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

A Sentimental Journey

I love to wade many times into the same river. Perhaps because I was paying attention during my classes in ancient philosophy and I know that there is basically no way to wade into the same river even once, because by the time we are up to our knees in water, everything will already be different – the current will have flowed forward, the stones on the bottom will have shifted, our bodies will be covered in goose bumps. Observing these subtle Heraclitean changes has always attracted me more than wandering around the world in search of more and more new rivers, so I decided  – after last year’s enlightenment by Tristan – to return to Longborough for Tannhäuser and see what would happen this time.

It was a doubly sentimental journey for me, for it was thanks to Tannhäuser that I fell madly in love with Wagner and with opera in general. With the pure and naïve love of a fourth-grader who has signed up for the children’s choir at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre and, shortly thereafter, gone out onstage with the pilgrims’ choir in Act III. From that show, above all, I remembered my amazement that the rocks were made of some weird foam and gave way beneath each step. After that, I began to listen (this was back in the days when Poles were still able to, or at any rate wanted to play and sing Wagner). After the première, we purposely came to the theatre early to cheer on our colleague in the role of the Shepherd in Act I. After two years, I got a tiny role as a Page, so I got to know Act II inside out. Tannhäuser played 34 times in Warsaw, which meant an average of 8 shows per season. Enough to catch the Wagner bug and, by the end of primary school, hear the entire Ring on the same stage – and that, in the captivating rendition of Kungliga Operan in Stockholm, which appeared in Warsaw under the baton of none other than Berislav Klobučar. Those shows – visually tasteful, extraordinarily economical in form, growing out of the spirit of German Modernism – also formed my theatrical taste. Annelies Corrodi, the stage designer for the Warsaw Tannhäuser, learned her craft with Helmut Jürgens, who was associated with the Bayerische Staatsoper after the war. The stagers of the Swedish Tetralogy – Folke Abenius and Jan Brazda –  turned out to be imitators as faithful as they were intelligent of Wieland Wagner, the great reformer of Bayreuth.

So one can say that in my childhood, I had the good fortune of contact with authentic Wagner, interpreted in accordance with the composer’s intentions and with trust in the power of the music itself. No doubt this is why I yielded completely to the charm of the Longborough Festival Opera, a venue so modest that there is no way to imagine any kind of director’s orgy there; but most importantly, an opera led by the hand of a master who has many times now proven that he is one of the most superb Wagner conductors on the planet. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), Anthony Negus is entirely content with his position at Longborough; he makes no recordings, chooses the (often unknown) singers himself, and counts on a handful of enthusiasts who will come out to the Cotswolds to acquaint themselves with the fleeting effect of his work at a countryside Bayreuth converted from a chicken farm.

Neal Cooper and Alison Kettlewell in Tannhauser c. Matthew Williams-Ellis

Alison Kettlewell (Venus) and Neal Cooper (Tannhäuser). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Tannhäuser, despite being placed chronologically between Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, touches upon themes characteristic of Wagner’s mature œuvre: deliverance through love, conflict between the earthly world of the senses and the transcendent world of ideas, between religion and the sphere of the profane. The composer made corrections to the opera several times, and reportedly even so died in the conviction that he still owed the world the ‘real’ Tannhäuser. Tracking the sometimes small, but sometimes essential differences among the original Dresden version, the Paris version of 16 years later and the hybrid Viennese version of 1875 opens up a broad field for interpretation. With whom did Wagner actually identify? With the mysterious title character whose fervent ‘Busslied’, i.e. ‘Song of Atonement’, became a point of departure for the later legend of the knight seduced by Venus? With Wolfram von Eschenbach, one of the greatest masters of medieval epic poetry, who provided him with the inspiration for LohengrinParsifal and indirectly also Tristan? Or perhaps with the peerless lyric poet Walther von der Vogelweide, the most distinguished representative of Minnesang, whom Wagner for some reason pushed into the background of the singers’ contest at Wartburg Castle? Why does the innocent Elisabeth choose Tannhäuser, not Wolfram, who so beautifully sets forth the essence of courtly love in his song ‘Blick ich umher in diesem edlen Kreise’? A certain clue is tossed out by the composer himself in removing Walther’s solo from the Paris version of Act II, as if it were important to him to emphasize the contrast between spiritual and sensual desire, and to load the entire conflict onto the shoulders of the two main male protagonists. Tannhäuser is equally as fractured and ambiguous as the life story of Wagner himself; the characters appearing in it, multidimensional; the music accompanying them, full of contradictions and harshly conflicting symbols.

Erika Mädi Jones and Neal Cooper in Tannhauser, c. Matthew Williams-Ellis

Erika Mädi Jones (Elisabeth) and Neal Cooper (Tannhäuser). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

I came to Longborough for a dress rehearsal that went reasonably smoothly, not counting the forced technical break in Act I and the ensuing slight nervousness among the performers, who pulled themselves together in a flash after two decisive interventions by the conductor. The musical narrative pressed inexorably forward from the first measures of the overture, not at all because of brisk tempi – rather because of lyrical motifs meticulously brought into the foreground and clear tutti chords, all underlined by exquisite articulation, especially in the strings. Negus conducts the Wagnerian orchestra like a chamber ensemble, not hesitating to use ‘old-fashioned’ portamenti, subtle tempo fluctuations, expression-laden changes in dynamics, bringing to mind the legendary recordings under the baton of Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter.

He requires a similar passion – which should in no way be confused with a forcing of the volume – from his singers, who are meticulously selected not only in terms of vocal capabilities, but also voice colour and skill in building convincing characters. The title role was played by Neal Cooper, who a few weeks before had gone onstage in Act III of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden as an emergency substitute for the indisposed Peter Seiffert. Cooper has a powerful voice of characteristic colour – quite rough and gravelly, sometimes indeed aggressive, sometimes shockingly seductive – in short, ideally fitting for the role of an internally inconsistent man inspiring extreme emotions. His trump card is exquisite German and a perfect feel for the text, thanks to which the ‘Rom-Erzählung’ was transformed into a monologue based on an ideal unity of music and word, evolving from complaint to derisive fury to dull despair. The only other thing I needed for complete satisfaction was a softer polishing of phrases and a certain dose of lyricism, which I got with interest from Hrólfur Saemundsson in the role of Wolfram. The Icelandic singer had a not-too-big, but very wisely used, deep-sounding baritone – it had been a long time since I had heard an ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ in which nothing was lacking either at the top or at the bottom. The true revelation of the evening turned out to be Erika Mädi Jones (Elisabeth) – a dark, purebred jugendlich dramatischer Sopran, still a tad insecure in terms of intonation, but with such power of expression that after her ‘Haltet ein!’ in Act II, half the audience was sobbing. It took Alison Kettlewell (Venus) a little longer to hit her stride; her singing annoyed me a bit at the beginning with its too-harsh transitions between registers; but I have to admit that her authoritative, sensual voice creates a superb contrast with the vocal image of the innocent Elisabeth. There were basically no weaknesses in the cast; the 20-odd-person choir sounded cleaner and more powerful than not a few jaded opera ensembles three times its size.

Neal Cooper as Tannhauser, Hrólfur SĹmundsson c. Matthew Williams-Ellis

Hrólfur Saemundsson (Wolfram) and Neal Cooper. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

The staging was prepared by the same team that had previously been involved in the production of the entire Ring at Longborough: Alan Privett (stage director), Kjell Torriset (stage designer) and Ben Ormerod (lighting designer). British critics, enamored of more visually spectacular presentations, again grumbled about the cottage character of this production, which sometimes indeed gave one the impression that the working people of the surrounding cities and villages had been employed for it. I myself have to admit that in comparison with the ascetic vision of Tristan, built basically just with lighting, the concept for Tannhäuser was lacking in coherence and consistency. I also was not convinced by the pantomime played to the sounds of the overture, featuring Wagner submerged in a creative ferment and his wife Minna trying unsuccessfully to make contact with him. The singers’ contest at Wartburg Castle, however, was seductive not only in the beauty of its imagery, but also in its excellent handling of the characters. I also forgave the creators the lack of a pilgrim’s walking stick turned green when an enormous thurible began to swing across the stage – a clear and legible sign of the protagonist’s final transfiguration.

Now all I can do is dream. That I will live to hear Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Parsifal or Lohengrin under the baton of this wizard. Anthony Negus restores the human dimension to Wagner’s music, stripping it of dull pomposity, revealing its relationships with tradition and perverse play with 19th-century contemporaneity. He recreates live what was lost in the technically imperfect recordings, destroyed by the passing years, of earlier masters. He awakens dormant faith in the power of the score, in the truth of the feelings contained therein. In a year, Tristan will be revived. Yet again, it will be necessary to wade into the same river. As Szymborska wrote (here in translation by Stanisław Barańczak): ‘Nothing can ever happen twice. / In consequence, the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice.’

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski.

Die Aussicht frei, der Geist erhoben

Gustav Mahler wrote his Symphony no. 8 as if the Creator Spirit itself had filled him. He composed it in the peace and quiet of his ‘hut’ near the hamlet of Maiernigg, at the edge of the Carinthian Wörthersee – in the same place where his Rückert-Lieder, Kindertotenlieder and previous symphonies starting with no. 4 had been written. This time, however, he worked at an insane tempo. He arrived in Maiernigg in June 1906 to make essential corrections to the orchestration of Symphony no. 7. In a sudden burst of inspiration, however, he ended up focusing on a new piece which he intended from the very beginning to open with the 9th-century hymn ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’, which is performed during the liturgy for Pentecost, among other occasions. The original plan to create a reasonably traditional four-movement symphony quickly gave way to the idea of a work ‘so peculiar in content in form that there is no way to describe it directly’. The three subsequent segments merged into a powerful, separate movement based on the text of the last scene from Goethe’s Faust, in which the cleansing of the protagonist is fully realized: after death, the time for action ceases, the time comes to accept the gift of love – in all of its manifestations, evolving however from the earthly, sensual love enclosed in words and images, through all kinds of higher forms, up to its final fulfillment, in which it approaches the ‘unspeakable’. In the Eighth, later called the Symphony of a Thousand by virtue of its enormous performance ensemble, the religious sphere rubs shoulders with the human, even in the purely musical sphere. In the first movement, the Creator Spirit comes down to earth – with the descending fourth in the initial ‘Veni’. The penitent souls in the second movement rise ever closer to Heaven on the same notes – this time, however, ascending. The prayerful key of E-flat major collides with the ecstatic, passionate, extremely distant key of E major. The Gregorian hymn, which in Mahler’s rendition has taken on all of the characteristics of a motet – with a powerful double fugue set in the Bach tradition – finds a peculiar development and recapitulation in the ‘Faust’ movement. The plea for heavenly grace will be fulfilled by the redeeming power of love. Superficially contradictory visions of the hereafter will come together in the form of a universal desire for the greatest good.

And wonders never cease: for the audience at the Munich world première in 1910, all of these ideas were considerably more intelligible than for contemporary listeners. The work scored a staggering success incomparable with the reception of any of Mahler’s other compositions. It disturbed no one that in this concept of awesome proportions, the orchestral song merged imperceptibly into a cantata, that the masterful combination of musical forms does not permit one to determine whether it is still an oratorio, or perhaps now an opera, or perhaps yet something else. Mahler exhausted the limits of the choral symphony, just as Pérotin had previously brought the evolution of organum to its end. After that, there was nowhere else to go. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Eighth was to find so many enemies in the future, accusing the composer of gigantomania, cheap optimism, a predilection for kitsch and a triumph of expression over content. It was recorded with reluctance and performed rarely – not only because of the logistical problems in putting together a colossal orchestra, three choral ensembles and eight soloists, but also on account of the difficulty in weighing the sound proportions of this behemoth. In the massive tutti passages, the subtleties of the orchestration were often lost; singers able to pierce through the unrelenting wall of sound often possessed voices as sonorous as they were hideous in tone color. Even in my favorite recording with the London Philharmonic under the baton of Klaus Tennstedt (with excellent soloists, among them Jadwiga Rappé), there are flaws in intonation, and the whole leaves an impression of dissatisfaction with the sound in the choruses. Interestingly, what still makes the best impression is discs recorded live – as if this riveting musical confession of faith resisted all attempts at sober calculation.

This time, I had an unusual opportunity – three days before the dress rehearsal for Tannhäuser in Longborough (about which I shall write shortly), the combined ensembles of the Opera North orchestra, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Leeds Festival Chorus, Bradford Catholic Youth Choir and soloists – who without exception had participated in this year’s complete rendition of the Wagner Ring cycle, or in one of the previous ‘segments’ of this endeavor realized by Opera North in the period from 2011 to 2014 – gave us the Eighth under the baton of David Hill. In a hall of equally tremendous proportions to the symphony itself – the auditorium of Leeds Town Hall, described brilliantly in Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman, longtime department of sociology chairman at the University there. The monstrous Town Hall building, erected in the 1850s according to a design by Cuthbert Brodrick, was until recently not only the most magnificent, but also the tallest building in Leeds: a brick-and-mortar symbol of the progress, work ethic and timeless values of the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, its interior houses the largest three-manual organ in Europe. It is difficult to imagine better conditions for a performance of the Symphony of a Thousand – despite the quite capricious acoustics of this hall, recently improved by the installation of a multi-segmented canopy over the stage but remaining, to put it delicately, none too selective. I also had high expectations from the concept of Hill, a distinguished organist and conductor with enormous choral experience.

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Interior of Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Magdalena Romańska.

For the most part, my expectations were fulfilled. After well over ten years of work with Richard Farnes, the Opera North orchestra – the only ensemble in the British Isles that combines opera and concert activity throughout the entire season – plays with a gorgeous, round and simultaneously fresh sound, retaining extraordinary sensitivity to all manner of changes in dynamics and tempo. What I missed with Tennstedt – that is, complete engagement and a juicy sound in the choruses – I got with interest from David Hill, who effectively emboldened not only the little singers from the Bradford Catholic Youth Choir, but also the members of the festival choir, not to mention his own ensemble, the Leeds Philharmonic. Hill conducted at quite fast tempi, very skillfully building and releasing the culminations, beautifully layering the texture and emphasizing the details of the intricate polyphony.

However, he did not manage to seal up the apparent break between the two movements of the symphony – indeed, if anything, he widened the gap with his management of the pause between the Latin hymn and the ‘secular’ final scene from Faust. Frankly, I got the impression that he had treated the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ a bit dismissively, as it were not perceiving the subtle play with the musical material of the two movements which is essential to combine Mahler’s concept into a single whole. More importantly, however, he did not take care to balance the sound proportions in the solo ensemble, which fell apart into a female group decidedly more audible but of less sensitive musicianship, and three male voices singing with beautiful tone color and superbly polished phrasing, but often drowned out in the tutti passages. The intonation slip-ups and excessive vibrato of soprano Lee Bisset, I will chalk up to her recently having given birth and had a difficult last season; it is more difficult for me to reconcile myself to the screaming high notes and stentorian manner of Katherine Broderick – who was, judging from the reviews, highly rated by the local critics. The indisposed Kate Valentine in the role of Una Poenitentium was substituted at the last minute by Paula Sides – a singer experienced in the Baroque repertoire – with a nevertheless superb result. Of the three anchorites in the second movement, I was a bit disappointed by Andrew Foster-Williams (Pater Ecstaticus), one of my favorite British baritones, who performed his short solo in a very cultured manner, but with a clearly tired voice. A better impression was made by Michael Druiett (Pater Profundus), gifted with a charming, velvety bass-baritone with a beautifully open top register – though he too sang, as it were, without conviction. Peter Wedd (Pater Marianus), as usual, saved up reserves for the end – his ‘Blicket auf’ floated in a truly ‘enraptured’ manner, carried out with ardent yet highly lyrical phrasing, in an ideally controlled, meaty-sounding voice.

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During one of rehearsals for the concert. Photo: Leeds Philharmonic Chorus.

All of this, however, was repaid by the final ‘Chorus Mysticus’, which built up here, subsided there, leapt upward, sat down on the slope of a mountain ravine, and finally exploded in ecstatic praise to the Eternal Feminine and merged with the recurring ‘Veni Creator’ motif. All that was lost in us here is corrected.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski

Fifty-five Dress Rehearsals for Death

I am proud to announce that my website has just been awarded the Polish Music Critics ‚Kropka’ Award – given for the text published almost a year ago, just after the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Today marks the 73. anniversary of this event, one of the most remarkable acts of resistance in World War II. Hereby I repost my essay in English, to perpetuate the memory of all children perished in the Holocaust.

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In November 1941, Heinrich Himmler issued a command to close the Austrian fortress in Terezín – which two years previously had found itself within the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, occupied by the Third Reich – and transform it into a Jewish ghetto, with the transition camp already active since 1940 integrated into the defensive wall system. Nazi propaganda presented Theresienstadt as a model ghetto, the pattern for a modern Jewish settlement – indeed, a ‘family camp’ (Familienlager). Rumors spreading to the effect that the city was serving as a gigantic concentration camp were denied in every possible way. When a transport of about 500 Jews from Denmark arrived in Terezín and activists from the Danish Red Cross categorically demanded an inspection, the Germans agreed to it and proceeded to quickly ‘clean up’ the ghetto. They painted some of the rooms, sealed others off from the guests, arranged a few extra transports to Auschwitz in order to – at least for the moment – limit overpopulation; after that, they took up closer supervision of the inhabitants’ cultural activity. There was no need to encourage anyone to take part in the latter – at that time, the ghetto’s residents included the elite of Jewish political, cultural and academic life.

The Danes left Terezín completely satisfied, having discerned no improprieties in the camp’s management. The Germans continued the momentum: they instructed one of the prisoners, Kurt Gerron, who ran the Karussell cabaret there, to make a propaganda film about the life of the local Jewish community. They assured Gerron that not a hair would fall from his head. The filming lasted eleven days and ended in mid-September 1944. The promise was not kept: both the director and most of the endeavor’s participants captured on film were taken away to Auschwitz and gassed. The first showing of the edited material, intended for high-ranking state officials and SS members, took place in April of the next year. In succeeding weeks, the film reached the hands of representatives of several international humanitarian organizations. On 3 May, the camp found itself under the control of the Red Cross; five days later, the Red Army entered the fortress. The propaganda ‘document’ was almost completely destroyed. About 20 minutes of the film survived – among others, shots from a performance of Pavel Haas’ Studie for string instruments under the baton of Karel Ančerl; fragments from a performance of the Ghetto Swingers jazz band; and the final scenes from Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár.

Krása was the son of a Czech lawyer and a German Jewish woman. A violinist, pianist and composer educated in Prague and Berlin (a student of, among others, Zemlinsky and Roussell), he composed this little 40-minute work in 1938, in collaboration with librettist Adolf Hoffmeister, for a competition of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education. The results were never announced: the German army entered Prague a few months before the competition’s expected adjudication. In 1941, Krása placed the notated materials in the hands of the Jewish war orphans’ home on Belgická street in the Vinohrady district of Prague, where in the winter of 1942, the première of Brundibár took place under the baton of Rudolph Freudenfeld, with simple scenery and costumes designed by František Zelenka, and with Gideon Klein at the piano, along with a violinist and percussionist whose names I have not managed to find. The composer did not take part in this event: arrested on 10 August 1942, he ended up in Theresienstadt, where he became the ‘music man’ as part of the camp’s Freizeitgestaltung, the organization of his co-prisoners’ free time. Soon thereafter, nearly all of the creators and performers of the Prague show joined him there. Freudenfeld managed to smuggle in a piano reduction in his baggage, on the basis of which Krása re-orchestrated the opera, adapting it to the resources of the local instrumental ensemble.

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Hans Krása listens to a concert conducted by Ančerl; Theresienstadt, 1943.

The story of Aninka and Pepíček – a pair of siblings orphaned by their father who have to get fresh milk for their sick mother, but have no money, so they follow in the footsteps of the street organ-grinder Brundibár (a big, fat Bumblebee) and try to earn money for their purchases by singing – is basically a quite simple and in principle universal tale of the victory of good over evil. Inspired by Hansel and Gretel and The Town Musicians of Bremen of the Brothers Grimm, compared in a somewhat exaggerated manner by later interpreters with Aristophanes’ pacifist Lysistrata, it took on entirely new meanings in Theresienstadt and grew to the stature of a symbol of the vicissitudes of Jewish life. The mustachioed organ-grinder, who at first chases away the competitors, then tries to rob them, became a figure of the hated Hitler. The brave sparrow, the clever cat, the wise dog and the band of city children – these served as a metaphor for a close-knit community that effectively faces violence and restores the old world order. The realizers introduced characteristic corrections into the libretto: the condition for joining the group of intrepid defenders of good became courage and love of justice – in the place of the original love of homeland and obedience to parents. Brundibár was played in Terezín fifty-five times. Real fights broke out over tickets to the shows. The child performers of the lead roles enjoyed great respect among their peers.

The young viewers sought to forget themselves in the theater, grabbed the simple, tuneful melodies from out in the audience, fed themselves with the delusive hope that in this resounding allegory, there lay at least some small grain of truth. Meanwhile, new faces were continually appearing in the 40-person choir, because previous performers had fallen victim to illness, chronic malnutrition, departed from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and to Trostinets (near Minsk) in transports from which there was no return. They cheered their heroes: the peerless Honza Treichlinger in the title role, Pinta Mühlstein and Greta Hofmeister in the roles of Pepíček and Aninka. However ghastly this may sound, they waited their turn, knowing that at any moment, they might join the ranks of the decimated choir or join the elite group of soloists in Brundibár.

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After a showing of Brundibár. In the middle, Honza Treichlinger, creator of the title role; at his left hand, Ela Stein-Weissberger (the Cat)

Some managed to escape from this hell. Ela Stein-Weissberger, performer of the role of the Cat in all (or nearly all, as some witnesses claim) of the shows in Terezín, lived to see the camp liberated; she emigrated to Israel, then to New York, where she lives to this day and actively takes part in post-war attempts to revive Brundibár and sustain the memory of her fellow child performers in the opera. Little Rafi Herz-Sommer, creator of the role of the Sparrow, was barely eight years old at the moment when the Theresienstadt camp was liberated. His father, ’cellist Leopold Sommer, had died a year previously at Dachau. In 1945, the orphaned boy returned to Prague with his mother, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, with whom he emigrated to Jerusalem four years later. He finally settled in England and gained renown as Raphaël Sommer, a ’cello virtuoso, distinguished pedagogue and organizer of musical life. He died in 2001 – his mother survived him by thirteen years and died a few months after her 110th birthday, as the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world.

Honza Treichlinger was not so lucky. He died at Auschwitz along with most of the children’s choir members, the show’s stage director Emil Saudek and the aforementioned Kurt Gerron. Hans Krása left Theresienstadt in the same transport as three other composer friends: Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, the latter of whom had accompanied the performers of the world première in the Vinohrady district of Prague. All except for Klein were gassed in the second half of October 1944. Klein died in January of the next year, not having lived to see the end of the war.

Someone will say that the memory of them all lives on in the score of Brundibár. Their death was, however, terrible, futile and senseless. The only comfort is the hope that participation in the Terezín shows anesthetized them to that death, alleviated the premonition of their end. Velimir Khlebnikov wrote about suns that die by fading away; grass that dies by drying out; horses that die by quietly drawing their last breath; and people that die by singing songs. The children at Theresienstadt died singing a song about friendship that overthrows tyrants.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski.

The Silence of the Mermaids

Before the Glasgow première of Rusalka, the local press announced the grand return of Dvořák’s masterpiece after over half a century’s absence from the stages of Scotland. This is a somewhat misleading statement, because Scottish experiences are limited to five shows – and those, given by the ensemble of the National Theatre in Prague as part of a grand review of Czech operas at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964. Aside from Rusalka, the Scots also encountered Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová for the first time. The remaining works, From the House of the Dead by the latter composer, along with Smetana’s Dalibor and Cikker’s Resurrection, were completely unknown in the British Isles. Forasmuch as Janáček’s legacy – in large measure thanks to the later efforts of Sir Charles Mackerras – gained a broad audience of British fans and set forth from there to conquer stages all over the world, Rusalka – which was, after all, composed at the same time as Jenůfa – finally gained universal recognition only less than 20 years ago; and even so, it is not a frequent guest in the repertoire of the great opera houses. This is partly by virtue of the staggering technical difficulties presented to the performers in the lead roles; but above all, on account of the gap between the relatively conservative score and the extremely Modernist libretto abounding in symbols and hidden meanings. Stage directors unaware of these riches either present the opera in the spirit of a naïve, though gloomy fairytale for adults, or attempt to set the conflict outlined in it in a contemporary context, which results in a stylization of the title character as a prostitute kidnapped from a bordello, or as the repressed victim of a pedophile.

Meanwhile, Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto – aside from its numerous references to Andersen, Friedrich Fouqué and the Melusine legends – also draws inspiration from the fairytale-naturalistic plays of Hauptmann and the late, symbolist œuvre of Ibsen. Kvapil had already touched upon the clash of two world orders previously, in his own dramas. He was a superb stage director, one of the pioneers of Czech Modernist theatre. His Rusalka, brilliantly constructed in the linguistic and dramaturgical planes, is a masterpiece unto itself, betraying an odd kinship with the œuvre of Oscar Wilde. It is a fairytale about lovers imprisoned not between reality and the realm of magic, but rather between life and death. It is a tale of the futility of all kind of sacrifices, always made at the wrong time – a pessimistic and decadent tale, but one not devoid of the grotesque or of black humor. In other words, it displays the literary face of Eastern European Modernism, cut by the blade of plebeian wit and reflected in the dark depths of a fairytale lake.

After previous experience with the theatre of Antony McDonald, who is also – and perhaps above all – a stage designer sensitive to and conscious of tradition, I had no doubt that his concept would get to the bottom of this grim story. I did not expect, however, that it would do so with such power. The director has introduced a few important changes to the Grange Park Opera staging (2008) now being revived in Glasgow; but even back then, he garnered praise for his faithfulness to the text and the perspicacity with which he transferred the content of the score and libretto to the stage without imposing new meanings upon them. I was convinced of the rightness of these compliments already during the overture, which was illustrated with a Terry Gilliam-style collage animation. The ‘upside-down mermaid’ lying at the bottom of the lake, a creature with the head of a fish and the legs and bare loins of a woman, came straight from Magritte’s canvas entitled L’Invention collective. The Surrealist painting from 1934 clearly reflects what is most important in Rusalka: the reversal of the fairytale order of things. Let us prepare for the tale of a water nymph who, to her own undoing, allows herself to be beguiled by a human being.

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Anne Sophie Duprels as Rusalka, Peter Wedd as The Prince. Photo: James Glossop.

In his stagings, McDonald likes to allude to the context in which a work was written. This time, he passed his vision through a filter of Modernist aesthetics. The forest of tilted tree trunks and the lake suggested by black, immobile waves emerging from a trapdoor is inevitably associated with German Expressionism, but also with the legendary Prague stage designs of Vlastislav Hofman from the 1920s. The gloomy draperies, the antlers hung beneath the ceiling around the ballroom, and even the characteristic chairs in Act II are, as it were, taken straight from his later designs for Ostrovsky’s The Forest at the National Theatre. The Prince’s retinue parades about in Austrian hunting costumes; the ladies at the wedding-that-never-happened have Klimt-like hairstyles. The drastic transformation of Rusalka the Mermaid into a woman takes place at the home of Ježibaba – we figure out the details for ourselves from the shadows crawling over the walls and the bucket of blood poured afterwards into the lake. The protagonist loses her power of speech and her fish tail; she does not, however, completely lose her previous identity. The image of a fish’s body torments her at every step: in the witch’s dress, laced up in a manner resembling a fish’s spine; in the Foreign Princess’ bright red creation that makes her look like a salmon swimming upstream to the spawning ground; in the ghostly pictures from the Prince’s kitchen, where the servants dress absolutely real mackerels, gutting them in bloody gloves.

The rest plays out in a sphere of precisely-polished theatrical symbols. The doctor called to attend to Rusalka is astounded to discover that the patient lacks knee reflexes. The Prince places his hand on her forehead several times – in a reversed gesture of parental care for a feverish child. While preparing for the wedding, Rusalka spends too much time enjoying a bath in the tab, and when dragged out of the water, she stretches out like a fish caught on a hook. Covered with a veil, she falls into a panic and struggles as if in a net. The artificiality of the human world finds clear reflection in the famous polonaise – danced with wine glasses, napkins and soup spoons by the guests gathered at the table; and the sincerity of the wood sprites’ world, in their lascivious, carefree and… sprightly dances (choreographed by Lucy Burge), which are not interrupted even by Rusalka’s tragedy.

What makes the greatest impression, however, is the final duet. It appears that McDonald was aware of a strange – though perhaps only superficial – flaw in Kvapil’s libretto. By what miracle does the Prince hear Rusalka, since Ježibaba has not removed the curse from her? It may be that he actually doesn’t hear her at all. Perhaps he only carries on with his mad monologue and, unable to wait for a response, answers himself. Rusalka – now dressed in white and in a snow-white wig – keeps her distance from the Prince. Finally, she gives up and, with a facial expression of which the Snow Queen herself would be proud, kisses him violently on the lips. The Prince goes limp, falls to the ground, assuring her that he is dying a happy man; but even at such a moment, he will not know the passionate embrace of his chosen lady. The phenomenally-arranged stage lighting (Wolfgang Goebbel) sucks the rest of the blood out of both of them. The demon of death departs.

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Peter Wedd as The Prince. Photo: James Glossop.

Stuart Stratford, named artistic director of the Scottish Opera nearly a year ago, has only now decided to prepare a production under his own baton. The conductor, who after studying at Cambridge with David Parry spent three years honing his craft under the watchful eye of the legendary Ilya Musin in St. Petersburg, has a superb feel for the Slavic opera idiom. One could even say that at moments, he feels it too well – delighting in the velvety sound of the strings and the subtle, slightly hazy sound of the wind instruments, he sometimes dragged the tempi excessively, putting the singers’ capabilities to a difficult test. We should remember, however, that in the fragments in which the orchestra’s work plays a momentous role – for instance, in the famous ‘duet’ of the Prince and Rusalka at the end of Act I, where Dvořák threw the entire weight of the title character’s muteness onto the shoulders of the instrumentalists, but especially in the opera’s cathartic finale, with the frustrated yearning motif played in retrograde by fortissimo brass – the brilliantly skillful accumulation and release of tension was impressive. Stratford has a very vivid sonic imagination and is able to convey his intentions to the orchestra, which in the case of a work sparkling with such a rich harmonic language is inestimable.

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Lucy Mae Lowndes, Federica Esposito and Emma Laister as Dancing Dryads. Photo: James Glossop.

Another advantage of the Scottish Rusalka is the superb cast, although I am sorry to have to admit that its weakest link turned out to be the performer of the title role. Anne Sophie Duprels has the perfect look for this role, her acting technique is also impressive, but her otherwise pretty soprano voice is decidedly too ‘thin’, and her attempts to artificially darken her voice – without sufficient support – resulted in problems with intonation and excessive vibrato, particularly severe in the famous aria ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém’. The ladies who played Ježibaba and the Foreign Princess came out decidedly better. The experienced and technically splendid Leah-Marian Jones  created a witch bordering on caricature, without violating the rules of good taste. Natalya Romaniw in the part of the calculating seductress displayed all the values of a powerful and yet clear, rounded soprano voice. In a class unto himself was Sir Willard White (Vodník) – one of the most distinguished bass-baritones of the 20th century, now 70 years old, who from act to act built a clearer and clearer, more and more tragic characterization of Rusalka’s father – the most human of the non-human protagonists of this drama. Also deserving of favorable mention are singers cast in supporting roles, especially Julian Hubbard (the Gamekeeper), who is departing from the baritone repertoire in the direction of tenor roles – the young singer has not only a charming voice and quite nice technique, but also an extraordinary sense of humor. The great revelation, however, was Peter Wedd. Throughout last season, he consistently worked on the depth of sound and volume essential for the role of Tristan; thus, I was initially concerned about whether he would be able to keep his now fully-Wagnerian voice under control in the role of the Prince – a heroic role, but one requiring a large dose of lyricism and, above all, a large range. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be groundless. Wedd has a feel for Dvořák’s peculiarly ‘Slavic’ phrasing, and his breathing technique works perfectly: he does not attack the high notes, but rather draws them out gradually, according to the logic of the musical process. His greatest asset is a secure, golden middle range, from which he fluidly, almost imperceptibly moves into other registers. One has to be a first-rate artist to sing this role at all – Wedd has polished it in its tiniest details, chiseling the individual sentences like a woodcarver. Hearing his ‘umírám ve tvém objetí’, not a few of his professional colleagues would turn green with envy.

The Scottish Opera’s latest production is yet more evidence that masterpieces do not need reformers – rather wise, humble servants. Sometimes it is worthwhile to go outside the bounds of one’s own ego and find more interesting things in the score itself.

Translated by: Karol Thornton-Remiszewski