The Wretched Son of Parsifal

The picturesque Krefeld on the Rhine – in the 18th century one of the most flourishing centers of the textile industry in Europe – awaited the Knight of the Swan almost as long as did Warsaw. Lohengrin inaugurated the 1952/53 season in the freshly-opened building of the Staatstheater, erected according to a design by Eugen Bertrand on the foundation of the unfinished garrison theater of the British occupation forces. The makeshift building was supposed to undergo further expansion which was delayed by the architect’s sudden death. Its present, late Modernist form was given to it by Gerhard Graubner, who provided it with a characteristic three-dimensional façade made of glass lozenge panels, retaining the original design for the auditorium and the stage. Graubner’s theater opened its doors in 1963, two years after the next staging of Lohengrin, which continued its run until 1977. The return of Wagner’s Romantic opera after a 40-year absence was announced as the biggest event of the season in Krefeld – from my viewpoint all the more interesting that the knight of Elsa’s dreams was supposed to arrive in the person of the same singer who portrayed the role of Lohengrin at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National opera in April 2014. Peter Wedd had debuted in this role somewhat earlier, at the Moravian-Silesian National Theater in Ostrava; most opera lovers, however, associate him with the poetic staging, laden with hidden meanings, of Antony McDonald. It was time for a change: the third post-war Lohengrin in Krefeld was directed by Robert Lehmeier, an experienced music theater person, formerly an assistant to Harry Kupfer in work on the Ring at Bayreuth in 1988.

The first rehearsal pictures augured the worst: a typical German Regieoper with the ladies in business attire, the gentlemen in three-piece suits, and the title character in an absurd costume like something out of a cheap sci-fi film and an even more absurd wreath of roses adorning his temples. Meanwhile, Lehmeier’s staging turned out to be in many respects a beautiful catastrophe. I had the impression that the director had undertaken a risky attempt to dialogue with McDonald’s concept – an attempt on the whole unsuccessful, with several ideas far beyond the bounds of his charge, but realized reasonably consistently in two parallel narratives: the power crisis in the face of impending conflict, and the loss of illusions on the part of the two innocent lovers. Lehmeier – in collaboration with stage designer Tom Musch – played out his Lohengrin in an abstract space, nevertheless intelligently suspended between contemporary times and the world of medieval legend. The castle in Antwerp is crowned by defensive crenellations, but the decor of the room in which the divine judgment of Elsa will take place evokes unambiguous associations with UN headquarters in New York. The wallpaper on the walls and the curtain hung at the rear are a near-literal imitation of the fabrics designed by Else Poulsson that adorn the interior of the Security Council meeting room. Near-literal, because the director and stage designer substituted the motif of three ears of grain – symbolizing the hope of rebirth – with a perverse version of a caduceus, with the two snakes wrapped around a sword. The courtiers’ formal costumes and the Brabant warriors’ field uniforms contrast sharply with the floral accents in the clothing of the two main protagonists, outsiders as lost in reality as American flower children at the first Woodstock festival (costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth). Visually, it would have made up a quite convincing whole if it weren’t for Lohengrin’s grotesquely ugly ‘space suit’, which at least until the end of Act I effectively distracted one’s attention from the singing floating out from the stage.

Izabela Matuła (Elsa). Photo: Thomas Esser.

But we must grant Lehmeier this: that he guided every one of the characters very competently and breathed real life into them. Whether he did this in line with the composer’s intentions, is quite another matter. McDonald also reinterpreted the work in a quite daring manner: his Lohengrin leaves Brabant to the disenchanted Gottfried, who turns out to be completely immature in his leadership role and begins a mortally dangerous war game. But that isn’t until the finale. In Lehmeier’s rendition, Heinrich der Vogler doesn’t care a whit about Elsa and Lohengrin’s love from the very beginning – he sees the mysterious visitor in the silver armour exclusively as a tactical ally in the impending conflict. Thus, Gottfried’s final entrance with machine gun in hand does not evoke the expected effect. In McDonald’s rendition, Lohengrin is touchingly awkward, thirsty for love, torn between knightly obligation and husbandly duty. In Lehmeier’s rendition, he is a ‘chip off the old block’ with respect to Parsifal – and that, from the first act of Wagner’s opera. He really knows nothing at all: neither what to do with a sword, nor how to fulfill the expectations of that strange being who called him from Monsalvat. To the sounds of the orchestral prelude, a pantomime plays out: Elsa loses sight of little Gottfried, who is wearing the same kind of flower wreath as Lohengrin does later, and submerges herself in an erotic fantasy about a naked youth with roses adorning his temples and a shining sword in hand. Throughout Act I, she remains in a strangely drugged state. Her fantasy is finally fulfilled, but only superficially. In the subsequent plot process, we observe Elsa’s progressive disappointment with the mysterious visitor, who clearly is fit neither for battle nor for bed, nor even for the most ordinary human friendship. When Lohengrin loses his flower (in other words, he loses his innocence by killing Telramund), Elsa again gives herself over to dreaming and presents both his wreath and his sword to a symbolic figure of her lover, who again appears at the rear of the stage.

But despite everything, it’s still watchable. From the morass of overwrought, controversial and simply erroneous interpretations, one picks out a few brilliant scenes, a few gorgeous theatrical shortcuts. In Ortrud and Telramund, Lehmeier has discerned characters yet more tragic than McDonald suggested. Running through the background of their conspiracy in Act II is the authentic determination of two people who must carry out a double play in order to defend their convictions. In Ortrud’s later dialogue with Elsa, one clearly senses the moment when Telramund’s wife breaks down and truly sympathizes with the unfortunate bride. In Act I, just before Lohengrin’s entrance, the dismayed choristers begin to literally ‘crawl’ with feathers: they pull them out of their hair and the nooks and crannies of their clothes, and disgustedly brush them off their stockings and shoes. A superb metaphor for surprise bordering on panic, considerably more convincing than the hands waving overhead that have been played to the point of boredom. During the wedding night scene in Act III, Lohengrin tries to catch the fleeing Elsa and for a moment, he succeeds: in a horrifying gesture of immobilizing a wild animal that freezes in his embrace as if paralyzed.

Eva Maria Günschmann (Ortrud) and Izabela Matuła. Photo: Tomas Esser.

Nevertheless, as much as the theatrical side left a lot to be desired, the musical layer exceeded my boldest expectations. The Niederrheinische Sinfoniker ensemble under the baton of Estonian Mihkel Kütson, since 2012 the artistic director of Theater Krefeld und Mönchengladbach, played with nerve, at superbly-chosen tempi, but at the same time subtly, with a wonderfully soft sound that beautifully lit up the texture, especially in the wind parts. Four ‘Königs-Trompeten’ in C, brought in from Bayreuth, lent an appropriately powerful sound to the fanfares. The expanded chorus was impressive in its diction, clear vocal production and skill in dynamic diversification of phrasing. In the solo cast, there were basically no weak points, except perhaps for Andrew Nolen in the role of Herold, who was insufficiently expressive and often insecure in intonation. Matthias Wippich, gifted with an extraordinarily charming and overtone-rich bass voice (somewhat resembling the young Gottlob Frick in colour), convincingly portrayed the role of the charismatic and, at the same time, demoralized Heinrich der Vogler. Johannes Schwärsky created a Telramund of flesh and blood: here arrogant, there demonic, sometimes shockingly helpless in conflict with reality. His thick bass-baritone is astonishing in its flexibility and sonic power – at times too big, especially in his duet with Eva Maria Günschmann, who has at her disposal a deep, superbly balanced in terms of registers but all in all quite delicate mezzo-soprano voice. In terms of the acting, her Ortrud turned out to be a masterpiece – if the singer had been able to distribute her strength better and save up reserves for Act III, she would have built a character perfect in every detail.

The performers of the two lead roles would be a jewel adorning any production of Lohengrin: on any stage, not only in Europe. I write this with full conviction, and pleasure all the greater that the role of Elsa was sung by Izabela Matuła, a graduate of the Academy of Music in Kraków, a memorable title character in Maria from shows of Roman Statkowski’s forgotten work, prepared in 2013 under the baton of Łukasz Borowicz on the stage of the Baltic Opera. Her soprano has always been enchanting in its charm, peculiar dark colour and soft, somewhat ‘old-world’ vocal production. Now it has gained in refinement, taken on security of intonation and dramatic expression, thanks to which the singer succeeded in building an Elsa who, over the course of the narrative, goes through an amazing transformation from a teenager floating on clouds to a bitterly-disappointed woman. Peter Wedd, who had sung Lohengrin three months before in Athens with a voice as if from Götterdämmerung – truly heroic, indeed overwhelming in its authority – this time rediscovered layers of intense lyricism in his role, supported by superb breath control and feeling for phrasing. The director set him a difficult task, squeezing him into the role of a disoriented honest-to-God simpleton – despite this, Wedd emerged from this trial victoriously, proving that he is now not only in control of the power of his Heldentenor, but also able to diversify its sound. In the Krefeld Lohengrin it resounded with silver; in Athens, steel; in the Karlsruhe Die Walküre, the brilliant golden blaze of brass. This is a case, rare in today’s vocal world, of a singer who identifies completely with his characters and is able to shape a role with purely musical means.

Johannes Schwärsky (Telramund) and Peter Wedd (Lohengrin). Photo: Thomass Esser.

If Lehmeier’s staging had equaled the sonic plane’s coherence in the Krefeld Lohengrin, I would be the happiest opera critic in the world. But there are no miracles. Apparently that was what this show was supposed to be about. That the good of nations does not depend on dubious men of the moment. That love cannot be built upon one’s own imaginations concerning one’s beloved. That one should not count on a revelation, but patiently forge one’s lot in life. The musicians succeeded. The stage director needs to put in more work.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Vacation at a Morgue

Aschenbach is dead. And has been for quite some time. This is attested by an enormous photo in a black, encrusted frame – a blurred photo covered in fungi like a porcelain portrait on a forgotten gravestone. In front of the photo stand flowers in vases and a tripod holding up a snow-white wreath. Alongside, a black matte-painted grand piano and rows of chairs occupied by neatly-dressed mourners. On the right, a pile of monstrously huge tulips with indigo petals. In a moment, the writer seized by a creative block will meet the Traveler, who will encourage him to travel south. Are we at the gates of a cemetery chapel in Munich, or in some weird funeral home where the ritual has been going on for so long that the photograph of the deceased has managed to grow fungi?

The narrative of Britten’s Death in Venice fills two acts, divided into scenes moving from one to another abruptly, a bit as if in a dynamic film montage – at first glance without any relationship to each other, similar to hallucinations or phantoms in a dream. The composer and the librettist Myfanwy Piper were trying in this way to escape the trap of literality that Mann avoided thanks to the use of literary irony and ambiguous play between the author and the reader trying to follow the meanings. Britten’s opera can thus be interpreted as a record of the writer’s agony in which ‘figures of death’ (the Traveler, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Hotel Barber and the Leader of the Players), the ominous Voice of Dionysus and the ambiguous Voice of Apollo, and even Tadzio himself, turn out to be just the effect of the increased activity of a dying brain. However, Graham Vick, the director of the most recent staging at Deutsche Oper Berlin, has gone a step further. It seems that his Aschenbach has returned from the hereafter to yet again stand eye to eye with death and recreate his nightmarish journey into abject degradation.

Seth Carico and the choristers. Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

The problem is that there is no space in Vick’s concept for the vision of pure beauty that surreptitiously invades the writer’s neatly-arranged life. From the very beginning, the stage is drowning in colors of decay: purulent yellows, dead green, bluish purple and matte black (stage design by Stuart Nunn, lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel). There is no contrast between the sunny Lido beach and the gloom of the foul-smelling Venetian canals. There is no Venice at all. All of the plein-air scenes are replaced by a pile of overgrown tulips; all of the indoor episodes play out beneath the black frame, from which even the photo of Aschenbach disappears in Act II. The protagonist, oddly distanced from his surroundings, thrashes about among a small number of unchanging props. The chairs set in rows replace the ship’s deck, the hotel restaurant and the barber shop. The funeral wreath of white flowers ends up at a certain moment around the neck of Tadzio, the winner of the boyish ‘games’ at the beach. In barely-sketched, difficult-to-identify spaces, lust and death reign absolutely. The band of sellers surrounds the writer like a crowd of horny whores and pimps, making gestures of unambiguously erotic connotations at him. Aschenbach is not disgusted by the street stench or the scent of disinfectants – only by his own sexual urges. The specter of Indian cholera hanging over the city becomes a metaphor of moral decadence. The point here is not beauty and truth, nor the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus, but rather the pitiful drama of a widower who in his old age has discovered within himself a homosexual and a pedophile.

Such a shallow, basically bourgeois and prudish interpretation of Death in Venice is astounding in the second decade of the 21st century. To make things even worse, Graham Vick has decided to kill off Tadzio, who dies in the finale at the hands of a band of his rowdy peers. Aschenbach holds him as Our Lady holds the dead Christ, and then lays his corpse aside and slips away into the wings. Has Apollo finally fallen in the conflict with Dionysus? Did Tadzio have to die in order for the writer to dare to show him tenderness? Or maybe this whole tale was just a warning from the hereafter not to give in to one’s own drives? I have no idea. In the final scene, I saw rather the weakness of a stage director who has decided to at least close off a chaotically-constructed narrative with an iconoclastic conclusion. The only thing in this staging that inspired my genuine admiration was Vick’s decision to give the roles of Tadzio, his family and friends not to dancers, but to actors ideally cast in terms of physicality (the tiny Rauand Taleb and the two-heads-taller Lena Natus as his mother), realizing their pantomime with full involvement and, at the same time, a charming and very convincing clumsiness (superb choreography by Ron Howell).

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio). Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

Fortunately, the musical side of the production fully recompenses the unsuccessful stage direction. The Deutsche Oper ensemble plays with a glittering, selective sound ideally balanced in proportions between sections and, at the same time, beautifully diversified in the separate orchestral planes distinguished by Britten – in the ‘Asiatic’ gamelan-style music of Tadzio, the somber harbingers of death (where the woodwinds are combined with the tuba), the caricatured combination of the plague motif with the ‘unearthly’ portrait of the boy (Aschenbach’s feverish dream scene). While conductor Donald Runnicles did not avoid dragging in a few spots in Act I, one must admit that the opera itself only picks up the tempo at the moment when the writer chokes out a bashful ‘I – love you’ at the end of Act I, Scene 7. Paul Nilon, a superb lyric tenor, known above all for roles in Baroque and Classical operas, debuted in the role of Aschenbach in 2015 at the Garsington Opera. The small dimensions of that stage, along with Paul Curran’s transparent stage direction, no doubt facilitated his task. With the difficult acoustics of the Berlin theater, he struggled for a long time, initially in a voice with excessive vibrato and sparse overtones. In Act II, he gave it his all: he created a character of immeasurable psychological complexity, supporting his interpretation with enormous power of expression and flawless diction. The real hero of the evening, however, turned out to be Seth Carico in the seven roles of the writer’s alter ego and the Voice of Dionysus: a true bass-baritone of gorgeous tone, resonant in all of its registers, including the mocking falsetto. Tai Oney (the Voice of Apollo), a full and colorful male soprano, acquitted himself worse, however, with an excessively hysterical sound. Among the secondary characters, Andrew Dickinson (the Porter) stood out; since last season, he has been permanently associated with DOB, where he has shone in, among other roles, the Novice in the recent production of Billy Budd directed by David Alden. The choir deserves separate praise – for its great vocal production, musicality in phrasing and well-blended sound.

Paul Nilon (at the center). Photo: Marcus Lieberenz.

In 2009, when Runnicles took over as artistic director of the Deutsche Oper and announced that he would introduce Britten’s works to the Berlin house’s permanent repertoire, voices of opposition reverberated: ‘Britten? That won’t be accepted here.’ Fortunately, he did not listen. In just under four years in Berlin, he has put on Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia and Death in Venice. In December 2016, his contract was extended to 2022. We shall see how things go in the future, though after my experiences with Vick’s staging, I would prefer just to listen.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Unlearned in the Scriptures

Before the audience gathered in the hall of the Teatro Real, and the orchestra began to tune, a strange figure appeared at the right edge of the proscenium. A disheveled man sitting with his knees apart, hunched over an angular object with which he didn’t really know what to do. He stood it upright, turned it round and round, then laid it flat again; for the most part, however, he gripped it in both hands and scraped it on the floorboards, as if trying to scrub away some stain from them. When the first notes of the prologue to Billy Budd sounded and Captain Vere appeared onstage – dressed in a modern Royal Navy uniform, bursting with youthful energy, with a face unmarked by traces of suffering – I understood that the poor, shabby wretch from the proscenium was his alter ego. And I rightly expected that the director would develop and close out this concept in the epilogue.

It is difficult to avoid the temptation to compare the two most recent stagings of Britten’s masterpiece – the October one from Leeds in the rendition of Orpha Phelan, and the Madrid one authored by Deborah Warner. Phelan has great experience in the opera theater; Warner is better known for radical productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht and Beckett, which does not change the fact that each of the over a dozen operas she has directed has met with a lively response from critics. More importantly, this is now Warner’s third encounter with Britten’s œuvre – before, she worked on The Turn of the Screw (Barbican Theatre, 1997) and Death in Venice (ENO, 2013). The one that evoked the most admiration was the latter – with its faithfulness to the libretto and the score, its clarity of stage gesture, its suggestive illusion of time travel, of imagination and space. As a rule, the British director plumbs the depths of a work and delves into it mercilessly, laying bare the innermost emotions, drives and aims of her protagonists. However, none of the aforementioned operas is so complex and multifaceted a work as Billy Budd, as I wrote earlier on the occasion of its première at Opera North.

Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd). Photo: Javier del Real.

Some have criticized Phelan’s concept as being too static. With all certainty, there is no way to say this about Warner’s production. In a clean, masterfully-lit space (with stage design by Michael Levine) crisscrossed by a network of elements intersecting at right angles – cables, ladders, masts, mobile platforms – groups of deckhands milled about, sails were spread, the rigging knocked about, the deck rocked. The director mixed no less than 30 actors in among the choristers, creating the impression of a densely-packed crowd teeming at every level. In this staging, the Sisyphean labor of the sailors – that is, the scrubbing of the deck, normally only ‘played’ during the chorus ‘O heave away, heave’ from Act I – runs in the background throughout the whole narrative, organizes and brackets it with an activity as essential as it is vain. The precision with which Warner builds the individual episodes, not infrequently raising them to the level of a symbol, evokes admiration mixed with enchantment. I especially remember the scene in which the Friend comforts the cruelly-beaten Novice. Previous concepts notwithstanding, Warner played it on an empty stage: the blood-soaked, half-paralyzed Novice (the vocally and theatrically phenomenal Sam Furness, the memorable Števa from the Glasgow Jenůfa and the wonderfully capricious Joaquino from the Paris concert performance of Fidelio) crawls in from the left wings of the stage; and from the right, his Friend (Borja Quiza) slowly approaches him. They meet more or less in the middle of the platform. From that moment onward, each move of the Novice, marked by inhuman pain, causes the Friend to take a step backward. Instead of vain words of comfort for the boy, who behaves like a broken animal, we received a premonition of the terrible betrayal that the Novice would commit at Claggart’s behest – out of panic-stricken fear of yet more suffering and shame. A similar masterpiece of theatrical work became evident in the scene where Billy is woken up by the Novice – torn alternately by a feeling of guilt and his unwanted mission.

In this staging, Warner created two memorable characters – all the more convincing that they were supported by the musical artistry of ideally-cast performers. Claggart in the rendition of Brindley Sherratt turned out to be the most real fallen angel possible, a tragic being chased out of earthly paradise for his free will, incomprehension of God’s plan, ungainly craving for love. Sherratt has at his disposal a bass voice with a gorgeous tone, but at the same time oddly broken and unstable, which bothered me a bit in his recent interpretation of Prince Gremin in Onegin at the Garsington Opera, but completely enchanted me in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro at the Scottish Opera, where the singer portrayed the role of the forlorn King Alfonso. Jacques Imbrailo, one of the few superb boy sopranos who have managed to make a bravura career after their voice change, revealed an equally tragic picture of the title character onstage. In ‘Billy Budd, king of the birds!’ from Act I, his dark, dense baritone, while it did not sound as convincing as the radiant, joyful voice of Roderick Williams from the Leeds production, it nonetheless gained in power of expression with each successive scene, to finally break our hearts in the ballad ‘Billy in the Darbies’, in which Imbrailo in the end just broke down and brought the matter to its end in the voice of a hurt child – while remaining scarily secure in intonation and flawless in technique.

Jacques Imbrailo and Sam Furness (Novice). Photo: Javier del Real.

And now it is time to move on to my reservations addressed to the third of the drama’s main protagonists. Deborah Warner, despite her declarations that she intended to place Captain Vere, as it were, between Evil and Good incarnate, actually pushed him into the role of a jaded, pretentious aesthete, a person insufficiently mature for any kind of relationship, devoid of authority, unlearned both in the Scriptures and in the Articles of War, as well as the language of ordinary human desires and erotic preferences. It was grating in purely theatrical terms – when Vere received Redburn and Flint in his cabin in a state of undress, just after getting out of the tub, in his bathrobe; and then yet again, when Billy, summoned to give explanations, unceremoniously sat down on a chair in front of the Captain. I don’t think that Warner was unaware of these codes: I suppose that she infringed upon them purposefully, attempting to focus her vision around the homoerotic triangle of the three main protagonists. What was worse was that the part of Vere was cast with the otherwise superb Toby Spence, who carried his part with a clear, clean voice, quite repulsive in its perfection, devoid of any sign of existential conflict.

And here, finally, I was assailed by doubts of a general nature. Can Billy Budd – like Wajnberg’s The Passenger – be presented in an indeterminate space divorced from historical context? Is this opera, though it bears a universal message, able to speak in a full voice, since the director has pushed the rebellions in the Spithead and Nore anchorages into the background, without helping us to get to the bottom of the drama? I have my doubts, especially when I hear from the stage that the tragic events took place in 1797, a year memorable to any British person well-acquainted with the history of the Empire. My doubts are all the greater that Warner – oddly in spite of Britten’s text – ignored the characteristic gap in the narrative between the announcement of the sentence and Billy’s ballad. The famous ‘Interview Chords’, 34 chords in the orchestra – perhaps the most intriguing clue in the ambiguous ‘matter’ between Britten and Melville – fell into an unexpectedly empty space. Despite Ivor Bolton’s otherwise masterful rendition, they sounded hasty, unreflective, as if the conductor had taken Warner’s suggestion: that there is no secret there, that Vere simply announced to Budd what awaited him, and revealed before the innocent deckhand the boundlessness of his powerlessness and of his egoism propped up by authority.

Toby Spence (Captain Vere). Photo: Javier del Real.

But after all, Bolton had in general handled the narrative with an intuition worthy of the most sensitive interpreter of Britten’s masterpiece. Under his baton, the orchestra sounded softer than in Leeds, especially in the strings; in Billy’s ballad, the flute stumbled and ‘stuttered’ almost as convincingly as in the legendary recording of Hickox; the chorus – prepared by Andrés Máspero – cried out its opposition more boldly and in a fuller voice than at Opera North. However, it looks like the conductor finally gave in to Warner’s brilliant, though fractured concept.

In the epilogue, Captain Vere’s shabby double reappeared. This time, we figured out that the angular object was the Bible on which the witnesses to Claggart’s killing were sworn in. Was the mad Captain really aware of Billy’s final blessing before his death? Did his mistake result from incomprehension of the letter of the Holy Scriptures, or else from the eternal inability to distinguish good and evil, innocence and corruption, love and hate?

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

 

Slayers of Dragons and People

I have already proven not a few times – and that, not only on these pages – that I am perverse. When everyone else is heading north, I fly south. When they are enthusing about yet another première at some famous theater, under a conductor who has won a lion’s share of prestigious competition prizes, I get on a train or plane and travel to some hole-in-the-wall where that same opera is being led by a conductor known to a tiny coterie of admirers, in a production featuring young or unjustly ignored singers. I discover, I admire, I seek out new experiences, I let myself be carried away by new performance trends.

This time I have a feeling I have gone a bit too far. Encouraged by the musical success of Die Walküre in Karlsruhe, I decided to follow it up by dropping in to Dresden for a presentation of Siegfried with stage director Willy Decker, conducted by Christian Thielemann, and then set off for Athens for a performance of Lohengrin in the staging of Antony McDonald which, after its première at the Welsh National Opera, appeared twice at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera and then huddled away somewhere in a corner for over two years, waiting to be rediscovered. Dresden’s Semperoper is one of the best opera houses in Germany, a mecca for Wagner maniacs who are increasingly disappointed with the theatrical quality of the Bayreuth productions. Tickets for next year’s festival Ring in Dresden apparently sold out in less than 24 hours. The Greek National Opera – like the country as a whole – is struggling with the effects of the crisis that in recent days has also affected the theater’s management: a few months before its move to new headquarters at the Kéntro Politismoú Ídryma Stávros Niárchos, Minister of Culture Lydia Koniordou removed previous artistic director Myron Michailidis and named as his successor the composer Giorgos Koumentakis, previously director of the Opera’s small stage.

David and Goliath. I probably need not add that since the beginning, my sympathies have always been with the underdog. For years, I have had trouble appreciating the craftsmanship of Thielemann – an artist without doubt competent, but in my opinion derivative, drawing mindlessly upon the German conducting tradition of the mid-1950s. His interpretations have reminded me here of Furtwängler, there of Klemperer or Karajan; but they have been devoid of individuality – and, even more importantly, authentic experience, that peculiar tension that puts listeners in a trance and makes them indifferent to the ‘inhuman’ dimensions of Wagner’s scores. About Michailidis’ abilities, I knew nothing aside from the fact that the Crete-born conductor had studied at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, prepared Tristan und Isolde two years ago in Athens, and is apparently about to mount a production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety.

My Dresden prejudices lightened up already in the first few measures of the prelude to Act I. The local Staatskapelle – in comparison with the ensemble of the theater on the Green Hill – plays with a brighter and softer sound, especially in the strings; aside from that, on account of the peculiar layout of the interior and the orchestra pit, the sound is more exposed and ‘defenseless’. Thielemann – compared with previous takes on Siegfried from Bayreuth – conducted the orchestra at slightly more blistering tempi. He chiseled the texture down to the last detail, assembling it from masterfully shaped and polished slivers fitted into their places as if in an ancient mosaic. Today, Thielemann’s Wagner is clean and clear, following all the rules of the art of building a convincing musical narrative. It contains sublimity and pathos; there are intense, but restrained emotions; there is no place for breaking discipline. To put it briefly, it is not my Wagner – the one that can overflow like an ocean under the baton of Böhm or Negus. A matter of taste. I am well aware that the Dresden ensemble’s wonderful, well thought-out interpretations represent the very highest standard of Wagner performance. So if I complain that in the finale of Act III, I missed that flaw on the surface of the jewel, that characteristic trait that would underline the momentousness of Brunnhilde and Siegfried’s discovery of that most powerful and primitive emotion – fear – then it is only because in the Ring, I am looking for somewhat different meanings from the overwhelming majority of ‘Wagnerites’.

Dresden Siegfried. Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and Stephen Gould (title role). Photo: Klaus Gigga.

What I missed in Thielemann’s interpretation, I was repaid with interest in the singing of nearly all of the soloists, chief among them the dependable Stephen Gould in the title role, who got better and better with each act. I find his Tristan wearisome; but his Siegfried – golden in tone, with superb intonation, evolving wonderfully from spoiled brat to passionate lover tormented by doubts – completely enchanted me. Another hero of the show turned out to be Gerhard Siegel (Mime), a phenomenal actor, vocally brilliant, confirming me in my certainty that this is a role not for a character singer, but rather for a distinguished tenor who has managed to pass through all the degrees of Wagnerian initiation. Nina Stemme is Brunnhilde incarnate, lived in every inch, though her beautiful dramatic soprano has now lost a bit of its previous brilliance and has taken on a too-wide vibrato. To this day, I have the heavenly song of the Waldvogel in my ears – the youthful Finnish artist Tuuli Takala breathed the entire freshness and precision of her Mozart coloratura into this role. Christa Mayer was in a class by herself in the role of Erda: a mezzo-soprano with contralto tessitura, ideally balanced in its registers, beautifully resonant at the bottom of the scale. The only one who disappointed me was Markus Marquardt (The Wanderer): yet another ruler of Valhalla lacking in divine authority and – compared with Renatus Mészár, heard recently in Karlsruhe – in the musicality essential to this role.

The now-legendary staging of Willy Decker (whose Dresden Ring premièred in 2001) has not aged even one iota, and proves the to some extent wasted potential of the German Regieoper. Despite a few almost-overblown ideas – chief among them the giant teddy bear found in the forest by Siegfried – it is coherent, conceptually polished, economical and refined in visual terms (stage design by Wolfgang Gussmann) and, most importantly, faithful to the text. Decker deftly maneuvers among irony, pathos and mystery. He builds suggestive signs and images, set in context, that other stage directors have been mindlessly aping for the past 15 years or so. He makes wise allusions to tradition, for instance in Siegfried’s breathtaking fight scene with a dragon comprised of black plywood boards painted with phosphorescent paint, animated by invisible supernumeraries. A similar illusion of three-dimensional reality, but featuring live mimes, was created by Étienne Decroux, one of the pioneers of physical theater, in his shows.

Three days after the Dresden Siegfried, I landed in Athens, rather hoping for a sentimental return to the world of Antony McDonald’s riotous imagination, than expecting great musical impressions – aside from Peter Wedd, the Lohengrin to this day inseparably connected with the Welsh National Opera/Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera coproduction. The Greek National Opera ensemble took the bull by the horns with indubitable enthusiasm, considerably greater than that of the Warsaw theater’s musicians. The effects of their work are in certain respects impressive, though one could sense that Michailidis is only taking his first steps in the Wagnerian field. While the orchestral details were carefully polished, one could not see the forest beyond all those trees. The choir made every possible effort, but nevertheless was lost in the dense textures, which had its effect on both the intonation and the rhetoric of the message. To make the singers’ task easier, the conductor pressed forth like a bat out of hell – at the expense of the narrative’s coherence. I was at a performance featuring the second cast, in which Telramund (Valentin Vasiliu) was disappointing in every way; the beautiful, musical bass voice of Petros Magoulas (Heinrich der Vogler) had to outshout the orchestra in Act III; and the experienced Romanian soprano Iulia Isaev (Elsa), whose phrasing is superb, was often under pitch in Act I and basically never did entirely get into her role. Julia Souglakou, who was rewarded with a hurricane of applause, in my opinion created a caricature of Ortrud. While the singer does have a proper soprano falcon, ideal for this part, she makes dubious use of it: stentorian, piercing high notes; low notes growled out from her very bowels; the quite peculiar approach to intonation issues all combined to create a flat, indeed operetta-like image of the nasty witch. And yet McDonald had made every effort for none of the protagonists of this Lohengrin to turn out unambiguously as either a devil or an angel.

Athens Lohengrin. Julia Souglakou (Ortrud), Peter Wedd (title role), Iulia Isaev (Elsa) and Petros Magoulas (Heinrich der Vogler). Photo: Vassilis Makris.

And that is how he handled the title character of this cruel fairytale from the beginning – instead of an indomitable knight in shining armor, trying to see in him a delicate being from another dimension, longing for ordinary love, losing everything in conflict with a heartless human intrigue to which he is, even so, not able to get to the bottom. Three years ago, Wedd was an ideal vehicle for such a concept. Since then, his voice has changed diametrically. The character who strode onstage was a proud warrior, the hope of Brabant, totally aware of his role as the savior of Elsa. He left the stage as an enraged demigod – with the feeling of a mission unaccomplished. The intimate farewell episode with the swan was lacking in tenderness; the duet in Act III breathed an air of Northern cold. Wedd found himself fully only in the Gralserzählung, one of the most beautiful – if not the most beautiful – that I have heard in my life. The calm, dignified ‘In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten’, delivered in a voice of not even baritone, but indeed bass timbre; the mistily enchanted ‘Alljährlich naht vom Himmel eine Taube’; the enraged ‘Sein Ritter ich’, in which new wine almost burst the old wineskins – these are only some of the elements of this masterfully-shaped narrative, which would be a triumphant crown for not a few performances of Lohengrin on the world’s stages. In McDonald’s poetic staging, marked by metaphysical sorrow, it sounded a bit out of place. Wedd has now outgrown it. And in the end, that is very good news, because it means that he is ready for every other possible staging.

Travel educates, and sometimes teaches us a lesson. Small is not always beautiful. Big does not necessarily mean oppressively weighty. As long as music is surprising, it is worth listening to. And drawing conclusions.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Elusive Structure of the Crystal

There is so much emotion in music we are incapable of restraining.

***

[W]hile the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. If this be true, praise the moist southern winds for the birth of Kaija Saariaho, whose music – whether through weakness of active force, or through indisposition of musicological material – has been consistently eluding all analysis and seducing listeners around the world for almost thirty years.

In 2001, Nick Kimberley, critic and columnist for the influential London Independent, wrote a short preview of a monographic Saariaho concert series with the characteristic title “The Music of Dreams (and Sometimes Nightmares)”. This text is remembered chiefly for one clever formulation about “the most important Finnish export product since Nokia”. Less attention has been paid to the words of the composer herself, though she confessed to Kimberley that she recalls the majority of her dreams: “Sometimes I dream music and I can recall it when I awake. Other times I just remember its mood and color. This doesn’t mean that I write music in an unreal dream-world poetic language. Rather, I treat dreams as a gateway to concealed essences – death and love, for example – basic things of which we have no idea.”

Photo: Maarit Kytoharju.

Kaija Saariaho was born in Helsinki, on 14 October 1952. She displayed creative abilities even as a child, learning how to play several instruments, attending drawing and painting classes. Alongside her musical education, she took up studies at the capital’s Academy of Fine Arts, but soon quit to devote herself entirely to the art of composition. Her first mentor was Paavo Heininen, a Finnish dodecaphonist and post-serialist a generation older than she. In 1977, she co-founded the “Korvat auki!” [“Open Your Ears!”] artistic association with other Sibelius Academy students, including Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Its aim was to popularize contemporary music in Finland. While her friends soon set off into the mainstream of Finnish New Wave music, Saariaho continued exploring and, after leaving the country in 1981, took up further compositional studies, attending courses in Darmstadt and at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, where she honed her skills under the watchful eyes of Brian Ferneyhough and Klaus Huber.

Only a year had passed before the composer was on her way to Paris, where she settled permanently, having finally found ideal conditions for work and creative development. At the famous IRCAM, she could devote herself entirely to researching new instrumental techniques, to computer analysis and sound synthesis, engaging in the lively discourse between Modernism and Spectralism. For all her respect for Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy’s New Complexity, Saariaho never concealed her adoration of the work of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, two icons of spectral music, co-founders of the famous Ensemble l’Itinéraire. The roots of her fascination reach deeper, however: all the way back to the work of Henri Dutilleux – imbued, on the one hand, with the spirit of Neoimpressionism; and on the other, inspired by Bartók, Stravinsky and jazz, and yet astonishingly distinct, pure and precise.

Since the end of the 1990s, Saariaho has more and more frequently been returning to purely acoustic sounds, flirting with melody, and creating atmospheric, quasi-tonal spaces – and yet, in spite of her apparent Linearism, she writes music marked first of all with color, full of the most diverse associations, including those from beyond the realm of sound. Her compositions are increasingly accessible to listeners, and increasingly hermetic to interpreters of music.

Dawn Upshaw as Clémence in the Peter Sellars’ production of L’Amour de loin, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2001. Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert.

To give a work a credible analysis, one must first establish its point of departure, establish its conclusion, distinguish its various phrases, contrasts and culminations. But it is precisely these that are most difficult to isolate in the works of Saariaho, who avoids clear gestures and sharp contours, focusing on what goes on inside, between sounds, on the level of timbre and sonorities. In daydreaming, she opens the gate to other worlds, trying to reveal new and intangible dimensions that elude hard analytic rules. It is difficult to evaluate and categorize the œuvre of a composer who does not for a moment think of “evolving”: in this œuvre, there are neither “juvenile” nor “mature” compositions. Nymphéa, written in 1987 for string quartet and electronics, sounds just as fresh and compelling as Terra Memoria from 2006 – for the same instruments, just minus the electronics. In the former work, Saariaho seeks new colors, weaves sound masses into structures delicate as silk, creates the musical image of a water lily in the most diverse dimensions – from monochromatic wave forms to colorful planes. In the latter work, she stresses the linearity of the composition, which is dedicated to those who have passed away. Some elements – like the memories that haunt our dreams – remain unchanged. The rest of the sound material undergoes constant modification, colliding, vanishing, only to resurface seconds later, just like the illusory memory of the dead, who, after their demise, start to live new and unpredictable lives in the hearts of their loved ones. There is an extreme variety of techniques, a similar impression of imagery, an unbridled sonic vision and an expansive, one is tempted to say, “feminine” emotionality.

Saariaho sometimes bristles at critics’ and theorists’ constant drawing of attention to the coloristic aspects of her music. She accuses them of superficial analysis, reminding them that color and sound are the most obvious, the most “audible” aspects of a composition – beneath which, however, is hidden a complex tangle of other meanings, such as the tension that builds between sound and background noise. Shifts in intensity of sound, therefore, serve less to modify the coloristic values of a work than to build a peculiar form – one based on significantly subtler and more elusive principles than traditional resolutions of harmonic dissonances into consonances. It is no wonder that Saariaho takes such pleasure in writing for the human voice, as well as for the flute and the ’cello – instruments whose wealth of sound permits the erecting of structures that are mighty and powerful, but at the same time subtle and mysterious, like the network of ionic bonds in a crystal.

Eric Owens (Jaufre Rudel) and Tamara Mumford (Pilgrim). Robert Lepage’s production of L’Amour de loin at the Met Opera, 2016. Photo: Ken Howard.

In Laconisme de l’aile of 1982, a work for reciting flutist, the tension between the transparent sound of the instrument and the raw sound of the human voice evokes the suggestive feeling of a bird in flight. In Près for ’cello and electronics, written ten years later at the IRCAM studios, the “pure” sounds of the ’cello create an increasingly dense mixture with sounds synthesized on a computer, bringing to mind the swoosh of the surf, the tranquil energy of rising and falling tides, the eternal rhythm of drought, rising water levels and floods. The sounds used by Saariaho give her work the traits of peculiar Neoimpressionism: in lieu of the uniform, garish colors of individual instrumental sections, the composer introduces broken shades of musical whites, grays and browns, voices “dirtied” with electronics, sounds muffled by background noises, tones covered with a glaze of silence.

In her latest compositions, Saariaho tries to make us understand that all divisions into vocal, instrumental and electronic planes miss the mark. The medium retires to the background, what become most important is the message, rendered so suggestively that the listener ceases to pay attention to the source of the sound and its physical attributes, and instead begins to explore its taste, color and smell. The composer leads us into unknown worlds, full of mysteries and violent, often ambiguous emotions. The vibrating polyphony of two hearts beating in a different rhythm in Je sens un deuxième cœur from 2003 is a reflection of the joyous expectations of a pregnant woman who recognizes the pulse of a growing fetus growing inside her body. The spastic, stifled “I am, I am, I am” in From the Grammar of Dreams is, in turn, the despairing conclusion of would-be and future suicide Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar, who listens to the rhythm of her own heart and in terror repeats “I am”, though she would so much prefer not “to be”. The same topos of the beating heart, completely different sentiments: fear and hope, tenderness and revulsion.

The world premiere of Only the Sound Remains, directed by Peter Sellars. Philippe Jaroussky (Tennin/Angel), Davone Tines (Fisherman), and Nora Kimball-Mentzos (Dance). De Nationale Opera Amsterdam, 2016. Photo: Ruth Walz.

The eternal motifs of death, love, solitude, intimacy and the passage of time have found their fullest expression in Saariaho’s operatic œuvre, beginning with the famous L’Amour de loin from 2000 – for some, the tale of a troubadour, a princess and a pilgrim; for others, a treatise on happiness, imagination and melancholy. In this vast ocean of orchestral colors and orientalized vocal melismas, one hears the influence of Debussy – the remote echoes of his Pelléas et Mélisande; and yet, the devices the composer uses to build her Neoimpressionism hail from the arsenal of the latest achievements in sound technologies – from the mighty power of the Macintosh computer to the eight-octave MIDI keyboard, and concluding with sophisticated software. In her subsequent theatrical efforts (Adriana Mater from 2005 and Émilie from 2008), Saariaho abandoned electronics in favor of a more restless vocal/instrumental texture. In both operas, she resolved to plumb the depths of female longings, fears and frustrations. Adriana Mater is the story of a raped woman who brings up her child, torn between maternal love and hatred toward her assailant – in the music, the emotions grow little by little, emerging from a web of ’cello glissandi, a choral lament devoid of words, and percussion interventions that swell like an ulcer. The epistolary Émilie is a monodrama of the Marquise du Châtelet, a beautiful and brilliant woman, one of the creators of the principle of conservation of energy and author of the formula for kinetic energy. At the same time, she was a lover of many wealthy, influential and outstanding men of her era. Economy of means and transparency of texture all the more clearly reflect the drama of a lonely woman isolated from the world of men, who completed her translation of Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica a few days before giving birth and then died in labor. The motif of pregnancy and fear of the “alien” in one’s own body continually recurs in the work of Saariaho, who is herself the mother of two children.

This split, so peculiar to men, appears throughout the life and work of this Finnish composer, who once impressed Krzysztof Kwiatkowski as a pessimist who does not lose hope. Saariaho never believed in the success of the “Korvat auki!” association and continues to be surprised by the fruits of its activities. Saariaho never supposed that someone would compare her with Nokia’s product line. Saariaho is incapable of shutting her eyes and ears to the atrocities of this world, and is continually afraid that the music she has created will soon lose its raison d’être. I suspect that she must sometimes feel like the protagonist of her fellow countrywoman Tove Jansson’s Moominland Winter, who suddenly awoke from hibernation and noticed that “the valley was not green, only white. Everything that had once moved was motionless. All living sounds had fallen silent. Everything that was angular had become round.”

If Saariaho should awake one day in such a world, I hope she will act like Moomin, who “walked onward, leaving the first tracks on the bridge, and further, on the mountain slope. These were very small tracks that led straight between the trees, to the south.” In the right direction – to where the moist wind blows.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

The Promised Opera

Down all the roads, gleaming with the puddles of spring waters, leading from all the furthest corners of the world to that promised land, down all the footpaths, meandering across the greening fields and blossoming orchards, across forests filled with the scents of young birchtrees and of spring, through obscure villages and impenetrable marshes – crowds of people flocked, hundreds of carts creaked, thousands of train carriages flew like lightnings, thousands of sighs rose and thousands of flaming gazes fell into the darkness, seeking with craving and fever the contours of that promised land.’

That is one of the last paragraphs of Władysław Reymont’s famous novel, published as installments by the Warsaw daily ’Kurier Codzienny’ and later in book form by Gebethner and Wolff’s Publishing House in 1899. The fortunes of Polish, Jewish, German and Russian factory-owners kept growing, while the several hundred thousand city suffered: ignored by the Tsarist authorities, tragically short of investment funding, socially undeveloped, deprived of modern infrastructure. There was a lack of a sewage system. There was a lack of waterworks. There was no lack of paupers and illiterates. ‚For the sake of that polypus, villages were being deserted, forests died, the soil was losing its riches, rivers dried up, people were being born, while it sucked everything in (…) and in return gave useless millions to a handful, and hunger and strife to the masses.’

The German and Jewish elites met their cultural needs elsewhere: either in nearby Warsaw or distant Berlin. In November 1918, when Łódź became part of the reborn Polish state as the second largest city in the country, Poles constituted just a little over a half of its population. Once again, it lacked support from outside: the mission of the metropoly’s development was left solely in the hands of the local authorities. Teachers began to come to ‚the city of illiterates’ – as Reymont’s promised land was sometimes called – mainly from the former Austrian Partition. Together with the representatives of free professions, they made up the nucleus of the Łódź intelligentsia. They began their mission at grass-root level: by introducing compulsory school education and organising a modern school network. In 1922, the first public children’s library was founded. In September 1927, the premiere of the film titled Łódź – the City of Labour, directed by Edward Puchalski, a pioneer of Polish cinematography, took place at the ‚Luna’ cinema in former Przejazdowa Street. Three years later, in the City Hall in Plac Wolności (Freedom Square), the exposition at the City History and Art Museum was opened, one of the first museums of modern art in Europe, which in 1929 began to collect the works of the so-called grupa a.r., a leftist avantgarde group of artists gathered around Władysław Strzemiński, his wife Katarzyna Kobro and Henryk Stażewski. The Radio Broadcasting Station (Radiowa Stacja Przekaźnikowa) began transmitting its programme in middle waves in February 1930.

Karl Wilhelm Scheibler’s factory complex in Łódź, late 19th century litograph.

Yet artistic studies and experiences had to be sought in other centres. The City Theatre (Teatr Miejski), taken over from the former authorities, the Popular Theatre (Teatr Popularny) founded in 1923 and the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski), opened thirteen years later but lacking its own premises, all struggled with constant financial stringencies which were also translated into low artistic quality of productions. Despite pompous plans to open a Polytechnic as well as commercial, textile and medical schools of higher education, in pre-war Łódź there was only a private College of Social and Economic Studies, a Teacher Training College and a local department of the Free Polish University, the only school of higher education whose graduates could seek to obtain a Master’s degree, but not in all fields of study.

It was impossible to live without music, though: even in the intestines of an industrial monster, which ‚ground and chewed people and things in its mighty jaws’. Moniuszko’s Flis and Verbum Nobile had been put up in Łódź already in the days of the Tsar, at the initiative of the ‚Lutnia’ Singing Society. More or less at that time, the Construction of the Polish Theatre Joint-Stock Company was founded, which sold shares for the price of 25 rubles. The theatre failed to be built, but in 1915, the Łódź Symphony Orchestra came into being, organised by Tadeusz Mazurkiewicz. The first concert took place in the wooden Grand Theatre in Konstantynowska Street, and the original cast included Paweł Klecki and Aleksander Tansman. Three years later, in cooperation with the local Chopin Society, the Orchestra musicians organised an Opera Section. Most of the shows they put up were conducted by Teodor Ryder, a graduate of the Darmstadt conservatory, conductor at the Lyon Opera and at the Warsaw Philharmonic. In his days, the citizens of Łódź had the opportunity, among others, to watch and listen to Moniuszko’s Halka and Verdi’s Il trovatore. Critics reacted to those performances with mixed feelings, despite the participation of such Warsaw stars as Ignacy Dygas and Stanisław Gruszczyński. The level of the makeshift ventures, in which a medley of musicians took part to support the Łódź Orchestra, was not exactly breathtaking, yet they were hugely popular with the audiences.

The old Grand Theatre. Postcard from the beginning of 20th century.

Up to a moment. The Grand Theatre, built in 1901 to the design of the Łódź architect Adolf Zeligson, with its wonderful neo-Renaissance façade and 1200 seats in the audience, was completely burnt down on 20th October 1920. Six years later, Aleksy Rżewski – the first President of the city in the inter-war period – set up the Łódź Opera Society. Another inkling of hope for a regular stage dawned. The aforementioned Teodor Ryder became the artistic director and inaugurated the society’s activity with a show of Halka at the City Theatre (7th March 1926), performed by local ensembles and soloists from the Vilnius opera, dismantled a year earlier, and conducted by Daniel Kleidt. The initiative soon withered away, though Łódź citizens would still for a long time recall the later performance of Madama Butterfly starring Teiko Kiwa, presumable Japanese, whose name was really Laetitia Klingen and who was the daughter of a Dutch chemist and his half-blood Japanese wife. The singer was immensely popular in the role of Cio-Cio-san, whom she played on the stage over seven hundred times.

Attempts to instal the opera on the stage of the just renovated City Theatre in Cegielniana Street, undertaken by Ryder in the 1930’s, ended in a fiasco. The proudly announced premieres of The Haunted Manor, Tosca and La Traviata never took place. Then the war broke out. The city had to wait until 1954 for its first proper Opera House. The institution, officially founded on the 1st of July by the act of the local National Council, was first and foremost a fruit of passion and involvement of Władysław Raczkowski, pianist, organist, choir master and conductor, who organised the first rehearsal of the ensemble in his own flat. Sabina Nowicka, former deputy director at the Polish Army Theatre (Teatr Wojska Polskiego) in the reign of Leon Schiller, and then of the newly-founded Stefan Jaracz Theatre (Teatr im. Stefana Jaracza), became the managing director of the Opera. Mieczysław Drobner, musicologist, composer and pedagogue, lecturer at the Higher State School of Music in Łódź, became the Opera’s musical director. The activities were inaugurated on the 18th of October 1954 with The Haunted Manor conducted by Raczkowski and directed by Jerzy Merunowicz, the latter a member of the original troupe at the New Theatre (Teatr Nowy) – the stage that had taken turns with the Stefan Jaracz Theatre to host the Opera’s productions. There were young singers in the newly created ensemble who with the passage of successive seasons contributed to the excellent renown of the Łódź Opera – such as Zofia Rudnicka, one of the most beautiful and technically perfect sopranos on the post-war Polish stages, and Weronika Kuźmińska, memorable Hanna in The Haunted Manor mentioned above, equally wonderful Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in 1956, and Mařenka in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride staged two years later.

Lidia Skowron (Halka) and Jerzy Jadczak (Janusz). The opening night of Halka at the Łódź Grand Theatre, 1967.

In 1966, the Opera – renamed The Grand Theater in Łódź – began moving to its new premises in Plac Dąbrowskiego (Dąbrowski Square). The construction of the building, designed by Józef and Witold Korski and Roman Szymborski as a dramatic theatre, lasted with intervals for eighteen years. The National Theatre, for that was originally to be its status, was destined to become an opera in 1954, when the Act of National Council, founding the Łódź Opera was passed. The project evolved, but its authors and those who were implementing it from the very beginning intended to organise the vast area of the square in line with the principles of socialist realism, situating in its northern frontage one of the biggest and most representative objects of the new architecture in the country. The form of the building was to be heavy and at the same time harmonious: huge pillars run along two storeys of the edifice, set at equal intervals, bringing to mind associations with symmetry in the ancient meaning of the term, synonymous with the then conceptions of beauty and moderation. The theater’s interior, with its audience originally designed for almost 1300 seats, was a prominent example of a dialogue – and sometimes of an architectural argument – with the traditional model of an opera hall, identified by the distinctive horseshoe-shaped arrangement of galleries and balconies piling up around. The audience in a way ‚grew into’ the stage, penetrated inside the proscenium arch; the sumptuous composition of the plafond, made up of characteristic, suspended ‚kites’, was to replace the interplay of light from a monstrous crystal chandelier, customarily fixed in the centre of the ceiling. Łódź saw its theatre as a huge one – second in size after the Grand Theatre in Warsaw and one of the biggest in Europe.

The managing director Stanisław Piotrowski, and his artistic counterpart Zygmunt Latoszewski – musicologist and an experienced opera conductor, since 1965 professor at the Warsaw Higher State School of Music – had planned four premieres for the opening, staged day after day. Thus, the first was Halka, on the 19th of January 1967, the twenty second anniversary of the liberation of the city. On the following day, Borodin’s Prince Igor was presented, then The Haunted Manor and, finally, Carmen by Bizet. Soon special trains were set up to run between Warsaw and Łódź, bringing opera lovers unsatiated by the impressions they had carried out from the capital’s Teatr Wielki – the opera house heaved up from the ruins, expanded and put into operation almost a year and a half earlier.

Łódź was awakening once again, just as in Reymont’s novel. The opera promise had finally been fulfilled.

Translated by: Katarzyna Kretkowska

The Trauma of the Volsungs

A coherent Ring realized by four stage directors? Never happened yet. Now, the idea of entrusting each part of the tetralogy to a different production team is in itself no novelty: it started with Oper Stuttgart’s famous endeavour, begun in 1999, whose participants included not only four stage directors, but also three Wotans, three Brunnhildes and two different Siegfrieds. The only link tying this dubious ‘cycle’ together was conductor Lothar Zagrosek. Nine years later, Aalto Musiktheater in Essen followed a similar path, with an even less convincing artistic result: this time, the risky mission of giving the whole thing musical sense fell to Stefan Soltesz. The management of the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe declared, however, that its new staging of the Ring – prepared by different production teams – will make up a logical whole and will not obscure the message of Wagner’s masterpiece. Responsibility for all of the shows has been taken by British conductor Justin Brown, who has been the theater’s music director for eight years, and been highly rated by German critics for, among other things, his superb preparation of the renewed production of Parsifal under stage director Keith Warner, as well as last year’s première of Tristan und Isolde in the rendition of Christopher Alden.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to get to Das Rheingold, which premièred in July. I do, however, intend to go to Karlsruhe for the subsequent parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and certainly will see and hear the festive staging of the cycle in its entirety, slated for 2018. The prologue under stage director David Hermann received generally very positive reviews. After the première of Die Walküre (11 December), realized by a team comprised of Yuval Sharon (stage director), Sebastian Hannak (stage design), Sarah Rolke (costumes) and Jason H. Thompson (video), opinions were divided. I understood that a difficult task awaited me. Some of the dress rehearsal pictures indeed augured the worst. However, I knew Sharon’s earlier stagings from extensive excerpts circulating online (among others, his superb rendition of The Cunning Little Vixen with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as of John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, presented in Karlsruhe two years ago and honoured with the Götz-Friedrich-Preis), which spoke decidedly in favor of his craftsmanship. I found out for myself in person, at the second part of the Ring cycle, that in the case of Die Walküre, the stage director’s imagination had lost its battle with Hannak’s trite, though to a certain extent functional stage design and Thompson’s not-always-apt projections.

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Catherine Broderick (Sieglinde) and Peter Wedd (Siegmund). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

Yuval Sharon’s idea for the second part of the tetralogy is quite clever and consistently leads the cycle in the direction of the ‘Icelandic’ Siegfried, which is being prepared for June of next year by Þorleifur Örn Arnarsson. From the beginning, a chill wafts from the stage, bringing to mind associations with the Poetic Edda and the ultimate source of Die Walküre: the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs. Sharon builds a mythic world from an array of anachronisms, symbols and archetypes placed outside of time and the ‘historical’ conditions of the narrative – on a similar principle to that of Pasolini, who confronted Balkan rites of passage with the aesthetics of Byzantine temples in Cappadocia in his Medea. Hunding’s gloomy home takes the form of a long corridor with several doors which not only link the interior with the exterior, but also turn out to be gateways to other dimensions. From the moment the wounded and exhausted Siegmund stumbles in, bringing with him a cloud of snow, the doors will time after time open and slam shut, sometimes even resisting the protagonists’ attempts to open them. On the ‘other side’, we see semiconscious, fleeting images from the past and harbingers of the cursed siblings’ further fortunes: pictures from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s childhood, figures of the musicians introducing successive leitmotifs, Sieglinde’s memories of her grim wedding and the visit of the one-eyed guest that torment her. The ominous shadow of Hunding, the ash tree with a sword stuck in its trunk, the trees that almost imperceptibly turn green at the sound of Siegmund’s ecstatic song – appear in the form of understated but distinctive light projections. The costumes do not allude to any particular era; their task is to characterize the personage wearing them. The barefoot, wolf skin-clad Siegmund is an archetype of the outcast, the mysterious visitor from nowhere. Hunding’s dullness and primitivism is underlined with the pretentious attire of a contemporary parvenu. Clothed in a simple dress, Sieglinde is a nobody until Siegmund gives her an identity by wrapping her in animal fur.

This all represents a bit of excess on the stage director’s part; nonetheless, Sharon does shape a very convincing narrative in Act I: the protagonists join in a process as brilliant as it is painful of working through childhood trauma. They move from fear, through shame and disbelief, to ecstasy – but in the dark corners of their souls and of Hunding’s home lurks the sadness of the Volsungs and a vague premonition of the end being near. This is the first part of the tetralogy in which people appear: at the same time, it is the last one in which the people are moving, weak, inspiring reflexive sympathy despite the breaking of marital vows and the violation of the incest taboo. The stage director has wrung out every last drop of the potential contained in this part. Act II went a bit worse for him; for the most part, it was dominated by stairs linking the world of mortals with the domain of the gods. The steps gliding alternately down and up turn out to be an apt metaphor for the frustration of Wotan, who is continually going in the wrong direction and thereby de facto standing still (the superb marital quarrel scene between the ruler of Valhalla, a substantially-built man with the appearance of a California gangster; and Fricka, taken as it were straight from the film The First Wives Club). They do not work theatrically at all in Wotan’s great confession or in his later dialogue with Brunnhilde – the dramatic power of this segment has clearly exceeded the capacity of Sharon, who fortunately rehabilitates himself at the end of the act with Siegmund’s death scene, beautiful and even naïve in its simplicity. At this point, time slows down, and then stops – as in the score – and Brunnhilde’s horror is exceeded only by Wotan’s despair.

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Renatus Mészár (Wotan) and Heidi Melton (Brunnhilde). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

In Act III, everything breaks down. The idea to replace the ride of the Valkyries with the crazy flight of eight virgins on paragliders might even work if the accompanying animation were either less literal or, on the contrary – breathtaking. Meanwhile, it comes out like a presentation using the free version of PowerPoint. I would have believed in the boundless polar landscape and empty sky over the land of the Icelandic sagas if I had not seen onstage something that looked like a scale model of an atomic bomb shelter against a sky-blue background. I would have listened differently to the shocking battle of the father with his beloved daughter if the stage director had given the two of them any acting tasks at all (aside from Wotan’s tapping the wooden boards of the stage with a spear). Wonder of wonders, I was not at all scandalized by the concept to encase Brunnhilde in a block of ice and surround it with a wall of fire that I would interpret as a ribbon of aurora borealis – what did scandalize me, however, was the cottage-industry realization of this vision, which was the fault above all of the stage designer and the author of the projections.

And now enough complaining, because in a musical sense, the production exceeded my boldest expectations. There were basically no weak points in the cast: in Act II, Ewa Wolak (Fricka) – an excellent singer and superb actress who liberated the entire dramatic potential latent in the delicious fight scene with Wotan – shone with wondrous brilliance with her deep, overtone-rich contralto voice, flawless in intonation and articulation. The Brunnhilde of Heidi Melton, the greatest star of the production, is impressive in the beauty of her voice, superb in its lower and middle register, but too-often constricted in the upper range, which affected in particular the believability of the final ‘War es so schmählich’. I admit to having been more concerned about the debut of Catherine Broderick as Sieglinde – fortunately, my fears turned out to be groundless. Her lovely, full and, at the same time, youthful-sounding dramatic soprano revealed the totality of its values in the ‘Der Männer Sippe’ monologue from Act I. Broderick’s passionate singing, marked by a characteristic light vibrato, blended ideally with the tenor of Peter Wedd (Siegmund), which is growing darker in colour and more extensive in volume over time. His phenomenal phrasing and the peculiar timbre of his voice, in which tenderness fights for the upper hand with plaintiveness, permitted him to create a character that moves one to the core. Add to this his superb technique (in the increasingly powerful ‘Wälse! Wälse!’, he consistently descended the octave with a pearly glissando) and incredible breath control (he took ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz’ comfortably in one phrase), and we are no longer surprised by the hurricane of applause the audience gave him after Act I. Against the background of the ardent, soaring singing of Sieglinde and Siegmund, I was a bit disappointed with the slightly flawed intonation in the role of Hunding (Avtandil Kaspeli); though on the other hand, his dark, ominous-sounding bass represented a perfect counterweight to the voices of the unhappy lovers. Renatus Mészár (Wotan) created a convincing, multidimensional character of Wotan, even though I sometimes missed a bit of divine authority in his beautiful bass-baritone. It is another matter that in the farewell scene with Brunnhilde („Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!”), which is ‘flattened’ by the stage director, if it had not been for the culture of Mészár’s interpretation, I would have died of boredom.

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Renatus Mészár and Heidi Melton. Photo: Falk von Traubenberg.

I address separate words of praise to the orchestra of the Badisches Staatstheater under the baton of Justin Brown. I was stupefied already in the first measures of the prologue when I heard the quintuplet sixteenth-notes in the lower strings – played at a tempo worthy of Clemens Krauss and, at the same time, so clear and legible that some wild beast fleeing a storm appeared before my eyes. In turn, the next passage, leading from the ’cello solo with the love motif up to Siegmund’s ‘Kühlende Labung gab mir der Quell’, equaled the most brilliant interpretations of Beethoven’s chamber music masterpieces in its subtlety. In the ride of the Valkyries, they finally managed to balance the proportions between the rhythmic pattern and the melodic line. Brown brought out from the score that most precious of values: the autonomy of the orchestra part, which neither blends with the soloists’ voices, nor accompanies them. It adds, articulates that which is not expressed in words; it discerns what the protagonists do not yet know; it links the divine and human world orders.

I went to Karlsruhe to see a presentation of Die Walküre in a cast comprised almost exclusively of foreigners, prepared musically by a Briton. I wondered all the way there whether what I would witness would amount to bringing wood into the forest.  Judging from the audience’s response, Germans are completely ready to have their national treasures dusted off. Perhaps their own interpretations have begun to sound false to them.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

A Tragedy of Mistakes and Vengeance

Antonio García Gutiérrez was born in the seaside town of Chiclana de la Frontera, in a humble craftsman’s family. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but the boy had other plans. He abandoned his studies when he was not yet twenty and decided to try his luck in the capital Madrid. He lived from hand to mouth, trying to earn a living by translating French plays by Eugène Scribe and Alexandre Dumas père. He also wrote himself without much hope of publication. He almost shared the fate of other failed men of letters: as he was about to enlist in the army, success came unexpectedly. The play El Trovador, presented on 1 March 1836 at Madrid’s Teatro del Príncipe, was so enthusiastically applauded by the audience that the author – for the first time in the history of Spanish theatre – was forced to come on stage just like in Paris. Soon Gutiérrez became famous as one of the most talented playwrights on the Iberian Peninsula. However, he did not make a fortune as a result and the same goes for his later journalistic career in the Spanish colonies in America. He returned to Europe in 1850 and scored another, even less expected success. His youthful play attracted the attention of Giuseppe Verdi, who used a libretto based on it to compose one of the most passionate – and most difficult to pigeonhole – masterpieces of 19th-century opera.

It is difficult to say why Verdi became interested in this particular work. He came across a copy of El Trovador in 1849. A lot suggests that the person who first liked the play was the composer’s partner, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who after several stormy affairs, unknown number of pregnancies, miscarriages and not always happy childbirths as well as magnificent though brief career became Verdi’s partner and settled with him in Busseto. Strepponi, the first Abigail, was enthusiastically applauded at the premiere of Nabucco in 1842 in Milan, but soon lost her voice. She abandoned the stage only to enter the life of the great composer, start a lifelong relationship with him and for years provide genuine support to him.

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Il Trovatore, vocal and piano reduction published by Edizioni Ricordi.

Peppina, as Verdi called her, spoke several languages fluently and had a flair for literature. It is, therefore, possible that the request for a Spanish-Italian dictionary, sent by Verdi to Giovanni Ricordi, the founder of the publishing company Casa Ricordi, came, in fact, from her. The British opera historian Julian Budden has even suggested that it was Strepponi who translated Gutiérrez’s play into Italian. In any case, already in early 1850 Verdi presented the text to the librettist Salvadore Cammarano, with whom he had recently collaborated on La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller. Something must have attracted him to the play and very strongly at that: for the first time he decided to compose an opera without a prior commission, without even thinking of staging it at any particular theatre. Several months before that he had finished his innovative Rigoletto, one of the most coherent and formally uniform works in his oeuvre. He expected Cammarano to approach the text with the right dose of enthusiasm and quickly produce a libretto. Things became complicated. Depressed by his father’s fatal illness, Verdi did not realise that Cammarano himself had serious health problems. He insisted. Threatened him. Put pressure on him. He asked the librettist to propose another subject, if Gutiérrez’s play had not taken his fancy. And again he argued that El Trovador was by no means as overwhelmingly sad as everybody thought, that the omnipresent death was, after all, inseparable from life. His did not expect that fate would perversely confirm his words. Salvadore Cammarano died on 17 July 1852, leaving the libretto unfinished.

The action of Gutiérrez’s play only loosely draws on historical events which in themselves were so tangled that the alleged absurdities of the source text and the final version of the libretto seem simple by comparison. The story unfolds in the15th century, shortly after the death of the King of Aragon, Martin the Humane. His eldest and only son who survived into adulthood, Martin of Sicily, also known as the Younger, died unexpectedly in 1409. Martin the Humane, who would die in less than a year, wanted to make Frederick, Martin the Younger’s illegitimate son, his successor in Aragon. He did not manage to implement his plans: the two-year interregnum ended only with the Compromise of Caspe under which the throne went to the late king’s brother-in-law, Ferdinand the Just from another dynasty, House of Trastámara.

The bastard Frederick was, in fact, the model for Count di Luna. However, Gutiérrez and, especially, Verdi were less interested in the dynastic crisis in Aragon than in the complex psychological relations between the characters. Initially, the composer wanted to call the opera Azucena and make Azucena the main protagonist of the drama. After Cammarano’s death and resumption of the work on the libretto with a young poet, Leone Emanuele Bardare, Verdi changed his original idea and decided to create a narrative with four equal protagonists: Azucena, Leonora, Manrico and Count di Luna.

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Playbill advertising the English premiere of Il Trovatore at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden.

The premiere of Il Trovatore, planned for Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, which was unable to bear the financial burden of the venture, eventually took place on 19 January 1853 at Teatro Apollo in Rome. The Count was sung by Giovanni Guicciardi, Manrico by Carlo Baucardé, the memorable Duke from the Turin performances of Rigoletto, while Azucena and Leonora were sung, respectively, by Emilia Goggi and Rosina Punco, who hated each other enough for the sparks to really fly during the premiere. The work was a staggering success and went on to conquer European theatres. Barely one year later it could be admired in Warsaw, where five years later it was performed in Polish. In 1857 a French version was premiered at Opéra Le Peletier in Paris with a ballet in Act III and finale reworked by the composer.

Il Trovatore  has been labelled an opera with the most incoherent libretto in the history of the genre. In fact, its narrative seems to be decades ahead of its time and anticipate the sophisticated formal experiments of the masters of 20th-century cinema. The work requires maximum concentration from the spectators: we learn about all twists and turns of the action retrospectively and have to work out some elements of the intrigue from the relations between the characters. Romantic darkness hides all sorts of mysteries: the protagonists conceal both their intentions and their true identities. An allegedly dead brother emerges from the shadows wearing the costume of a mortal enemy. Leonora throws herself passionately into the arms of the Count, whom she does not love. Azucena longs for revenge and yet she proves to be a surprisingly tender carer for her adoptive son. Unbridled emotions are consumed by romantic fire: emotions of Azucena plagued by the nightmare of the stake (“Stride la vampa”) and of her adoptive child Manrico, who calls soldiers to help him save his mother being led to her death (“Di quella pira”). The driving force of Il Trovatore is a tragic conflict between Azucena’s desire for revenge, Count di Luna’s animal jealousy and Leonora’s pure, uncompromising love for Manrico. What triumphs in the finale is an irresistible temptation of vengeance. Murderous hate overwhelms any hope of reconciliation.

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Illustration of a scene from Il Trovatore at the Royal Italian Opera, from the Illustrated London News.

The musical language of Il Trovatore is seemingly a step back in comparison with Rigoletto, written two years earlier. In fact, its extreme formalism highlights even more emphatically the expressive potential of the score. Spectacular choral parts, subtle cantilenas in the arias, virtuoso passages in ensembles, dazzling cabalettas – in all these elements Verdi brings the art of bel canto to an absolute peak and on the other hand he pushes the human voice to the limits of its capabilities, being accused as a result of vulgarity and “cruelty” towards singers. The Count’s baritone must combine lordly arrogance with heart-breaking lyricism. Manrico’s tenor part is one of the most difficult in the history of opera: in spite of appearances precise articulation of short notes is much more problematic for the soloist than attacking the fiendishly high notes in the famous stretta. The two main female protagonists should be sung by veritable rarities among female voices: proper strong lirico-spinto soprano and flexible dramatic mezzo-soprano with a characteristic “brassy” tone.

Verdi’s work is one of fire and darkness, there is grimy vengeance and pure jewel of unconditional love; there is blood, bile and tears. Bad-tempered bourgeois accused Verdi not only of abandoning narrative realism. They also claimed that in Il Trovatore good taste had failed the composer, that the work was not distinguished. Georges Bizet refuted these accusations brilliantly: “What about Michelangelo, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Cervantes and Rabelais? Were they distinguished?”

Translated by: Anna Kijak

An Indomitable Florestan

‘Of all of the children of my inspiration, this one is the dearest to me – because it came into the world most unwillingly,’ Beethoven supposedly confessed in a conversation about Fidelio with his secretary and later biographer Anton Schindler. The secretary had boundless admiration for the master and without blinking an eye bent reality to an idealized vision of his life and œuvre. At the end of the 20th century considered by musicologists to be a completely non-credible storyteller, he has recently been coming back into favour. Even if he thought up and attributed to the composer statements that had never emerged from his lips, as a rule he interpreted his unuttered intentions with extraordinary accuracy. So we can take it on faith that Beethoven really loved Fidelio, though he reworked it so many times that it would seem he took it to be the most misbegotten fruit of his imagination. The balance sheet of those reworkings is truly impressive: nearly ten years of work, four overtures, three versions of the opera itself and three librettists picking away at the text. The final result continues to evoke reservations. Opponents of Fidelio – of whom there are many in Poland – accuse it, above all, of dramatic incoherence and glaring disproportions between the naïveté of the libretto and the depth of Beethoven’s musical vision, going far beyond the operatic convention of his time. Let us put it bluntly: even those who love Fidelio only wake up halfway through Act I.

On the other hand, once they wake up, they spend the rest of the opera on the edge of their seats, and can end up paying for the ecstatic finale with the beginnings of a heart attack. On one condition, however: that they hear Fidelio in a truly superb rendition, the likes of which it has never been easy to find. Now it is sometimes even more difficult, so when I heard the news that Douglas Boyd intended to present this work in a semi-staged version at the Philharmonie de Paris – with a cast of soloists who had (at least most of them) taken part in the superbly-received productions of the Garsington Opera in 2009 and 2014 – I did not hesitate for a moment. I very much esteem the Manchester Camerata’s recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven under Boyd; I have heard much good about Peter Mumford, who after years of experience as a lighting designer has taken up projection design and stage directing; so I was looking forward to my first encounter with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris and the Accentus choir. This was my first visit to the new Paris concert hall, since recently bearing the name of Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, whose designers boast of innovative acoustic solutions prepared by the Belgian firm Kahle Acoustics.

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Rehearsal before a performance of Fidelio. Rebecca von Lipinski (Leonore). Photo: Charles d’Hérouville.

Its striving for both fullness and clarity of sound turns out perfectly in smaller spaces, among others the Arsonic concert hall in Mons, which I had the pleasure of visiting in March. At the Parisian Grande Salle, however, the acoustics play tricks on both the performers and the audience. The orchestra could be heard superbly and very selectively; the choir placed behind it had difficulty carrying over the orchestra; the singers at the front of the stage battled with a well-like resonance that at times turned into a full-blown echo. In addition, I didn’t know at first what to focus on – the projections at the rear of the stage which were not too invasive, but did not contribute much to the matter either, or the acting tasks entrusted to the soloists by Mumford. I chose the latter and I don’t regret it. Mumford is a master of the theatrical shortcut – to this day I have before my eyes Leonore and Rocco’s duet from Act II, in which the horror of digging Florestan’s grave was conveyed just by the gesture of bending over a non-existent hole in the ground and by tormented brushing of imaginary dirt from their hands. I understand the financial necessity lying at the foundation of semi-staged performances. I think that in the future, it will suffice to work with the singers. Visual impressions distract one’s attention from the music itself – which in Beethoven’s case carries improbably great dramatic potential.

A potential of which Douglas Boyd made full use, with enormous benefit to the work. Under his baton, all of this score’s supposed ‘oddities’ turned out to be its strengths. The ideally selected tempi, details brought to perfection with a tenderness worthy of a chamber musician, the masterful feel for time and silence – these attest not only to the sensitivity of this extraordinary conductor, but also to an irreversible change in musicians’ minds, brought in by the historically informed performance movement. The exceptional character of Fidelio in large measure boils down the surprises it holds for the listener: the peculiarity of the bassoon and horn obbligato accompaniment in Leonore’s heartbreaking aria from Act I, the atypical key chosen for Florestan’s aria, the crazy modulations in the Adagio after the ecstatic duet of the miraculously reunited spouses. Boyd ensured that each of these elements gained rhetorical value. Where necessary, he combined textures; in other places, he painfully separated them, for instance in the introduction to Act II, before Florestan’s recitative, placing the brass chords in drastic opposition to the strings and the ominous tritones in the tympani – emphasizing with a strong gesture the disintegrating world of the prisoner locked up for eternity in a hole cut off from light and other sensory stimuli.

So all the greater was my disappointment in the choir, which was not able to resonate in the famous ‘O welche Lust!’ in Act I – more by fault of the capricious acoustics than any carelessness on the part of the conductor, as is attested by two superb solos from choristers singing the parts of Two Prisoners: Pierre-Antoine Chaumien and Virgile Ancely. Among the soloists appearing in Act I, a decisively distinguished performance was turned in by Stephen Richardson (Rocco), who has at his disposal a mellifluous, surprisingly fresh-sounding bass-baritone. This is one of those singers that one hears with equal pleasure in Mozart and Verdi (it is not without reason that he has played both Sarastro and Falstaff) – technically superb, with a beautifully open upper register and a resonant low register, ideally aware of their own vocal technique. Unfortunately, I was again disappointed by Andrew Foster-Williams, this time simply miscast in the role of Pizarro, which requires a ‘bigger’ voice with a more demonic timbre. Sam Furness, a youthful and undeniably amusing Joaquino, did a fine job. Jennifer France evoked mixed feelings in the role of Marzelline – technically flawless, but with the harsh and cold voice of a typical soubrette. I had other problems in rating Rebecca von Lipinski (Leonore), a singer of extraordinary intelligence, knowledgeable in the Classical opera idiom, sensitive and musical, but – like many other lyric sopranos – pushed by force into roles requiring a much bigger voice with a more ‘meaty’ sound. Her aria ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’, rightfully rewarded with applause for its power of expression, did not meet my expectations in purely vocal terms – though I am fully aware that today, it is harder to find a good Leonore than a good Florestan.

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Scene from the Garsington Opera production of Fidelio (2014): Peter Wedd (Florestan). Photo: Robbie Jack.

And here we get to the point. In Paris, I got a nearly perfect Florestan. This role requires something apparently impossible: the combination of a dramatic voice with a narrative suggesting that we are dealing with a person in agony, nearly starved to death and tormented by hallucinations. Peter Wedd reconciled all of these characteristics with brilliant technique and the peculiar timbre of his tenor instrument. He led out with a short crescendo on the note G in the initial ‘Gott!’ from the recitative in Act II, in the blink of an eye exploding in a complaint addressed to God. The phrase ‘Welch’ Dunkel hier’ was sung pianissimo, broken by despair. In the aria, beginning in the key of A-flat major – and therefore extremely uncomfortable for the voice – he moved through every shade of hope, desperation and ardent longing. If anyone thought that Wedd was carried away by emotion in the final segment of the poco allegro, they quickly changed their mind upon hearing the initial phrase of the trio ‘Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten’ – in its intensity of lyricism exceeding the most brilliant renditions of past masters, chief among them Ernst Haefliger. And then Wedd took on the duet ‘O namenlose Freude’, in which the tenor normally does not keep up with the soprano. This time, it was the other way around – Rebecca von Lipinski was not able either to carry over the orchestra, or to equal the intensity of Florestan’s fiery singing. The fluidity of the legato and precision of the articulation in the fast passages in this fragment attest to total mastery of vocal technique – especially with such extensive volume as this singer presently has at his disposal.

After the ecstatic finale, there was an explosion of applause the likes of which I had not seen in a long time – and that, not only on Polish stages. I closed my eyes and imagined that time was circling around: that Wedd had gotten Leonie Rysanek or Christa Ludwig as a partner. One can always dream. For the moment, I will just quietly recall that our Paris Florestan also has Parsifal in his repertoire. And then wait for some opera house director to take that into account.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

War Kills Angels

Billy Budd is a painful opera. Shocking for ordinary people on the street who are not in a position to understand the attitude of Captain Vere, who, despite the apparent self-evidence of Budd’s innocence, upholds the court martial verdict upon the young sailor. Depressing to history lovers who are aware of the heartless discipline reigning on British ships of that time, especially in 1797 after the mutinies at the Spithead and Nore anchorages, which were suppressed in a bloody manner. And shocking for both Christians, forced to reflect yet again on the freedom of the choice between good and evil; and for atheists, driven by the pessimism of this tale into a truly metaphysical horror. People entangled in the gears of the powers that be, witnesses of war and violence, aggrieved children and authoritarian parents, people forced to rein in their own desires according to society’s oppressive commands will identify with the three characters of the drama around whom the plot revolves. But even so, everyone will leave the theatre disoriented, uncertain of their arguments, shaken to the core by the emptiness of all legal and customary norms.

Readers of Herman Melville’s novel, on the basis of which Edward Morgan Forster and Eric Crozier created the libretto for Britten’s opera, also find themselves in a similar bind. The American writer’s last work, published posthumously in 1924 and reinterpreted many times by literary critics, is in some measure an open text. Despite its conciseness, it makes use of symbolism equally as rich as that of the monumental Moby Dick – and after all, it gives rise to a similar dilemma of whether to read it as an ‘unbearable allegory’, or as a literal interpretation of the truth about human life. It does not have any unambiguous heroes. Claggart and Billy Budd – Evil incarnate and Good incarnate – are basically the obverse and reverse of the same medal. Both are equally inhuman in their perfection and corruption. Captain Vere – at first glance an imperturbable guardian of martial order – actually becomes involved in a conflict between the heart and reason, between cruel peace and destructive freedom. A conflict which he resolves only years later while reminiscing about the dramatic events on His Majesty’s ship. Both the novella’s plot and the opera’s narrative play out in a place from which there is no escape: a peculiar marine solitary confinement that triggers people’s most primitive instincts.

One of the more oft-discussed aspects of Billy Budd is the homosexual thread which, the opinions of some commentators notwithstanding, is present not only in the opera, but in the novella itself. Contemporary stage directors too hastily take it on faith that Forster and Britten purposely brought out this motif, ingeniously tangling it with other contexts of the work for, among other reasons, fear of the audience’s reaction in a country where a 16th-century law on sodomy was in force until 1967 –  the only difference being that in 1861, the death penalty was replaced with a prison sentence. Personally, I will take a risk and state that homoeroticism emerges considerably more clearly from the pages of the novella because of, among other things, Melville’s peculiar language – from the episode where Billy accidentally spills soup at Claggart’s feet, to the expansive description of the convict’s execution, to the conversation between the ship’s surgeon and the purser, who comment upon its progress. In Britten’s opera, on the other hand, accents appear that are absent from the novella – for instances, the violent opposition of the butcher known as Red Whiskers to being conscripted into service on the ship. The two works are, however, linked by a certain immeasurably important characteristic: their narrative is equally unclear and disordered as Billy Budd’s speech. Melville and Britten are silent about certain matters; sometimes they nervously stutter, sometimes they speak to us in a language completely out of this world.

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Alastair Miles as John Claggart. Photo: Clive Barda.

The creators of the new staging at Opera North in Leeds – stage director Orpha Phelan and stage/costume designer Leslie Travers – made a wise decision not to reveal the mystery enclosed in this text. The show begins in the proscenium, in an empty Classical salon with soiled walls, in which the aged Vere reminisces about the tragedy of 1797. At the end of the monologue, the main wall migrates upward, revealing another scraped-up room in which there is the vague skeleton of a ship, cobbled together from boards on several levels of the stage. Everything takes place in the captain’s home; it takes on the form of a hazy memory in which what comes into the foreground are living people, dressed in costumes clearly defining their character and status in the military hierarchy. On the captain’s bridge, Vere reigns in a uniform sparkling with gold; between the bridge, the deck and the crew’s quarters, Claggart circulates enveloped in black; the sweaty sailors are absorbed in their everyday grueling labor. The relationships between the characters begin slowly; the claustrophobic space reinforces an impression of tension. Any kind of intimacy – friendly digs exchanged by the deckhands, solicitous care for the Novice flogged to unconsciousness – is possible only among the ship’s plebs. The higher in the hierarchy one goes, the colder and more lonely it gets. The most tragic figure of alienation turns out to be Claggart himself: a person from nowhere, suspended midway between the haughty dignity of the officers’ corps and the scruffy ugliness of the rank-and-file crew members. When the beautiful Billy Budd comes on board – with a broad smile on his face, in a shirt whiter and with a kerchief redder than those on the necks of the other sailors – anxiety appears on the bridge; and in Claggart’s heart, hatred.

I have not seen a show with such a meticulously-chosen cast in a long time. Hidden in the proud and lofty captain (Alan Oke) was, at the same time, a kind of childlike fragility; and his tenor voice, tormented by guilt and bringing to mind intense associations with that of Peter Pears, developed slowly, up to a shocking culmination on the words ‘I am the messenger of death!’ The role of Billy Budd found an ideal performer in the person of Roderick Williams, gifted with a bright baritone voice, at ease in the upper registers, enchanting in its fluidity in long legato phrases. However, Williams created a character insufficiently broken on the inside: his kind-heartedness was too mundane; his stutter did not betray any torment; in the scene where he kills Claggart, the bestial fury that would make the sudden death of his cruel persecutor believable was absent. Of the three lead characters, the one that made the biggest impression on me was Claggart – in this role, Alastair Miles made use of his abundant experience in Verdi roles, but he endowed his character with a surprising tragic outline, closer to the dilemmas of King Philip than to the dark perfidy of the Grand Inquisitor. In the famous monologue from Act I (‘O Beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!’) he revealed such coloristic and expressive capacities of his velvety bass voice, supported by phenomenal acting technique, that my heart literally leaped into my throat. In this scene, Orpha Phelan decided on the only relatively clear homoerotic accent: Claggart tears the kerchief taken from Billy from his neck, and then alternatingly sobs over it and beats it with a rattan switch.

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Roderick Williams as Billy Budd and Oliver Johnston as the Novice. Photo: Clive Barda.

Basically all of the soloists deserve a kind mention; I will content myself, however, with praise for the very young Oliver Johnson (the Novice), who sings in an extraordinarily clear tenor voice; Stephen Richardson (Dansker), the seasoned on-stage veteran and thereby all the more believable; and the superb David Llewelyn, who succeeded in creating a truly repulsive characterization of Squeak. The Opera North men’s and boys’ choir played the most suggestive collective protagonist of this tragedy that I have heard since the times of Hickox’s legendary recording with the London Symphony Choir and Orchestra (in the terrifying ‘Starry Vere, God Bless you!’ probably even more suggestive). I had already become convinced of the merits of the local orchestra in June during their performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 at Town Hall. The ensemble, led this time by the deft and sure hand of Garry Walker, more than confirmed them in this hellishly difficult score. To this day, I have the ominous sounds of the woodwinds in Claggart’s Iago-like ‘credo’ and the overwhelming tumult of the brass in the scene of the unsuccessful attack on the French warship. The only weaker link turned out to be the flute, which ‘stumbled along’ in its dialogue with Budd in his final soliloquy ‘Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray’ – fortunately, the lower strings completely recompensed me this disappointment.

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Alan Oke as Captain Vere. Photo: Clive Barda.

However, I had to travel to Leeds and experience this opera live for the first time in order to fully appreciate the moment when Britten decided to bring time to a standstill, shut down the narrative and pay homage to Melville. The famous ‘Interview Chords’ – 34 chords oscillating around an F major harmonic triad, filling in the empty space between Vere’s acceptance of the sentence and the convict’s monologue – are an ideal musical equivalent of a memorable phrase from the novella: ‘Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known.’ At the back of the darkened stage, with their backs to the audience, Billy Budd and the captain sit motionless. The listener considers the verdict in his or her own conscience. He or she must decide what this opera is about. Love? The battle of good and evil? Fate? Reconciliation? Suffering? Resignation to the inevitable? All of the above? None of the above? So many questions and no answers forthcoming.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski