter, that opera theatre in Poland – despite appearances – stinks of naphthalene; despite its supposed avant-garde character, it constantly duplicates the same patterns, becoming obnoxiously bourgeois in the hope of applause from the indolent West. I was filled with all the greater joy by the words of Yuval Sharon, an American stage director and freshly-baked winner of a MacArthur Fellowship who opposes the plague of operatic co-productions, clearly emphasizing that this art form should be set in a peculiar context and speak to the listener in an understandable language that reaches to the very depths of the soul.

Because that is what this oddest of arts is like – it either strikes one to the very heart, or it is like water off a duck’s back. We left the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in a state of near rapture. Young and old, experts and novices. Rumors of the death of opera appear to be greatly exaggerated.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Guardian Devil

The life of André Tchaikowsky was like something out of Shakespeare. His story is a loose tangle of tragic threads with comedy reeking of the grotesque. A narrative in which bitter realism collided with fantastic lies, a narrative populated with a whole host of ambiguous characters – chief among them the protagonist himself, narcissistic and vacillating between extremes.

Tchaikowsky hid his exceptional mind and great musical talent beneath the motley hat of an obnoxious buffoon. Himself wounded and betrayed many times, he bit like a mad dog and shamelessly manipulated the people he loved. Oversensitive concerning himself, he reacted aggressively to criticism. The only person he permitted to make fun of him was he himself. So he made fun mercilessly. In love with the bard of Stratford-on-Avon, he decided to become a Shakespearean actor after his own death, in the form of the royal jester’s skull. He brought the presentation of his opera based on The Merchant of Venice to pass from beyond the grave, by awakening the conscience of a man who could not rid himself of the feeling that he had driven the composer to that grave. A Jew. A homosexual. An introverted genius. Sometimes a real asshole. A multiplied and magnified figure of social exclusion.

He was born on 1 November 1935 – the Christian All Saints’ Day – in Warsaw, into an assimilated Jewish family. He started his life as Robert Andrzej Krauthammer, the son of two people who had already grown to hate each other and were then attempting to get a divorce. After his father left for France, the boy remained in Warsaw under the care of his mother, Felicja, and his grandmother, Celina. He was an unruly, stubborn and impossibly talkative child – as often happens with little geniuses. At age three, he could read fluently in three languages and two alphabets. When it emerged that he was assimilating musical notation and recognizing the structure of the notes on the keyboard with equal ease, his grandmother decided that he would become a great pianist. This was by no means the last of her decisions concerning his fortunes.

Robert Andrzej at age three. Photo: Tchaikovsky Estate.

Two weeks after André’s fourth birthday, when the Germans had isolated the ghetto from the rest of the city, Celina announced that she was a Christian and demonstratively moved out from the home of her daughter and grandson. We have every reason to believe that this apparently selfish decision was actually a heroic gesture of care for the family. For two years, the grandmother supplied the two of them with food and other provisions. In his childish opinion, André was living a quite normal life: he studied, played out in the courtyard, once or twice saw a corpse on the street, but didn’t grasp the meaning of this scene. If he suffered, it was only because sometimes he wasn’t allowed to play the piano. He had a way around that: he would strike the closed cover of the keyboard with his fingers.

Hell began for the boy in the summer of 1942, in the first months of the shutdown of the ghetto. Celina had false papers done up for the family and decided to bring them out beyond the walls. Felicja would not hear of it: she had fallen madly in love and gotten remarried to Albert Rozenbaum, a wealthy dentist and Jewish Ghetto Police functionary. The grandmother took matters into her own hands. In July, she dressed André up as a girl, dyed his hair blond and smuggled him out onto the Aryan side. Felicja and Albert stayed. In August, they both went in one of the transports to Treblinka.

André lost his mother, not even knowing about her death – he felt betrayed and conquered by another man. He lost his identity. From that time onward, his name was Andrzej Robert Jan Czajkowski (later becoming known abroad as André Tchaikowsky). In order to make him more believable as a Christian, his grandmother taught him not only the catechism, but also the basics of the peculiar pre-war anti-Semitism. He lost his home, in which it is true that he couldn’t practice the piano, but on the other hand he didn’t have to hide in a closet and take blows from a frustrated woman who was expecting an out-of-wedlock child. He lost faith in people when he was subjected to an operation to reverse his circumcision – in a private apartment, without anesthesia, without the right to scream. He lost everything, but managed to survive.

André Tchaikowsky in 1975. Photo: Sophie Baker.

At the beginning of his new life, he came to hate his grandmother – in his view, the soulless perpetrator of the sufferings dealt to him. The lost bonds and emotions were replaced with a pathological need for acceptance and love. Those who were unwilling or unable to meet that need were repaid as cruelly as he knew how.

Survivor’s syndrome dogged him to his grave. It had its effect on his relationship with his father, with whom Celina put him in contact a few years after the war, among other things in the hope that Krauthammer would finance his son’s studies at the Paris Conservatory. The matter ended in a fight, complete with name-calling and rearranged faces. The syndrome had its effect on the pianistic career  of André – the winner of 8th place at the 5th Chopin Competition in Warsaw and 3rd prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels – an artist who continued to struggle with paralyzing stage fright, neglected his practicing, treated influential protectors with disdain, offended conductors and orchestra musicians. The syndrome had its effect on his personal relationships, among others Anita Halina Janowska, a friend from the piano studio at the Warsaw State Music College, with whom he corresponded for over a quarter century after leaving Poland in 1956.

For this sensitive woman, who felt genuine affection for him, he basically turned out to be a ‘guardian devil’ (the title borne by a selection of their letters published for the first time six years after Tchaikowsky’s death, still under the pseudonym Halina Sander). A love impossible to fulfill on account of André’s sexual orientation – of which he made no secret – bore fruit in a bulky volume that deserves to be described in equal measure as a masterpiece of epistolography, and as a blood-chilling testimony to emotional blackmail. Tchaikowsky wrote from Paris, ‘Halinka! I WANT TO HAVE YOU HERE! […] I so much want to have someone who will be mine always – always.’ Janowska wrote back. As if these two children of the Holocaust had to hurt each other in order to be sure of their existence.

Tchaikowsky was always an Anglophile. His decision to move to the United Kingdom – after several years of couch-surfing in the homes of friends in Brussels in Paris – was reportedly made after reading the Grossmith brothers’ novel The Diary of a Nobody, an 1892 satire of the English petty bourgeoisie. He was drawn to a world that was able to make fun of a ‘a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement’. He longed for a bit of stability in a country of uninterrupted cultural tradition.

He rented a house in Cumnor near Oxford, where he could finally give himself over to his passions – composing, reading and long walks – without exposing himself to constant pressure from his surroundings. He grew fat, ugly and bald, wrote two piano concerti, two quartets and a handful of vocal works. In 1966, he composed music for an Oxford production of Hamlet. Two years later, he began work on The Merchant of Venice – his only and, in the end, unfinished opera, which was borne of a fascination with Shakespeare’s praise of music in the fifth and last act of the play. He worked on the bard of Stratford-on-Avon’s masterpiece together with newly-met stage director and dramaturg John O’Brien. They soon decided that they would take on the entire text. The idea came from O’Brien, who from the beginning could not hide his amazement that Tchaikowsky gave in to his suggestion. The Merchant of Venice had for decades kept Shakespeare specialists awake until all hours of the night as they argued over the supposed anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s text.

Lester Lynch as Shylock in the WNO’s production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Johan Persson.

And there was something to argue about. Anti-Semitism? But the Jews had been driven out of English in 1290, during the reign of Edward I! Shakespeare had no idea of the Jews; he was engaging with a myth, perhaps he envied the success of Marlowe and his revenge tragedy The Jew of Malta. Really? What about the scandal featuring Roderigo Lopez, court doctor to Elizabeth I and child of Jewish converts, who was condemned to death in 1594 for an attempt to poison the queen? There is much reason to believe that it was he who was the prototype for the character of Shylock. Let us add that The Merchant of Venice was a favourite play of the Nazis which, between 1933 and the outbreak of the war, had seen over 50 new productions in Germany.

There is no way to resolve this dispute. Everyone’s eyes, even those of anti-Semites, start to tear up when Shylock cries out in Act III: ‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?’ No one can figure out why André Tchaikowsky – an escapee from the Warsaw ghetto – composed a concise, dramaturgically coherent opera based on this particular play by Shakespeare. Yet another jester’s gesture? Yet another provocation? Or perhaps a conclusion ahead of his time that over 400 years ago, the bard of Stratford-on-Avon had spoken in the name of all excluded persons? In this opera, Tchaikowsky is not only Shylock – he is also Antonio submerged in depression, Bassanio longing for happiness, Portia pretending to be someone completely different.

In 1978, most of the material was ready. In April 1981, Tchaikowsky wrote a letter to George Lascelles, Lord Harewood, at the time director of the English National Opera, assuring him that in October, he would present to him the final version of the first two acts. In December, he couldn’t find enough words to praise music director Mark Elder, ‘a blond of angelic beauty’, as well as a ‘nearly equally beautiful youth’ in the person of artistic director David Pountney. In March 1982, he noted in his diary that ENO had rejected his proposal to produce The Merchant.

He died of cancer on 25 June, at age 46. He left behind the posthumous wish that his opera someday be produced, as well as his own skull – left in his will to the Royal Shakespeare Company – which first dried out for two years on the theater’s roof, then took part in a photo session, appeared in a production of Hamlet featuring David Tennant in 2008, after which it was consigned once again to the granary of history.

Nothing more was heard of Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice. Pountney’s conscience awakened only in 2011, after a conversation with Russian musicologist Anastasia Belina Johnson, who drew attention to the English stage director’s interest in the œuvre of Mieczysław Wajnberg, and reminded him of Tchaikowsky’s opera. Two years later, the work saw its world première, prepared in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute: at the Bregenz festival, with stage director Keith Warner, in an international cast under the baton of Erik Nielsen, with the phenomenal Adrián Erőd in the role of Shylock. In 2014, the show came to the stage of the National Opera in Warsaw. I wrote about it over two years ago on the pages of the Tygodnik Powszechny (read here: powszech.net/shylock).

I am returning to The Merchant after my vacation experiences at the Royal Opera House, where the work ended up with the ensembles of the Welsh National Opera, in the same, otherwise good staging, and drew applause not much less than that which accompanied the English première of Szymanowski’s King Roger. Tchaikowsky’s music – suspended halfway between Berg, Shostakovich, Britten and the composer’s personal idiom – slowly reveals its deficiencies. It also confirms its strong points: erudite compositional work (at moments, ironically, from under the banner of ‘the first Tchaikovsky’), dramaturgical coherence and believability of the characters. I shall withhold any objective assessment of The Merchant as a music theater work until it begins its parade through Polish and foreign opera stages, in the renditions of other directors as well.

It is a good thing, however, that I went to London for this show. For more and more frequently, I find Szymborska’s words knocking about in my head:

It’s time to take my head in hand
and say: Poor Yorick, where’s your ignorance,
where’s your blind faith, where’s your innocence,
your wait-and-see, your spirit poised
between the unproved and the proven truth?

Tchaikowsky gave his rotten skull over to theater and opera people perhaps precisely because he did not believe in his own innocence and wait-and-see. It is bitter and characteristic that doubts are still the domain of the excluded.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Oedipus of Tufnell Park

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

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

Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn. Photo: Jane Hobson.

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

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

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

Susan Bullock and Andrew Shore. Photo: Jane Hobson.

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Consolation of Country Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Ersinken, vertrinken – unbewusst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski