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

Brandenburg Autumn

My plans for September in Berlin were changing like a kaleidoscope. I had planned to drop in to the capital literally for one day, after Wratislavia Cantans was over – to hear the MusikFest finale under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius on the program, and to take on the vocal art of Jonas Kaufmann live for the first time. Next, I decided to extend my stay in Berlin and organize an excursion for myself to catch the season opening in Brandenburg an der Havel – on account of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the soloists on the playbill, and Peter Gülke, one of Germany’s most distinguished conductors, musicologists and music writers, who last year, at the impressive age of 81 years, was named artistic director of the Brandenburger Symphoniker. While the orchestra is not large, it has a beautiful story behind it: created in 1810 as part of a fusilier-grenadier regiment, from 1866 onward it appeared at the local theater in a versatile opera and concert repertoire; after the reunion of Germany, it gained the status of an independent symphonic ensemble. Because of an unexpected trip to Ekaterinburg, I cut short my stay in Wrocław and flew in to Germany early, thanks to which I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with one of John Adams’ newest works – the dramatic symphony Scheherazade.2 in the rendition of phenomenal violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the composer – as well as of being convinced yet again that the œuvre of Edgar Varèse continues to sound fresher and more innovative than the output of not a few living contemporary music luminaries (concert of Ensemble Musikfabrik, also including compositions by Frank Zappa).

And then the casting carousel began. First, Kaufmann’s performance was cancelled – for health reasons that turned out to be very serious, because the singer had gotten a haematoma on his vocal cords. He was supposed to be replaced by Toby Spence, an outstanding interpreter of the role of Gerontius, but for reasons that remain unclear, the matter ended with the substitution being undertaken by Andrew Staples. At the last minute, Sarah Connolly also withdrew from the concert; she was supposed to be replaced by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Left on the battleground were Thomas Hampson, Staatskapelle Berlin, the combined choirs of RIAS and the Staatsoper, as well as – obviously – Barenboim himself. I went to this concert full of the worst premonitions, which unfortunately were in significant measure confirmed: and that, mostly through the conductor’s fault rather than as an effect of the plague that had stricken the flower of the vocal world.

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Daniel Barenboim. Photo: Chris Lee.

The Dream of Gerontius is a large-scale musical image of Purgatory – all the more shocking that it was written in the context of Anglican culture. The basis for the work – which Elgar did not permit to be described by the term ‘oratorio’ – was a poem, sensational in its time, written by distinguished theologian and philosopher John Henry Cardinal Newman, an Anglo-Catholic leader who finally joined the Roman Catholic Church. The composer utilized this tale of the dilemmas of the soul – leaving the body and setting off for the ‘unknown’ – in response to the questions of death, the meaning of suffering, the existence of God and the hereafter that were besetting Victorian England. Representatives of the Anglican clergy did not like its references to the saints and to Our Lady; the musicians did not think much of its allusions to the œuvre of Wagner, especially to Parsifal. And yet Elgar’s score was equally strongly imprinted with the style of Dvořák (who, furthermore, had himself thought of writing a piece to Newman’s text) and 19th-century French composers, not to mention that The Dream of Gerontius turned out on the whole to be a work sufficiently different and innovative that its world première in Birmingham (1900) bordered on catastrophe. The choir was unable to support the weight of its part; tenor Edward Lloyd, experienced in the oratorio repertoire, didn’t save his strength properly and barely made it to the end of the concert.

Elgar realized too late his unfortunate choice of performer for the lead role. He had really wanted a no-longer-young voice (the name Gerontius is derived from the Greek word γέρων, which means ‘old man’); what he did not realize was that that expansive and technically difficult part required – apart from an iron constitution – a full spinto sound and, at the same time, a large dose of lyricism. The first real Gerontius was Gervase Elwes, possessed of a passionate tenor voice with precise intonation and an almost baritone colour. In contemporary times, the voices that do best in this piece are ones associated with the heavier roles in Britten’s operas. So it is astounding that Barenboim decided to select Andrew Staples – a singer otherwise superb, but nonetheless gifted with a tenor too bright, suited rather for Mozart roles and the Baroque repertoire – for the role of Gerontius. In his rendition, despite the enormous culture of his phrasing (Staples knows this piece well, although he had previously sung it with smaller ensembles), I was especially troubled by his high notes, which were attacked in a mixed register, whereby the interpretation lost quite a bit in power of expression. Other problems – above all, a too-wide vibrato – were a struggle for Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a wonderful mezzo-soprano, experienced in the concert repertoire, whose voice had nonetheless lost its former brilliance and flawless intonation. Thomas Hampson handled the lower role of the Angel of the Agony decidedly better than that of the Priest in Part I, though in both cases, his singing lacked drama.

Contributing to the confusion in the solo ensemble was an unfortunate coincidence. It was more difficult to reconcile myself with the bombastic vision of Barenboim, who had probably found only influences from Wagner in The Dream of Gerontius. In his lumbering interpretation, everything that is most important in Elgar’s music disappeared: logic and transparency of orchestration, powerful dynamic contrasts, a finale of heartbreaking lyricism. While the choirs sang with quite decent English, it was typically German, with deeply-placed vocal production, not infrequently flat. There were moments when I had the impression of listening to a piece composed by Brahms in the hereafter – and that, in a none-too-inspired performance.

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Peter Gülke. Photo: Juliane Menzel.

When the news reached me that the September plague had also stricken part of the ensemble for the Brandenburg concert, I was seized by a temptation to return to Poland early. Two days before the inaugural evening, it was announced that the tenor part in Das Lied von der Erde would be performed by Stephen Chambers, another singer seasoned in early music – and on top of that, entirely ‘green’ in the Mahler repertoire. So I wanted to head for the hills – but fortunately, that desire passed. What prevailed was curiosity about the craft of Peter Gülke, who turned out to be a typical old-school German Kapellmeister: sensitive to subtleties of texture, not inclined toward any sort of mannerisms, gifted with skill rarely seen today in precisely distinguishing motifs, closing out musical phrases and sentences. Despite certain deficiencies in the orchestra’s sound, Gülke was able to polish up the numerous concertante parts in this piece, thereby emphasizing the small-scale, indeed intimate feel of Das Lied von der Erde. Most importantly, however, he worked ideally with the vocalists – following their every breath, shaping the dynamics and tempo according to the rhythm and pulse of their singing. Gdynia-born Karolina Gumos, for ten years now a soloist at Berlin’s Komische Oper, made her three songs into wholes thought out and lived in every detail, rendered in a none-too-big, but ideally focused voice, delightful in colour and rich in overtones (it has been a long time since I last heard such a wonderful ‘Der Abschied’ live). Chambers, who in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ was still fighting with performance anxiety and the resistance of the material, made ‘Von der Jugend’ into a true pearl. While he was not able to support the expressive weight of his last song, he can count his Mahler debut among the completely successful – though with his light, not too thick voice, I would not risk singing this part with a larger orchestra or a less intelligent conductor.

Two masterpieces from the turn of the 20th century, considered by their authors to be the crowning achievements of their output. Both dealing with the subject of death, passing, the fragility of existence and the fear of the unknown. Both can be either screamed out or sung in a whisper. The modest season inauguration in Brandenburg proved that there is no need to scream about ultimate matters. I am curious how many more country operas and provincial orchestras I will manage to discover far from the hubbub of the great music world. Maybe it is better not to reveal them? What if the crowds come and trample them?

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Memory Painfully Recovered

When The Passenger made its appearance in Poland – in October 2010, a mere few months after its première in Bregenz, but no less than 42 years after the moment when Mieczysław Wajnberg finished work on the opera score – it was received with mixed feelings. We were not ready for its supposedly ‘imitative’ and ‘kitschy’ music, bringing to mind an association (as much irresistible as not entirely correct) with the œuvre of Shostakovich, who is still ‘out of the way’ for us – and that, not only for aesthetic reasons. We were not ready for a picture of everyday life in a Nazi concentration camp, placed in theatrical brackets, as it were, by stage director David Pountney and stage designer Johan Engels, but nonetheless a shocking view of cattle cars, crematorium ovens, muddied and bloodied prison-striped uniforms – especially in combination with the unreal white of the transatlantic liner ‘sailing’ in the upper portion of the stage. We were not ready for yet another, at first glance simplified adaptation of Zofia Posmysz’s text, made by the libretto’s author, Wajnberg’s and Shostakovich’s friend Aleksandr Medvedev. Disoriented critics meandered about in tangles of oblique statements, hesitating to reject the work of a miraculously-salvaged Polish Jew, but still refusing to recognize the timeless value of his work. Despite the tears and emotions of some viewers, the opera was considered a curiosity – worth mentioning, but too literal for the sensibilities of a Polish audience accustomed to expressing still-living traumas in the distanced language of symbols.

After that, Pountney’s staging – prepared in co-production with Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in Warsaw, Teatro Real in Madrid and the English National Opera in London – set out to tour the world. In January 2014, it reached the United States: first, appearing on the stage of the Houston Grand Opera; and several months later, at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. American reviewers unanimously recognized it as one of the biggest events of the season. In Poland, the time has come for renewed reflection, supported by the gradual but inexorable entrance of the rest of Wajnberg’s œuvre onto the world’s stages, in the rendition of artists who had no reason to enrich their repertoire with his compositions for any motives other than purely musical ones. In May 2013, The Passenger saw its first performance in Germany, at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, in the staging of Holger Müller-Brandes. The stunned critics spared nothing in their praise for the work. Received with equal enthusiasm was last year’s staging by Anselm Weber at the Frankfurt Opera. The admiration of the conservative Americans was still somehow explainable, but the Germans, who have for years been traveling the path of the musical avant-garde and contemporary theater? And whence the distance of Polish audiences to the son of Jewish actress Sonia Karl and her husband, violinist Szmul Wajnberg, who gained his first musical experiences at variety theaters and in Warsaw dance halls?

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Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński.

            Perhaps from some Nietzschean resentment, from a need to create illusory moral appraisals, aiming to make up for our own weakness: an inability to probe into the worldview of a person who went through not a few hells in his lifetime. As I wrote after The Passenger’s Warsaw première, Wajnberg was the only one in his family to survive the Holocaust, because he escaped to the East: his parents and his sister Estera remained in Poland. After being interned in the Łódź ghetto, they ended up in the concentration camp in Trawniki, near Lublin. They died during the infamous ‘Operation Harvest Festival’, carried out on 3 November 1943 on the orders of Himmler, after the prisoner rebellion in the death camp at Sobibór. At the same time, after four years spent in Minsk and Tashkent, Wajnberg settled for the rest of his life in Moscow. He married the daughter of Solomon Michoels, a distinguished actor and stage director, as well as the leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In January 1948, when Stalin began to persecute the organization’s members, Michoels died from being pushed under a truck. The perpetrators were never found. In 1953, Wajnberg was arrested on an accusation of ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’ – as the result of a gigantic anti-Semitic provocation to which people associated with the Committee and with advocates of the founding of an autonomous Jewish republic in Crimea fell victim. At that time, Shostakovich promised Wajnberg that should the latter be arrested, he would take care of Wajnberg’s daughter from his marriage to Natalia Michoels. He interceded for him with Lavrenty Beria, chief of the NKVD. Who knows how the two composers’ subsequent fortunes would have played out if Stalin had not died; Wajnberg got out of jail after a few weeks, with acute symptoms of the spinal tuberculosis that had been plaguing him for years, but nonetheless – free and still paradoxically overconfident in the effectiveness and justice of the Soviet government system.

The same government that, in 1968, put on hold the already very advanced preparations for a staging of The Passenger at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow – under the accusation of formalism and ‘abstract humanism’ – whatever was hidden behind that internally contradictory formula with which 20th-century totalitarian systems responded to all manifestations of independent thought. Who knows if the addressee of these accusations was not, above all, Medvedev, who ‘omitted’ the role of the Communist resistance movement at Auschwitz from the libretto. The causes for The Passenger’s ‘arrest’ remain unclear to this day. Perhaps it was a matter of exaggeration – in the Soviets’ opinion – of the subject of the Holocaust in combination with the enormous number of Soviet victims of World War II, or perhaps fears arose that the camp subject matter would bring to viewers’ minds undesirable associations with the here-and-now of the forced-labor camps that were holding political prisoners despite the official dissolution of the Gulag by decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1960. Medvedev compared Wajnberg’s opera to the Count of Monte Cristo, arrested and condemned to imprisonment in a fortress based on a false anonymous denunciation. Not long before his death, the composer confessed that he considered The Passenger to be the most important work in his œuvre. Medvedev promised him that he would listen to any première of the work that took place twice as carefully: once for himself and once for Wajnberg. He kept his promise ten years after the composer’s death, in December 2006 at a concert organized in a semi-staged version at the Composers’ House in Moscow. Just under four years later, there was a single concert performance of The Passenger at the Novosibirsk Opera. In July 2010, the aforementioned première in Bregenz took place with an ensemble of soloists from several different countries, including Poland, as well as the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Wiener Symphoniker under the baton of Teodor Currentzis.

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Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński.

In Russia – despite the success of Pountney’s staging and growing interest in the rest of the composer’s œuvre – Wajnberg’s name has been associated at best with music for circus shows and animated films, among others the Soviet adaptation of Winnie the Pooh. It was for this reason that we so impatiently awaited the Russian première of the Passenger at the Ekaterinburg Opera, prepared as part of a project initiated in 2015 in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The curators of the endeavor, theater director Andrei Shishkin and editor-in-chief of the Muzykalnoye Obozrenie monthly Andrei Ustinov, received the ‘blessing’ of Zofia Posmysz on the occasion of their visit to Warsaw. American stage director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger visited the Auschwitz camp last fall. Slovak conductor Oliver von Dohnányi had previously collaborated with Strassberger in Ekaterinburg on the first Russian staging of Glass’ opera Satyagraha, the winner of two Golden Masks; this close-knit production team was joined by costume designer Vita Tzykun, born in Odessa and raised in Tel Aviv, now permanently resident in New York.

I was afraid of this première. Pountney and Engels’ vision, played out on two levels – the snow-white transatlantic liner and the grim reality of the camp – connected by a ramp for the cattle cars bringing in prisoners, made a (despite everything) coherent and clear impression. The most annoying thing about the Bregenz staging – namely the artificial, exaggerated theatrical gesture – seemed somehow inevitable, resulting from the impossibility of taking a distance to this not yet worked-through trauma and dressing it up in metaphor. I remembered Wajnberg’s music – imbued with a host of stylistic references, not averse to pastiche, supersaturated with the fatalism of Berg’s Wozzeck, the tragedy of Britten’s Peter Grimes and a grotesque element in the spirit of Shostakovich – above all for its heartbreaking episodes that did not always want to arrange themselves into a convincing narrative. If we were to make this theatrical tale even less realistic, beat the horror into a symbol, it could sink into the void. If we were to literalize it, it would smack of parody – highly inappropriate under the circumstances. I was curious how Strassberger would resolve this dilemma. I did not expect him to do it with the simplest theatrical means possible, which would tie the opera together into a whole so shocking that at times there was no way to hold back the tears.

Strassberger – unlike Pountney – did not go the route of parallel worlds between which something along the lines of osmosis occasionally takes place, but which as planes of existence remain separate, frightfully contrasting in every way, starting with the emotional layer and finishing with the aesthetic level. In the Ekaterinburg production, the world of Auschwitz and the world of a floating luxury hotel merge together. Nothing here is completely clean; nothing is totally sullied. The scanty scenery changes slowly, almost imperceptibly. The nightmare of the SS-woman Liza, tormented by the pricks of conscience, is born before our eyes, cuts into our brain like a hypnotic meander into the depths of memory, recreating more and more traumatic episodes from the past, and thereafter projecting the memories onto a less and less familiar here and now.

Because this is an opera about memory. Supplied by its creators with a motto from Paul Eluard: ‘If the echo of these voices falls silent – we shall die.’ Liza, recovering repressed memories under the influence of an unexpected meeting aboard the ship, gradually reconstructs the collective memory of the Auschwitz tragedy. From now on, she will have to live with it: among the ghosts of prisoners and prison guards wandering around the deck, with the image of smoking crematoria moving beneath closed eyelids, of dirty pallets, of prison-striped uniforms smeared with mud, blood and human excreta. The scenery of both world orders is grim: the nightmare of Auschwitz clashes with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the transatlantic liner sailing to Brazil. From both of these places, there is apparently no escape. Except by death – whether in the fire of the ovens or in the depths of the ocean. In the opera’s epilogue, the fortunes of the SS-woman Liza are entwined forever with those of the prisoner Marta. The women sit in their cabins and look in their mirrors; Strassberger has suggested, however, that what they see in them is reflections of each other.

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Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński.

All of this was supported by a gesture so distinct and so precisely-directed that it was even painful to watch what was happening onstage. Liza really was not able to recover from her shock; Marta at times really did stagger on her feet; the passengers on the transatlantic liner really did dance as best they could; Bronka really did die wracked by vomiting. The opera’s culminating scene (in which Tadeusz, Marta’s beloved, brings death upon himself by playing Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for the Germans – instead of the expected trivial waltz) was played out at first glance the same way as in Pountney’s staging: by using a violinist double standing with his back to the audience. Strassberger, however, has added detail to the scene. Tadeusz starts to play with the stiff fingers of a person who has not touched a violin in two years. His Chaconne slowly takes on confidence and power; the Germans listen in stupefaction as Tadeusz shoves this national sacred cow into their ears like a gag down someone’s throat. There is no way to forget it.

Most importantly, however, Wajnberg’s music rid itself of long drawn-out passages, took on a pulse and came together into a terrifyingly coherent dramaturgical whole under the deft baton of Oliver von Dohnányi. The main protagonists sang with perfectly placed voices, conveying the text deliciously, accurately emphasizing the differences in characterization between the personages of the drama. The lyrical Marta (Natalia Karlova) contrasted emphatically with a Liza quivering on the verge of hysteria (Nadezhda Babintseva); the dramatic baritenor of Tadeusz (Dmitri Starodubov) created an ideal counterweight to the soft, though perhaps a bit too withdrawn tenor of Walter (Vladimir Cheberiak). The orchestra seasoned in Shostakovichian battles accurately underlined the ‘angularity’ of The Passenger’s score, but was able to retain the melancholy air associated with Bronka’s prayer in the Marian song Angelus ad Virginem missus; on the other hand, it was able to ‘deconstruct’ the waltz running through the entire opera so convincingly as to make it a symbol of the disintegration of Liza and Walter’s world, buckling under the load of wartime memories. The whole is supplemented by the choir, the peculiar collective protagonist of The Passenger, superbly prepared by Anzhelika Grozina.

When Wajnberg escaped to the USSR, a government official decided to change his name to Moisei. The composer waved his hand: ‘It can be Moisei, it can be Abram, as long as I can cross the border.’ In order to survive. The Passenger is an opera as much about the memory of Auschwitz as about survival strategy. In order to survive, sometimes one has to forget – one’s own name, one’s experiences as a camp guard, the tender touch of lovers separated by the war. In order to keep living, one has to recover that memory. Thanks to the efforts of the production team of the Ekaterinburg staging, Russia is beginning to recover its memory of Wajnberg. Let us hope that it learns to live with that memory.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Source: „Tygodnik Powszechny”

But there is neither East nor West…?

So what exactly is the Orient? Where does the West begin? Many great minds have pondered over this question and even I at one time added my own small contribution when writing that it depends – not only on one’s point of view but also on a point on the map that designates a place where one was destined to be born. Residents of our part of the continent tend to associate the Far East with Japan, China and the two Koreas, the British on the other hand – with arctic Chukotka, while to the French the Orient has associations with North Africa and what follows naturally, regions of Arab cultural influence. Consequently for them the East has ended up in the West, namely the Iberian Peninsular. Hence it would seem that the Orient lies not only to the east of the world as we know it, but beyond it.  We also rarely admit to ourselves that from a perspective of others our culture lies in the sphere of Asiatic influence – and very often Poland is perceived in this way, if only by Americans whom we so admire.

Perhaps such divisions are artificial? Perhaps they should be nipped in the bud during childhood, like my father did a long time ago when he sent me on my first independent holiday to his Armenian friend, whose family escaped from Dresden to the more culturally closer, almost “Constantinoplean” Sofia just before the Second World War. There were days when all I wanted was to be somewhere else. For how possibly could one stand being in a household where the host talks with his Egyptian mother (NB a soloist with the pre-war opera in Cairo) in German, with his wife in Bulgarian, with his sister in Armenian and with me in Russian? Meanwhile the elderly lady communicated with me exclusively in the language of Shakespeare, completing the impression of an accursed Tower of Babel, where one could only catch breath after supper once Alexander had bid his mother good night in her carpet-strewn bedroom and sat down at his white piano to play and sing arias from his favourite operettas. Suddenly we would find a common language.

Early music specialist Jordi Savall has turned his attention to the widely varied music of the Balkans. "For me," he says, "it's one of the most exciting projects that happened in the last 20 years."

Photo: David Ignaszewski.

Or perhaps it only seems that way. For on deeper reflection it transpires we are stretched between paradoxical extremes of perceiving – the East and the West. It would seem we share the fundamental view that perception defines discourse. According to world opinion we are supposedly guided by hearing rather than sight. However we tend to betray different perceptive habits, in some mysterious way associated with a culture we come from, though not necessarily the culture we were brought up in.

In the performance of music the most interesting question is that of “truth”, in other words fulfilling the postulate of “being faithful to the text”. For a person from the West a slavish faithfulness to a score is the antithesis of authenticity, proof of laziness or even cowardice on the part of the interpreter, who cannot be bothered to delve deeper into the meaning of the work. A person from the East believes in adhering to certain rules, calls for a return to a collection of conventions, to the original text and insists that the text itself resists arbitrariness on the part of the recipient, that it is never wholly open to interpretation, that some things are just not done.

Hence one can have a twofold approach to Jordi Savall’s and his Hesperion XXI ensemble’s project of East – West Dialogue of Souls, in which the musicians combine everything with everything; Jewish tradition with Muslim and Christian traditions; popular with religious music; instrumental with vocal. An improvisation on a theme of the Old Testament lament Song of Songs with La quarte estampie royal taken from a 13th century manuscript of French, Greek, Cypriot and Turkish folk music with songs of Sephardic Jews. Works based on maqamat, namely a system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music that however comes from the region of contemporary Romania and Moldova – with the Armenian lament Ene Sarere. Here we have a juxtaposition of various vocal traditions: Jewish, Turkish and Greek. In the ensembles we have marriages between an Armenian double-reed duduk and a Middle Eastern ney flute; a Persian oud lute and a Near Eastern sitar qanun; santoor cymbals of Indian origin and a medieval fidel and rebec.

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Photo: Sławek Przerwa.

Some will be tearing their hair out that Savall is rolling out compositions cohesive to the core, performed without an ounce of bravado in an old-fashioned performance manner associated with interpretations of period-performing dinosaurs of the 1970s, if only to mention the Munich-based Early Music Studio. That works drawn from Eastern traditions are intolerably “prettified” and stripped off their scales (suffice it to mention that Turkish classical music adheres to eighth-tones, namely intervals that differ approximately by a pythagorean comma, as a result of which their “half-tones” measure circa 90 cents and “whole” tones – 240).

Others will protest that Savall is no longer bothered with the realistically impossible utopian concept of musical truth, that influenced by personal tragedy and dramatic world events he has decided to pursue other ideals. A dream of unity between seemingly incompatible cultures and religions, unity that in his opinion is impossible to achieve through intellectual discourse. The only way of making this dream come true is through art, through the mentioned titular “dialogue of souls” that exploits a language in which the word plays an equally significant role as in the language of sound and explicitly respectful silence. Savall attempts to create a “spiritual counterweight” to the dramatic conflict between civilizations of the East and West. This he has tirelessly attempted to do since at least the beginning of the century, since the outbreak of the latest armed conflict in Afghanistan. He tries even harder in a reality where in headlines news the refugee drama vies for attention with the tragic victims of international terrorism.

The question is whether to trust or succumb to the defeatist quote from Kipling’s ballad (“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”)?  It would be better to first listen how a Jew talks with an Arab and a Turk with a Catalonian; perhaps in different languages but at least on the same subject.

Translated by: Anna Kaspszyk

Symphony of Rememberance

It all started on Yom Kippur – a day of atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Germans gathered thousands of Jews from Kiev and the surrounding regions.  They ordered them to report at a designated assembly-point with their valuables, money and a supply of warm clothes for a long journey. From there they started herding them in groups of a hundred towards a ravine called Babi Yar, overgrown with a thicket of alders and birches, running in a zig-zag between the settlements of Syrets and Lukyanovka on the outskirts of Kiev. It had once served as a campsite for soldiers, later becoming a burial ground. The ravine’s Jewish cemetery was officially closed in 1937. At the time there were already rumours that the NKVD used Babi Yar for burying victims of Stalin’s purges. Beneath the ground corpses were mounting, above ground the ravine was turning into a wasteland.

Yet its jaws had never devoured as many corpses as during the days between 29th September and 3rd October 1941. The Jews were stripped bare, laid down in rows among fallen leaves and shot in the back of the head; one group of ten after another, amid shouts from drunken SS men and Ukrainian policemen attempting to deafen with vodka any remnants of sensitivity.  During five days of uninterrupted slaughter 33,771 people were murdered. At least these are the numbers that feature in German reports. However, the executions continued right up to the Red Army’s liberation of Kiev. For two years from the memorable feast day of Yom Kippur, Babi Yar continued to function as a concentration camp for communists, prisoners of war and partisans, where Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Sinti and Roma Gypsies were shot. At least 70,000 people died in this overgrown ravine. With news of an imminent Russian counter-offensive, the Germans ordered prisoners to dig up the corpses and burn them on grates in the open air.  After the war the entire terrain was cordoned off so that victims of Stalin’s murders would not be unearthed. Then the site was turned into a park. The first memorials to the slaughter of Jews at Babi Yar were only erected after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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The execution site at Babi Yar. Photo: Yad Vashem Archives.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko already complained about their lack in 1961 in his poem Babi Yar, which opens with words that over the ravine there are no memorials – only a steep landslide akin to a crude tombstone. The poem appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta heralding the first signs of a literary thaw in the wake of Stalin’s death – on par with Solzhenitsyn’s novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Shostakovich’s imagination was moved to the core; he had originally intended to compose a piece, a type of a symphonic poem with solo bass, based on this work. Later, however, he came across another verse by Yevtushenko and changed his whole concept. In less than two months he composed four more movements – including one to texts specially commissioned from the poet – and enclosed the entire piece in a form reminiscent to a symphonic cantata rather than a choral symphony. In the composer’s list of works it features however as Symphony No. 13 in B-flat Major, op.113 subtitled ‘Babi Yar’ for bass or bass-baritone, bass choir and orchestra.

The first movement Adagio Babi Yar, the longest and most dramatic, calls to mind references to the tone painting present in the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) that was banned by Stalin. In the Mahlerian Scherzo Humour – witty and sardonic to the extreme – Shostakovich also alludes to Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in a gesture of sweet revenge for mocking his Leningrad Symphony in Concerto for Orchestra. The next Adagio, In the Store, takes on the form of an almost liturgical lament commemorating the hardships endured by women during the Great Patriotic War. The Largo Fears, set to verse commissioned by the composer, describes events of the Soviet repression in an exceptionally complicated musical language, which makes references to both his Symphony No.4 and later attempts of combining the tonal system with elements of serialism. The final Allegretto Career is a type of an artistic self-examination – maintained in a semi-ironic and grotesque tone with numerous references to Symphony No.3 and quartets from the turn of the 1940s.

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Shostakovich in 1961. Photo: Vsevolod Tarasevich.

Shostakovich completed work on the symphony on 20th July 1962, the day of his release from the hospital in Leningrad. On the evening of the same day he took a night train to Kiev in order to present the score to Boris Gmyrya, a retired soloist of the city’s opera whom he had chosen for the solo part. From there he returned to Leningrad for a meeting with Yevgeny Mravinsky, who was to conduct the work’s premiere. That was when all the trouble began.

In the spring Yevtushenko had given in to a wave of massed criticism regarding his work. He introduced significant changes to his poem Babi Yar, in some instances completely altering their tone (the phrase ‘I feel like a Jew wandering across ancient Egypt’ was altered to ‘I stand at the source that gives me faith in brotherhood’). Gmyrya withdrew from the project as a result of pressure from the local Communist Party committee. Mravinsky followed in his footsteps – albeit later claiming that he withdrew for purely personal reasons, which decision put an end to his long friendship with Shostakovich.

In the end, the work’s premiere was conducted by Kiril Kondrashin, with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Gnesin Institute Choir and Vitaly Gromadsky as soloist (18th December 1962). All did not go smoothly. In the last moment the TV broadcast was cancelled. Party dignitaries did not turn up for the work’s premiere. Nevertheless, the concert took place to a full hall and finished to a rousing ovation. Sadly the thaw had come to an end. After the next few performances, despite the introduction of successive changes to the text, Symphony No.13 was banned from performance in the USSR. It met with similar difficulties in other countries of the Eastern Bloc. Not until the fall of the great Red Bear was it once again included in the repertoires of great orchestras.

Translated by: Anna Kaspszyk

Herman Gone Mad

Anyone who has read Pushkin’s Queen of Spades is aware of how far Modest’s libretto departs from the prototype of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera. Pushkin’s Hermann is a repulsive cynic who merely pretends to love Lizavyeta Ivanovna in order to find out the Countess’ secret. His operatic counterpart hits bottom, torn between his feelings for Liza and his obsessive desire to get rich – in which he sees the only recipe for happiness and freedom. The one does not sit down at the table at the casino because he does not want to ‘sacrifice the essential in the hope of obtaining the superfluous’; the second does not play because he simply does not have the money to do so. The cowed Lizavyeta from the novella is only the old lady’s poor ward: having realized her own naïveté, her eyes fill with tears, she kicks the scoundrel out of the boudoir, proceeds to faint at the funeral and then disappear from the narrative, reappearing only during the epilogue, where the author explains that she ‘has married a very nice young man, who holds such-and-such a post and possesses a quite sizeable fortune.’ The proud Liza from the opera is the Countess’ granddaughter, engaged to a real, live prince, but despite that madly in love with the mysterious Herman, who divests her of all her illusions and drives her to suicide in the current of the Neva. Pushkin’s Hermann goes mad and spends the rest of his life in an insane asylum muttering the magic card formula under his breath. Tchaikovsky’s Herman shoots himself in the heart and dies with Liza’s image before his eyes, begging for forgiveness from Prince Yeletsky, whom the two of them had betrayed. The novella’s plot takes place in Pushkin’s era; the opera’s time frame has been moved back to the reign of Catherine the Great.

The divergences could be further multiplied, superficially to the disadvantage of the libretto of Queen of Spades, which many researchers have accused of dramaturgical incoherence and trivialization of the message of Pushkin’s novella. For the latter is indeed a masterpiece bespeaking masterful play with literary convention and with the reader, who remains in suspense to the very end as to what really happened, and what is a figment of the protagonist’s sick imagination. The reader must make a personal decision as to whether Tomsky’s story summing up the plot is a fairytale, a metaphor for the randomness governing human fortunes, a sharper’s anecdote about playing with marked cards, or perhaps all of the above at once. Besides, Pushkin knew what he was writing about: he himself was a passionate pharaoh player and, if we are to believe the reports of his contemporaries, he came a hair’s breadth one night from losing the fifth chapter of Eugene Onegin in a game with General Zagrazhsky.

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The finale of Scene III. Photo: Robert Workman.

It is no wonder, then, that the first attempts to ‘re-Pushkinize’ the opera were made less than forty years after Queen of Spades’ St. Petersburg world première. It is interesting, however, that in all of these attempts, a thread appeared that had nothing to do even with Pushkin’s narrative, let alone Tchaikovsky’s. Konstantin Stanislavsky – in his staging from 1928 – made Herman the victim of a ‘politically hostile’ idea that finally led him to madness and ruin. Vsevolod Meyerhold’s concept (1935 production) was born amid the atmosphere of the Stalinist great terror: his Herman is from the beginning a reject on the verge of a breakdown, going around the bend under the influence of his obsession with cards. Each era in theatrical history is governed by its own order (or law of chaos, depending on one’s viewpoint). Even though Queen of Spades has made its way into the worldwide repertoire against much more resistance than Onegin, one could write entire volumes about its interpretations by stage directors, including the most recent one by Stefan Herheim, who turned it into an autobiographical tale about a musician imprisoned in the cage of his own sexuality.

However, before we set out to correct Tchaikovsky’s opera, it is worthwhile to realize that Queen of Spades is a separate work and, in certain respects, even more multilayered than Pushkin’s prototype. The librettist and composer took on the risky task of combining the antihero of an Enlightenmentesque anecdote with a red-blooded human being – specifically, a Russian Romantic hero. The lishniy chelovek – a superfluous, worthless man – is the collective victim of repression by Tsar Nikolai I after the suppression of the Decembrist revolt, a young nobleman with no prospects in life, motivated by a delusive feeling of superiority and equally vain faith in the power of his own intellect. The protagonist of Eugene Onegin – but also of later works by Turgenev, Goncharov and Dostoyevsky – with whom most of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia sympathized, including Tchaikovsky. This is why the composer sobbed over ‘poor Herman’ as he finished writing the scene in which the suicide’s former friends bid him farewell with mournful song.

Appearances notwithstanding, the original idea of moving the narrative back to the era of Catherine the Great brings with it just as many incoherencies as later attempts to ‘restore’ Pushkin’s context to the opera (for example, the arietta from Grétry’s opera is at least half a century removed from the raptures of youth mentioned by the Countess). Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades draws on the treasury of tradition as much as it charges off into the future. Herman – even in an officer’s costume – is closer to Stavrogin and Verkhovensky from Dostoyevsky’s Demons than to the handsome boys as perfect as a painting of the great empress’ era. The musical narrative – despite the Mozartean pastiche in Act II – at times moves beyond Tchaikovsky’s era, for instance in Scene IV, where the composer builds up a mood of terror by using whole-tone scales. Let us add to this an entire arsenal of quotes, crypto-quotes and paraphrases, and spice it up with numerological symbolism (among other things, three acts, seven scenes and one Herman singing tirelessly throughout the entire work – in other words, a structural counterpart to the ‘three, seven, ace’ formula); and we get a work so complex that it is really not worthwhile to ‘enrich it’ via attempts to superimpose new meanings upon it.

The Queen of Spades - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Opera Holland Park - 2nd August 2016 Conductor - Peter Robinson Director - Rodula Gaitanou Designer - Cordelia Chisholm Lighting Designer - Simon Corder Choreographer - Jamie Neale Herman - Peter Wedd Lis

Three, seven, ace. Herman (Peter Wedd) finds out the secret of the three cards. Photo: Robert Workman.

Fortunately, it is this path that young stage director Rodula Gaitanou has followed in her debut on the stage of London’s Opera Holland Park in an atmosphere of great expectations (the creator of the previous staging in 2006 was Martin Lloyd-Evans). Her task was all the more difficult in that this summer theatre – excellently-designed, but nonetheless open-air, separated from a public park only by a thin layer of tent canvas – is not particularly friendly to performers, who must constantly struggle with noises from the wind, helicopters flying over the city and moorhens rooting about in the bushes wafting in from offstage. The conditions also distract the audience, who observe most of the show from an ‘auditorium’ enveloped in waning daylight. The decision to play out the entire action in a semicircular space highlighted by the rhythm of Classical arches, in which simple props appear sporadically (stage design by Cordelia Chisholm), turned out to be extraordinarily apt – especially in combination with the sensibly-placed lighting (Simon Corder) and dazzling beauty of the costumes. Gaitanou did not carry out any ‘re-Pushkinization’ of Queen of Spades, but rather set the narrative in the framework of our collective imagination of 19th-century Russia, naturally approaching chronologically the time when the opera was written. Despite everything, however, it is evident that she read Pushkin’s novella carefully and with understanding, and then proceeded to utilize this knowledge for the benefit of the production. First of all, she disoriented the audience, skillfully disrupting the superficially realistic theatrical convention with a growing number of interventions ‘from the hereafter’, to which no one paid any attention at the beginning, only to awaken in Scene V in a world of truly Goyaesque visions and nightmares. Secondly, she alluded to the memories of Pushkin fans who remember how Hermann grabbed Lizavyeta by the hand and then disappeared before the girl managed to recover from her terror; how he later imagined the ace (queen of spades?) in the form of a giant spider; how the door slammed in the entrance hall – all of these gestures and images found a convincing theatrical counterpart in her concept.

Unfortunately, she did not manage to play out the scenes that are absent from Pushkin in an equally flawless manner. The initial episode in the summer garden dragged on mercilessly; the ball in Act II did not manage to take on sufficient panache; the otherwise wittily-conceived ‘pastoral scene’ clearly stood out from the rest of the concept. The production only really swung into action after the intermission, placed by the organizers before the second scene of Act II. One of the most beautiful moments was Herman’s oneiric dance with the half-conscious Countess, whom the young officer caresses first from a distance, himself horrified, not knowing whether the old lady recognizes in him an old lover, an illegitimate son, or only her nemesis. Liza’s suicide looked equally promising until the director decided that the tormented lady-love would shoot herself with a pistol taken away from Herman – it would have sufficed to make do with the even so already-utilized ‘engulfing’ of the heroine by undulating draperies that, with the aid of skillfully-placed lighting, would have given a convincing illusion of the waves of the Neva closing over the suicide. This disappointment was recompensed by the daring scene in the gambling den, from the players’ decadent dances straight through to Herman’s death in the finale carried out on a tilted table in the worrisome company of two ghosts: Liza, dressed in a white wedding dress; and her saturnine guardian angel, in the person of the Countess.

The Queen of Spades - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Opera Holland Park - 2nd August 2016 Conductor - Peter Robinson Director - Rodula Gaitanou Designer - Cordelia Chisholm Lighting Designer - Simon Corder Choreographer - Jamie Neale Herman - Peter Wedd Lis

Liza (Natalya Romaniw) looks out for Herman on the banks of the Winter Canal. Photo: Robert Workman.

Gaitanou was clearly inclined towards the concept of Meyerhold, who imprinted his Herman with insanity from the very beginning of his production. Peter Wedd – after the beautifully-sung aria ‘Ya imyeni yeyo nye znayu’ – descended into madness too quickly, which weakened the internal tension of the later ‘Prosti, nyebesnoye sozdanye’, which in an ideal rendition lays bare the contrast between lyrical manipulation and the triumphal, indeed ecstatic feeling of a goal achieved. Fortunately, the man is an intelligent and tireless singer who, starting in Scene IV, built the dramaturgy of the character basically alone – with a voice consciously ‘dirtied’ in the middle register, overwhelming at the top of his range, as sonorous as a baritone in the low register, terrifying at the turning points in the plot. In the person of Natalya Romaniw (Liza), he found the perfect partner – the phenomenally-gifted Welsh singer has a true spinto soprano voice, full, round and dark in colour; she manages her phrasing with equal passion and musicality to that of her onstage lover, which found arresting expression in the duet from Act III, preceded by the heartbreaking monologue ‘Akh! istomilas ya goryem’, a resignation-laden lullaby for herself, a woman taking leave of an unfulfilled dream. The superbly-characterized Rosalind Plowright in the role of the Countess did not, unfortunately, manage to avoid falling into caricature: I grew up on the legendary performances of the Russian contraltos, among them Fayina Petrova and Nadezhda Obukhova, and I know that singing this role in a secure voice with balanced registers builds up considerably more terror than the most superb display of acting ability. Richard Burkhard (Tomsky), vocally accurate and conscious of his role, made a very good impression on me; Grant Doyle (Yeletsky) – none-too-authoritative, though impressive in his cultivated phrasing – somewhat less so. The scene in the gambling den was ‘stolen’ by Chekalinsky in the person of Aled Hall, one of the best British character tenors. Which does not change the fact that all previous impressions were eclipsed by Herman’s last aria ‘Shto nasha zhizn’ and the final scene of the protagonist’s death, filled out by a short, poignant a cappella chorus that literally closed the dead man’s eyes and left us with a feeling that in another world, the whole thing could have ended entirely differently.

For the superb choir, singing with vocal production worthy of the Bolshoi Theatre ensemble in Moscow in its best years under music director Rozhdzhestvensky, I shall spare no compliments. It was somewhat more difficult to get used to the orchestra’s playing under the baton of Peter Robinson, which made a wonderful impression in the ‘Classical’ pastiche passages, but lacked fullness of sound in the strings, the peculiarly ‘Russian’ breathing in long phrases and sufficient balance of proportions between the individual sections. I must admit, however, that in Scene IV – in musical terms probably the best in the entire performance – the woodwinds brought out details from this score that are not often heard on the world’s stages, and the obstinate sough of the violas against the background of the ominous pizzicato in the ’celli and double basses in the initial measures of the scene recompensed me even the anemic cantilena of the violins.

I was at the second performance of six – running with the same cast every two days, in immeasurably difficult acoustic conditions, at a summer opera ignored by most of my Polish professional colleagues. Featuring singers who give their all onstage. Most of them considerably better than the soloists in the aforementioned production from De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam under stage director Herheim. I shall allude again to Dostoyevsky and his Bobok in the translation of Constance Garnett: ‘I shall go to other tombs, I shall listen everywhere. Certainly one ought to listen everywhere and not merely at one spot in order to form an idea. […] But I shall certainly go back to those.’

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski