Music of Tears

It was October 1977. At the Ruch Muzyczny editorial office six critics were summing up the Warsaw Autumn Festival. When the conversation moved to the Polish premiere of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, the commentators split into two camps. The winners were the opponents, senior by virtue of not only their age but also authority. Ludwik Erhardt accused the composer of being boring and primitive. Olgierd Pisarenko snapped dismissively that to “designate a genius means great satisfaction and little risk”. Tadeusz A. Zieliński argued that Górecki – by exposing raw emotions and reducing “everything else” to a minimum – inadvertently committed a reduction ad absurdum. The advocates defended themselves timidly. With the exception of Andrzej Chłopecki, not yet thirty at the time, who blurted out without a second thought: “A masterpiece putting its composer among geniuses”.

Those feeling offended by the “traitor to the ideals of the avant-garde” did not change their mind even after the success of the Nonesuch 1992 recording featuring Dawn Upshaw in the solo part and the London Sinfonietta orchestra conducted by David Zinman. They were unimpressed by the fact that in the UK charts Symphony No. 3 was ranked ahead of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Sting’s latest album. They thought the whole thing was a pop culture phenomenon and did not wonder how it was possible that this long, slow piece appealed to the taste and sensibility of grunge and post-punk fans. However, something began to change. More interpretations and recordings followed. The shamelessly beautiful composition was ahead of its time. Year after year it grew more and more in tune with the multifaceted, anxiety-ridden present.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs also got to be adapted, with the adaptations often being unsuccessful, ignoring the inseparable textual layer of the work. That is why it was with interest, but also anxiety, that I watched the preparations for a staging of Górecki’s work at the English National Opera, in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. I was afraid that there would be empty seats in the auditorium. I was afraid that there would be naive references to the ongoing war in Ukraine and, on the other hand, allusions to the outrageous decision of the Arts Council England, which put the ENO on the brink of extinction by withdrawing its annual funding and proposing instead some dubiousremedies”. After numerous protests by music lovers and music professionals, the parties reached a fragile compromise, but it is still uncertain what will happen next.

Photo: Clive Barda

Even if the ENO survives as an institution, it might lose its beloved home: the famous Coliseum, where it moved in 1968, still as Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. The construction of the theatre, the most impressive in the West End to this day, was commissioned by Sir Oswald Stoll, a theatre manager and later producer of silent films, who decided to make it a “people’s palace of entertainment” worthy of the age. Designed by Frank Matcham, the building, with its tower topped by a characteristic openwork globe, concealed a lavish auditorium and state-of-the-art theatrical machinery. When it opened, it boasted the world’s only triple revolving stage and a number of revolutionary technical solutions, from the installation of lifts taking visitors to the upper floors of the auditorium, to the suspension of the balconies on steel supports in order to avoid pillars obstructing the audience’s view. The inauguration in December 1904 was a complete fiasco, despite the fact that its programme featured a reenactment of Derby Race with live horses and real jockeys racing on the revolving stage. The theatre did not get going for good until two years later, but when it did, it was hugely successful. Its offer was varied: from musicals and dramas, ballets and pantomimes, to cricket matches and film screenings. After becoming the home of Sadler’s Wells Opera – soon renamed English National Opera – it presented dozens of world premieres and hundreds of other performances, made successful by artists of the calibre of Charles Mackerras, Bryn Terfel and David Pountney, to mention just the first three names that come to my mind.

Naturally, there were ups and downs, the latter more frequent recently owing to ill-judged managerial appointments. However, we were still dealing not so much with the second London stage after Covent Garden, but with a theatre with a completely different profile, different target audience, presenting performances almost exclusively in English, geared more towards promoting young talent than filling the auditorium thanks to star performers (incidentally, the ENO has more seats in the auditorium than the Royal Opera House). The musical world expected sensible changes, not a decision – rightly protested against – to break up the company and squander its valuable artistic, social and educational initiatives.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was planned as the last premiere of the season. This was another source of my worries: that everyone would see the production as a filler, especially given that one week before the ENO had premiered Blue, a new opera by Jeanine Tesori telling the story of the fight of Harlem’s black community against the systemic violence of the police. Both productions were presented at the ENO almost simultaneously, six performances each in late April and early May. Blue proved attuned to the public feeling and elicited a lively response from the critics, who grumbled about the quality of the score, but did not question the theatrical values of the work. How did the staging of Górecki’s static music fare in comparison, given that, according to many musicologists, it cannot be happily united with any other form of art?

Photo: Clive Barda

I went to London to see the last performance, so I had managed to read several interviews with the director, Isabella Bywater, and to take a look at the surprisingly favourable reviews. However, I was amazed by comments on the ENO’s fanpage, where admiration was mixed with questions about whether anyone had a ticket to spare for any date. I saw with my own eyes that the house, with its more than 2300 seats, was indeed full. Filled with an audience hungry primarily for theatre, because thirty years after the commercial success of Symphony No. 3, few people knew that the unsettling music in The Crown, in the scene where Princess Margaret’s fiancé cheats on her with a West End dancer, is the third of Górecki’s “sorrowful songs”.

After an hour-long confrontation with raw, gut-wrenching emotions, shown with a powerful theatrical gesture in a perfectly organised space, I came to agree with both the critics and the stunned audience. Bywater is primarily a set designer, which led to a wonderful rapport with the lighting director Jon Driscoll and with Robert Vitalini, the author of the abstract projections that were visionary in their simplicity. As a director Bywater also knows how to collaborate thoughtfully with Dan O’Neill, responsible for stage movement.  Her Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a coherent tale of the hell of a mother’s grief, the purgatory of longing for a lost child and the heaven of reconciliation with death – not achievable for every mother.  The first movement, to the sounds of a Marian lament, depicts an arduous and failed journey from hell to heaven. A woman crawls onto the stage, brings out a long swathe of cloth from its depths, twisting it like an umbilical cord and rolling it up into a form resembling a swaddled newborn baby, then sits down with it on a chair and begins to fly upwards. She fails to reach her son’s body suspended on a bier, falls from the flies, tumbles over a time as infinite as the song, getting tangled in folds of white cloth – a multifaceted symbol of her tragic motherhood.

In the slightly less vivid second part of the triptych Bywater presents the same tragedy from the point of view of a dying child, supported in agony and rocked into the next world by a double figure of tender death – personified by actors accompanying the soloist. The third part takes place on a battlefield, a bit like from Goya’s engravings, a bit like from medieval depictions of the Last Judgement – with the mother looking for her fallen son in the trenches, among spectres of maimed soldiers, only to rise towards light like a Bosch angel, this time without falling. But without ascending into heaven either: remaining in this world with all the motherly grief, though now made familiar.

Photo: Clive Barda

Can you talk more emphatically about the madness of the contemporary world than by using the universal language of orphaned mothers and the fate of their children taken by war, heartlessness and violence? Can you sing it better than Nicole Chevalier with her dense, sensual soprano, a sensitive singer as much as an outstanding actress? Can you conduct it more subtly than Lidiya Yankovskaya, precise in every gesture, sensitive to every flutter in this ocean of sounds, building tension without resorting to unbearable pathos? You probably can, but I’m not sure whether you should. The girl sitting next to me surreptitiously wiped away tears throughout the performance, and a blind elderly gentleman on my right reacted in a similar fashion, relying only on the music and the energy emanating from the stage.

History will judge whether Górecki was a genius or only a clever magician playing with the listeners’ emotions. For the moment history should judge members of the Arts Council England, who with such thoughtless cruelty are trying to crush the Londoners’ beloved company.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Red Sails Over the Tagus

If Vasco da Gama had not charted a sea route from Europe to India, the legendary Dutch captain Hendrik Van der Decken would not have found enough hubris in himself to force his sailors to battle a storm around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1487 the crew of a fleet led by Bartolomeu Dias refused to travel any farther to the east, and the rocky headland became known as the Cape of Storms. Yet King John II of Portugal, called the Perfect Prince, decided to reverse the explorers’ losing streak. The stretch of land jutting out into the ocean acquired a new name, “cabo da Boa Esperança”. As it turned out, the king was right. Vasco da Gama’s first expedition, financed by John’s successor, Manuel I the Fortunate, crossed the crucial point on 22 November 1497 and several weeks later found itself on the waters of the Indian Ocean. It returned to Lisbon in September the following year. The captain, despite losing over two-thirds of his crew and having to burn one of his ships in order to stop an on-board epidemic, was generously rewarded for his efforts. King Manuel made him an admiral and in an act of thanksgiving for opening access to the Indian treasures, he ordered the construction of a Hieronymites monastery near the port of Restelo.

It was from there that Vasco da Gama’s ships set sail. Sailors prayed for the success of the groundbreaking expedition in the local church, on the site of which the monastery with a new church, Santa Maria de Belém, was later erected. It was by the will of King Manuel that after the explorer’s series of successes the famous Torre de Belém was built in the Tagus riverbed, becoming a landmark for adventurers returning to the port and a symbol of Portugal’s maritime power. It was there that the huge building of the Centro Cultural de Belém was constructed to mark Portugal’s Presidency of the Council of the European Communities in 1992, including, in addition to conference and exhibition space, two concert halls with all the facilities. The bigger hall, with nearly 1500 seats, is a venue for operatic productions which cannot be presented – due to the large forces needed to perform them – in the historic Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.

Tómas Tómasson (Dutchman). Photo: António Pedro Ferreira

Before Van der Decken committed blasphemy in the middle of a storm off the coast of Africa and brought a curse upon his ship, he must have sailed around Portugal – perhaps even calling at the port on the outskirts of Lisbon, where the age of great discoveries began. I couldn’t shake off that thought as I travelled to a performance of Der fliegende Holländer half way between the anchorage where Vasco da Gama’s three-masters stood, and the sarcophagus holding his mortal remains. However, I went to Portugal primarily because of my personal fascination with the British approach to Wagner’s oeuvre. I wanted to confront my impressions of Negus’, Farnes’ and Elder’s interpretations with the interpretation of Der fliegende Holländer by Graeme Jenkins, a student of Norman Del Mar, a conductor who began his career as a French horn player and with time became famous for his solid and very insightful interpretations of Richard Strauss’ music. I was also looking forward to Peter Wedd’s belated debut as Erik, to another encounter with Peter Rose’s Daland and, last but not least, to live contact with the charismatic Icelander Tómas Tómasson as the Dutchman. I had previously heard him only once, in a performance of Tristan so dire that even his Kurwenal could not make much impression on me.

Jenkins is an extremely versatile opera conductor with experience in the Wagnerian repertoire. Associated with the Dallas Opera for nearly two decades, he prepared over fifty premieres for the company, including a production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, a project he embarked on when he was not yet forty. Jenkins knows the score of Der fliegende Holländer inside out. In 2014 he opened the season with it at Vienna’s Staatsoper: the production, which he conducted in place of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, went down in history because of Bryn Terfel’s phenomenal portrayal of the tormented wandering sailor. However, from what I heard in Lisbon, something keeps eluding him in this work, keeps leading him astray, into a labyrinth of intriguing textures and honed details from which no convincing picture of the whole emerges. Admittedly, Jenkins led the musicians with a relatively light hand, in calm, nicely measured tempi. He knew how to set the various parts within logically constructed sound structures, how to highlight meaningful motifs, to give room to the singers. Yet he was unable to maintain the pulse of the musical narrative, which in truly masterful interpretations of this opera resembles the rhythm of an exhausted heart: it flutters, faints, suddenly stops only to surge forward again in a moment to the point of breathlessness. Jenkins’ smooth, meticulously polished Holländer lacked contrasts. It was impossible to sense the sombre horror of immortality or the naive charm of redemption. Everything unfolded as if behind a foggy veil, in greyish twilight dulling not only the blackness of the ocean but also the sparkle in Senta’s eyes.

Scene from Act 3. Photo: António Pedro Ferreira

Perhaps I’m being unfair, perhaps Jenkins’ distanced interpretation simply did not match my sensibility, was against my idea of the true values of this ultra-Romantic opera. Under his baton the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa played with evident enthusiasm, although – paradoxically – Jenkins was able to elicit more lyricism and subtle agogic hues from the wind instruments rather than from the strings, less sensitive to the conductor’s gesture. There was some excellent singing from the combined choirs of the Teatro Nacional, under the direction of Giampaolo Vessella, and the Coro Ricercare prepared by Pedro Teixiera. However, the narrative was carried primarily by the soloists. I have to admit that Peter Rose – still in fine vocal form – is becoming my favourite Daland, poignantly human in his weaknesses and authentic, though foolish love for his daughter. Excellent performances in the supporting roles came from Maria Luisa de Freitas (Mary) and Marco Alves dos Santos (Steersman), especially from the latter, a singer endowed with a lovely tenor, perhaps not sufficiently open in the upper register, but dos Santos was nevertheless able to use it to create a vivid portrayal of a young sailor, a little lost in the world of landlubbers. Peter Wedd, singing with a voice brighter than usual, but still perfectly supported and undoubtedly heroic, portrayed Erik as a brute, a man-boy immature for love, balancing on the fine line between aggression, manipulation and submissiveness. At times that portrayal was genuinely harrowing. Gabriela Scherer, who possesses an extremely lovely, meaty and colourful soprano, used lightly and with a great sense of phrase, at times felt constrained in her role as a passive Senta, which resulted in some minor intonation slip-ups and a somewhat dull sound in the middle register. As expected, Tómas Tómasson turned out to be the star of the evening, though, truth to tell, I would prefer to have heard him in the role a few years ago. His “black”, genuine dramatic baritone is already showing some signs of wear and tear, though it still manages to touch the very heart of the listeners. It is a powerful and yet subtle voice, perfectly even across the registers, wisely extended upwards from the bass range and not the other way round, as is the case with most of today’s Wagnerian bass-baritones. In addition, Tómasson has the looks for the role and is very convincing as an actor. In Lisbon he created a character as if straight from a film by Murnau, dark, exciting, with a great power of expression.

Gabriela Scherer (Senta) and Peter Wedd (Erik). Photo: António Pedro Ferreira

This year’s programme of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos featured only two performances of Der fliegende Holländer, in a production by a young director, Max Hoehn, who got his first professional experience as an assistant to Graham Vick and David Pountney. A few months ago I grumbled about Paul Curran’s concept presented in equally difficult conditions of Bologna’s EuropAuditorium. I think I have to give him credit. When you have a limited budget, it is better not to have ideas than to have too many of them. Hoehn littered the space with a plethora of tacky props, equally tackily lit and complemented by downright infantile projections (set design and lighting direction by Giuseppe di Iorio, costumes by Rafael Mapril, projections by Amber Cooper-Davies). The whole seemed like a school play staged by a group of pupils at odds with each other. Instead of Daland’s ship – an oversize paper boat. Instead of a storm – chorus members doing a Mexican wave with chairs in their hands. If Erik is a hunter, let him run around the stage with a double-barrelled shotgun slung over his shoulder. If Senta is to leave with the Dutchman, let her wait for him in the port with a cardboard suitcase. Only twice did all this smell of real theatre: when the appearance of the spectral galleon was suggested by a red-lit sail suddenly dropped from the flies, and in the dream scene of Erik, who spun his monologue with a vacant face, sitting motionless behind a table. The audience received the production coldly, but did not hide its enthusiasm for the performers. And rightly so, for the Lisbon Holländer was staged with an excellent cast and the conductor’s concept could at least be debated.

I, too, joined the applause. The Flying Dutchman steered clear of Lisbon for nearly forty years. Let this production be a sign of good hope. This time it was not possible to sail around the Cape of Storms, but the fleet returned safely to the port. We are waiting for Vasco da Gama.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Yellow Bird of Hope

Father Fotis, the priest of the Greek refugees from Kazantzakis’ novel Christ Recrucified, once dozed off for a moment and in a dream short like a flash lived at least a thousand years. He dreamed about a canary-like yellow bird which he had begun to pursue as a little boy. In his old age he understood that he would continue to pursue it until his death. He also felt deep down in his soul that the yellow bird, which “sometimes whistled as if it were making fun of him and sometimes, with its head raised towards the sky, sang like mad”, was not, in fact, a canary, but a powerful symbol of faith, hope and determination.

It was Kazantzakis who persuaded Martinů to give up the idea of composing an opera based on Zorba the Greek and to go for his later morality novel. The original Greek title, Ο Χριστός Ξανασταυρώνεται, has a slightly different meaning than Christ recrucified”. It refers to Christ who has not ceased to be crucified despite the fact that two millennia have passed since his death. The action of the novel takes place in 1921, during the Greco-Turkish War, in a fictitious Greek village in Anatolia where a Passion Play is staged every seven years – featuring actors chosen from among the members of the local community. The villagers traditionally prepare for their roles for months: but this time the process of their identification with the New Testament figures rapidly accelerates. A crowd of hungry, sick refugees from another Greek settlement arrives in the village. Soon an authentic tragedy of agony and death will unfold. The widow Katerina will turn out to be a genuine Mary Magdalene, her lover Panait – Judas incarnate, while Manolios will die like the biblical Christ.

At that time Martinů was approaching the end of his own way of the cross. He left Paris, a city where he had spent nearly twenty years, in 1940, shortly before its capture by the Nazis. First he found refuge in Aquitaine, at the home of the conductor Charles Munch, and then via Spain he reached Portugal, from where he emigrated to the United States. He never truly settled there and intended to return to Czechoslovakia after the war, especially as he continued to receive news of the tragic fate of friends and relatives left behind. In 1946 he suffered an unfortunate accident at his home in Massachussets. The injuries he sustained led to a complete loss of hearing in one ear and irreversible problems with balance. Martinů’s plans were ultimately thwarted by the communists’ takeover of power in his homeland. The ailing composer eventually gave up and applied for American citizenship.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

He began to write The Greek Passion in 1954 – the year when Kazantzakis’ novel was published. He worked on the opera for three years and submitted the final version, with his own libretto after an English translation of the novel, to the managers of London’s Royal Opera House, where his compatriot Rafael Kubelík was music director at the time. Despite a favourable decision of the management the premiere did not happen: the allegedly defective score was rejected following an intervention by the composer Arthur Bliss, who was associated with the company. Martinů revised the work thoroughly, making numerous cuts which – paradoxically – destroyed the cohesion of the narrative. He did not live to see the Zurich premiere, as he died two years before it, in 1959. The orphaned Greek Passion soon found its way onto Czechoslovak stages, first in Brno, in 1962, and then in Prague and Bratislava. The work was also staged in several other European countries. The popularity of Martinů’s last opera surged in the 1980s, after the famous Cardiff staging under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras, who almost simultaneously recorded the entire work with British soloists, the Czech Philharmonic Choir and the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. It was not until 1999 that the original version was reconstructed, under Aleš Březina’s supervision: the “second” premiere of The Greek Passion took place at the Bregenz Festival. Martinů experienced satisfaction from beyond the grave: the following spring the same production was presented by the ROH.

In many respects Brno can be considered the Czech cradle of The Greek Passion, although not necessarily in the form intended by the composer. The Czechs became accustomed to the Zurich version with the libretto translated into their mother tongue already after the 1961 premiere. They received the reconstructed “London” version with mixed feelings, surprised by the fact that they were dealing basically with a different opera. The creative team of the latest staging at the Janáček Theatre chose a middle way, that is the Zurich version with the English libretto, which again generated some controversy – especially among the advocates of the communicativeness of stage works – justified in so far as the solo parts were cast almost without exception with Czech singers. Yet the premiere was eagerly awaited: owing to the involvement in the venture of Jiří Heřman, a director who already in 2015, shortly after becoming artistic chief of the Brno Opera, had staged The Greek Passion at the Aalto-Musiktheater Essen – with considerable success in the eyes of both the critics and the audience. The pandemic put music lovers to an additional test of patience. The Passion, originally planned for Martinů’s double anniversary, was not staged until November 2021. This year it appeared in Brno on three occasions. I managed to see the last performance.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

And it was worth it, if only to marvel again at the visual beauty of Heřman’s concept (which also included light design) prepared in collaboration with set designer Dragan Stojčevski and costume designer Alexandra Gruskova. Heřman “smuggled” into the production several solutions previously tested in Essen – including a huge bell suspended above the stage and a forest of burning candles on the proscenium – yet the Brno staging is far more coherent and bears more marks of the director’s unique style. The colour scheme fluctuates, as usual, between fathomless blacks, broken blue hues and unexpected yellow: that last colour plays the most prominent role in the performance, which is preceded by an extensive quotation from Father Fotis’ dream referred to above. Yellow is the colour of the fire of the paschal candles, the colour worn by both the boy chasing the canary-like bird and Manolios preparing for the role of Christ. Black is the colour of the night of hypocrisy and ignorance, embodied by the attitude of the priest Grigoris, who argues to the village community that if an injustice done to an individual benefits the masses, then it is right. Blue – though at times bordering on grey, at time on green – is the colour of everything that is not obvious. Above all, trees growing with their crowns down, digging their roots into the foundations of houses, as if afraid to go with their shoots outwards, into a world divided by the Greeks into the days before and after the great fire of Smyrna, which ultimately sealed the defeat of their army in 1922 and buried their fantasies about annexing Asia Minor in the dust. What becomes a sign of freedom, faith and hope is the life-giving water on which Manolios walks like Christ – it is admirable how Heřman uses this simple theatrical trick in most of his productions, multiplying the shimmering water in mirror projections in the background.

Heřman’s staging is deeply symbolic, as is Martinů’s opera, in which the composer leaves less room for a play of characters than for a general parable about the power of good and evil, a parable devoid of any historical and political references present in Kazantzakis’ novel. Heřman decided to present The Greek Passion as a universal story set in a vague context, free from any current allusions. I completely understand his decision, especially given the fact that in the light of the latest events the hapless refugees led by Father Fokis would have brought to mind the Russians feeling from the Crimea. In a way, Christ Recrucified is a narrative about the tragedy of the invaders, an poignant parable about the fate of ordinary people caught up in a conflict unfolding above their heads. However, I wish that Heřman had not contented himself with directing crowds, using metaphors without delving into the motivation of the individual characters, who were left to their own devices, at the mercy of their own vocal and acting abilities. I am a little surprised at the optimism of the director, who saw a ray of hope where it was rather absent: in the score and in the last sentence of Kazantzakis’ book, in which the ill-treated community led by Fotis resumed “their interminable march toward the east”.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

I think that Heřman’s unrestrained imagination would have had much more opportunity to shine in the original version, more theatrical, brimming with emotion, marked by abrupt changes of mood. The Zurich narrative is dramaturgically lame, seems kaleidoscopic, does not let the audience identify fully with any of the protagonists. This paradox was too much for Robert Kružík, who conducted The Greek Passion with a rather heavy hand and massive sound, stressing the alleged monumentalism of the score, which, in fact, is quite close to Britten’s late operas. He accurately accentuated the austerity of the Greek Orthodox chanting, appreciated the sophisticated stylisation of the folk melody at the beginning of Act III and of the rural wedding music, but lost the tension and poignant lyricism of the late style of Martinů, trapped in his longing for the homeland he never returned to. Kružík did not point the way for the soloists, most of whom created rather flat, one-dimensional characters. He did not breathe passion into the transformation of Manolios, who was sung correctly but without much involvement by Peter Berger. He ignored the sensuality of Katerina as portrayed by Pavla Vykopalova with her soft and colourful soprano. He did not make a distinction between the malefactors and the just, as a result of which a more assured and more memorable voice was that of Father Grigoris portrayed by Jan Šťáva rather than that of Fotis – perhaps more important in the opera than Manolios – sung by the young Moravian bass-baritone David Szendiuch. Who knows, perhaps the performance I will remember the longest was that of the phenomenal Ondřej Koplík in the tenor role of the pedlar Yannakos playing the role of Peter, the most important of the apostles – the one who did not admit to people that he knew Christ.

However, all this will not change the fact that over sixty years after its premiere The Greek Passion strikes chords dull to many recipients of the home-page contents of websites. That it brings to light the bitter truth about the tragedy of all refugees, even if their leaders are on the wrong side. That it explains that Satan can enter only hell, an angel can enter only Paradise and a human being can choose. In spite of everything it does let us hope that human beings will finally make the right choice one day.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

In Praise of the Sublime

“Basel tickt anders” – Basel “ticks” differently from the rest of Switzerland. This picturesque town in a Rhine bend, in an area settled by the Celts in the middle of the first millennium BC, still lives today in its own quiet rhythm – at a crossroads of borders and eras. No great imagination is required to travel back in time here. To a historical as well as mythical past – also to a Wagnerian landscape with a foreshadowing of the twilight of the gods, Wotan’s broken spear and Brunhilde’s awakening. Even without music – let alone with it, when an eminent expert in Wagner’s oeuvre stands at the conductor’s desk of the Sinfonieorchester Basel and conducts the last act of Siegfried with four soloists carefully selected to match his well-though-out and significantly distinctive interpretative vision.

The roots of Basel’s orchestral tradition can be found in the seventeenth century and the concerts organised by the local Collegium Musicum – in collaboration with professional instrumentalists, whom the burghers rewarded with bread and wine from their own cellars. In the 1820s – with a decision to build the Stadtkasino, a new public building in Barfüsserplatz – the Concertgesellschaft, successor to the old Collegium, was established. A permanent orchestra was launched in 1876, when a genuine concert hall was opened in the building.  The inaugural evening featured Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 conducted by Alfred Volkland, the first boss of the Basler Sinfonie-Orchester. At the beginning of the twentieth century the directorship of the ensemble was taken over by Hermann Sutter, whose repertoire featured – alongside his beloved Bruckner’s symphonies – works by Stravinsky, Bartók and Honegger. Over the following seasons artists standing on the conductor’s rostrum in the municipal Musiksaal included Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Felix Weingartner.

Derek Welton (Wanderer), Simon O’Neill (Siegfried), and Sir Mark Elder conducting Sinfonieorchester Basel. Photo: Benno Hunziker

The decision to demolish the antiquated building and replace it with the current edifice of the Stadtkasino was taken at a rather inopportune moment, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. The institution’s crisis was not overcome until 1947, when the orchestra returned to Barfüsserplatz from its temporary residence in the Volkshaus. Its renown in the international music world grew with each passing year. In 1997 it was combined with the local radio orchestra, acquiring its present name, Sinfonieorchester Basel. Fifteen years later it emerged from under the wing of its long-time patron, the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft, and established its own subscription concert series. Since 2016 Ivor Bolton has been the orchestra’s boss, serving at the same time as Music Director of Madrid’s Teatro Real. Both institutions have extended their contracts with Bolton until the 2024/25 season.

British soloists and conductors have been frequent guests in Basel during Bolton’s directorship. They include Sir Mark Elder, who will soon end his collaboration, lasting nearly a quarter of a century, with the famous Hallé, the oldest professional orchestra in the United Kingdom. Polish music lovers know him primarily from the Bregenz Festival recording of Szymanowski’s King Roger featuring Olga Pasichnyk as Roxana. Some may remember that he was music director of the English National Opera in its best years, when the company, currently under threat of closure, was led by a triumvirate of Elder, David Pountney and Peter Jonas. Very few people in Poland know that the young Elder – together with several of his peers, including Anthony Negus, mentioned on this website many times – was one of the most fervent admirers of Reginald Goodall’s conducting and then one of the few continuators of his unique Wagnerian style.

Rachel Nicholls (Brunhilde). Photo: Benno Hunziker

In their interpretations of Wagner’s music both Elder and Negus attach considerable weight to textural details, seeking to achieve an intensity and depth of sound similar to Goodall’s. However, they are pursuing these goals via different routes, as I had an opportunity to find out in Basel, during a concert performance of the Third Act of Siegfried. The distinctive feature Negus’ performances is a vivid pulse combined with freedom of phrasing and subtle but expressive shifts of metric accents in the score. Elder usually sticks to typical “Goodallian” slow tempi, but he adds extraordinary lightness to them thanks to a brilliant interplay of motifs. Such an approach works perfectly in Siegfried, full of contrasts as it is, especially in the final act, in which the conductor, wisely meting out tension, must carry the performers and the listeners from the foot of Brunhilde’s rock to the heights of the sublime; must demonstrate the inner transformation of the Wanderer, who renounces his own will for Siegfried to be created anew; must stress not only the evolution of the two protagonists in the love duet, but also the still existing differences between them. In Elder’s approach the musical narrative is characterised by gradually but consistently meted out drama: dense darkness juxtaposed with dazzling brightness, bloom with fall, defeat with triumph, all culminating and being summed up in Brunhilde and Siegfried’s thrice-repeated final cry of “Leuchtende Liebe, lachender Tod!”.

In Siegfried the Sinfonieorchester Basel felt slightly less at ease than the legendary Hallé, but we cannot forget that Mark Elder does not work with it on the Wagnerian repertoire on a daily basis. Nevertheless, he was able to inspire the instrumentalists to play vigilantly, passionately, with their playing being imbued with the spirit of the story. What also contributed to the success of the enterprise were undoubtedly the two soloists from the original Manchester cast under his baton: with both Rachel Nicholls (Brunhilde) and Simon O’Neill in the title role having had time since to grow into their roles and refine them in terms of pure vocal performance. This applied especially to Nicholls – a truly girlish Brunhilde with a fresh, perfectly controlled soprano, wide open at the top and having an incredibly huge volume. O’Neill’s tenor may not be thick and rich enough for this fiendish role, but I admit in admiration that the New Zealand singer uses it very skilfully, with a masterful sense of phrase and text of the libretto as well as precise diction, intonation and voice production. Erda was sung by the excellent Wiebke Lehmkuhl, whose dark alto shimmering with golden reflections made such an impression on me eight years ago in Berlin, in a harrowing performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with the DSO conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. The Wanderer as interpreted by Derek Welton was a bit too “youthful”, also because of some vocal shortcomings in the lower register – fortunately, Welton largely made up for them with the beauty of his voice and sensitive interpretation.

After the concert at the Stadtcasino Basel. Photo: Benno Hunziker

The complete recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Hallé Orchestra under Elder, crowned with Siegfried in 2019, still has not caught the attention of music lovers, drowning in a sea of other, often less valuable interpretations of Wagner’s masterpiece. Negus’ interpretations, for which fans have recently been travelling to the other side of the globe, are known only from live performances. And yet Goodall’s legacy is not going to waste. It continues to function in secret. It goes on in some kind of separate undercurrent, cultivated not by passive imitators but by fully conscious successors who enrich their master’s style with their own reflection and experience. This is the case of Sir Mark Elder, who struck the most sensitive chords in the hearts of not only the Sinfonieorchester Basel musicians, but also the listeners, enchanted by his vision. In a city where everything ticks differently.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Gottfried Is Dead

That experience changed Thomas Mann’s life forever. He never recovered from the youthful rapture he experienced in Lübeck during a performance of Lohengrin. Less than four years later he began writing Buddenbrooks, a story of a wealthy merchant family from Lübeck. Perhaps of his own family, for it had been living in this free Hanseatic city since 1775. In Chapter Two of the eleventh part of the novel Mann seems to identify with the fifteen-year old Hanno Buddenbrook, who, as a reward for having bravely endured maltreatment in Herr Brecht’s dental surgery for several days, went with his mother to a performance of Lohengrin. He was not bothered by the fact that the orchestra’s mediocre violins proved disappointing already in the first bars of the prelude. He did not mind the fact that the fat tenor with a straw-coloured beard entered the stage in a bouncing boat. “The sweet, exalted splendour (…) had borne him away upon its wings”.

Echoes of those experiences can be heard also in Mann’s later masterpieces, disregarded by translators and literature scholars unfamiliar with Wagner. The two men with axes on their shoulders, whom Castorp from The Magic Mountain encounters during a stroll, bid each other “rustically formal” farewell of “Nun, so leb wohl und hab Dank!” – bringing to mind the first and last phrases in the parting between Lohengrin and the swan in Act I of the opera. In the next chapter Hans Castorp shares his rapture with Joachim, who is not especially interested in his musings: “I heard that up in the woods and I shall remember it all my life”.

Anna Gabler (Elsa). Photo: Jochen Quast

That theatre is no more. The performance so cherished by Mann took place in Lübeck’s Casinotheater in Beckergrube street, in a building erected in 1858 thanks to the efforts of a joint stock company made up of the city’s wealthy merchants and senators. The building – having a poorly built auditorium and not meeting fire safety requirements – was eventually closed at Easter 1905. A few months later the entrepreneur Emil Possehl, who owned two impressive tenement houses in Beckergrube, gave a generous donation to the construction of a new theatre – at the site of the demolished Casinotheater. The Bühnen der Hansestadt Lübeck opened three years later. The Art Nouveau building designed by Martin Dülfer, with its richly ornamented sandstone façade, underwent a thorough and meticulous renovation in the 1990s. Today it serves as a venue for theatrical, operatic and ballet productions as well as concerts of the local Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1897, and led in the past by artists like Hermann Abendroth, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Eugen Jochum. The Grossen Haus – with its stage comparable to that of Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny and 800-seat auditorium – still regularly presents stagings of Wagner’s operas.

The first time I was driven to Lübeck was over five years ago, when I went there to see a performance of The Flying Dutchman under Anthony Negus’ inspired baton. This year I decided to see the Lübeck Lohengrin, if only because of my love for Thomas Mann’s oeuvre. “Who believes in Monday, when he is to hear Lohengrin on Sunday evening,” thought Hanno Buddenbrook. It so happened that the farewell performance of the new production by the Cyprian-Irish director Anthony Pilavachi took place precisely on a Sunday.

Pilavachi, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, has been living in Germany for nearly forty years and this is where his stage career began. He has directed over one hundred operatic productions, mainly in Germany as well as in Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries, among others. He has particularly strong ties with the Lübeck theatre, where in 2007 he undertook to stage the entire Ring (which was later recorded on DVD and which won the prestigious ECHO-Klassik prize in 2012), and subsequently receive glowing reviews for his new productions of Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. Pilavachi’s is a wise and very coherent Regietheater, focused in particular on Personenregie, the solid foundations of which he built at the London school.

Anton Keremidtchiev (Telramund). Photo: Jochen Quast

His catastrophic vision of Lohengrin differs fundamentally from the fashionable “post-apo” stagings of recent seasons. The world presented in it has not been violently destroyed. There are no smouldering ruins or fading ashes in this staging. Instead, there is a glass wall and untouched façade of some Gothic building – most likely a church – with a traceried rosette glaring in the middle like Sauron’s eye (splendid set design by Tatjana Ivschina, spectacularly lit by Falk Hampel). And all this is drenched in mud: piling up on the proscenium as if after an avalanche descended among artificial reservoirs collecting industrial waste, sticking to the Brabantians’ rags, staining the wedding tablecloths. It is hard not to have the impression that Pilavachi unfolds before us not so much a landscape after a battle, but a picture of a slow decay of civilisation, loss of meaning, crisis of all feelings and values. Who knows, perhaps this is a result of postmodern games with tradition, when desacralised medieval abbeys were encased in fanciful acrylic structures, and dilapidated churches were replaced with soulless glass and steel impersonations.

Pilavachi destroys the spectators’ illusions already in the Prelude to Act One. Ortrud will not charm Gottfried. She will cut his throat, break the swan’s neck and throw both bodies into a dungeon – with the tacit complicity of Telramund, horrified by her cruelty and determination. Lohengrin will appear on stage amid flashes and thunders: in a tacky wedding dinner jacket, as ill-suited to the situation as Elsa’s white dress and her floral wreath, as if taken straight from the Swedish Midsommar rites. Telramund’s henchmen resemble a bunch of homeless punks and drug addicts from some German hub station. King Henry the Fowler’s retinue – a band of nouveau-riche parvenus clad in cloth of gold and obscenely expensive furs. There are no heroes: there is only manipulation, politics and Elsa’s naive belief that it is enough to call the alleged saviour from Monsalvat for everything to end well.

Nothing will end well, as Pilavachi warns us throughout the narrative, bringing on stage again and again the dead Gottfried, who always appears with the sound of the Frageverbot motif (later invoked by a number of composers, beginning with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and ending with Richard Stauss’ works). A dead child walks across the stage, throwing swan feathers like flowers during a Corpus Christi procession. Of no use are the efforts of Lohengrin, Wagner’s metaphor of an artist for the age, a genius whose inspiration will save nineteenth-century society, and who is granted royal protection as an advocate of popular monarchy. Elsa will fall victim to thugs. Lohengrin’s departure will open the tomb of the boy with the swan, from which will emerge a ghostly shadow of Gottfried in medieval armour, extending his hand with a quite modern unlocked grenade. The silence after the last chord will be broken by a scream followed by darkness, which after a moment will spur the shocked audience to break into prolonged applause.

Bea Robein (Ortrud) and Anna Gabler. Photo: Jochen Quast

Initially, the director had a very different Lohengrin in mind – angelic, ethereal, in the person of a singer who, judging by the available recordings, would have turned out to be at best a decent Evangelist in one of Bach’s Passions. Just before last September’s premiere, Pilavachi quarrelled with the music director of the production and new boss of the Philharmonisches Orchester der Hansestadt Lübeck, the Austrian conductor Stefan Vladar. After much turbulence Lohengrin was entrusted to Peter Wedd, known to Warsaw music lovers, and Elsa to the German soprano Anna Gabler. Another change happened before the last performance: the main protagonists were sung by Lena Kutzner and Magnus Vigilius, who had sung Elsa and Lohengrin at the Staatstheater Meiningen a year before. It is hard for me to say to what extent both artists followed Pilavachi’s instructions and to what extent they transferred to the Lübeck theatre the suggestions of Ansgar Haag, the director of the Meiningen production. But I do know that the youthful freshness of Kutzner’s interpretation – combined with her luminous, honeyed Jungendlich dramatischer Sopran – made her unexpectedly the brightest star of the evening. Less musical, the Dane Magnus Vigilius was inferior to her also in purely expressive terms: his Lohengrin followed the quite ahistorical convention of a stranger from nowhere and going nowhere. Endowed with a healthy and beautiful voice, impeccable intonation-wise, Vigilius was nevertheless unable to present a complete picture of this multidimensional character. As I had predicted, Anton Keremidtchiev, the Bolognese Dutchman from the second cast of the production conducted by Oksana Lyniv, proved to be an excellent Telramund. This time, under Vladar’s sensitive direction, he was not overwhelmed by the orchestra. Until the end of Act III he found a worthy partner in Bea Robein as Ortrud, a phenomenal actor and decent singer, who – unfortunately – lacked the top notes in the final “Dank, dass den Ritter du vertrieben!”. I find it difficult to judge Rúni Brattaberg, battling against a long indisposition, in the role of Henry the Fowler. Brattaberg retained all the qualities of his sonorous bass at the lower end of the scale, but clearly struggled with the sound matter in the high, often forcefully produced sections of the role. On the other hand it was a great pleasure to listen to the beautiful, rich baritone of Jacob Scharfman (Herald), who not only excelled musically, but also performed the complex acting tasks entrusted to him by Pilavachi with extraordinary sensitivity.

A separate mention should be made of the excellent chorus under Jan-Michael Krüger as well as the orchestra under Stefan Vladar, who conducted the entire performance with fervent enthusiasm, applying logically varied tempos, highlighting the soloists’ assets and covering their occasional shortcomings. I heard that up in Lübeck and I shall remember it for a long time. I felt like Hanno Buddenbrook: after the Sunday performance of Lohengrin I found it difficult to believe that it was Monday the following day.

The Infanta on Skyros

This story could be described as a classic example of tragedies that often occurred in marriages arranged by royal families, when people who were complete strangers to each other and incompatible in every respect were united – with the sole aim of serving the political or economic interests of the powers involved in the practice. The problem is that these two particular teenagers did genuinely fall in love and their love bore such bitter fruit that we can still shed tears over their unhappiness even today.

María Teresa Rafaela of Spain was the daughter of King Philip V of Spain and his second wife Elisabeth Farnese. One year before her birth, in 1725, King Louis XV of France broke his engagement to Philip’s eldest daughter, the seven-year-old Mariana Victoria, and married the Polish princess Maria Leszczyńska. In order to normalise the relations between the Spanish and the French branch of the House of Bourbon at least to some extent, in the early 1740s a plan was formulated for a marriage between María Teresa and Louis Ferdinand, Louis XV’s fourth child and eldest son, and the long-awaited heir to the French throne. A proxy wedding was held in late December 1744 in Madrid and then the infanta set off on a long journey to France. She reached Versailles on 21 February 1745. Two days later she met her husband, who at that time was not yet sixteen.

Unfortunately, the unanimous conclusion after the wedding night was that the marriage had not been consummated. The teenage dauphin had failed to rise to the challenge. His reserved and shy wife became the object of scorn and derision of the court. Something unexpected happened, however. Instead of wallowing in shame and humiliation, the young couple began to get to know each other better. They did not leave each other’s side even for a moment. It was not until September 1745 that María lost her virginity with Louis. A few months later she became pregnant. The child was born after the date set by physicians and the mother died three days later, two weeks after the death of Philip V. She was only twenty years old. The dauphin fell into such despair that his father reportedly had to drag him forcibly from his late wife’s bed. One year later Louis Ferdinand was forced to marry again – this time Maria Josepha of Saxony, the daughter of Augustus III, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Louis’ firstborn daughter passed away at the age of only two years. The marriage to Maria Josepha produced thirteen children. Five were stillborn. Three died in early childhood. Three sons ascended the throne of France – one of them, Louis XVI, was executed by guillotine. At the age of thirty-six Louis Ferdinand died of tuberculosis. He never became king. He was survived by his father and even maternal grandfather. Before his death the dauphin ordered that his heart be buried in the tomb of his first wife.

Katya Klein (María Teresa Rafaela of Spain). Photo: Javier del Real

Louis Ferdinand’s father-in-law, Philip V, was an ardent lover of music and beautiful voices. In 1734 Elisabeth Farnese brought the famous castrato Farinelli to the Madrid court – as a criado familiar, or servant of the royal family, Farinelli would soothe the monarch’s severe melancholy with his singing. It was at the same time that Francesco Corselli – a Piacenza-born son of a French dancer named Courcelle, a name subsequently Italianised – was active in Madrid as a singer, violinist, harpsichordist and teacher of the royal children. In 1738 he was appointed Kapellmeister of the Capilla Real. Shortly before the “remote” wedding of Infanta María Teresa he was commissioned to write an opera celebrating the event. He used for the purpose a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, Achille in Sciro, which had already been set to music by Antonio Caldara, in 1736. Metastasio was by no means the first to turn this mythological theme into an opera: as early as in 1641 the story of the hero in female robes was tackled by Francesco Sacrati – in La finta pazza composed to a libretto by Carlo Strozzi and staged at the Teatro Novissimo in Venice.

Corselli’s Achille was premiered at the Coliseo del Buen Retiro under Farinelli’s musical direction, and with Santiago Bonavía’s sets and stage machinery. The work was much less lucky than Rameau’s comic ballet Platée, staged to mark the same occasion, shortly after the “real” wedding of Louis and María Teresa at the Great Royal Stables of Versailles. Achille was forgotten for nearly 280 years, until Ivor Bolton, Teatro Real’s Music Director, decided to resurrect it in Madrid. His plans were thwarted by the pandemic – Achille in Sciro directed by Mariame Clément, with sets by Julia Hansen, lighting by Ulrik Gad and choreography by Mathieu Guilhaumon, was cancelled shortly before the lockdown. The premiere took place nearly three years later, though not without mishaps: Franco Fagioli eventually withdrew from the role of Achilles and was replaced by the Spanish countertenor Gabriel Díaz, who fell ill after the second performance. The third show was cancelled and the following ones hung in the balance – the performance I got to see took place in an atmosphere of extreme tension due to the long-planned OperaVision broadcast.

According to the well-known version of the myth, Achilles’ mother Thetis decided to protect her only son from death by the walls of Troy at all costs by hiding him disguised as a girl on the island of Skyros, ruled by King Lycomedes. Her ruse was seen through by Ulysses, who, resorting to a different stratagem, persuaded Achilles to follow the voice of his own nature, and to choose battlefield fame over a long life of idleness that would condemn him to oblivion among future generations. Metastasio wove into this narrative love between Achilles and Deidamia, Lycomedes’ daughter. Deidamia’s love is steadfast like a rock. It is Achilles who hesitates, torn between passion and duty, not realising that it is possible to combine both.

Francesca Aspromonte (Deidamia) and Gabriel Díaz (Achilles). Photo: Javier del Real

Mariame Clément decided to bring into the action of the opera the infanta herself (the phenomenal Katya Klein in the pantomime role of María Teresa), a shy and confused teenager, in whose eyes the story of Deidamia and Achilles is transformed from a royal entertainment into an instructive school of feelings. The whole thing takes place in a conventional “Baroque” setting, with archetypal costumes, in a half-serious, half-comic convention that would have been even more impressive had the producers not got stuck halfway between reconstruction and an attempt to appeal to the sensibility of a contemporary audience. There was not enough fairy-tale wonder, bright colours, exaggeration, contrasts and breathtaking illusion in this concept. On the other hand – there was too much running about, slapstick acting as well as empty gestures repeated again and again. Yet I must admit that I was deeply moved by the director’s idea – perfectly conveyed by Klein – to make the infanta identify with Achilles rather than with Deidamia, with an insecure boy who, like her, has no idea what awaits him in a foreign country, far from the hated but nevertheless familiar world; who wants to love and be loved, but deep down senses that love must give way to an inexorable raison d’état.

I am writing this from the perspective of a foreign critic, fully aware of the fact that the allusions included in the production touched the rawest nerves with the local audience. I also take into account the universal need for theatrical “truth”, which prompted the creative team to cast most roles in this multi-layered game of appearances in line with today’s historical performance convention. Yet – paradoxically – Corselli entrusted the roles of Achilles and Ulysses to women. The only role in the opera sung by a castrato was the character role of Nearco, performed by a tenor in the Madrid production.

I will not protest against this “old-new” convention, especially as most of the singers performed their tasks flawlessly. Particularly noteworthy was the freedom in their delivery of the recitatives, knowledge of style and sense of expression in the showpiece da capo arias, and – last but not least – deep respect for the text of the libretto, delivered without exception with clarity, with due attention to the prosody and logic of phrasing. Given the fiendish difficulty of the title role, in comparison with the rest of the cast Gabriel Díaz – a singer endowed with a voice that is not very glamorous, but nevertheless confident and finely controlled, especially in the lyrical sections – made an unexpectedly good expression. His Achilles found a worthy partner in Francesca Aspromonte (Deidamia), although at times the singer had to make up for some technical shortcomings in her coloratura with excessive expressiveness. Tim Mead was a bit disappointing as Ulysses with his typically English, i.e. not very resonant, countertenor. The young Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas excelled as the rejected suitor Teagenes. Much more impressive of the two character tenor figures was Krystian Adam (Arcade), a singer with a free, beautifully open voice and excellent sense of Baroque improvisation. Juan Sancho, otherwise convincing as Nearco, often made up for minor shortcomings with some bravura acting. Of the entire cast the only disappointment came from Mirco Palazzi, who sang Lycomedes with a bass too feeble and harmonically too poor for the role of the authoritative, awe-inspiring ruler of Skyros. The Teatro Real chorus, led by Andrés Máspero, was splendid as usual.

Sabina Puértolas (Teagenes). Photo: Javier del Real

However, the true hero of the evening was Ivor Bolton, who with an impressive sense of style realised the basso continuo on the harpsichord with the other musicians of the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, and conducted an expanded Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla from the instrument. Despite occasional false notes in brass and minor intonational lapses, he managed to maintain the nerve and pulse of Corselli’s hybrid, essentially Italian, at times seductively French musical narrative, and in the second and third acts highlight the extraordinary dialogues of the violin, mandolin and trumpet with the soloists’ vocal displays. What is also commendable is his meticulous approach to working with the singers. Bolton’s interpretations are very vivid and bear a characteristic, recognisable mark of his intriguing artistic personality. This is a rarity in today’s increasingly uniform world of historically informed performance.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

The Flying Dutchman Under Renovation

When I was a teenager, I loved Tadeusz Różewicz’s now rather forgotten play The Laocoon Group – not least because I was lucky enough to see a production at Warsaw’s Teatr Współczesny directed by Zygmunt Hübner and featuring an unequalled cast led by Zofia Mrozowska, Wiesław Michnikowski and Henryk Borowski. It was a frightfully funny performance, from which I will always remember the pretentious tirade of the Father, a representative of the so-called working intelligentsia, who, having returned from Italy, tells his family about the famous sculpture from the Vatican Museums, weaving quotations from Virgil, among other things, into his story. The problem is that he only saw a plaster copy of it, as the original had just been removed for restoration.

I had a vivid recollection of the scene from The Laocoon Group, when I received a message confirming my accreditation for a performance of Der fliegende Holländer at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. It wasn’t until I read that I was to pick up my ticket at the entrance to the EuropAuditorium in Piazza Costituzione that I remembered that as of January the famous Sala Bibiena, and with it the entire theatre building, would be undergoing renovation for four years – roughly the length of the reconstruction work after the great fire of 1931, which ended with the rebuilding of the auditorium in its current horseshoe shape. Tough luck: I had to get over the fact I would not be seeing the most famous “Wagnerian” stage in Italy. Not only the venue of the Italian premiere of Der fliegende Holländer and of the first performance of Lohengrin – which Verdi followed from a box with the score on his lap – but also the first theatre in the world to receive official permission from the Bayreuth Festival to stage Parsifal, on 1 January 1914, under the baton of Rodolfo Ferrari, with the phenomenal Giuseppe Borgatti in the title role and the Polish singer Helena Rakowska – the wife of Tullio Serafin – in the role of Kundry. An opera house headed by such music directors as Sergiu Celibidache and Riccardo Chailly in the past, and since last January by Oksana Lyniv – not just the first female conductor here, but also the first ever woman to be in charge of an opera company in Italy. One year before that Lyniv broke another taboo by conducting Der fliegende Holländer at the opening of the Wagner feast in Bayreuth, after 145 years of uninterrupted male reign at the helm of the local orchestra.

Scene from the Act 1. Photo: Andrea Ranzi

In August 2022 I had mixed feelings after a revival of the Bayreuth Holländer under her baton. I decided to verify my opinion in Bologna, choosing for the purpose a performance with the second cast in order not to be influenced by my impressions of the singers I had heard the previous season not just in Bayreuth, but also at Grange Park Opera in England. The first pleasant surprise came, when I dealt with the company’s very efficient press office. The second – when I picked up the superbly edited programme book for the production, with exhaustive documentation of past productions of Wagner’s opera at the Teatro Comunale and an extensive discography of the work, dating back to 1936. The third – after my first look inside the EuropAuditorium, a 1,700-seat theatre with a fairly deep orchestra pit and a fully equipped stage tower, located in the 1975 functionalist Palazzo di Congressi (its main designer was Melchiorre Bega, the architect behind the famous “golden high-rise” of the Axel Springer concern in Berlin). It may not be a dream venue for presenting Wagner’s works, but it does boast excellent, very selective acoustics, making it possible to honestly assess not only the soloists’ abilities, but also the overall interpretative concept for the piece.

However, I will start with the staging, as it seemed to be absent in Bologna, which is all the more surprising given that both the director Paul Curran and the set designer Robert Innes Hopkins are experienced opera people who have worked for years – successfully – on several continents. In addition, both are highly skilled at Personregie and creating a theatrical world in a relatively small space. Yet this time neither of them took into account the fact that the EuropAuditorium stage is shallow, but relatively wide, and, most importantly, that it does not provide intimate contact with the audience, seated in a vast and flat auditorium. The vision presented by Curran and Hopkins (in collaboration with the lighting director Daniele Naldi and the projection designer Driscoll Otto) gave the impression of being not so much minimalist as economical and, most significantly, imitative of the Florence staging of Der fliegende Holländer done four years earlier by Curran with a different set designer (Saverio Santoliquido). Images – almost identical to those in Florence – of the rolling sea and the ghostly attributes of the Dutchman’s ship were displayed in Bologna against a backdrop of three overlapping panels, in a space less well lit and less appealing to the audience’s imagination. In the second act, set – unconvincingly – in a contemporary industrial sewing room, projections partially replaced the fixed decoration from Santoliquido’s vision, and were supplemented by Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (serving as a portrait of the legendary Dutchman) superimposed on the waves. Like four years ago the costumes were from an unspecified period. Several theatrical effects – including the pulling ashore of Daland’s invisible ship – were copied from the previous staging. There was no chemistry between the characters whatsoever. In the finale the Dutchman sneaked out through a gap in the middle screen, while Senta climbed to the top of the side panel and disappeared in the wings. This failed compromise between tradition and modernity was more reminiscent of a staged concert or amateur theatre performance, although, admittedly, it did not particularly bother the singers.

Sonja Šarić (Senta) and Anton Keremidtchiev (The Dutchman). Photo: Andrea Ranzi

They were, however, especially in the Act 1, hampered by the orchestra playing with a truly Verdian temperament and generally in a style more suitable for I vespri siciliani or Un ballo in maschera rather than any of Wagner’s scores. As an ardent admirer and researcher of archives – including regional archives – I listened to this performance with genuine emotion, relishing the virtuoso displays of the violin concertmaster, the tearful solos of the oboe and the repeated attacks of the brass. It would have been truly fascinating, if Lyniv had been able to give the whole at least a semblance of a consistent romantic narrative. Yet all doubts I had raised about her interpretation in Bayreuth were more than confirmed in Bologna. Lyniv is a genuine modernist, dissecting the piece into its constituent parts, extracting sometimes unexpected details from the texture – but she is unable to put them back together into a convincing story. Her conducting is sweeping, has real verve, but it works only in the most dazzling passages. Wherever the narrative requires lyricism and ability to read forgotten aesthetic codes – it loses its pulse, gets bogged down in meanderings of boredom and feigned emotion. Lyniv’s interpretations bring to mind monochromatic photographs in which it is impossible to see the forest from behind black and white trees. There is inhuman sharpness and surgical precision in them. There are no colours, chiaroscuro effects or logical dynamic and agogic contrasts.

That is why Anton Keremidtchiev, who is endowed with a small but very handsome baritone, shone as the Dutchman only in Act 3 – his chilling monologue “Die Frist ist um” was drowned in a sea of perfectly articulated but meaningless orchestral sounds. That is why Senta, portrayed by the very young and very musical Sonja Šarić, gave up after several attempts to make her famous ballad sway and sang it politely, evenly, to the beat imposed by the conductor. Goran Jurić must have looked up to Peter Rose from the first cast during rehearsals. Rose knows how to highlight the similarities between Daland and the equally ambiguous character of Rocco from Beethoven’s Fidelio, but Jurić lacked intonational and technical prowess in the role. I find it difficult to judge Alexander Schulz, who took on the role of Erik just days before the opening night; however, I did not expect a tenor singing with such a strong foreign accent and in a manner associated with verismo rather than Wagner’s youthful oeuvre. Despite her young age the Russian mezzo-soprano Marina Ogii has a voice that is too dilapidated even for the role of Mary. Paolo Antognetti gave a very decent performance as the Steersman: I’m referring here more to the sonorous, bronzy tone of his voice rather than to his interpretation of his character. The unquestionable hero of the performance was the Teatro Comunale chorus, prepared by its new master, Gea Garatti Ansini, and singing with perfectly produced, rich and beautifully rounded sound.

Anton Keremidtchiev, Alexander Schulz (Erik) and Sonja Šarić. Photo: Andrea Ranzi

Summing up my field research on Der fliegende Holländer as interpreted by Oksana Lyniv, I will return to the discussion of the two Gentlemen with the Customs Officers in Różewicz’s play: after an exchange of remarks about Kierkegaard, one of the Customs Officers, when asked about what is new in the country, waves his hand and says: “Disintegration, alienation, frustration, everything as it used to be”. I never thought I would have to go all the way to Bologna to find that out.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Elektra in the Land of Cockroaches

People of Westphalia joke that tourists do not have to buy a new map of Münster: they can get by with a copy of one of the sixteenth-century copperplates with a panorama of the city. The layout of the streets has not changed for hundreds of years, even after the Second World War, when more than ninety per cent of Münster’s Old Town lay in ruins following Allied air raids and the subsequent artillery attack. Münster is one of the few German cities which did not implement a modernist reconstruction plan – with a network of car-friendly thoroughfares and with isolated historic buildings emerging from a sea of modern edifices. There were disputes, but eventually the idea of raising the city from the ruins almost intact won: whether out of respect for the city’s turbulent history or because of the ambiguous attitude of Bishop Klemens von Galen, who thundered from the pulpit just as loudly against Nazi crimes against the civilian population as he did against the carpet bombings of German cities towards the end of the war.

One of the few concessions to modernist architectural thought is the building of the Theater Münster, just a several minutes’ walk from two of the city’s most famous religious buildings: the monumental, late-Romanesque St. Paul’s Cathedral, known in Poland primarily as the venue of the premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, and the gloomy Gothic St. Lambert’s Church, on the tower of which it is still possible to find the frightening iron cages where the remains of the murdered leaders of the theocratic Anabaptist commune were displayed in 1535. The building, designed by four young German architects on the initiative of Hermann Wedekind, the then director of the municipal theatre, caused a sensation across Europe. Opened in 1956, it was the first modern theatre in post-war Germany. It combined bold spatial solutions – primarily a paraboloid stage tower and a perfectly designed three-tier auditorium ensuring intimate contact with the performers even for spectators from the farthest rows – with respect for the city’s cultural traditions. The new structure encompassed not only the remains of the old theatre and music school, but also the trees that survived the wartime conflagration and were included in the plan of the inner courtyard.

Rachel Nicholls (Elektra). Photo: Martina Pipprich

With time the furore died down, but solid craftsmanship has remained, since 2017 under the leadership of Golo Berg, who took over the musical directorship of the company from the Italian conductor Fabrizio Ventura. In January last year Katharina Kost-Tolmein, a pianist and a graduate in musicology and philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, was appointed general director and opened her first season at the Theater Münster with a production of Ernst Křenek’s Leben des Orest, having previously been at the helm of Theater Lübeck for seven years. Nearly one year later she decided to return to the motif of destructive revenge among the Atrides by staging Strauss’ Elektra – the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his most daring excursion into radical musical modernism.

Kost-Tolmein declares herself to be an advocate of theatre that is “modern and open to experimentation”. I had an opportunity to see what this meant in practice five years ago in Lübeck, where I travelled to see a performance of The Flying Dutchman featuring a very decent cast and brilliantly conducted by Anthony Negus, but in a staging by Aniara Amos that was inept to the point of ridiculousness. I suspected that I might experience something similar in Münster and I was not wrong. Although Elektra, as presented by Paul-Georg Dittrich, was not as visually off-putting as the Lübeck Dutchman (perhaps thanks to Dittrich’s collaboration with the experienced Christoph Ernst, who was responsible for the set, costume and lighting design), it did expose all the sins of the German Regieoper, revealing few of its virtues in exchange. Elektra may be Richard Strauss’ most coherent stage work. It virtually begs to be directed, especially bearing in mind the powerful influence on the dramaturgy of Elektra, as well as the earlier Salome, of the ideas of Max Reinhardt, who categorically opposed the interference of politics in the sphere of art. Yet Dittrich turned Stauss’ one-act opera into a veritable orgy of political theatre, combining without any rhyme or reason elements of agitprop and old-fashioned Zeittheater with unbearably simplified social criticism of the Castorfian and Polleschian kind.

Margarita Vilsone (Chrysothemis), Rachel Nicholls, and Hasti Molavian, Maria Christina Tsiakourma and Katharina Sahmland as Maids. Photo: Martina Pipprich

Thus an operatic study of revenge was transformed into grand reckoning with the German past and present – with the protagonists portraying increasingly new and increasingly bizarre characters. The frantic journey from the decline of the Hohenzollern dynasty, through the Third Reich and the turbulent 1960s, to the Tatort Münster crime series, the activities of the NSU terrorist militia and cheap journalistic allusions to the Merkel and Schröder governments, was accompanied by an almost constant movement of the revolving stage. The performers rushed to and fro, led by Elektra, who first swapped her costume of a predatory Lolita for an SS uniform, and later dressed up as Romy Schneider portraying Elisabeth of Bavaria in the film Sissi. A detailed description of this pandemonium is beyond my patience and the framework of this review. Suffice it to say that an alphabetical guide to the director’s tropes took up two pages of small print in the programme booklet. Only the Maids, dressed by Ernst in surprisingly realistic exoskeletons of the female oriental cockroaches (Blatta orientalis), retained a relatively unified identity.

I always admire artists who in such harmful working conditions simply do their job and do it well. I came to Münster primarily because of Rachel Nicholls, whose career I have been following closely since her decision to gradually move towards dramatic soprano roles. Someone once said that Salome needed an adolescent Isolde and Elektra – a Brunhilde that is not much older. Nicholls has both Isolde and Brunhilde in her repertoire, and in both roles she comes close to the aesthetics that not only Wagner, but also Strauss would have preferred. Her voice is relatively bright and sounds really youthful, does not need to be forced in the excellent acoustics of the Theater Münster, and given the singer’s extraordinary intelligence, tremendous musicality and acting skills it becomes a perfect vehicle for the madness tormenting Elektra. Nicholls’ interpretation is definitely closer to Rose Pauly’s portrayal from the late 1930s than to the legendary interpretations of Inge Borkh and Birgit Nilsson – which should, in fact, be regarded as a complement. Her Elektra is both fragile and terrifying, and, most importantly, develops as a character, from the powerful monologue “Allein! Weh, ganz allein” to the eerie “Ob ich die Musik nicht höre? Sie kommt doch aus mir” in the finale of the opera. She found a worthy partner in the Chrysothemis of Margarita Vilsone, a singer with a resonant, rich and very warm soprano. Helena Köhne was an outstanding Clytemnestra, with a contralto appropriate for the role, beautifully developed and superbly controlled, but the artist was decidedly less committed as an actress, which is entirely understandable given that the director turned her into an Angela Merkel. Singing in an otherwise handsome baritone, Johan Hyunbong Choi (Orestes) failed to build a convincing character, which Aaron Cawley, surprisingly, managed to accomplish in the brief part of Aegisthus. It is worth paying attention to this singer, who found himself in Dittrich’s staging in place of the indisposed Garrie Davislim: the young Irishman has the makings of an interesting Heldentenor with a golden, baritone tone. Worthy of note among the rest of the cast were Maria Christina Tsiakourma, Hasti Molavian, Wioletta Hebrowska, Katharina Sahmland and Robyn Allegra Parton, who made up a perfectly integrated, though sonically diverse, ensemble of five Maids. The whole was masterfully controlled by Golo Berg, who skilfully emphasised both the novelty of the work (Elektra’s demonic death “waltz”!) and the often surprising lyricism of the score.

Margarita Vilsone and Rachel Nicholls. Helena Köhne (Clytemnestra) in the middle background. Photo: Martina Pipprich

I left the theatre delighted with the quality of the performance, but unable to shake off the thought of how much more beautiful and terrifying it would have been, if it had been without the swastikas, burning Hindenburgs and ubiquitous cockroaches. I hope that no fan of theatre that is “modern and open to experimentation” will commission Dittrich to transfer Kafka’s Metamorphosis to the stage.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

The Tale of Hoffmann Who Regained Himself

Even if Offenbach had not seen Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s Les contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann on stage – which is unlikely, as Parisians flocked to the Théâtre de l’Odéon after the successful premiere of the play in 1851 – he certainly must have heard about it. The idea for a loose adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s three short stories (The Sandman; Councillor Krespel; and A New Year’s Eve Adventure) came from both authors. Barbier’s brilliant intuition told him to introduce Hoffmann himself into the narrative and make him the main protagonist of this kaleidoscopic tale of love and other demons. More than a decade later the play was adapted into a libretto for an opera which was to have been composed by Héctor Salomon. It was not until a few years after the Franco-Prussian War that Offenbach showed some serious interest in the text, when he had to rebuild his Parisian career basically from scratch. The libretto was entrusted to Barbier alone – Carré had died prematurely in 1872. Had it not been for some unlucky coincidences, it is possible that Offenbach would have immediately got down to work and presented his “true” opera in the 1877/78 season, as originally planned.

Yet it was only in that season that he began composing in earnest. A successful trip to the United States had brought him considerable financial benefits, thanks to which he was finally able to pay off his debts and return to abandoned scores. Unfortunately, the gout he had contracted during the years of prosperity was increasingly robbing him of his strength. As he was writing The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach knew he was dying. He would wake up at night so tormented by his illness that even the slightest touch of the sheets gave him unbearable pain. During the day he sought solace in conversations with his dog – a creature presumably ugly and dwarfish in stature, since he named him after Kleinzach, the dwarf from the song in the opera’s prologue. Apparently he confessed to the dog that he would have given everything to live to see the premiere of his work. He fell four months short. The Tales of Hoffmann, with an orchestration and recitatives by Ernest Guiraud, cut and reassembled by Léon Carvalho, the then director of the Opéra-Comique, found its way onto the stage in February 1881 and was an instant triumph. Today it is Offenbach’s most frequently produced work and, at the same time, a work that still remains open, virtually impossible to reconstruct in line with the composer’s intention despite the musicological discoveries of past decades.

In recent seasons The Tales has been performed usually in the version edited jointly by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, the most dramaturgically coherent to date. And it is in this version that the opera had its most recent premiere at the Göteborgsoperan, in a staging co-produced with the Saarländisches Staatstheater Saarbrücken, conducted by Sébastien Rouland and directed by Krystian Lada. The set was designed by Marian Nketiah, a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture, Technische Universität Berlin; the costumes by Bente Rolandsdotter, whose designs I have already praised in my review of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Basel; and the lighting design, extremely important in this production, was done by Aleksandr Prowaliński, a member of the Polish director’s team during the production of Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas at the Theater St. Gallen.

Fanny Wranne (supernumerary) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Coppelius). Photo: Lennart Sjöberg

While entrusting the four main female roles in The Tales to one singer (as Offenbach intended) is becoming the prevailing practice at most opera houses, the idea of casting three singers in the role of Hoffmann has so far occurred probably only to Barrie Kosky in his 2015 Berlin production. However, Kosky created his production with different means and for a completely different purpose than Krystian Lada, who decided on a similar manoeuvre in Gothenburg. In Lada’s production the main protagonist is a middle-aged Hoffmann – a poet, writer, artist experiencing a violent crisis after parting with the woman of his life. Locked within the four walls of his miserably deserted flat, he drinks himself into a stupor, despairs and struggles with a series of hallucinatory images in which he – and his beloved Stella – appear as characters from the past, protagonists of quite recent events and prefigurations of individuals they may become in the future. In this half Faustian, half Freudian journey into the depths of his own psyche Hoffmann is accompanied by numerous secondary and two major figures: of true love, requiring sacrifice, but leading to true freedom – represented by the Muse identified with Niklaus (also in keeping with the composer’s intention to some extent) – and by four incarnations of the Mephistophelean force: “part of the Darkness which brought forth the Light”. In such an interpretation The Tales of Hoffmann is not just a description of three stages from a man’s life, but also a story of maturation: a fantastic tale of an increasingly wise prince who slowly realises how much harm he did to princesses, who harmed him as well. A man who has to face his own ego, to confront four demons that “constantly contradict” and put him to the test, to understand that sometimes you have to stop existing in order to become human again – not just a poet.

In the Swedish production Hoffmann observes himself from the outside, argues with himself, impersonates himself from the past and himself imagined at the end of his life. That is why, although the “middle” Hoffmann is at the forefront in the production, the protagonist often speaks in the voices of the other two incarnations and sometimes even sings along with them. In addition, he identifies with the mocked Kleinzach (hence the idea of having his ballad accompanied by a harrowing pantomime with the young Hoffman being bullied by his peers) and sees a facet of his personality in the characters he has hitherto blamed for his misfortune (an excellent idea to cast the role of Spalanzani with the same singer who sings the old Hoffmann).

Kerstin Avemo (Stella). Photo: Lennart Sjöberg

Such an interpretation, uncannily in keeping with the intentions of the opera’s creators, requires huge precision and consistency from all members of the creative team. This was successfully accomplished in Gothenburg, which is all the more admirable given that The Tales of Hoffmann is problematic for virtually everyone involved in producing this masterpiece, and given that in the case of Krystian Lada was the first project on such a scale since his memorable Nabucco at the Wrocław Opera. Lada used a very wide range of theatrical means, including projections of pre-recorded films and rather intensive use of the revolving stage. Admittedly, in the Prologue I felt rather overwhelmed by this profusion: fortunately, wandering through the maze of archetypes and symbols was made easier by Bente Rolandsdotter and her “talking” costumes, seemingly surreal, but in fact helping me to understand who was who in a world of brightly painted sensitive souls on the one hand, and grotesque brutes squeezed into bondage harnesses on the other. The Olympia Act – instead of being presented in Paris – “stopped” in the bourgeois Nuremberg, among sets phenomenally arranged by Nketiah and taken as if straight from Die Meistersinger. The Antonia Act, originally intended to take place in Munich, unfolded in an extremely intimate space shaped by light and gesture, bringing to mind any place in Europe where people are harmed behind the closed doors of wealthy houses. The Giulietta Act pulsated with the sparkle of the diamond from Dapertutto’s aria and the relentless rhythm of games at a Venetian casino. Nothing was modern here and nothing was from the period. Hoffman was drinking himself to death in a dressing gown that looked like a pathetic memory of the flowery shirt from his youth. The terrified and very much alive Olympia – looking as if taken straight from a folk painting of the Madonna – brought to mind the words of Kleist, who claimed that perfect grace could be an attribute of either a mechanical puppet or God himself. The stunningly voluptuous curves of the Muse evoked the archetype of the eternal feminine – in a reference not only to Jung, but also to Słowacki and his childhood dream determining our entire adult life. The concept of Lindorf/Coppelius/Miracle/Dapertutto’s fluid identity fitted aptly with the idea of multiplicity of evil present in us.

There are a few Polish tropes in this production, including Olympia shown as a victim of a violent, religiously obsessed society that tries to force the woman into the role of a submissive, mindless doll. There are several études devised as a tribute to Offenbach, who wanted the audience to burst out laughing in relief, unable to bear the excess of emotions contained in the work. There are several memorable scenes: the departure of Olympia, the symbolic death of Antonia, the moment in which the old Hoffmann realises that, having killed Schlemil, he in fact has killed himself.

Kerstin Avemo (Giulietta), Tomas Lind (old Hoffmann), and Eskil Fridfors (supernumerary). Photo: Lennart Sjöberg

Lada’s concept found excellent performers in the singers, especially in Kerstin Avemo, a phenomenal actress with a soprano that is not large but very agile, with Avemo skilfully balancing it within the styles which Offenbach made the subject of his provocative play with convention. Among the production’s three Hoffmanns Joachim Bäckström had the most work to do. His is a typical jugendlicher Heldentenor, beautiful in colour, although still insufficiently nuanced for this difficult role. The American lyric tenor Brian Michael Moore did well as the young Hoffmann, but I have to say that of the three incarnations of the protagonist I was impressed the most by Tomas Lind – a Hoffmann who was as convincing vocally as he was as a character, and who maked an impression on the heart and the ear as the most believable personification of an artist going through an age crisis, and, at the same time, an example of the enduring beauty of a well-managed and wisely nurtured voice. During the 9 December performance the undisposed Katarina Karnéus (Muse/Niklaus) found a worthy replacement in Ann-Kristin Jones singing from the wings. The quadruple role of Lindorf/Coppelius/Miracle/Dapertutto was entrusted to Andrew Foster-Williams, who confirmed his class not only as an excellent performer of roles written for a uniquely “French” bass voice, but also as a fine actor with an exceptional sense of humour. The artist deserving special mention among those singing the character roles was Daniel Ralphsson (Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio), especially for his hilarious interpretation of “Jour et nuit je mets en quarte”, proof of the musical deafness of the servant Frantz, portrayed in this production as a seemingly ordinary technician, hanging around on stage from the beginning of the performance.

The entire performance was conducted with extraordinary verve and a sense of style by Sébastien Rouland, an artist known also to Polish music lovers, a pupil of Marc Minkowski and conductor of Offenbach’s La vie parisienne in a version prepared under his direction at the Opéra National de Lyon and released on DVD by Virgin Classics. “What emerges from this mirror,” to quote the ending of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s A New Year’s Eve Adventure? Well, the point that from the beginning a co-production should be treated as a coherent artistic vision, followed under the baton of a knowledgeable conductor, with singers aware of their duties, and with a director who knows how to read a score. Yet in Poland this does not seem to work somehow. I am waiting for the end of the story of the lost reflection – which will finally be transformed into a new beginning thanks to a devoted creative team.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Marke und Isolde

This was once the place where the madness of Shakespeare’s Macbeth started. Today Inverness is regarded as one of the happiest cities in Scotland. It is located in beautiful surroundings, like the legendary castle of the Thane of Cawdor, and has cheerful residents – people proud of their community, passionate about the local nature, happy with city’s the social and cultural offerings. Two and a half years ago I had an opportunity to see the enthusiasm with which they welcomed another venture of the Mahler Players chamber orchestra under its founder Tomas Leakey – a concert featuring Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht in an authorial version for string orchestra, and the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre arranged by Matthew King and Peter Longworth for an ensemble of just twenty-something musicians. Six months later Leakey presented two symphonies by Sibelius with a similar line-up. During the lockdown he recorded the first album with his ensemble – of the symphony Richard Wagner in Venice commissioned from King and based on the composer’s late, fragmentary drafts. That debut CD caused quite a stir on the UK record market and received excellent reviews, including one by myself. After the restrictions were lifted Leakey found time to regale his fellow Highlanders with chamber versions of symphonic works by Beethoven and Mahler, before returning to his “Wagner Project”: more experienced thanks to a Bayreuth scholarship funded in 2020 by the Wagner Society of Scotland.

When he wrote to me that this time he had prepared, together with King and Longworth, the second act of Tristan, and assured me that Inverness was just as beautiful in December as it was in June – with just the day being shorter – I immediately accepted the invitation. On the day of the concert I took a long walk in the morning along the shore of the Moray Firth to watch waves as heavy and leaden as those on which Tristan, mad with longing, watched out for Isolde’s ship. I returned through Merkinch, a neighbourhood in which the poor once lived and which struggled with the nightmare of the last great famine in Scotland, as Wagner was writing his Tristan. In the evening I turned up at the Gothic Revival Cathedral of St. Andrew, consecrated less than a decade after the premiere of the opera. I thought I knew what to expect, especially given that the cast included the performers of the title roles from the 2017 revival of Tristan at Longborough – an experience after which I nearly died of an excess of emotion – as well as the legendary singer Sir John Tomlinson, one of the best Wotans in Bayreuth’s post-war history and King Marke in the 1993 production conducted by Barenboim. Now Tomlinson was to take on the role again, almost thirty years after his Tristan debut on the Green Hill.

Tristan at the Inverness cathedral. On the right Sir John Tomlinson (King Marke). Photo: Mahler Players

Leakey planned the concert without an interval, preceding the second act with the Prelude to the opera, and closing the whole with the Introduction to act three and the final “Liebestod”. My first surprise came from the sonic richness of the arrangement, written for a slightly larger ensemble than in Die Walküre, but still consisting of only thirty-six musicians. King and Longworth did not follow the path chosen by Matthias Wegele in last year’s “pocket” Tristan from Vienna: Wegele preferred to dispense with several key instruments, including the harp, and to build the texture from scratch as it were – with intriguing results, although in some ways closer to the aesthetics of modernism. The authors of the arrangement for the Mahler Players decided to remain faithful to the score and to reduce it in such a way that the listeners would have the impression of hearing the work played by the full cast. This is by no means easy, which makes King and Longworth’s stylish and balanced version – with only occasional imbalances to the detriment of the strings – all the more admirable. On the other hand I’m not sure whether such imbalance can be avoided in any reduction of Tristan, if Wagner himself stressed the importance of the numbers and sound quality of the quintet in the score.

The Inverness performance was a typical concert, with soloists singing from their music stands. And this brought another surprise for me: Peter Wedd, the Tristan incarnate, an artist who had twice brought the LFO audience to its knees, not only with the beauty of his voice, but also with his extraordinary musicality and phenomenal acting, this time did not even try to at least make eye contact with Lee Bisset. He sang as if inwards, with great concentration and with some vague sadness, without the youthful ardour he had in Longborough. I had the impression that Wedd was saying goodbye to his protagonist, slipping, as it were, into his death; that he was not so much asking Isolde to follow him into the darkness of the Night, as plunging into it himself – resigned, broken, unwilling to die. I find this contrary to the letter of Wagner’s text, although I must admit that the performance itself was captivating. Wedd’s dark tenor continues to gain in vividness, especially in the lower register, and his high notes sound strong and confident, although they sometimes seem a little dim. By contrast, Bisset’s singing, despite some technical shortcomings (minor intonation problems at the beginning of the act) seemed all the more human, warmer, more effective as a vehicle for what are, after all, diverse emotions. However, I got the impression that they were both polishing each phrase with such abandon that they lost the text of the libretto along the way. I put this down to the capricious acoustics of the church.

But then Tomlinson stood up from his chair and sang “Tatest du’s wirklich?”. Suddenly every word – perfectly articulated – struck painfully like a dagger. I had not encountered such a harrowing portrayal of King Marke since Matti Salminen’s Budapest performance. I wrote at the time that Salminen gave an unsurpassed model of profound interpretation marked by the wisdom of age. Now I have two models, completely different and equally unsurpassed. The Finnish bass’ Marke was full of bitterness and resignation. Tomlinson was alternately seething with rage and writhing with humiliation. His piercing “warum mir diese Schmach?” sounded like a roar of a wounded animal. I wish every Shakespearean actor had such an ability to control the degree of tragedy as this singer, who is no longer young and has a voice that has lost its former lustre, but who uses it masterfully, with an incredible feel of all its strengths and weaknesses. My respect for Tomas Leakey increased exponentially. It takes an extremely modest and sensitive person to persuade such an artist to participate in such an unusual venture.

Tomas Leakey. Photo: Mahler Players

A separate round of applause should also go to two young singers, especially the velvety-voiced Laura Margaret Smith, whose Brangäne was touching if somewhat shy – this was fully understandable as Smith replaced the much more experienced Alwyn Mellor in the part at the last minute. Frederick Jones had little to sing as Melot, but he did so with conviction and a nicely placed, handsome tenor.

Given the difficulty of the undertaking, the orchestra performed admirably well – under the careful but demanding hand of Leakey, who opted for rather uncomfortable, firm and unhurried tempos in a couple of crucial passages. If he was testing the capabilities of his musicians, they came out of the test victorious. They played wisely and sensitively, were not explicit and preserved the work’s inherent mystery. They managed to sum up Tristan in a form in which it was interpreted by Karol Berger, who wrote that “if the effect of Wagner’s opera is consolatory, it is not because of what it says about the human lot, but because it says something important about it at all”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak