A God That Listeneth Not

The occasional tourists who stray off the main route and reach Monieux in the Provençal department of Vaucluse are not likely to spend more than a few hours there. Having seen the vestiges of old fortifications and guard tower, having visited the Romanesque church of Saint-Pierre, and ventured into some picturesque backstreets – they will proceed on their way, possibly carrying off a pouch of lavender, a piece of sheep’s cheese, or a jar of honey from a local apiary in their rucksacks. There is plenty more to see in the area, from the Nesque River gorges to the soaring limestone peak of Mont Ventoux, towering above the entire delta of the Rhône. A writer, however, will look at Monieux with a different eye, especially once he has taken the fateful decision to settle there. Stefan Hertmans (for he is meant here), also known in Poland for, among others, his daring novel War and Turpentine, resolved to settle into the local community, to develop an intimate relation with the landscape, get a feel for the flavours of sun-scorched rosemary and thyme, and hearken to the voices of the past. Local legends and neighbours’ tales inspired him to explore by himself. With time, this became his creative obsession. Hertmans began to see ghosts in the waking state. He gave them names and realised the meanings of their journey. Rummaging through sources and supported by his own imagination, he reconstructed the complicated life story of a woman who had reportedly lived in that commune a thousand years before. This led to the publication, three years after War and Turpentine, of his next book, De bekeerlinge (2016), which soon came out in English as The Convert.

The book is neither a fictionalized documentary nor a historical novel. Hertmans’ narrative unfolds on several planes – temporal, spatial, and emotional. It takes us back to a time when, after a long period of relatively peaceful co-existence between Jews and Christians, something began to go wrong. It was the time of the first separate settlements, originally built on the initiative of both communities; the time of the early expulsions, and of massacres of the Jewish population in the years of the first and only successful crusade. The author remains in the present, recounting – in the convention of a meta-story – his own effort to come to grips with the town’s past and his countless attempts to solve its mystery. These two layers are bound by the surprisingly durable mortar of sensations and sensory experience. Descriptions of unimaginable suffering appear side by side with poetic images of beauty, while life smoothly passes into death, and vice versa. The world has not changed in the last thousand years; this is bad news. A pretext will always be found to crush the Other like a bug and to deprive him or her of their humanity. The world has not changed in the last thousand years; this is good news. Burnt down and gutted, it keeps arising from the ashes, and invariably it smells of thyme and honey, restoring, be it for a brief moment, the lost hope for a better tomorrow.

Details no longer count in this story. Hertmans makes no effort to conceal that he based his tale of the eponymous convert on flimsy evidence. Most researchers reject Norman Golb’s thesis that the toponym MNYW (appearing in one of the documents found in the Cairo Genizah, the storeroom in which worn-out or no longer used text from the Ben Ezra Synagogue were “buried”) refers to Monieux, in its medieval spelling as Moniou. There is much to indicate that this one of the ghastliest massacres of the Jews during the First Crusade took place in a completely different location, most likely in Spain. We have no way to relate these Cairo manuscripts to the story of an anonymous convert who married Rabbi David Todros of Narbonne against her parents’ will and later, for the sake of her love, lost her husband, children, and mind. As a writer, Hertmans has done what no historian would dare to do: He bestowed an individual identity on the hapless collective victim. He called her Vigdis Adelaïs, a Christian descendant of the Norman Vikings, who was reciprocally in love with a yeshiva student at Rouen and embraced his faith, which proved to be her undoing. The names that Hertmans gave her are telling ones: Vigdis – a Norse ‘war goddess’; Hamutal – interpreted in The Convert as ‘the heat of dew’, though the Biblical associations of this Hebrew name are rather different and more patriarchal; and the Egyptian Galana, which only refers to the alien blurry blue of her eyes. He bestowed on her the fate of other women, either born Jewish or converted to Judaism – torn alive to bits and pieces, murdered in their own homes, or begging to be spared the sight of their children being slaughtered by their husbands; eventually losing their faith in God and hope in humankind.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon and Vincenzo Neri. Photo: Annemie Augustijns

The Flemish composer Wim Henderickx immediately sensed the operatic potential of this tale. We are told that it took him just a few days for Vigdis’ tragic story to take shape in his mind. The painstaking task of adapting the novel into a libretto was taken up by Krystian Lada. The pandemic proved to act as an unwanted and humility-inspiring ally to this project. Henderickx’s nearly three-hour-long work evolved under the strict lockdown conditions and was premiered in the first half of May at Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera.

Though Lada had already tried his hand at libretto writing, this is apparently his first attempt at a work of such dimensions, which moreover called for a precise translation of the author’s intentions into the language of musical theatre. There are virtually no dialogues in Hertmans’ book. Its radically subjective narration had to be rarefied, stripped of the author’s commentaries, and transformed into a sequence of intimate monologues separated by snatches of prayers, rituals, and heartrendingly sad lullabies. The universal lot of Vigdis/Hamutal has been enclosed in the words of a moving ballad that returns like a refrain, bringing relief at the moments of greatest suffering. This was clad by Henderickx in a suitably timeless melody of his own (“Once upon a dream / there was a princess unseen / there was a Love unspoken / But God stood in between”). In contemporary operatic libretti, it is very rare for the audience to leave the theatre with a motif that remains so profoundly memorable to both the ear and the heart, one that smoothly carries the narration forward, releases and spins the tale in accordance with the author’s wish, defining the beginning and the end of the whole story.

Lada’s libretto, whose ragged and fragmentary character paradoxically enhances its grip on the imagination, has received a wholly appropriate musical setting from Wim Henderickx, a composer who, despite his training at the IRCAM in Paris and the Darmstadt Summer Courses, has boldly followed his own path, primarily inspired by the Hindu raga and the distinctive rhythmic patterns of traditional African music. It is indeed a rare phenomenon for a Western composer so skilfully to incorporate instruments from other musical cultures into the texture of a large orchestra (efficiently conducted here by Koen Kessels). These instruments are the Arabian oud, the Middle-Eastern zither called qanun, and, most prominently, the double-reed duduk, sobbing in the voice of all the victims of the great Armenian genocide under the Ottoman empire.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon (centre). Photo: Annemie Augustijns

Hendericxs is equally skilful at managing the orchestra as he is at the use of human voices, both in the solo and choral parts. Casting the Belgian soprano Lore Binon in the role of Vigdis was an excellent idea. Her pure, fleshy, and richly expressive voice, well tested not only in Baroque music but also in art song repertoire and in the works of Schönberg and Mahler – proved an exceptionally accomplished vehicle to convey the ‘otherness’ of this tragic figure lost in the melting pot of cultures. Vincenzo Neri was her worthy partner in his fourfold role as David, Shipowner, merchant Embriachi, and Commander. His soft, beautifully rounded baritone is coupled with an excellent stage presence. The very young velvet-voiced South African baritone Luvuyo Mbundu truly shone as Rabbi Obadiah. The fine acting and great vocal ability of Spanish tenor Daniel Arnaldos likewise deserves a kind mention, particularly in the part of Pope Urban II. There were virtually no weak points in the cast, except for the otherwise outstanding Sephardic singer Françoise Atlan, for whom the burden of four hard, fully operatic parts that the Convert composer entrusted her with proved a bit too much. The choirs deserve separate praise, especially the members of the amateur community ensemble Stadskoor Madam Fortuna.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon with her doll double. Photo: Annemie Augustijns

Wim Henderickx’s De bekeerlinge is a work accessible to the ear, but also extremely skilfully composed, demonstrating a great sense of orchestral colour and fine balance between the stage and the pit. As for the few long-drawn-out bits, the director Hans Op de Beeck turns out to be the one to blame. He is an eminent visual artist, but a rather less competent director, especially in the opera. The idea of limiting nearly all the stage design to splendidly painted horizons moved by means of hand-operated machinery visible on the stage would have been much more successful had he not ordered that each of the eleven scenes be preceded by a compulsive and fundamentally redundant change of scenery. The other stage events, apart from the shocking episode of raping Vigdis’ doll double, seemed superfluous and not very well thought out.

At a meeting before the premiere Stefan Hertmans spoke with approval about the reduction of the novel’s material. He also appreciated the idea of having the Jewish Kaddish heard in the final scene, after the tormented Vigdis’ death in the ruins of the Moniou synagogue. Frequently wrongly identified with a prayer for the dead, the Kaddish is, after all, a prayer for life, the most important part of collective devotion in Judaism, and a hymn of praise for God present in the energy of all the departed ones. This world will come back to life: in the fragrances of Rouen, the flavour of Provençal lavender, and the golden brilliance of Egyptian oases. Only why so much suffering, and so little love? Why such an ocean of contempt? And what is the point of converting if there is no one up there to listen?

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

Where Roses and Sounds Bloom

As Javier Marías once said, Madrid seems to be in a hurry to say everything. My visits to the Spanish capital have always been very brief. This time I spent nearly a week there, in the company of friends who know the city inside out – and yet Madrid kept nudging me, showed me unknown backstreets, had me lost in the crowd at El Rastro, gorge on snails in a thick broth of Spanish ham and chorizo, and absorb the fragrance of the roses in full bloom in the Retiro park. Obviously, Madrid would not have been itself, if it had not remained me even before my departure to take a look at the April repertoire of Teatro Real. In the end I chose two performances – less and more obvious – not expecting, however, that both would turn out to be a source of surprises and give me plenty of food for thought.

The Catalan ensemble Agrupación Señor Serrano, which combines in its productions elements of performance, dance, video art and interactive stage actions, has appeared many times in Poland, for example at Konfrontacje Teatralne in Lublin or Kontrapunkt Festival in Szczecin. The Teatro de La Abadía, where its latest venture, Extinción, was premiered, was talked about in Poland in 2010, in connection with the premiere of Beckett’s Endgame directed by Krystian Lupa (with music by Paweł Szymański) – a production in which Hamm was played by no less a figure than José Luis Gómez, for me a memorable Luis from Saura’s Blindfolded Eyes, while younger viewers may remember his performance in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. It was Gómez, who in 1995 established this theatrical laboratory, as it were – in the chapel and assembly hall of a former boarding school for girls, a complex constructed in the 1940s in the late art déco style – and still tirelessly keeps an eye on all its initiatives.

Extinción. Marcel Borràs. Photo: Teatro de La Abadía

The Señor Serrano group has for years been exploring the theme of increasing destruction of the natural environment, combined with a tragedy for humanity, inevitable in the face of this catastrophe. This time, however, the group decided to couple this vision with the music of a Catalan Benedictine monk, Joan Cererols, performed live by members of the Teatro Real chorus and instrumentalists of the Nereydas ensemble conducted by Javier Ulises Illán. The artists chose two masses by Cererols, popularised in the Iberian world by the memorable recordings of La Capella Reial de Catalunya conducted by Jordi Savall: Missa de Batalla, commemorating the victory of the Spanish army and regaining of control over Naples in 1648, after the independent Neapolitan Republic episode, which lasted less than a year; and the slightly later Missa pro defunctis, dedicated to the victims of a plague epidemic, which decimated the population of Barcelona in the 1650s.

As usual, Àlex Serrano and Pau Palacios – the director and dramaturg of Extinción – abandoned a coherent linear narrative in favour of free-flowing digressions. From the conquistador Francisco de Orellan’s expedition to find the legendary land of El Dorado to the illegal – on account of a civil war – exploitation of the Congolese deposits of coltan, this modern “gold”, needed to produce smartphones, among other things. From reflections of philosophers and physicians on the seat of the human soul to dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence. Everything intertwines and intermingles as if in a dream: a hand immersed in the black soil of the Amazon forest fishes out a mobile phone, a hand immersed in the body of a dead human releases liquid gold from his guts. Destructive fanaticism goes hand in hand with an orgy of consumerism. All these images, generated on site with the help of three performers – Carlota Grau, Marcel Borràs and Serrano himself – transformed and projected on a screen placed upstage, reminded me vaguely of Rodrigo García’s scandalising Golgota Picnic . Unlike most of my Polish colleagues I saw that production live. I was not outraged, but was left with a feeling that somebody was reinventing the wheel. I had a similar impression when watching Extinción – at times vivid, but more often getting bogged down in a chaos of confused associations, unnecessarily revealing the “behind the scenes” at the expense of the magic of the theatre. I felt that magic only in the finale, in the perverse scene of the redemption of humanity by the sacrifice of its consumeristic madness. The convulsive dance to the sounds of the Agnus Dei from Missa de Batalla (phenomenal Carlota Grau) took place in a shower of fresh popcorn pouring from hot “thuribles” hanging above the stage. Memories of Golgota Picnic were revived again: the buttery aroma of García’s buns symbolising excessive feeding of the multitude blended for me with the buttery aroma of popcorn – the incense in the twenty-first-century temple of universal excess. The metaphor may not be revelatory, but it is finally clear.

Extinción. Carlota Grau in the final scene. Photo: Teatro de La Abadía

Unfortunately, apart from this one exception theatrical actions did not go hand in hand with the narrative of Cererols’ mass. This is partly the fault of the overall concept, pushing the musicians to the background with regard to the performing artists and, above all, the performance itself. While the instrumentalists from the Nereydas ensemble were impeccable, although their subtle, stylish playing often got lost way upstage, the Teatro Real chorus members lacked either the will or the skill to get to grips with the unique idiom of the Catalan composer. Intonation was poor, there were no dynamic nuances, and the insecure and often unbeautiful singing smothered both the intricacies of the polychoral texture of Missa de Batalla and the rough asceticism of Missa pro defunctis, in which Cererols consciously alludes to the late Renaissance rhetoric of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s works.

Thus I treated Extincion  as an interesting, though not fully successful performative experiment, pinning more hopes on the creative team and performers of The Marriage of Figaro on Teatro Real’s main stage. Initially, this was supposed to be the premiere of a new directorial vision of Lotte de Beer in a co-production with the Aix-en-Provence Festival, but as early as last December a decision was made to replace de Beer’s controversial and, to put it mildly, not very successful staging with a revival of Claus Guth’s notorious 2006 production. Guth’s Salzburg staging once generated extreme controversy and was treated by many critics as an attempt on Mozart’s masterpiece. Refreshed years later, it leads to the conclusion that an attempt on a sacred interpretative tradition was made at the time not so much by the director, but the conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. It was Harnoncourt who, with Guth’s considerable help, extracted from the score of The Marriage of Figaro unexpected tones of grotesque and tragedy, supported by expressive acting on the part of the singers and clear, ascetic sets designed by Christian Schmidt.

The Marriage of Figaro. André Schouen (Count Almaviva), and Uli Kirsch (Angel). Photo: Javier del Real

In the Madrid production the focus again shifted a little and the whole, especially when compared with Guth’s later stagings in Vienna and Frankfurt, seemed almost like a classical approach, largely in keeping with the authors’ intentions. Only now did I appreciate the aptness of the mirror-like division of the stage space into the “downstairs” part; the “upstairs”, inaccessible to the lowly mortals, where only those closest to the count and countess were allowed; and the ambiguous mezzanine, a place of actions going beyond the convention, actions the nature of which we can only guess. Once again I was stunned with admiration at the precision of the Countess and Count’s silent quarrel to the accompaniment of the wedding march in Act 3. I was much more sympathetic this time to the introduction of the additional character of Angel (Uli Kirsch), who in Guth’s concept is not only a defeated Cupid but also an alter ego of the naïve, hormonally tormented Cherubino.

The production does have its weaknesses, but their number is small enough not to disrupt the flow of the narrative and to provoke the audience not only to reflect, but also to burst out laughing. I find Ivor Bolton’s approach to the whole more acceptable in some respects than Harnoncourt’s dark interpretation. Bolton conducts The Marriage of Figaro with an assured hand, avoids too sharp contrasts in tempi, but strongly emphasises expression instead, bringing out from the texture plenty of underappreciated details (like the splendidly accented grace notes in the bassoons and oboes in the wedding march). He is also helpful to the singers, who were truly excellent in the first cast I heard – led by Julie Fuchs (Susanna), dazzling in her acting and extraordinarily musical, a singer with an agile soprano with a beautiful silvery timbre. Marie José Moreno (Countess) was not much inferior to her in terms of the beauty of her voice, and even surpassed her with the power of expression and maturity of interpretation in the melancholic aria “Dove sono”. It’s been a long time since there were two baritones so cleverly juxtaposed in the leading male roles: one robust, impetuous, and tinged with a distinctive plebeian note (Vito Priante as Figaro), and the other noble, velvety, irresistibly seductive in his singing (André Schouen as the Count). Although Rachael Wilson’s light, silky, well-assured mezzo-soprano sounded too feminine for the trouser role of Cherubino, the singer masked this shortcoming with brilliant acting. Particularly memorable performances in the supporting roles came from Monica Baccelli, an expressive singer with an extraordinary sense of comedy, as Marcellina and Christophe Mortagne, an excellent French character tenor, as Basilio.

The Marriage of Figaro, Act 3. Photo: Javier del Real

It’s a strange feeling, travelling across the operatic world these days. Every sound, every gesture and every image is absorbed, analysed and contemplated: just in case the current journey should turn out to be the last. And then all this is described. With passion but also out of a sense of duty, because – to refer to Marías again – the world depends on its storytellers. Also the enchanted world of opera.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Bard of the Community

Jane Austen was a wonderful storyteller. So wonderful that I owe my entire notion of Bath – where she spent six years of her life and where her pastor father was buried – to her books. I remembered from Northanger Abbey that Bath was a delightful place, provided you knew someone there, and that fine weather drove all the locals out for a walk, prompting weather-themed conversations. Raised in the countryside, Austen had an ambivalent – to put it mildly – attitude to Bath. She moved here with her family at a time when the town was already enjoying a reputation as the most fashionable and elegant resort in England thanks to the forefather of British dandies known as “Beau Nash” ­– an arbiter elegantiarum, informal master of ceremonies, keen gambler and a lady killer. To Austen Bath must have seemed like a metropolis – a city dazzling with the beauty of its buildings, full of temples of culture, tempting with a multitude of shops, but, at the same time, terrifying: because of the crowds of visitors, the abundance of brothels and the suffocating atmosphere of a “seat of amusement and dissipation”.

Amazingly, my impressions from my first visit to Bath were similar to Austen’s. Gigs made in London were replaced with omnipresent cars. The streets were teeming not with spring-craving aristocrats, but with crowds of tourists making up for the time lost during the pandemic. The more convinced I was that I was following the simplest route to my destination, the more astray I went. Yet I left the city believing that Bath was a delightful place – especially given that I managed to fulfil Mrs Allen’s requirement from Northanger Abbey. I knew someone here.

I had met this someone before, more precisely – I had met his extraordinary theatrical imagination, returning from performances directed and devised by him as Joanna Kulmowa writes in her poem Po co jest teatr (What is theatre for): deep in thought, but above all in awe. Thomas Guthrie began as a fine singer with a warm, handsome baritone, great musical sensitivity and exceptional interpretative instinct. He followed a path similar to that of most of his British colleagues: from a child chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge, through reading Classics at the local Trinity College and studying music at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, to first prizes in vocal competitions and scholarships to study under renowned masters like Thomas Allen. He took part in small-scale operatic ventures as well as events under the baton of outstanding conductors. He was equally enthusiastic performing in both leading and episodic roles. In addition, he sang in the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and collaborated with early music ensembles. He took part in the famous pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner’s musicians, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death with concerts in churches all over the world, during which almost all of Bach’s cantatas were performed. With time Guthrie gained recognition as a performer and scholar of the art song repertoire, including the legendary cycles of Schubert and Schumann.

Thomas Guthrie. Photo: Frances Marshall

However, there was something that always made him different from the aspiring singers from his homeland, who were busy climbing their career ladders and building their own positions on prestigious stages across the world. It became apparent that Guthrie was a born storyteller, a modern-day aoidos, who spun his stories in such a way that he was able not only to include in them the author’s intentions and his own interpretation of them, but also to draw the audience into the discourse – the less familiar the audience was with the material and convention of the work, the better. Other artists delivered their musical sermons from the inaccessible heights of the stage. Guthrie discovered he had the soul of an itinerant preacher. He began to direct. By accident or out of contrariness, in the course of preparations for a production staged by a certain ambitious opera troupe. He sang a small role in the production and eventually ended up on the poster as co-director, convinced from the first rehearsals – apparently rightly so – that he was able to better direct his fellow singers. In 2004, commissioned by New Kent Opera, he produced a venture that gave everyone a foretaste of the vision of theatre that had been forming in his mind and took the critics’ breath away – a semi-staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, in which Guthrie the singer was hidden behind a coarsely carved puppet wandering through a monochrome deserted landscape of animated drawings by Peter Bailey.

Three years later Guthrie became a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, London, where he assisted in productions by Robert Carsen and Katie Mitchell, among others. Yet it was Winterreise and “grassroots work” that set the course for his later activities. Guthrie is not so much an educator as a restorer of community through music and theatre. He loves working with amateurs, children, people unjustly excluded and those who have become demoralised through fault of their own, but not in order to “train” them to appreciate high art.  On the contrary, Guthrie listens to them, searches for a common ground and only then does he introduce them to the world of his own imagination and co-creates theatre with them, theatre where every shadow, every flash of light and visual sign becomes a fully-fledged participant in the drama, a disembodied being conducting a dialogue with the audience. Where a puppet is more alive than a human, where everything is “different than ever before” (Kulmowa again) and constantly balances on the thin line between adult fantasy longing for childhood, and the world of primeval emotions and fears.

My first live performance of one of his productions was five years ago at Longborough. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in which Guthrie easily involved the audience in the production of additional special effects. I did not think that this stylised, minimalistic, sometimes even naïve theatre would work even better in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman – without a ship, without a sea and without a port, but with such an emphatic suggestion of their existence, achieved with a few gestures and inconspicuous props, that every staging of this opera has seemed overloaded to me ever since. For more than a decade Guthrie has been making his tiny theatre in the most unlikely configurations and spaces – in 2017 he staged an adaptation of Carmen at the Dartmoor Prison, with the production featuring the local inmates. However, as a director he prefers to tell more intimate stories: through art songs cycles and masterpieces of the oratorio repertoire.

Der fliegende Holländer at the LFO, 2018. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

From the beginning of the pandemic, which hit the British music community particularly hard, Guthrie sought not only to financially support artists confined to their homes. Above all, he pulled them out of their apathy and hopelessness, initiated new ventures and called for a complete change in their thinking about art and its contribution to the life of the community at large. Last year, together with the Oxford Bach Soloists, he directed an online-only staging of Bach’s St John Passion, again combining the asceticism of theatrical means with an incredible precision of directing actors: those of flesh and blood, in the persons of the musicians, and those from a different, symbolic narrative order – dead or at least silent witnesses of Jesus’ Passion, “played” by elements of technical equipment.

In Bath he produced a project drawing on his earlier experiences with Bach’s Passion and motets. This time he joined forces with a similar enthusiast of community music making: Sarah Latto, artistic director of the Echo, a young professional vocal ensemble, and current head of Paragon Singers, which has grown from a group of eight music lovers meeting for rehearsals in a flat near Bath’s Georgian Paragon Buildings complex to become one of the finest chamber choirs in the region. The very fact that Messiah 250 did take place testifies to the artists’ inexhaustible tenacity. The title refers to the 250th anniversary of a performance of Handel’s masterpiece at the local Octagon Chapel under the direction of William Herschel, the discoverer of planet Uranus and infrared radiation, who was also a keen musician and composer – as well as the first organist at the newly built chapel. Project events were planned for 2019 – with some delay with regard to the anniversary, as Herschel’s concert took place in 1767. Nothing came out of these plans in 2019, then came the pandemic, but the project originators had their own way in the end. The concert on 5 March crowned the whole venture, which also included sessions for beginners and advanced music lovers, documentary workshops for Bath Spa University students as well as a partnership with the local charity Julian House, which focuses on supporting and activating the homeless.

Messiah 250 at St Swithin’s Church. Photo: Echo Vocal Ensemble

The Octagon, a private chapel, was never consecrated and lost its religious function already in the 19th century. Thus the concert was held at St Swithin’s Church, next to which the remains of Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, were laid to rest in 1805. The small church in what used to be the outskirts of Bath was full. The story of the Annunciation, the suffering of Jesus and the promise of universal resurrection was told again by Guthrie in a language derived directly from music and drawing on the most sincere emotions. What mastery and, at the same time, simplicity in the communication of the directorial cues are needed in order for joy, uncertainty, awe, despair and ecstasy to be marked with a different shade on the face and in the gestures of each musician, including the instrumentalists? What understanding is needed between Latto, who holds the whole thing together, and the director to make every gesture of the conductor both musically legible and significant in the story, to make it at one time resemble maternal tenderness, at another a grimace of derision, at yet another pure ecstasy? What wisdom to trust that such theatre liberates, purifies, allows musicians to reach their interpretative best? And to be right to boot?

I don’t know whether Jane Austen would have liked a Messiah told in such a way. I have a feeling that, indeed, she would. Perhaps she would have felt less strange in this unfriendly city. In Austen’s times the world suffered from a shortage of men. Today it suffers from a shortage of storyteller directors, especially ones that are worth their salt.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article available at: https://teatr-pismo.pl/18069-piewca-wspolnoty/

Wars Cannot Be Won

The Finnish National Opera has been really lucky. After several good years under the baton of Patrick Fournillier, an able and reliable conductor, who took up the post of Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera in the 2020/21 season, it placed its orchestra in the hands of a musical visionary, and one who was present on site at that. Hannu Lintu has been collaborating with the Helsinki Opera for years, or in any case since he took charge, in 2013, of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, now based in the new Helsingin musiikkitalo building, located halfway between the legendary Finlandia-talo designed by Alvar Aalto and the Kiasma contemporary art museum, built some twenty years later. He took up the baton as Chief Conductor of the Suomen Kansallisooppera – a few hundred metres’ walk from all the institutions mentioned above, in a park along the picturesque Töölö Bay – in January in this year, shortly after the very well received revival of The Flying Dutchman, with which he made his debut at Paris’ Opéra Bastille.

It was precisely Lintu that was the main reason behind my trip to Helsinki – to see Billy Budd directed by Annilese Miskimmon, a Norwegian-Polish-Finnish co-production premiered  in Oslo in 2019. The Finnish conductor attracted my attention already with his recording of Witold Lutosławski’s Venetian Games and complete symphonies for the Ondine label with his previous orchestra. Lintu’s interpretations – from Sibelius, Rautavaara and Saariaho to his phenomenal readings of Beethoven’s, Wagner’s and Mahler’s scores – are at once disciplined and full of emotions vibrating somewhere deep inside, marked by extraordinary attention to detail and, at the same time, an ability to extract from that detail surprisingly relevant content. The other reason – in some respects just as important to me – was Peter Wedd’s debut in the role of Captain Vere, especially as in recent years I had encountered two outstanding, though radically different incarnations of this tragic character: by Alan Oke and Toby Spence. What I did not expect, however, was that through Lintu I would be gripped by a completely different scene than usual, that the conductor would use Wedd’s greatest assets to sum up, as it were, his unusual and revelatory interpretation of Britten’s masterpiece.

Billy Budd: Scene from Act 1. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

But more about this in a moment. I will start with the staging, which turned out to be as visually attractive (set designs by Annemarie Woods) and as underdeveloped in terms of directing as it had been in Oslo and Warsaw. Miskimmon chose to further emphasise the impression of the impossibility of escaping from a ship “lost on the infinite sea” by transporting Billy Budd to 1940, to a submarine involved in an operation to destroy French vessels after France’s surrender to the Third Reich. The decision proved dramatically ineffective and at times downright absurd in its effects. I still do not understand, for example, how the “cursed mist” would any way affect the accuracy of a torpedo attack. All the nautical commands with which E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier packed the libretto, and to which Britten provided a worthy musical equivalent in the score were out of place on board a submarine. Details such as the idea of having Billy hanged somewhere outside the surfaced watercraft – in the heat of naval warfare – are not even worth mentioning. Busy as she was updating the plot, Miskimmon did not have enough energy left to direct the characters. The story is somewhat of an allegory and will not tell itself – the director needs to skilfully draw the sinister, erotically charged triangle in which Captain Vere, the seemingly implacable guardian of the war order, occupies an unclear position between Claggart, inhuman in his corruption, and Budd, inhuman in his perfection, the obverse and the reverse of the same coin. A coherent tragedy, swelling like a festering ulcer, has been transformed by Miskimmon into a series of loosely connected and paradoxically static – despite the frequent running around on stage – episodes.

Jussi Merikanto (Mr. Redburn), and Juha Pikkarainen (Bosun). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Yet musically the Finnish Billy Budd exceeded my wildest expectations. The great collective hero of the evening was the chorus, brilliantly prepared by Marge Mehilane and Marc Ozbiča. It delivered the text perfectly and at the same time responded alertly to Linto, who skilfully emphasised the relentless drive of the chorus’ music, its sometimes painful harmonic roughness and surprising richness of sound hues. A thunderous and fully deserved applause greeted Ville Rusanen in the title role – a singer endowed with a not very beautiful, but movingly “human” baritone voice, and building his character with the perceptiveness of a veritable dramatic actor. His Billy was stronger in heart than fear, stronger in instinct than the will to survive, stronger in spirit than death – a true holy fool, the only one in this predicament of war who knew how to accept the inevitable. I was a bit disappointed with Timo Olavi Riihonen, partly because of the director, who had no sensible idea how to deal with the character of Claggart. The reasons were partly objective: Riihonen’s beautiful, rounded bass had nothing demonic about it; at times it sounded good-natured even. There were practically no weak links in the supporting roles, though it is worth singling out the performance of Jussi Merikanto (Mr. Redburn), a singer with a resonant, handsome and technically well-assured baritone, who made his character credible not only through excellent acting, but above all through musical means.

Ville Rusanen (Billy Budd). Photo: Heikki Tuuli

It is time to explain the revelation announced at the beginning. Lintu, a conductor sensitive to detail and capable of reading between the lines of the score, brought out in his interpretation something that many other masters of the baton miss. It was not until the epilogue that I understood why his Billy Budd was “dirtier”, more cruel, at times even merciless in the orchestral layer, why there was so little obvious beauty in it. Peter Wedd is certainly not a classic Britten tenor; he has clearly not yet fully “grown into” the part of Captain Vere, his performance not yet sufficiently nuanced dynamically, too heavy-handed in the upper register. However, as is his wont, Wedd saved his best for the final monologue – a divine cantilena, ethereal piani, a forte in which the despair of the whole world could be heard. The structure of the work suggests that towards the end Vere tries to give himself an answer to the question that troubled him in the opening monologue. Hannu Lintu makes it very clear that he will not find this answer. In his interpretation the Captain only seemingly achieves peace of mind, in vain seeking support in the orchestra, which constantly deceives him, fails to provide him with a harmonic basis, and every now and then drowns out his thoughts with sounds of war (the relentless beats of the timpani and the bass drum are still ringing in my ears). In the last phrase, the line “centuries ago, when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable”, the Captain gives up in this unequal struggle. The orchestra dies out, Vere’s voice tails off, everything breaks up into nothingness.

I have never heard such a harrowing ending of Billy Budd. And it’s been a long time since I saw such a moved audience. That eerie, disintegrated phrase carried a warning that was clear to all. May it never come true.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Circe From the Southern Seas

The premiere of Alcina, Handel’s third opera based on themes from Orlando furioso, came at the height of his London rivalry with Nicola Porpora, who not only was Italian, but also had talent, huge financial support from Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, and several stars in his ensemble – headed by two famous castratos, Senesino and Farinelli. When Popora stormed triumphantly into the King’s Theatre, Handel packed his stuff and moved a few streets away, to a brand new theatre in Covent Garden. He started modestly, from the pasticcio Oreste; less than a month later, in January 1735, had to live with the cold reception of  Ariodante; but persevered and on 16 April put on Alcina, this time with more success. He tinkered with the score until the very last moment, got his best singers involved in the production, kept adding new roles and wove into the typically Italian fabric of opera seria choruses and dance divertissements, fashionable in France at the time, taking advantage of the presence of Marie Sallé’s famous troupe. Alcina was performed eighteen times in less than two months, was revived after Sallé’s departure without the ballet scenes and its run ended for good in 1737. In the same season Handel saw the rival Opera of the Nobility go bankrupt, with Porpora fleeing London in ignominy. Handel soon went back to the Haymarket theatre, but after the failure of Serse he abandoned Italian opera forever.

Resurrected nearly two hundred years later, the “enchanted” Alcina is now considered to be one of Handel’s greatest masterpieces. The story of a sorceress who “having enjoyed her lovers for a brief moment, would then turn them into animals and trees,” – as we read in the author’s commentary to the first Polish translation of Ariosto’s poem by Piotr Kochanowski – suggests a number of tropes that are by no means obvious. Alcina can be seen as a figure of transience, a metaphor for the loneliness of a woman who, after years of amorous games, has finally fallen in love and is unable to keep the object of her affections with her. The man in question is the noble knight Ruggiero, rescued by the intrepid Bradamante in the male guise of Ricciardo. As can easily be imagined, this operatic qui pro quo launches a whole sequence of surprising events and amorous errors. What is harder to imagine, the whole thing ends with an extraordinarily emotional clash between the sorceress and a pair of “true” lovers, a class that leaves the audience with a vague feeling of compassion for the abandoned Alcina. This whole convoluted story brings to mind more or less obvious associations with Odysseus’ year-long sojourn on the island of the enchantress Circe, who turned his companions into pigs and bore him a son, Telegonus, who, in one version of the myth, would later kill his father and marry Penelope, left behind on Ithaca.

Alcina in Brno. Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Alcina’s island is located in an operatic Neverland, in the middle of the ocean, somewhere east of India. The sorceress’ successive conquests are witnessed by her former lovers – turned into wild beasts, trees and sea waves. Her palace is only an illusion that will be shattered with the destruction of the magic urn and triumph of true love. Nothing is what it seems to be here, no one is an unequivocal hero nor – even more so – an obvious villain. Although since the great revival of the opera at Venice’s La Fenice in 1960, when Alcina was sung by Joan Sutherland and the production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, dozens of artists have taken on Handel’s masterpiece, no one has ever thought about destroying this enchanted world, engaging in a futile dispute with a fairy tale and rationalising the rather irrational choices of its protagonists.

In Poland Alcina has never been staged, except once at the Dramma per Musica Festival in Warsaw (2018). The story of the absence of Handel’s works and other pieces from the standard Baroque repertoire from our stages is part of a broader tale about the state of Polish opera houses and the thinking of their directors. A way out of this impasse would require a radical change of approach: to the music itself, to its links to theatre and literary tradition, and to the people who are experts and can infect others with their enthusiasm. How this is done I will briefly say, referring to the recent premiere at the National Theatre in Brno, a co-production with Théâtre de Caen and Opéra Royal–Château de Versailles.

Let me start by pointing out that the whole venture was done from scratch at a Czech opera house – true, in close collaboration with an external ensemble, but it was a Czech ensemble as well: the Collegium 1704 headed by Václav Luks, who have been consistently building their position as one of the best period performance ensembles in the world, with the joy of playing, singing and understanding on all levels accompanying them at every step of their intense activity. Then I will move to a decision that seems completely incomprehensible in Poland – to present an international star team of soloists only in one performance in Brno, and not the opening night at that. The remaining performances featured mainly local singers, perhaps not quite on a par with foreign specialists, but competent enough not to bring disgrace to the second biggest centre of musical culture in Czechia, where Leoš Janáček spent most of his life.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Then I will stress that the whole production was the work of a Czech creative team – members of which were not only experts at their trade, but also devoted to opera with their hearts and souls, musically well-educated and familiar with the specificity of this extraordinary form. I have written about Jiří Heřman’s directorial art many times, on these pages too. Heřman is also a singer, which is why it is hardly surprising that his ideas rarely miss the essence of the work. His theatre is clear, visually beautiful and highly symbolic – like the entire Czech operatic theatre, smoothly continuing the local traditions of expressionism, Liberated Theatre poeticism and the aesthetic legacy of černé divadlo.

Heřman’s Alcina impresses with attention to detail and coherence of staging, another evidence of excellent collaboration with the other members of the creative team. Dragan Stojčevski’s sets – enhanced and made unreal by a system of theatrical mirrors – combine the ostentatious splendour of Baroque interiors with the oneiricism of fairy-tale landscapes, allusions to Boticelli with references to Magritte’s mysterious worlds. The pitch blackness, pale gold, turquoise and smoky pink of the costumes designed by Alexandra Gruskova stand out sharply against the greyness of the sky, the cobalt blue of the sea and malachite green of the vegetation. In Jan Kodet’s phenomenal choreography each of the enchanted lovers creates a multidimensional character whose mute tragedy can be discerned even from behind a fixed animal mask.

Heřman balances the dramaturgical shortcomings of Alcina by  grotesque and often broad humour (among the hapless enchanted lovers we find also a large pufferfish as well as a huge penguin introducing some additional chaos into the already convoluted love plot of the opera). Although the director sometimes repeats his gags and other stage ideas, especially in Act III, which at some point gets dangerously close to losing its momentum, fortunately he makes up for these losses in the beautiful finale – with a lonely sorceress no longer entertaining any illusions, an Indian Circe “who cannot die as long as the world lasts”, but who probably has no hope that some lost Odysseus will drop anchor by the shores of her ruined kingdom.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

A production put together with such expertise and care opens up a possibility for a truly honest discussion about performance details. The cast I saw at the second performance – the international one, who will soon present Alcina to the wider world – had virtually no weak links. The artistry that shone the brightest was that of Karina Gauvin, an experienced Handelian, who sang the title role. The revelation of the evening was the young Czech contralto Monika Jägerová as Bradamante. Tomáš Král (Melisso) and Krystian Adam (Oronte) were in a class of their own in their small but important roles. However, we may wonder whether the role of Ruggiero, written for Carestini, an alto castrato, should have been entrusted to the otherwise phenomenal Kangmin Justin Kim, a singer with a highly lyrical male soprano voice.  We may argue whether Mirella Hagen’s light and girlish flightiness are appropriate for Morgana, who is Alcina’s sister after all.

I envy the French, who will soon have an opportunity to relish the whole production and, if necessary, point to a few slight shortcomings in it. That is, if it occurs to them to complain about anything. Representatives of the co-producing companies leaped to their feet after the curtain came down and gave the artists a round of prolonged thunderous applause. This did not surprise me at all. I still cannot believe what I saw and heard so near our southern border.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article at: https://teatr-pismo.pl/17792-kirke-z-morz-poludniowych/

In the Eye of a Cyclone

When about two weeks ago I was flying to Berlin via a roundabout route, black clouds of war were already gathering over Europe. That day, however, my attention was completely focused on the storm Eunice and on the fear that it might thwart my reviewing plans. I got to Berlin safely and before going to the first performance I had a discussion with my Berlin friends, during which we made various predictions – all of them wrong, as it later turned out – about the course of events beyond Poland’s eastern border. Unease was growing, but for the time being I was looking forward to two Wagner performances at the Deutsche Oper, performances of productions which had been in the company’s repertoire for quite some time, but which, strangely enough, I had not had the opportunity to see before.

Both originated at a unique moment in the company’s history. Tannhäuser, directed by Kirsten Harms, was premiered in 2008, more or less half way through her management of the company – two years after the famous scandal with the suspension of Hans Neuenfels’ staging of Idomeneo, following signals from the police and the Home Office that the epilogue added by Neuenfels and featuring the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Christ and Mohammed could provoke serious unrest in the city. As a result of this unprecedented act of censorship the theatre came under severe criticism, which soon, however, abated following a change of the fateful decision and Harms’ numerous subsequent achievements as a manager and artist. During her tenure the Deutsche Oper saw both the attendance and its income rise, with the company’s repertoire expanding to include a number of musical rarities and works of composers who had been silenced by history. After Harms’ departure the company experienced an interregnum of more than a year, the final phase of which was marked by the premiere of Lohengrin in April 2012, shortly before Dietmar Schwarz took over as General Manager. The production was directed by Kasper Holten, the newly appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House in London.

Tannhäuser, Act 2. Photo: Bettina Stöß

In the first few seasons of its stage existence it was Harms’ Tannhäuser that received much more favourable reviews. Holten’s Lohengrin had to face comparisons with the legend of Götz Friedrich’s 1990 concept – so beloved by the Berlin audience – and lost the first round. However, time proved kinder to Lohengrin, a production not without some faults, but nevertheless coherent and drawing attention to unsettling aspects of the story – perhaps unjustly neglected by the earlier directors.

The minimalistic and fairly conventional Tannhäuser offends primarily by its lack of any axis keeping the narrative together. The only trope that seems to lead anywhere – in line with the composer’s intention, it has to be said – is the combination of the figure of Venus and Elisabeth into one, also one singer. Yet in Harms’ interpretation nothing comes out of this. The conflict is not resolved, the scales do not turn the favour of either side of the female nature; even in the finale it remains unclear whose image Tannhäuser has in mind as he is dying and whether he is dying in the first place – perhaps he is just waking up from nightmares tormenting both the protagonist and the audience in equal measure. The whole poetry of theatre disappears after the first scene, in which an armour-clad supernumerary plunges slowly into the abyss of Venus’ grotto. After that there are only images, some spectacular (sets, lighting and costumes by Bernd Damovsky), but, to put it mildly, loosely linked to the action, the libretto and the score. Why is the pilgrims’ chorus in Act I roasting in hell, surrounded by a pack of demons straight from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost? Why in Act III do all the pilgrims end up in a field hospital, as if the pilgrimage to Rome has been clearly harmful to them? Why does the song contest in Act II look like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky and animated miniatures from the Codex Manesse? I am not judging the ideas in themselves – the could have certainly been enacted on stage brilliantly, if only the director had had any sense of humour and distance from the matter of the work. I also have the impression that the technical team were not convinced by Harms’ concept either. They did not make sure that the horse dummies pulled on wheels would not drown out the music in the hunting scene, nor did they intervene when one of the dozens of inflatable knights suspended from the flies began to swing jauntily from right to left and back again.

Tannhäuser, Act 3. Photo: Bettina Stöß

The minimalism of Holten’s Lohengrin from the very beginning was intended to serve a purpose; it emphasises all the more the spectacular nature of key scenes in the drama, including the appearance of the Swan Knight and his subsequent marriage to Elsa. This is a grim, dark production about war – not about Henry the Fowler’s expedition against the Hungarians, but about war as such, always the same, suggested by Steffen Aarfing’s costumes and sets, which refer equally to the fairy-tale Middle Ages and to the Dano-Prussian War of 1864 as well as earlier conflicts in northern Europe. It is also a production about wartime manipulation, a desperate search for a leader whom the oppressed people welcome with open arms: even if he comes from nowhere, even if he sets absurd conditions and treats everyone instrumentally, including Elsa of Brabant, who is waiting for a mysterious saviour. Instead of providing easy answers to the questions in this crime story with Gottfried in the background, Holten piles up even more mysteries. He leaves us uncertain as to whose victim Elsa’s brother was and whether he indeed was transformed into a swan. Lohengrin himself is a usurper swan, parading with wings attached to his back, a false archangel saviour, who in the Die Gralserzählung frantically turns the pages, as if until the last moment he could not decide with which version of the events to beguile his naive followers. The production features several memorable images: the “police-style” outline of a corpse, which from the very first scenes suggests that Gottfried will never return, the marital bed, which turns out to be a funeral catafalque, the sheet, unstained by traces of the wedding night, which in Act III will cover Telramund’s corpse. Again, no one will die in the finale, but shortly before the curtain comes down the chorus will stop Lohengrin, not letting him leave for an imaginary Monsalvat. We do not know what will happen next – except for a clear suggestion that the war machine has been operating in the same manner from times immemorial.

Lohengrin, Act 1. Photo: Bettina Stöß

Ironically, in musical terms the two productions stood in contrast with the stage concept. The moving Lohengrin, heavy-handed by the conductor Donald Runnicles, devoid of energy and with climaxes coming in the least expected moments in the score, was disappointing vocally as well. David Butt Philip, clearly indisposed that day, may have tackled the eponymous role too early. It is not enough to have a strong, handsome tenor with baritone hues to convey the multi-layered nature of the character and, above all, wisely pace yourself over the three treacherous acts of the opera. Jennifer Davis (Else), a singer with an otherwise pretty soprano, was flat almost throughout the entire evening; Ain Anger’s bass is too common and not very rich for the role of Henry; Iréne Theorin (Ortrud) too often had to make up for the deficiencies of her tired voice with overacting. The only bright point in the cast was Jordan Shanahan as Telramund – his full, healthy baritone was very much up to the demands of this truly tragic role: a man prepared to resort to any meanness to defend the time-honoured ancestral rules.

On the other hand the theatrically bland, at time grotesque Tannhäuser captivated the audience with the music – colourful, passionate and lively under the baton of a young Australian, Nicholas Carter. Stephen Gould may not be a singer who enchants with the power of his expression, but he has mastered the title role right down to the tiniest details and can still sing it thoughtfully with a technically-assured voice, just as the composer intended. Camilla Nylund, an artist with a luminous and excellently placed soprano, brilliantly sung the double role of Venus and Elisabeth. Markus Brück, an heir of the good old German school of baritone singing, proved to be one of the best Wolframs I had heard in recent years. Another singer deserving appreciation is Ante Jerkunica, whose warm, slightly “grainy” bass infused the role of Landgrave Hermann with plenty of tenderness and lyricism.

Lohengrin, Act 2. Photo: Markus Lieberenz

And yet it is Lohengrin that became embedded in my memory after this short, wind- and rain-lashed visit to Berlin. I came back to Poland to enjoy some sun. Three days later a war started: a war like the one in the vision presented by Holten, who in some prophetic inspiration revealed its less obvious mechanisms in the Berlin production. But even he may not have predicted that on the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine Lohengrin would return to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre after an absence of one hundred years. With a less ambiguous message than in Holten’s vision, I’m afraid. Over there they still trust knights who come from nowhere.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

The True Death in Venice

The story of the fall of an aging writer – whom Thomas Mann called Gustav von Aschenbach – is not a confession of the author, but a symbolic parable of a man whose well-ordered life was shattered by an encounter with a vision of pure beaty. Today, over one hundred years after the publication of the first edition of the novella, the most often cited sources of its inspiration are Mann’s personal experience at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, where in 1911 he encountered a boy of “truly divine beauty”; the shock of Gustav Mahler’s untimely death, about which Mann heard on his way to Venice; and finally his fascination with Freud’s theory of dreams and with the Apollonian-Dionysian conflict in Nietzsche’s philosophy. This image of Death in Venice has become firmly fixed in our collective imagination under the impact of Visconti’s famous film adaptation – sufficiently distant from the original to overshadow perhaps the most significant of the impulses behind Mann’s masterpiece.

That impulse was the death of Richard Wagner, who, unlike Mahler, really did die in Venice: in 1883, the year in which Robert Koch identified the bacterium responsible for the recurring cholera epidemics. The same plague which claimed Aschenbach’s life and which became a vehicle for additional symbolic meanings in the novella. Although the protagonist of Death in Venice inherited his first name from Mahler, his surname leads by a series of associations to Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of the epic Parzival, on the basis of which Wagner wrote his last operatic masterpiece. The beautiful Tadzio with his strange “hazy-gray” eyes is also a figure of the pure fool Parsifal, who saved Amfortas from his suffering, so why shouldn’t he relieve the anguish of the aging writer? It is surprising how many of these tropes are missed by the commentators on the novella, given that Mann constructed his Buddenbrooks in the image and likeness of Wagner’s Ring and put words imitating Lohengrin’s farewell to the swan into the mouth of one of the woodcutters encountered by Castorp in The Magic Mountain.

Carl Naya, The Molo and the Doge’s Palace with Gondola, Venice, albumen print on paper, before 1882. McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock

Wagner returned to Venice once again in September 1882, less than two months after the premiere of Parsifal. He rented the entire first floor of Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a Renaissance palazzo on the Canal Grande, from Enrico, Count de ‘Bardi, and moved there with Cosima, four children and servants. In October they were joined by Liszt, just as ailing and with a similar obsession of death as his son-in-law, barely two years his junior. Both men would look out of the palazzo windows, watching the gondolas – “black as only coffins can be”, to quote Mann again – gliding along the canal. Some of the gondolas were transporting corpses to the cemetery island of San Michele. In December Liszt sketched the first version of La lugubre gondola. In January he left for Budapest. Wagner died in February and his remains were transported on a funerary gondola to to the Venezia Santa Lucia station, from which they were taken by train to Bayreuth.

Thomas Mann was an indefatigable music lover. He did not miss the premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 or that of Berg’s Lulu over three decades later. When arranging his numerous itineraries, he always tried to include visits to the local opera houses, and he followed the careers of his favourite singers and conductors. He never recovered from the rapture he experienced as a young man in Lübeck during a performance of Lohengrin. Wagner’s oeuvre shaped his musical sensitivity, left its mark on his prose and took hold of his emotions and imagination. In my case the first attack of the “Wagner disease” coincided with my fascination with Mann’s writing while I was still at school. I feel the effects of this double illumination to this day. Longing for the aesthetic which Mann used to adhere to, I avoid mainstream performances and try to track down Wagnerian rarities. I follow musicians whose love for Wagner takes the form of a sophisticated intellectual game.

This is how I found myself in Inverness in 2019, attending a concert of the Mahler Players conducted by Tomas Leakey, who constructed the programme for the evening of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Act I of Die Walküre in a chamber arrangement by Matthew King and Peter Longworth. On my return from Scotland, I wrote, in the introduction to my enthusiastic review, about the origins of the Siegfried Idyll, which is Wagner’s only work for chamber orchestra in the world repertoire. I also wrote about the musicians’ bold plans for the future, which included the premiere of a work by King based on late sketches from which Wagner intended to weave one day his own personal “symphonic dialogues”, alluding in their scope and form to the Idyll he wrote in 1870.

Matthew King. Photo: mahlerplayers.co.uk

Despite the pandemic the planned premiere did take place and was also recorded on the first ever CD of the Mahler Players, who not without reason added Siegfried Idyll to King’s symphony Richard Wagner in Venice commissioned by them. Matthew King, a professor at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama, is not only an extraordinarily imaginative composer, but also a sensitive researcher into the relations between cultural texts, a master of what he calls “speculative musical archaeology”. His symphony is neither his own variation on a theme nor a mechanical patchwork of the surviving fragments. Instead, it brings to mind an erudite play with the spirit of the dead composer, as inspired as Salvatore Sciarrino’s unsettling adaptations of Baroque music, and at the same time – paradoxically – closer to the non-existent, unfinished original. King puts together these scraps of music – including the legendary “Melodie der Porazzi”, sketched by Wagner in 1882 in Palermo and evoking strange associations with the Verwandlungsmusik from Act I of Parsifal – using a method described in Cosima’s diaries and articulated by Wagner himself. He arranges them into a warm, intimate, proto-impressionistic narrative flowing in an even stream of musical tensions and releases. With memories of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg echoing in the background of this conversation, the whole moves towards a coda in which the sound of the bells for the unveiling of the Holy Grail blends with the motivic material of Siegfried’s funeral music. Wagner is carried back to Bayreuth. A respectfully shocked world receives the news of his death – like in the last sentence of Mann’s novella.

It is difficult to determine today whether the fragmentary sketches from the last years of Wagner’s life originated with a larger work in mind, or a cycle of intimate poems modelled on the Siegfried Idyll. Or perhaps they are just testimony to the degeneration of an artist who, like Aschenbach, had to go astray? Whatever the case may be, Matthew King has breathed life into these fragments, developed them certainly not against their author’s intentions, and fashioned them into a whole that is not only convincing but also alluring. This is also thanks to Leakey’s musicians, playing with verve and a beautiful, selective sound, with British instrumentalists’ characteristic unity of intent combined with a diversity of individual tone. There is an admirable care for the context of the first meeting after a long lockdown and first recording of this extraordinary composition – in the Strathpeffer Pavilion in the north of Scotland, a Victorian building inspired by the architecture of the casino in Baden-Baden and thus, indirectly, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Visitors to that building include George Bernard Shaw, the author of The Perfect Wagnerite, a perverse philosophical commentary on Der Ring des Nibelungen.

It is worth reaching for the recording as a gift to yourself and to the ambitious Scottish musicians during this difficult time. And then worth returning to Death in Venice, which might also be a story of Amfortas, who did not live to receive the longed for blessing from Parsifal.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Ulisse’s Widow

Setting out on my journey back from Basel to Warsaw, I stopped in a little square in front of the hotel, lured by the sight of a glass-fronted cabinet with needless books. I expected to find there some easy read for the long journey with a change in Frankfurt; instead, much to my surprise I took off the shelf an edition of Sławomir Mrożek’s Ucieczka na południe (Escape to the South) – slightly yellowed, but otherwise untouched by time. Fate writes the best libretti for my operatic journeys. A severe winter approaches and I’m coming back from an escape to the south, to a city only five degrees of latitude farther north, where I will again try to find something that would free me from “a feeling of emptiness”. It would be interesting to see whether in six months, when I set off as usual on a tour of niche festivals, I’ll come across an abandoned copy of Mrożek’s Maleńkie lato (Little Summer).

What makes all this even more bizarre is the fact that I went to Basel – a city on the Rhine, between Switzerland, Germany and France – to see Il ritono d’Ulisse in patria. A production adapted and directed by Krystian Lada, delayed like Odysseus’ return – the March premiere was wiped out by the previous wave of the pandemic. An original vision of a supposedly flawed opera, Monteverdi’s “ugly duckling”, which hatches laboriously out of a great confusion of styles and only in the course of the narrative does it begin to reveal clearly contrasted emotions and moods, and, above all, wonderful portrayals of the two main characters. I had been dying of curiosity since spring, because Lada decided to remove the figure of Ulisse from the original structure, admitting openly that he intended to draw the audience into a performance, a “participatory project” based on Monteverdi’s work, presented deliberately not on the vast state of the Opera House, but in the adjacent Schauspielhaus. Lada replaced the eponymous King of Ithaca with a collective protagonist, a figure of alienness, an archetype filtered through the experience of reading Joyce, Hauptmann and Kazantzakis, reflected in the mirror of contemporary problems of refugees and migrants. He brought on stage eight “men of Basel”, strangers blending in with the local community. The musical portrait of Ulisse was replaced with their silence, snatches of utterances, body languages, electronics discreetly linking the various episodes.

Katarina Bradić (Penelope). Photo: Judith Schlosser

What makes Lada different from most young opera directors today is the fact that, having taken a work apart, he is able to put it together again – sometimes into a surprising whole, but without losing or spoiling anything along the way. It seems to me that in the pre-premiere talks he put too much emphasis on the idea of staging a “Ulisse without Ulisse”. The biggest asset of his concept is his masterful highlighting of a narrative element that has been there in Il Ritorno from the very beginning and is often missed by both directors and performers. The incredible convergence of dramaturgical patterns in Monteverdi’s operas and Shakespeare’s late plays has been pointed out by John Eliot Gardiner, among others. It is incredible, because it is highly unlikely that Monteverdi ever encountered Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Yet the works of the two men mirror each other, as if by some kind of cultural convergence: the tension in them stems from the contrast of quickly alternating tragic and ironic scenes triggering tears of laughter and sincere emotion. Lada condensed the opera’s three acts into an uninterrupted action, roughly two hours long, directed like an operatic Tempest or Winter’s Tale, fast flowing, coherent and engaging. And although his adaptation went very far – which he did not hide from the very beginning – he did not do any harm to Monteverdi, and at times even helped the myth by giving it a more human form. The poignant finale, in which Penelope cries “Or si, ti riconosco” at the sight of each of the eight strangers, makes me think of an alternative version of the myth, relegated to oblivion for millennia, in which the queen, consumed by longing and broken by loneliness, gives herself to all the suitors one by one.

The Basel production is full of other tropes and perfectly enacted episodes, which show that Lada understands the mechanism of the operatic form, that he knows how myth works, and that he is able to relate all this to the present – without falling into literality and banality. Having a limited number of singers at his disposal, he gives each of them several roles – not always in accordance with the traditional performance practice, following above all the logic of a focused narrative. Thus Penelope is also Human Frailty, the gods are transformed into suitors, the allegories of Time, Fortune and Love act as links between the earth and Olympus. The director offers us an Epicurean interpretation of the myth of the great journey and even greater longing. The beautiful, imperious, self-absorbed gods decide to play humans and fail in their confrontation with humanity: mortal, flawed and yet stubbornly seeking happiness that comes even if only from the absence of suffering. The most moving character is Eumete, naive four-eyes in overalls, ready to help all the Odysseuses of this world. His opposite is Iro – burning with hatred and aiming a knapsack sprayer at the strangers as if they were bedbugs. The central figure in the narrative is Penelope, an indomitable woman, faithful not only to her lost husband, but also to herself. Her love for Ulisse gives her strength and teaches her compassion. It helps her satisfy her own body, refuse love to the usurpers and give it to those who really needed it.

Katarina Bradić, Théo Imart (Giunone/Anfinomo/L’Amore), Alex Rosen (Nettuno/Antinoo/Il Tempo) and Rolf Romei (Giove/Pisandro/La Fortuna). Photo: Judith Schlosser

Drawing a preliminary sketch of characters on an open stage, before the first sounds of the music are heard is slowly beginning to become a distinctive feature of Lada’s productions. Radiant, elaborately coiffed gods, covering up deficiencies of their looks with grotesque jockstraps and corsets (excellent costumes by Bente Rolandsdotter), silently circulate among props, aiming from a bow at a man-shaped target signed with the name of Ulisse. In between their archery displays, they step onto the proscenium and gesticulate vigorously. Only after a while does the audience, snuggling down in their seats, realise that the deities control the traffic in the auditorium. Then with equal relish they “pull” the instrumentalists into the orchestra pit and give the signal for the story to begin.

The constant twists and turns of the narrative are accompanied by seamless changes of scenery (Didzis Jaunzems), consisting of a few simple ladders, boxes, scaffoldings and platforms, precisely controlled by the technical staff, the extras and the singers. The minimalistic nature of the sets focuses the audience’s attention all the more effectively on the psychology of the protagonists and the multifaceted story, which reaches its dramatic climax in the scene of the suitors’ trial. Penelope stands in the dust of the earth like a true shaman, covered by a dirty, decaying cloak of her lost husband, raising a bow made of deer antlers above her head. Disguised as humans, the deities lose their power before they so much as touch Odysseus’ weapon. They bow before a mortal woman, the most faithful of the faithful, the strongest of the strong, the most tender of the tender. They leave humiliated, retreating before the nameless wanderers who, by the end, will mingle with the audience, reveal their identities and complicated stories, and find their home in Ithaca. The myth comes full circle and, at the same time, clashes with reality. After an absence of twenty years Ulysses returns in a completely different form.

“Men of Basel”. Photo: Judith Schlosser

Basel is one of the bastions of the historical performance movement, so there is nothing surprising about the technical proficiency and sense of Monteverdian style of the members of the I Musici de la Cetra ensemble, prepared by Johannes Keller and Joan Boronat Sanz. However, I did not expect that this modest, experimental production would provide me with so many vocal thrills. The expected star of the evening was Katarina Bradić as Penelope, whom I had heard four years earlier in the same role in Brussels under René Jacobs’ baton. Not only has Bradić’s contralto grown in brilliance and density in all registers since then, but Lada also uses the singer’s acting potential to the full – my heart went up to my throat already in the opening lament “L’aspettato non giunge”. The real revelation, however, was Ronan Caillet as Eumete: the French tenor, a pupil of Christoph Prégardien, impresses with his extraordinary musicality, handsome voice with a slightly baritonal tinge, and excellent acting skills. It is impossible to ignore the talent of Théo Imart, a young male soprano who played Giunone, Anfinomo and L’Amore – another living proof that the time of “disembodied” countertenors is fortunately coming to an end, with their place being taken by singers with flexible, colourful and expressive voices. Equally promising is the presence of Jamez McCorkie in the cast. Not so long ago the Basel Telemaco sang baritone roles: he has recently changed his Fach to tenor, retaining a brassy brilliance in the lower register and a quasi-soul articulation, remarkably consistent with his “black” voice. Among the other soloists, special mention should be made of Rolf Romei (Giove/Pisandro/La Fortuna) – a Basel Opera veteran, and expressive spinto tenor normally associated with quite a different repertoire; and the actor Martin Hug, who created a brilliant and vocally surprisingly competent portrayal of the pathetic Iro.

This is the kind of theatre – insightful, economical, daring – I naively dreamt of when the Polish opera world was entering the dark night of the pandemic. Perhaps I will see it one day. With this hope I returned north, to a country, where “sometimes it was so boring that the local dignitaries, having carefully drawn the curtains, would put on fake paper noses in front of their mirrors just to amuse themselves a little”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Open the Door Before Music

The life of Bishop Martin of Tours was complicated enough even without the lofty embellishments of later hagiographers. A saint of the “undivided Church”, venerated by the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans alike, one of the first Confessors – witnesses of faith who somehow managed to die a natural death – Martin is also regarded as a pioneer of pacifist movements and modern humanitarianism. Contrary to Sulpicius Severus’ testimony, he did not run away from home to dedicate himself to God, nor was he forcibly dissuaded from baptism by his brute of a father or forcibly conscripted into the army.

The son of a Pannonian tribune seems to have simply missed the family calling. When he was a child, he moved with his family to Ticinum in Cisalpine Gaul – after his father had been granted veteran status as a reward for his faithful service, and with it numerous privileges as well as a large plot of land for cultivation. Indeed, Martin failed to meet the expectations of his progenitor, who named him after the Roman god of war for a reason. Not eager to fight, the ten-year-old Martin joined the ranks of the local catechumens, but was not baptised – not only out of fear of his parents, but also because the local bishop did not want to fall foul of the retired tribune and believed that one had to be mature enough in order to be initiated into Christianity. Martin became a legionary anyway, aware that as the son of a former cohort commander he did not have any other choice. According to some contemporary historians, he served in the army much longer than Sulpicius Severus claims, perhaps even as long as twenty-five years. Yet he did not turn out to be particularly good in this trade. On the eve of a battle against the Teutons, he tried to have his incentive bonus in the form of double pay exchanged for a discharge from the army. Arrested for cowardice, he faced serious consequences. He behaved like a true conscientious objector: he volunteered to go into battle at the front of the troops, defending himself only with the sign of the cross. But then a miracle happened: the enemy asked for peace.

Saint Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar. XIVth century wall painting from Skibby church, Denmark

Irrespective of whether Martin left the army as a youngster or a mature man, he was baptised shortly before returning to civilian life. He became an icon of charity thanks to a deed that ultimately determined his decision to become a Christian: when he encountered a half-naked beggar on his way to the city of Ambianum and was unable to give him alms, he cut his officer’s cloak in two and shared it with the beggar. His later life is the story of an unusual bishop of Caesarodunum (today’s Tours) who renounced the benefits of the his position in favour of living an ascetic life, preaching the faith “in the field” and ruthlessly fighting paganism. He zealously destroyed pagan idols and sacred groves, but forgave humans and took their sins upon himself. He died in missionary glory, away from his diocese. His body was ferried in secret on the rivers Vienne and Loire. A ceremonious funeral took place on 11 November 397 in Tours.

The day is celebrated as the Fest of Martin the Bishop. Strangely enough, it was on 11 November that the armistice between the Entente and the German Empire was signed in a railway carriage near Compiègne, France, ending the black night of the First World War. Even more strangely, in the early months of the conflict the London parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields was entrusted to the pacifist Dick Sheppard, who ran it like Saint Martin incarnate. Sheppard, too, had served in the army, but radically changed his views under the impact of his harrowing experiences during the Second Boer War. Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, he volunteered, having become an Anglican pastor, to serve in a French field hospital, where he defended German soldiers from lynching by an angry mob several times. In 1915 he transformed his church into a centre providing help to all who needed it and called it the Church of the Ever Open Door. Every day he fed the homeless and put them up for the night there, cutting off any protests with one sentence: “You can’t expect to hear the truth on an empty stomach”. In 1924 he led the first ever religious service to be broadcast on the radio from St Martin-in-the-Fields. He would later boasts about letters from the faithful thanking him for the possibility of singing hymns in the company of their drinking mates in a nearby pub.

Perhaps it is the genius loci. Some years ago archaeologists discovered a burial ground beneath the church and a number of artefacts suggesting that a centre of Christian worship may have existed here already in Martin of Tours’ times – most probably built on the site of a sacred grove and demolished pagan altars. The first church of Saint Martin was built here in the thirteenth century – it was indeed located “in the fields”, outside the walls of London. Whether the monks of Westminster Abbey, who were in charge of the church, were guided by the teachings of the former legionary “who bought himself a place in heaven for a cloak”  – is hard to say. We know that in 1542 Henry VIII had a new church built on the site: to nurse and bury the victims of a mysterious plague called English sweating sickness as far away from the Royal Palace of Whitehall as possible. As an additional precaution, he had a pillory erected in front of it – as a warning for the less sick – fearing the collapse of the parish healthcare system. The brick structure of the church proved so fragile that as early as in 1710 the Parliament decided to build a new edifice, allocating for the purpose a substantial sum of 22,000 pounds.

The design of the church was entrusted to the Scottish architect James Gibbs, a discreet Catholic who skilfully smuggled into his buildings elements of the “classicising” Carlo Fontana-style Baroque, while remaining an ardent follower of the Vitruvian triad of utility, durability and beauty. As the available space was limited, his original idea of constructing an edifice with a circular floor plan was rejected. Gibbs then decided to go the whole hog with the design and came up with a solution that embodied the idea of the “undivided Church”: a building without any religious symbols on the outside, with a Corinthian portico, a Baroque spire rising from the roof and a bright interior lit by windows with no stained glass. The construction works were completed in 1726. Initially, the building generated controversy, but soon became a model of Anglican church architecture, imitated countless of times throughout the Empire.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, engraving by H.W. Bond after a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd, 1827

In addition to the charitable work that the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields started with the local poor as early as in the eighteenth century, hiring adults to work in flax spinning and wool carding, and providing children with basic education in reading, writing and bookkeeping, the vicars of the church also made sure that services would have worthy musical settings. They hired the finest organists, beginning with John Weldon, a pupil of Henry Purcell and composer of incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, staged in 1712 at the Drury Lane Theatre. In the twentieth century – thanks in part to the collaboration with the BBC started by Sheppard – the church was also transformed into a thriving concert hall. In 1959 it became the home of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra founded on the initiative of the violinist Neville Marriner, which played a key role in the British revival of historical performance of Baroque and Classical music. The Café in the Crypt has for years been welcoming jazz musicians. Less well-off music lovers can enjoy free afternoon concerts. In addition, the parish organises music education events, family events and the famous Concerts by Candlelight. Two months ago St Martin-in-the-Fields became the base of all of John Eliot Gardiner’s three ensembles: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The programme of the first evening at their new home featured Hector Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ.

Among this richness performances of Polish music have been sporadic and rather accidental. That is why Paweł Łukaszewski’s initiative to organise – in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute – a festival of Polish sacred music, Joy and Devotion, at St Martin-in-the-Fields in November deserves special appreciation. Łukaszewski is an outstanding exponent of a strand of contemporary music appreciated much more in the United Kingdom than in Poland, where some critics remain sceptical about his oeuvre. Łukaszewski’s compositions fit perfectly with the British sensitivity to the sacred: perfectly constructed in terms of form, expertly exploring the possibilities and limitations of the human voice, they can appeal to the local audiences, from childhood accustomed as they are to choral music – the least expensive and most natural instrument of communal experience. The terms “anti-modernism” and “renewed tonality” do not bring to mind anything inappropriate to the Brits. The same categories of simplicity, subtle play with the past and purity of expression can be used to describe John Tavener’s oeuvre, the value of which no one questions in Poland. Maybe we are not detached enough, maybe we find “foreign” spirituality more palatable than our own, or maybe it takes truly phenomenal performers for music to speak to us fully.

Łukaszewski made sure such performers were in place and promises to attract them for the future editions of the new festival. As a composer he took a step back this time, adding just a few of his short pieces to the programme presented by the London Tenebrae Choir led by Nigel Short, a former member of the King’s Singers. The event also featured a concert by Echo, an ensemble active for four years and conducted by Sarah Latto, while the opening night featured the organist Rupert Jeffcoat and one of the UK’s most promising vocal ensembles, The Gesualdo Six – known to Polish music lovers as well – founded in 2014 by a young singer, conductor and composer, Owain Park. In addition to the oldest works of Polish vocal music, the programme of the entire event also included jewels of Polish Renaissance and Baroque, works by contemporary classics as well as pieces by representatives of the younger generation of composers, including Paweł Łukaszewski’s students.


The Gesualdo Six at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Photo: Marcin Urban

I went London to attend the inauguration – and to savour the incredible cohesion of the six quite distinct voices that make up The Gesualdo Six. Their singing is like a wise conversation, emphasising every rhetorical gesture, every rough and smooth texture, every mystery contained in the musical form. It finally revealed to me the phenomenon of Krzysztof Borek, the alleged maestro di cappella of the Cracow Rorantists. I hope that the living and the dead authors of the other compositions will forgive me: I only remember the Missa Mater Matris, a reworking of Josquin des Prés’ Missa Mater Patris – seemingly not far from the original, yet softer, more tender, full of strangely familiar harmonies. Perhaps this is what I had been missing in the few Polish performances of Borek’s works: a masterful familiarity with the style of the original and at the same time a fresh look at the work of a completely unknown composer. The ability to look into a score with the same attentiveness and emotion with which Martin – not yet a saint – once looked into the eyes of a frozen pauper on the road to Ambianum.

The Gesualdo Six shared with Borek everything they had. And they were none the worse for the experience. It is wonderful to be taught such a lesson in the church of Saint Martin in the Fields.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article available at: https://www.tygodnikpowszechny.pl/swiety-marcin-wsrod-pol-169764

A New Harmony

Gregor Joseph Werner failed in health quite early – ­ his body began to give up on him just after he turned sixty. This may have been caused by overwork, for Wener performed his duties as the Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court very conscientiously. He was hired by the regent Maria Octavia – rumour has it that this happened at the instigation of her seventeen-year-old son Pál Antal – who, seven years after the premature death of her husband József, decided to rebuild the musical stature of the family.

In 1728 Werner was welcomed as a herald of a new era for the House of Esterházy. A teacher of the young prince and a prolific composer – author of more than twenty oratorios and forty masses as well as symphonies, trio sonatas and a collection of “new and very curious” orchestral suites for the twelve months of the year – Werner raised the Eisenstadt Kapelle to European heights. Faithful to the late Baroque style almost as much as to his princely patrons, never for a moment did Werner suspect that anyone would undermine his position at the Esterházy court. And then that man arrived. A youngster who was not yet thirty, two generations Werner’s junior, endowed with extraordinary personal charm and even greater talent.

His name was Joseph Haydn and he arrived in Eisenstadt thanks to the patronage of his previous employer, the Bohemian Count Karl Josef Morzin, who had been forced to disband his orchestra in Dolní Lukavice for financial reasons. Prince Pál II Antal, nearly fifty and suffering from numerous ailments, decided that it was high time to follow in his mother’s footsteps and once again open a new era in the history of the Esterházy family. Out of respect for Werner, he kept him – at least formally – in his position and in 1761 appointed Haydn vice Kapellmeister of the court. He granted both men an annual salary of four hundred gulden, but gave Haydn considerably more responsibilities. From then on Werner was to compose only religious music. The old master was unable to swallow the insult. The conflict escalated a few months later, when Pál Antal died without an heir and the title was inherited by his younger and even more musical brother Miklós József Esterházy, who immediately raised Haydn’s salary to six hundred gulden a year.

Esterháza palace in Fertőd. Photo: Zsolt Batár

Desperate, in October 1765 Werner decided to take action against his rival. He wrote a letter to His Royal Highness, politely informing him that Haydn was unable to control the musicians, was flinging money around, was not taking proper care of the instruments entrusted to him, was committing financial abuses and was an inveterate liar. There may have been something in these accusations, because the prince reprimanded his protégé, ordering him to keep the archives in order, be more active as a composer and concentrate on trios for viola, cello and baryton (the aristocrat’s favourite instrument, similar to the viol). Less than six months later Werner died. In 1766 Haydn became the court Kapellmeister, a new residence – the Esterháza, a palace described, without any exaggeration, as the Hungarian Versailles – was ceremoniously blessed in the town of Fertőd and the prince increased Haydn’s salary to eight hundred gulden a year.

It is better not to draw too rash conclusions from this story. Haydn was not only a great composer, but also an expert on human nature, a natural-born diplomat and, deep down, a righteous and good-natured man. He used the almost thirty years he worked in the service of the Esterházy princes to the advantage of both sides, strengthening the position of the aristocratic Kapelle and his own status as one of the most outstanding artists of the period. He did his job and at the same time gave in to the whims of the prince, whose love of the baryton was later replaced with a passion for opera and puppet theatre. The Kapellmeister did not hide his admiration for his frustrated predecessor Werner, arranging six introductions and fugues from his oratorios for a string quartet in 1804.

Haydn left the Esterházy court in 1790, after the death of Miklós, whose successor, Antal I, disbanded the orchestra, but granted the composer a life salary of one thousand gulden. When Johann Peter Salomon invited Haydn to England and offered him a contract to compose twelve symphonies, Haydn was a free man, bathed in enough glory to spend the last years of his life in Vienna, which he had used to hate so much.

It is also better not to succumb to the magic of the formula which emerged after the fall of the Bar Confederation and not to compare the Esterházy patronage to any of the initiatives of Polish magnates.

As an old adage would have it, Pole and Hungarian brothers be, but certainly not when it comes to artistic patronage, also because – perhaps above all – of different historical circumstances. When the founder of the family, Miklós Esterházy de Galántha, was building his position, he was doing so in a country torn between the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania and lands seized by the Turks. He converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, married twice into wealthy aristocratic Hungarian families, and in 1625 sided with Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs rewarded the Esterházy family’s contribution to the fight against the Ottoman invasion by elevating Miklós and his son Pál to the rank of palatine of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Esterházys remained loyal to the German dynasty during the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and the Hungarian Spring of the Peoples. Their actions – unlike those of many Polish magnates – were not undone by the indelible stigma of high treason. The identity of modern Hungarians was forged in the course of a somewhat anti-romantic struggle for freedom: a struggle in which the imagined welfare of the community was often put before the tangible welfare of the individual.

György Vashegyi. Photo: Pilvax

This was mentioned by the late Péter Esterházy, a descendant of one of the branches of the family and author of the novel Harmonia Caelestis, in which he intricately wove together a half-imagined history of his ancestors with a half-imagined history of Hungary. He subsequently had to add a supplement to the novel, having learned about his father Mátyás’ long collaboration with the Hungarian security services. It is worth returning to Esterházy’s book, if only in an unsuccessful attempt to understand the paradoxes that govern Hungary. I thought about it constantly during a recent visit to Budapest – as part of a trip organised for journalists by the Munich-based PR agency Ophelias Culture – to attend the first festival organised by the Haydneum, an institute recently established by the Hungarian government.

The objective of the Haydneum is to promote not Hungarian early music, but the oeuvres of composers associated with Hungary – above all, with the Esterházy court – in the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods. The generously funded activities of the institute are to include publishing, research as well as organisation of concerts, training courses and masterclasses – in international cooperation with distinguished specialists and representatives of the historical performance movement. The brains behind the venture is the conductor, harpsichordist and teacher György Vashegyi, founder of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, and for the past four years president of the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, or Hungarian Academy of Arts. The artistic director of the Haydneum is Benoît Dratwicki, a cellist, bassoonist and musicologist, expert on eighteenth-century French opera, artistic director of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles and co-founder of Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de Musique Romantique Française in Venice.

Performers at this year’s festival included – in addition to Vashegyi’s ensembles – Les Talents Lyriques conducted by Christoph Rousset, Capella Savaria conducted by Zsolt Kalló and the Freiburger Barockorchester. I was able to make it only to the first two days of the event, which – like the whole venture – I initially approached with reserve similar to that shown by Gregor Joseph Werner to the newly appointed vice Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court. The European art circles have for years been debating Article 10 of the new Hungarian constitution of 2011, which includes a worrying provision concerning the scholarly and artistic freedom of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. According to its opponents, cultural institutions in Hungary have fallen prey to the government, becoming a tool of a new narrative managed by corrupt oligarchs, a narrative that is closed to the world, anti-liberal and anti-modernist. According to its supporters, the Hungarian state’s current cultural strategy prevents thoughtless squandering of funds on projects of slight artistic value but with a powerful propagandistic message – not to mention the fact that it effectively protects the autonomy of art against the designs of all kinds of politicos and unrealistic ideologues.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as in the case of the young Haydn, who did not always deliver the princely commissions as promised and sometimes abused his patron’s trust, but who managed his staff efficiently and undoubtedly knew what the composer’s craft was all about.

The co-founders and organisers of the Haydneum certainly know what the work of the newly established institution is all about: something that cannot always be said of those behind similar projects elsewhere in Europe. I had many opportunities to see evidence of their extensive knowledge combined with genuine passion: when reading the excellent programme book; during curatorial visits to the National Széchényi Library, the Museum of the History of Music and the Hungarian State Archives; and, above all, during unofficial discussions about the interpretation of works by Haydn, Werner and other artists associated with the court, about the acoustics, technical and architectural solutions of the opera theatre at Esterháza, about the need to find a compromise between a faithful reconstruction of the Fertőd palace and the needs of contemporary audiences. When talking to my Hungarian peers, I discovered that we had surprisingly similar memories of our first experiences with early music.

Christoph Rousset. Photo: Pilvax

However, something stopped them in their tracks or perhaps pushed us too far ahead. During the first concert at Müpa Budapest – featuring works by Joseph and Michael Haydn, and Johann Georg Albrechsberger – I had the impression that the performance aesthetics of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra were deeply rooted in the tradition of the pioneers of historical singing and playing. That their interpretations were very clever, but not experienced, that they lacked the spontaneity or even casualness of the Italians, the French and the more courageous among the Brits.

The following day we encountered a completely different world in the recently opened concert hall in a former Carmelite monastery. In Gregor Joseph Werner’s oratorio Job Les Talents Lyriques, led by Rousset, inspired the Hungarian choristers as well, making music freely yet precisely, with a perfect feeling for the composer’s late Baroque. I have the impression that with time these two worlds – listening friendly to each other for the moment – will start intermingling. Like in the Kapelle of the Esterházy princes, which attracted the best musicians from all over Europe for so many years.

After returning home I found myself right in the middle of the Polish storm, which almost blew my nightcap off my head, as it once happened to Haydn after a short visit to Vienna. I still don’t know what to think about the Hungarians’ cultural policy, but I do envy them the Haydneum idea.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

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