They Came to Share Love, Not Hatred

In mid-May 1968, two days after the occupation of the Sorbonne and the general strike in France began, Jean-Louis Barrault opened the doors of the Odéon to a crowd of several thousand demonstrators. He did not suspect that the events of the 1830 July Revolution, when the theatre became one of the main centres of activity for the rebellious youth of the day, would be repeated in a distorted form and get out of hand. The first barricades made of cars, fallen trees and furniture hauled from the university were already standing in the Latin Quarter. The red banners of the socialists and the black flags of the anarchists flew in the streets, tear gas fumes were in the air. The protesting students ripped the lids off the city’s rubbish bins to use them as shields in clashes with the police. They were joined by artists, intellectuals and a growing number of agitators. On the night of 16-17 May Barrault noted in his diary: “We feel betrayed and have no desire to take sides. We are moved only by genuine students. It seems to me that they have been betrayed as much as we have”.

The revolt in Italy began much earlier and lasted much longer, from 1966 until the autumn of 1969. It swept through universities all over the country, from Milan and Turin, Naples and Padua, to Genoa and Salerno. Unlike in France, in Italy the student movement merged from the very beginning with the workers’ movement. The students helped the strikers edit leaflets, and held joint meetings to analyse the course of events and plan strategies for the future. The government focused primarily on torpedoing the activities of the extreme left. It ignored extremists on the other side, including the radical, neo-fascist faction of the Ordine Nuovo. In December 1969 two members of the organisation carried out a bomb attack in Milan’s Piazza Fontana. Seventeen people were killed. The “creeping May” ended and the “years of lead” began.

One hundred and twenty years earlier, in 1848, when the riots later referred to as “Cinque giornate” broke out in Milan, Verdi happened to be in Paris. Hearing about the uprising, he set out for Lombardy and arrived there on 5 April, two weeks after the end of the uprising. In a letter to Francesco Piave he announced that he was drunk with happiness after the rebels’ victory and did not intend to waste paper on composing, when it would be better to use it to make casings for bullets. It was a Pyrrhic victory. The losses suffered by Milanese were twice as big as those of the Austrians they chased away; and the Austrians returned to the city in July. The Risorgimento lasted until 1871 and did not end with the unification of all the lands inhabited by Italians. The year 1968 changed the face of the world, but it is still only one of the many milestones on the path to a united Europe that is yet to be travelled.

Rivoluzione. Enea Scala (Carlo). Photo: Karl Forster

Jacques Mallet du Pan was a royalist, but he rightly compared a revolution to Saturn devouring his own children. Krystian Lada followed this clue in his latest project, commissioned by Brussels’ La Monnaie and its boss Peter de Caluwe. This was the second attempt by the company – after the well-received Bastarda based on a concept by Olivier Fredj – to revive the Baroque pasticcio convention. However, while the idea behind the Bastarda was to extract the Queen Elizabeth thread from Donizetti’s four operas and glue their fragments together into a new, though still “Tudor”, whole, Lada went much further, creating a true pasticcio: an entirely new story based on musical material from Verdi’s sixteen operas, written during the initial stage of the struggle for the unification of Italy. The first part of the diptych, Rivoluzione, is set during the tumultuous 1968 riots, the second, Nostalgia – forty years later, when memories of the revolution are revived at a vernissage, under the impact of a sculptural installation drawing on those events.

A crazy idea, requiring painstaking dramaturgical work and a meticulous selection of fragments to match the concept (fragments taken from Oberto, Ernani, Stiffelio, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Attila, I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco and Un giorno di regno, as well as from Nabucco and Macbeth, among others), and yet it turned out to be successful and, paradoxically, in many ways truly “Verdian” in spirit. If purists missed anything, it was a musical binder composed specifically for the occasion, which would have given both parts the semblance of a “genuine” nineteenth-century opera. Lada, however, opted for a different approach, stitching the various elements together with film inserts featuring the singers in spoken interactions and monologues, and thus avoided a “contamination” of Verdi’s music with any foreign musical body. And he probably did the right thing: the mosaic nature of the theatrical means used fitted much better with the narrative he devised, divided as it was by a distance of forty years, but still set in a not-so-distant past.

In Rivoluzione the action rushes forward like a crowd of enraged demonstrators. Lada plays out the crowd scenes brilliantly, weaves into the action excerpts from documentary films from the period, and enhances the message of the arias, cabalettas and ensembles thanks to the participation of street dancers (excellent choreography by Michiel Vandevelde). In the as usual clean stage space (the author of the entire concept was Lada, assisted in the making of the sets and video material by Łukasz Misztal and Jérémy Adonis, respectively; the costumes were designed by Adrian Stapf), superbly lit by Aleksander Prowaliński, a thread of truly Verdian intrigue is spun. The crucial character is the shipbuilder Carlo, a friend of Giuseppe, an engineering student and son of an influential police officer. Their “class inappropriate” relationship arises from their shared love of boxing. Giuseppe is dating Cristina, a film school student who still finds it impossible to recover from her old love for Carlo. Laura, Giuseppe’s sister, a violin student in a relationship with the pianist Lorenzo, who is head over heels in love with her, succumbs to a growing fascination with the devilishly handsome Carlo and abandons bourgeois ideals for the slogans of the revolt. Everything is heading for a dramatic finale on the barricades: Laura commits suicide and by the decision of the crowd joins the Pantheon of the great martyrs of the revolution.

Rivoluzione. Nino Machaidze (Laura) and Vittorio Prato (Giuseppe). Photo: Karl Forster

The story could have taken place anywhere in Europe at the time: in Paris, Milan, tank-wrecked Prague or Warsaw during the March 1968 events. Lada’s sources of inspiration might perhaps be found in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers or films by the French New Wave directors. Yet they can be more easily discovered in Verdi’s early operas, in which the “music of guns and cannons” is heard constantly, while youthful ideals clash with outbursts of equally youthful feelings in complicated amorous polygons. Lada used the potential of the Verdian convention to the full. He entrusted Laura with parts intended for a soprano with dramatic overtones, and Cristina – with parts suitable for a singer faithful to the tradition of the Italian bel canto of the likes of Donizetti and Bellini. The charismatic Carlo is a typical Verdi tenor, Giuseppe, an ambiguous character, is, appropriately, a baritone. Lorenzo’s anger and unrequited feelings are conveyed by a bass voice.

Lada “breaks” this convention with extraordinary sensitivity in Nostalgia, which takes place forty years later. Cristina is gone. Her daughter Virginia has inherited her late mother’s love of film art, subtle beauty and no less subtle voice (Lada cast the same singer in the role). The protagonists have aged. Carlo is a baritone, Giuseppe a bass and Lorenzo stops singing altogether (the bass is replaced with the actor Denis Rudge). Icilio, a politically engaged artist, sings with a tenor in which we can hear a distant echo of young Carlo’s voice. Enter Donatella, an art gallery owner, who organises a double vernissage of Virginia’s film and her boyfriend Icilio’s sculpture, entitled “Barricade 1968”. This archetypal Verdi prima donna will provoke a catharsis on the scale of an ancient tragedy in the finale: she will accidentally make Virginia realise who her father really is, summon the spirit of Laura from the beyond, unleash dormant energy in three old men, order them to destroy Icilio’s work and chase away the demons of the revolution that devoured everything they once loved.

There are several very memorable images in this diptych: a girl’s naïve delight at the sight of an atomic mushroom cloud, a delight stifled a moment later by the immense sadness of the “Patria opressa” chorus from Macbeth; the finale of the third act of Rivoluzione, binging to mind ghastly associations with Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and several paintings by Delacroix; and the symbolic ending of Nostalgia, in which Lorenzo tries to rescue a plaster bust of Verdi from an orgy of destruction. This was another encounter for me with ultra-modern opera theatre, precisely directed, intricately put together from a myriad of perfectly fitting pieces, but, at the same time, drawing on the composer’s legacy with a fidelity bordering on homage.

Huge credit for this goes to all the musicians involved in the project, above all to the conductor Carlo Goldstein, who combines an admirable knowledge of the Verdian idiom with a sensual fervour of interpretation. Laura was finely portrayed by Nino Machaidze, singing with an impeccably produced soprano that was powerful and perfectly developed in the upper range, although not very resonant in the middle. Endowed with a luscious and tireless tenor, perfect for the role of Carlo in Rivoluzione, Enea Scala could have varied the dynamics a bit more, but I will put this minor shortcoming down to his enthusiasm, which enabled him to build a more convincing character of the young rebel. Scott Hendricks, his older incarnation in Nostalgia, has a fairly small and rather gravelly baritone, which in the second part of the diptych should, paradoxically, be regarded as an asset. The two performers of the role of Giuseppe, the baritone Vittorio Prato and the bass Giovanni Battista Parodi, did a great job. I admire the expressive power of Justin Hopkins’ interpretation (of Lorenzo), although his dark, velvety bass would definitely have benefitted in terms of beauty of tone, had the artist not been prone to singing with a low larynx. Paride Cataldo, an artist with a resonant and richly coloured lyric tenor, did well in the small role of Icilio.

Nostalgia. Gabriela Legun (Virginia), Giovanni Battista Parodi (Giuseppe), and Helena Dix (Donatella). Photo: Karl Forster

As usual, I have saved the best for last. The sensation of the diptych was Gabriela Legun in the dual role of Cristina and Virginia. Legun is a phenomenally gifted Polish soprano, winner of the 2019 Ada Sari Competition, who I think will have a beautiful international career. Legun’s golden, soft voice already impresses with its impeccable technique, and if her interpretations are still “transparent” at times, they will certainly become more expressive as she accumulates more stage experience. The other jewel in the vocal crown of Rivoluzione e Nostalgia was undoubtedly Helena Dix (Donatella), a singer endowed with a supple, sensuous, truly Verdian soprano, which she wields with enough awareness to turn Lady Macbeth’s great madness scene into both a dazzling display of bel canto and a perverse parody of the convention associated with the role. In today’s opera houses it is rare to find such an great combination of superb singing and outstanding acting with an unparalleled sense of humour.

Jean-Louis Barrault wrote shortly after the events of May 1968 that the streets of Paris were seized by hatred, that people would not be able to realise the momentousness and consequences of those events for a long time. I think the time has come. Krystian Lada and the co-authors of the success of his Brussels diptych began to dig out from under that hatred the first crumbs of love – the one that died, the one that was revived years later and the one that will last forever. As in Verdi’s music, which turned out to be a perfect vehicle for a story about quite different times.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

And They Went to the End of the World

When it is time to sow millet in the mountains of northern Taiwan, the men of the indigenous Bunun ethnic group celebrate the Pasibutbut ritual. Dressed in festive garments, they line up in a circle, entwined by their arms, and then intone a song to the powerful deity dehanin. The singing begins in a very low register and gradually rises with a series of microtonal changes happening synchronously in all the voices. In fact, there are no more than five voices, but owing to the heterophonic texture, and the harmonics of various timbres and pitches, the song gives the impression of being a highly complex polyphonic piece. The singing is said to have been inspired by the buzzing of bees, the swoosh of waterfalls and the rustling of bamboo leaves. Pasi means community, butbut – mutual support. The ritual lasts a few minutes, and the degree of harmony between the singers is regarded as a signal of whether the harvest will be good.

When the first sounds of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles rang out in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge – in an excerpt reminiscent of the Pasibutbut ritual, but with a more condensed and rising crescendo until a powerful clash with the anthem Dum Pater Familias – I immediately thought that the degree of understanding among the members of the Tenebrae choir augured a remarkably bountiful harvest. The hour-long piece, a musical record of a pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela along the Camino Francés, the busiest of the Ways of St. James, was commissioned especially for Tenebrae and premiered in 2005, at London’s St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church. It has since travelled halfway across the world with the ensemble. In 2006 it was heard in Spanish churches along the French Way, a decade later it was included in the main programme of the choir’s 15th anniversary celebrations, and this year it came to Cambridge the day after a concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, only to end up at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie two days later, on 29 March. Tenebrae is planning at least three more performances of Path of Miracles before the end of the year, also in Switzerland.

Tenebrae. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

When he accepted the commission, Talbot had barely turned thirty, but he already had some notable compositional successes under his belt – and in surprisingly diverse fields at that, from quite “serious” commissions, including for the BBC Philharmonic, to music for TV series, and collaborations with pop and rock bands. The work on Path of Miracles lasted over three years and from the beginning it was marked by a genuine admiration for Tenebrae’s musical craftsmanship. There is indeed much to admire, as this is a truly remarkable ensemble. It was founded by the countertenor Nigel Short, a longtime member of The King’s Singers and The Tallis Scholars, an oratorio and opera soloist as well as a composer, who dreamed of a choir that would combine the panache and drama of performance with precision worthy of the best chamber ensembles. Singers of the stature of Emma Walshe, Guy Cutting and Matthew Brook have all passed through his Tenebrae. The 19-strong line-up in the Cambridge performance of Path of Miracles included two members of the illustrious Gesualdo Six group – its founder Owain Park and Joseph Wicks.

Talbot has taken full advantage of Tenebrae’s potential, writing the score for seventeen vocal parts and dividing the material into four movements – choral images of four stopovers along the pilgrimage route, from Roncesvalles, the first stopover on the Camino Francés after crossing the Pyrenees, through Burgos and León to Santiago. The different movements are sharply contrasted. The trance-like beginning and the euphoria that accompanies the start of the journey are followed by a period of battling with dark forces in Burgos; the battle gets forgotten in the light-bathed León cathedral. The fourth movement begins with an arduous climb to the top of Monte de Gozo – Mountain of Joy – where the euphoria returns at the sight of the towers of the Santiago cathedral. However, this is not the end of the way, which, after the spiritual rapture and unbridled revelry in the city of St. James, leads the pilgrims to the end of the world, or Finisterre, where they can finally take a dip in the ocean, wash off the dirt and start everything all over again.

Joby Talbot. Photo: Anna McCarthy

The composer has confused the pilgrims’ tongues. Texts taken from liturgical and medieval sources (in Latin, Greek, French, German, Basque and Spanish) are cemented by English poems by Robert Dickinson, responsible for the entire libretto. Musically, Path of Miracles is a masterpiece of noble eclecticism. Talbot successfully appeals to the sensibilities of every listener. If he verges on kitsch anywhere, it is only in the León section, where he has succumbed to the temptation to paint a mood of bliss with oversimplified harmonic means. Elsewhere, however, he impresses with his technical mastery: he brilliantly juxtaposes textures, contrasts sounds in extreme registers, and plays with the movement of sound in space. He colours the melody with modalisms, shifts tonal centres with a grace worthy of the French impressionists, and stops chords by means of methods known from Tavener’s best works. Talbot has created a thing of unpretentious beauty, marked by a clear spiritual experience, accessible and understandable even to a diehard agnostic.

I find it difficult to imagine more sensitive and competent performers of this composition than the Tenebrae choir, in which each singer speaks in their own distinct voice, or blends into a perfectly coherent whole with the rest of the ensemble. And in doing so, they do not need to use a tuning fork, which has become an indispensable tool for most contemporary choristers. An hour of music flowing freely, without heads being tapped with a pitchfork, without the narrative being stopped in order for the right note to be given by the conductor. A performance that I listened to with delight, disbelief and regret that I would not experience such an emphatic sense of community and mutual support any time soon. We all need them like sunshine and water – not just for millet to grow.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Tale of a Flawed Knight

Dalibor the knight did really exist and was an ambiguous figure, to say the least. He came from an old family from Kozojedy, Central Bohemia. In 1483 his father, Aleš of Kozojedy, acquired the Mnetěš estate in the Litoměřice district, near the village of Ploskovice, where one of the first peasant revolts in the region took place thirteen years later. The peasants refused to fulfil their serf duties, seized the estate of the local feudal lord Adam of Drahonice, and then placed themselves under young Dalibor’s protection. Dalibor cleverly took advantage of the situation, seizing not only his neighbour’s lands and stronghold, but also his labour force. Knocked about and humiliated, burgrave Adam decided to assert his rights. He sued Dalibor in a Prague court and won, especially as the young scallywag was a reoffender: a few years before his own father had accused him of misappropriating part of his younger brother’s property. Dalibor was found guilty, but he did not give the cows, pigs and grain back to Ješek, which ended in another lost lawsuit, this time brought by his brother.

Dalibor’s case, brought by Adam of Drahonice, led to the establishment of a legal precedent which provided not only for the return of seized property, but also for the death penalty for the villain, who had taken the rebellious peasants under his protection. Dalibor was arrested on the orders of King Vladislav (that is, the Polish prince Vladislav II Jagiellon), and then imprisoned, apparently as the first ever prisoner, in a tower on the premises of the Prague Castle, today referred to fondly as Daliborka. The sentence was passed on 13 March 1498. Dalibor lost all his property, his noble title and his head: in the literal sense, as he was beheaded with an executioner’s axe. The later legend of the defender of the oppressed was written down only by Jan František Beckovský, a historian and member of the Order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, author of Poselkyně starých přjběhůw cžeských, one of the most important tools of Czech patriotic education in the eighteenth century.

Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Jitka). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

The story, along with the claim that Dalibor learned to play the violin in the castle tower, was picked up by Josef Wenzig, who submitted to Smetana a proposal for a German libretto even before the premiere of The Bartered Bride. The composer sketched the first act in October 1865 and completed the whole thing two years later – with an unabashed sense that he had created his life’s work. He was all the more upset by the cool reception of Dalibor, which after its premiere on 16 May 1868 at the Prague Provisional Theatre was labelled an “anti-national” opera , full of treacherous references to Wagner’s hated oeuvre. Despite hasty alterations, Dalibor disappeared from the repertoire for nearly twenty years and did not return to the public’s good graces until Smetana’s death. In the late nineteenth century it conquered Vienna and Germany. It appeared probably only once in Warsaw, in 1902. Popular in Czechia, after the WW2, in the 1960s, it slowly began to make its presence felt in the West, mainly through guest appearances of Czech companies (though not only thanks to them: in 1977 Harold C. Schonberg wrote warmly about it after a concert performance at Carnegie Hall, with New York ensembles and Teresa Kubiak as Milada, alongside Nicolai Gedda in the title role). The opera has been attracting increasing interest recently in German-speaking countries, being advertised as a Czech Lohengrin or Czech Fidelio. In 2024 it inaugurated the Moravian celebrations of the Year of Czech Music at the Janáček Theatre in Brno, in a new staging by David Pountney.

Dalibor is an undoubted masterpiece, although Smetana’s unparalleled melodic invention and sonic imagination is not always matched by the coherence of the dramatic concept. The narrative gets bogged down here and there, and sometimes strays into psychological improbability. In the first act we have an astonishing coup de foudre from Milada, who seems to be acting as a witness for the prosecution in the court scene, only to fall madly in love with Dalibor at the sight of the perpetrator of the ill-fated raid. There is an intriguing homoerotic subtext in Dalibor’s affection for the fiddler Zdeněk, who was killed by the burgrave – it runs through the opera until its finale, in which the knight, having rapturously reciprocated Milada’s love, dies with the names of both of them on his lips.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the producers of the Brno staging decided to make some cuts in the score, return to the original ending, and make some “improvements” to the Czech version of the libretto, written by Erwin Špindler. Less convincing is the decision to divide the three-act opera into two parts (before the first set change in the second act), if only because Jitka’s meeting with her beloved does not match, either musically or dramaturgically, the material of the first act. What appeals the least to the imagination is the director’s overall vision – Pountney has come up with the idea that Dalibor is a thoroughly political work and, worse still, decided to get this concept across to us extremely chaotically. The combination of allusions to the events of the Prague Spring with references to the figure of Bobby Sands and other IRA members who went on the tragic hunger strike in 1981, fighting for the status of political prisoners, does not add up to a universal picture of a struggle for the freedom of an oppressed nation, let alone provoke the audience to reflect on whether Dalibor was a brave defender of the weak or simply an ordinary villain. Especially since such reflections have nothing to do with the story told by Smetana.

Csilla Boross (Milada) and Peter Berger (Dalibor). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

And that story is intricate enough and at times incoherent enough for a responsible director to resist the temptation to encase is in a plethora of additional meanings. Yet in Dalibor Pountney, an artist with an huge body of work and some truly outstanding productions to his credit, has taken dozens of his own and others’ ideas from the past half-century, and stitched together a veritable theatrical Frankenstein-like monstrosity – with the help of Robert Innes Hopkins (set design) and Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes). The first act brings to mind the beginning of Lohengrin in any provincial German theatre: glass, steel, ranks of police in riot gear, video projections, a courtroom – seemingly abstract, but with the emblem of the double-tailed Bohemian lion – King Vladislav in a tyrant’s uniform straight from an operetta, and Jitka, a girl as innocent as the water lily in Smetana’s vision, transformed into a seasoned militia fighter. The updated battle scenes are reminiscent of analogous episodes from stagings by Calixto Bieito, Olivier Py and even Mariusz Treliński, but in a cost-cutting version (apart from the sizeable arsenal of machine guns). The Fidelio-inspired prison scenes with Dalibor and Milada in male disguise, on the other hand, become a cheesy allegory with a few unexpectedly realistic touches (the burglar locksmith’s tool kit in Milada’s backpack). Zdeněk’s ghost looks like a caricature of the one-winged Gottfried the swan from the Welsh Lohengrin directed by Antony McDonald – also barefoot, but wearing a too tight suit and with a bloodied wing. As if it were not enough for Pountney that the opera ends badly, he has Vítek, Jitka’s beloved, die at the beginning of Act Two – without any convincing justification later on in the narrative.

Fortunately, everything was more than made up for by the musical side of the production. I decided to go to see the penultimate performance in this run because of its almost entirely Czech and Slovak cast, artists who understand Smetana, know what they sing about and know how to do it. Contrary to what might have been thought, not far behind in this respect was the Hungarian Csilla Boross, a singer well acquainted with the repertoire, having been a resident artist at the National Theatre in Brno years ago. Her dark, rounded dramatic soprano is perfect for the big and, at times, fiendishly difficult role of Milada, and her minor problems with Czech pronunciation were more than made up for by her musicality and expressive characterisation. Peter Berger triumphed in the title role. His is a jugendlichen Heldentenor in the peculiarly “Slavic” version, resonant, healthy, with a beautiful golden honeyed tone. Berger is also a fine actor and has an excellent stage presence. In many respects he can already be considered a worthy successor to Beno Blachut, the legendary performer of the role. I’m very glad I got to see a performance featuring Svatopluk Sem, who sang the dilemmas of King Vladislav with a bass-baritone that was bright, supple and free at the top, with a typically “Smetanian” phrasing that enabled him to breathe much more humanity into his character than the director had envisaged. An outstanding Jitka came from Jana Šrejma Kačírková, aptly cast with Ondřej Koplík as Vítek (a lovely duet of these two at the beginning of the second act).

Peter Berger. Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

However, all these marvels would not have been possible had it not been for the superb orchestra, the phenomenal chorus and Tomáš Hanus, a reliable conductor in this repertoire, who conducted Dalibor not only with exuberant energy, but also – perhaps above all – with an uncommon sense of the treasures contained in this score. Hanus does not waste time on pondering whether Dalibor was a villain or an angel: he makes sure he brings out from the brilliant orchestral texture everything that shines differently; accentuates each of the motifs that would inspire Dvořák himself; makes Zdeněk and his singing violin sound not only in the words of the protagonist, but throughout the piece, in each string part – as a metaphor for the nation’s identity born through art, the most powerful weapon in the Czechs’ struggle against oppression.

In this respect Pountney was right. Dalibor is a thoroughly political opera. However, it did not occur to him that this policy was pursued with music, not guns.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

How to Keep On Living, Offred?

The Polish edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, translated by Zofia Uhrynowska-Hanasz, appeared in 1992, seven years after its original publication in Canada. Published by PIW as part of the Klub Interesującej Książki (Interesting Book Club) – a project intentionally less prestigious than the famous ‘black series’ of contemporary world literature – it gained a small band of enthusiasts, but generally failed to make any great ripples, like the earlier translations of three other Margaret Atwood novels. No interest was aroused in Poland by Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film adaptation either – possibly because it was not well received by the critics and was not released in Polish cinemas. Poland only enacted a new family planning law – considerably more restrictive than the law on the conditions for terminating pregnancy that had been in force since the mid-fifties – in 1993.

Atwood and her terrifying dystopia became a hot topic in 2016, when the first Black Protests swept Poland, after Ordo Iuris and the Pro Life Foundation announced that it was to set before parliament a citizen’s bill proposing a complete ban on abortion and the introduction of severe punishments for ‘prenatal murder’. In 2020, after the notorious verdict (questioned in legal circles) issued by the Constitutional Tribunal, we woke up on the threshold of the Republic of Gilead, with an abortion law stricter than in Iran or Pakistan, and the tightest in Europe, not counting the ultra-Catholic Malta, where abortion is absolutely forbidden. Legal abortion, theoretically possible in cases where the woman’s life is threatened or in situations where the pregnancy is the result of a proscribed act, in practice became a fiction.

In Poland, Atwood’s novel found favour, and female readers in particular were amazed that the Canadian writer had managed to foresee a future that in 1985 had seemed unimaginable. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale was actually reflecting, in a crooked mirror, the fears of women across the Atlantic. It was first published around the same time as Ronald Reagan introduced the so-called Mexico City Policy, which blocked the financing of all organisations concerned with reproductive health. The principle of a ‘global gag’ became a push-me-pull-you of American politicians: by turns abolished by the Democrats and restored by the Republicans, it reemerged, in a monstrous form, in 2017, under Donald Trump. The spectre of Gilead, temporarily dispelled in the United States by Biden, still hovers over Poland, a country where the cult of Reagan, fighting ‘for our freedom and yours’, is surprisingly persistent, and even the current governing coalition is riven by disputes over abortion – and that after the eight-year nightmare inflicted on many Poles, not just women, by the right-wing populists.

Avery Amereau (Serena Joy) and Kate Lindsey (Offred). Photo: Zoe Martin

That probably explains why I perceive Atwood’s book and all its adaptations as if through a pane of glass. That tale no longer shocks me. I see it rather as a reflection of a partially realised scenario, a possibly belated warning against a deluge of fundamentalist oppression around the world. That also applies to the opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders that was written in 1998 and premiered two years later at Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen, with a libretto by Paul Bentley translated into Danish. The English National Opera has been associated with this work almost from the start. The Copenhagen production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with sets by Peter McKintosh, reached the London stage in 2003, where it was first performed in English. The Handmaid’s Tale, after several productions in the United States and Australia, returned to the ENO in 2022, in a staging by director Annelise Miskimmon, the theatre’s artistic director, and her regular scenographic collaborator Annemarie Woods. In February 2024, the production was revived under the baton of the same Portuguese conductor, Joana Carneiro, and with the participation of several singers from the original cast.

Bentley and Ruders, choosing between the main heroine’s expansive inner monologue and a sort of hybrid in which Offred’s emotions, reflections and recollections clash with the fairly linear narration of events in Gilead, opted for the latter solution, remaining essentially faithful to Atwood’s text, but at the expense of the drama: almost to the end of the first act, the tale is rather static and heads laboriously towards the climactic scene of Janice’s labour (the child turns out to be disabled and is slain), while in the second act it hurtles along blindly, diverting the audience’s attention away from the next climax, in the scene of the public execution. The flaws in Bentley’s libretto are largely compensated for by Ruders’s highly expressive, at times even ruthless, music, which meanders between atonal and tonal, drawing liberally on a wide range of conventions: from Mozart, through Richard Strauss, Berg and Stravinsky, to the classics of American minimalism. Ruders also introduces elements of pastiche and grotesque into his score, although, unlike his beloved Penderecki, he does not use them as material for further compositional actions, employing them rather as quotations, musical symbols, motifs appearing out of nowhere, which vanish a moment later into a dense orchestral texture (recurring references to John Newton’s hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, the promise of the chorale ‘Ich bin’s ich sollte büssen’ from the first movement of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, dispersed into nothingness). Ruders’s imagination and excellent technique come to the fore especially in the remarkably colourful orchestral part. Things did not turn out so well with the solo parts: the only character whom the composer really allows to speak with a full voice is Offred. The other protagonists communicate in broken sentences, snatches of arioso, often exceeding the compass of any voice whatsoever, with the result that a not entirely comprehensible emotional barrier is created between the stage and the audience (I most regretted the character of Nick, who plays an extremely important, even crucial, role in Atwood’s narrative, but is overlooked by the production team).

Kate Lindsey. Photo: Zoe Martin

Miskimmon, herself brought up in a country of fanatism and religious prejudice, did not follow the lead of several of her earlier productions and resisted the temptation to transfer A Handmaid’s Tale to the realia of her native Ireland. Together with Woods, she created a pure, clear theatrical space, in which she placed characters and props triggering unequivocal associations with Atwood’s book and with the vision of the team behind the highly publicised series from 2017, anchored in the collective imagination. The handmaids wear dresses similar to the costumes of Amish women – in various shades of red, the intensity of which appears to suggest their ‘reproductive usefulness’ in Gilead (Offred has the ‘reddist’ dress). The wives of the dignitaries, including Serena Joy, are dressed in blue, the regime’s functionaries in dun uniforms, and the privileged men parade around in black. The transitions between scenes are smooth, mostly thanks to the brilliant lighting (Paule Constable) and quick changes of props behind a red curtain that also serves as a screen for Offred’s black-and-white recollections (projected by Akhila Krishnan). Miskimmon retained several forceful gestures from the original, including the ritual of inseminating a handmaid in the arms of the lawful wife of the ‘reproductor’, while others are softened (to marvellous effect), replacing the corpses hanging on the wall with photographs of the condemned, while transferring the actual execution to the domain of theatrical symbol (one can infer the function of the rope that disappears somewhere between the wings and the flies solely from the precise directing of this image). At several points, she succeeded in relieving the mood of ubiquitous menace with a touch of black humour (the handmaids use prayer machines, modelled on one-arm bandits). The sole mistake in the staging – a major error, alas – is turning the spoken male role of Professor Pieixoto into a performance by an actress (the excellent Juliet Stevenson). After all, it is precisely Pieixoto who binds the narrative together with a tragic clasp, admitting at an academic conference in 2195 that as a man he does not have the right research tools to verify the handmaid’s tale – thereby indirectly testifying that women were erased from the history of the Republic of Gilead.

The main collective hero of the evening proved to be the orchestra – in magnificent form, sensitively reacting to the precise instructions from Joana Carneiro, who kept perfect command over proceedings. I was less taken by the chorus, which was lacking cohesion, which for me is extremely important in this work, where the objectified women ought to speak in the uniform voice of a nameless crowd. In the thankless supporting roles, most impressive was Avery Amereau (Serena Joy), whose dark, velvety mezzo-soprano, with a beautifully cultured, truly alto bottom register, aptly conveyed the sadness of the infertile wife – profound and despairing, like the biblical Rachel. Nadine Benjamin was convincing with her sonorous soprano and abundance of energy, ideal for the role of the rebellious Moira; the same goes for Scottish soprano Eleanor Dennis, who brought a great deal of freshness to the part of Ofglen, Offred’s friend. A class unto herself was Susan Bickley in the mezzo-soprano role of the main heroine’s mother. Rachel Nicholls gave a bravura performance of the soulless Aunt Lydia, to whom Ruders gave a part that is downright repulsive in vocal terms: full of screamed commands and broken, barking syllables in the top register. The male singers came across worse, including the booming bass James Creswell, who decidedly lacked subtlety in his interpretation of the emotionally unstable Commander Fred.

Kate Lindsey and Eleanor Dennis (Ofglen). Photo: Zoe Martin

Yet everything was offset by the titular handmaid, defined with the derogatory, possessive nickname Offred, meaning ‘of Fred’. Her lost life, existential fear and continually crushed hope were marvellously rendered by the American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, possessing a voice of great beauty, led to masterful effect and with great facility, particularly in the top scale, where the ethereal piano seems to reach us at times from another world, at times from the depths of an agonising yearning for happiness irrecoverably lost. I am not at all surprised that in the second act she was given a duet with herself (her younger incarnation is usually entrusted to another soloist): still ringing in my ears are her last words, ‘how can I keep on living?’, sung in unison, before a split on the last note into a piercing semitone interval. I think the opera would benefit from Ruders ‘slimming down’ the narrative and instead allowing Offred to enter into a closer relationship with one of the musically better drawn characters.

This revival almost came to nought. Until the eleventh hour, it was threatened by a strike of the ENO musicians, protesting against planned redundancies in the orchestra. The crisis has been averted for the time being, but a decision to force the ensemble to move to Manchester seems inevitable. Dark clouds are also gathering over the Welsh National Opera. I just hope that a hundred years from now no Professor Pieixoto will exclaim at another symposium that he has too little evidence to verify anonymous reports of the former splendour of operatic theatre in Great Britain.

Translated by: John Comber

Like Milk and Blood

Over a decade ago, when Romeo Castellucci’s production of The Four Seasons Restaurant arrived in Poland, Jacek Kopciński bridled at a comment in the Malta Festival programme book: an example of embarrassing vacuousness, “the claptrap, which is so tolerated today and which overgrows theatre programmes, brochures and leaflets, spreads to television and, of course, to the Internet (…), from where it finds its way into reviews and then into master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, subsequently quoted in programmes – and the whole process comes full circle”. Like Kopciński, I am not in the habit of reading previews before a performance, and like him, I often rub my eyes in astonishment, when I read them after seeing the performance in question. However, when confronting the oeuvre of Castellucci, about whom I again agree with Kopciński that he is a director of eschatological premonitions as much well-known as he is misunderstood, I’m afraid of falling into the trap of clichés. The Italian artist’s theatre – unreal, derived from the logic and aesthetics of dreams – features so many symbols and cultural references that a review of each of his productions can become a doctoral dissertation. And be way off the mark, because Castellucci’s stagings are like time bombs. Their various elements keep coming back to the spectator like recovered dreams. They make up false memories, thanks to which the spectator experiences revelation, as it were – for a sequence of several oneiric scenes is able to generate in his or her brain an image which was not there, but which will prove to be the key to interpreting the whole.

I firmly take the view that theatre is not a keyhole and is not to be used to peek at reality: that is why I appreciate Castellucci’s productions so much, and why in describing them I try to resist the temptation to split hairs and pedantically pick out the accumulating signs. I went to see Die Walküre – the second part of Wagner’s tetralogy staged by him – at La Monnaie primarily because of my personal fondness for the work: perfectly constructed in terms of drama and thus enabling the spectator to gain a deep insight into the motivations and feelings of the characters. I was also intrigued by the director’s declaration that he would treat each part of the Brussels Ring not only as an integral part of the cycle, but also as a separate work, governed by its own theatrical logic.

Thus the generally luminous, white and gold Rheingold was followed by a predominantly dark Walküre, speaking, like Castellucci’s other productions, the unique language of his theatre, oriented more towards the image than the word. At times this image was on the verge of visibility, creating an illusion of empty space that the spectators were to fill with their energy and emotions, to sort out the blackness, give meaning to it. Castellucci’s Die Walküre becomes more and more minimalist, conceptual from act to act. In this respect it brings to mind rather obvious associations with Wieland Wagner’s stagings, though it creates a broader framework for the world of myth, placing it – like Pasolini did in his Medea – in the context of the aesthetic experience of various cultures and periods. Hence the references to Christian and Buddhist iconography, hence the allusions to Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, hence  the reference – in my opinion the most significant of all – to Friedrich Hölderlin and his Death of Empedocles.

Nadja Stefanoff (Sieglinde) and Peter Wedd (Siegmund). Photo: Monika Rittershaus

I might have missed the association, if it had not been for the poignant finale, in which Brunhilde disappeared under a blindingly white screen, after which the screen was lifted, revealing a pair of shoes she had left behind. Brunhilde’s rock turns out to be Etna, into whose depths Empedocles threw himself. Castellucci’s entire production is steeped in the thought of Empedocles, the forefather of the philosophy of love, the author of the concept whereby the main forces of order are Love and Strife, and our world comes into being only when the latter, dark force invades the perfect world. Siegmund’s wolf skin, Hunding’s black dog, Fricka’s white doves and Valkyries’ dark horses (it’s been a long time since Castellucci brought such a number of live animals to the stage) are not only the director’s repeated sign of a return to the origins of theatre, but also a reference to Empedocles’ belief in metempsychosis. Empedoclean elements include even the colours of the staging, which, with few exceptions, is dominated by the four elemental colours: black, white, red and various shades of ὠχρός, the colour of the earth.

I admit that Castellucci’s visions are not always consistent with the music, and sometimes make life difficult for the singers (this is especially true of the mesh screen in Acts One and Two, the equivalent of a PVC film curtain, making it difficult for audiences of the artist’s earlier stagings to follow the action). Several images, however, will remain in my memory for a long time: a horse’s eye in a giant circle watching Sieglinde and Siegmund in Act One like an omniscient animal deity; the death of Siegmund, engulfed by a quivering mass of earth, or perhaps lava flowing out from beneath it; the beginning of Act Three, in which nine barely visible horses carry the naked corpses of the fallen warriors onto the stage, and then the Valkyries pile them up, laying them down in rows, throwing one of the corpses into the lap of one of them, who receives him with helpless apathy worthy of Michelangelo’s Vatican sculpture.

Ingela Brimberg (Brunhilde). Photo: Monika Rittershaus

A veritable storm of meanings was carried by the image of the Völsung siblings’ vow of incestuous love. The scene gradually becomes empty. The lovers are left amidst the snowy whiteness, also dressed in white; Siegmund (yes, earlier than in the score) draws a sword from Sieglinde’s womb and opens a wound in her body: a symbol of misfortune, suffering, but in medieval Christian iconography also of the vulva from which a child will be born. This is soon followed by is a veritable orgy of fertility and transgression. The lovers lubricate themselves with blood flowing out of the wound – symbolising the female element of the foetus – and then douse each other with milk, a symbol of the male “white blood”, or sperm, from which the baby’s bones will grow. There is no ash tree on stage. Siegmund puts the Nothung, a decidedly phallic element in this context, into an empty white refrigerator – as if with a subconscious intention of preserving the fruit of the love night. The whole scene can also be interpreted in terms of sacrifice of milk and blood. Or the Old Testament prohibition of combining one substance with another, that is, in the subtext – the prohibition of incest. The abundance of flowers accompanying this initiation also brings to mind some ancient chthonic ritual. It’s been a long time since I saw such a bold yet stunningly beautiful erotic scene in the theatre.

The musical reins of the production were in the hands of Alain Altinoglu – a conductor as far as possible from trying to interpret Wagner in the bombastic Bayreuth style of the 1930s – so it’s not surprising that his choice of cast was different from what many critics expected. The result was generally good, although there were a few disappointments, especially for me, with all my years of watching the Wagnerian “shadow cabinet” in less prominent European theatres. I really liked the fragile, subtle Sieglinde portrayed by the German soprano Nadja Stefanoff, whose voice is relatively small but luminous and natural, with a warm, slightly “old-fashioned” sound and great power of expression. Unfortunately, she did not find her equal in Peter Wedd (Siegmund), an extremely musical singer, whose free-flowing phrasing is reminiscent of the vocal art of his compatriot Walter Widdop. However, Wedd’s handsome, dark tenor shows clear signs of fatigue. Theatre directors clearly missed the moment when Wedd had the makings of one of the more interesting jugendliche Heldentenors of his generation. Now his voice has become dull, lost its harmonics, descended deep into the larynx, which has also resulted in production errors – a great pity, especially given that when I heard his debut in the role in Karlsruhe in 2016, his sonorous, bronze “Wälse! Wälse!” carried over the orchestra with a real squillo. Living proof of the usefulness of taking good care of your vocal instrument was provided on the other hand by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a singer normally associated with quite a different repertoire, who effortlessly adapted her sonorous, warm and extremely rich-sounding contralto to the by no means easy part of Fricka. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Ingela Brimberg as Brunhilde – hers is a soprano that is powerful, but rather harsh and, in my opinion, with too much vibrato, for which she fortunately managed to make up with great musicality and phenomenal acting. I will be interested in following the career of Gábor Bretz, a Wotan who is still too “youthful”, but is already showing the makings of an excellent lyrical interpreter of the role, as he demonstrated especially in the final farewell scene with Brunhilde. I was a bit disappointed by Ante Jerkunica, whose otherwise beautiful bass is too light for the role of Hunding. A perfectly harmonised (if sometimes a tad too shrill) team of the Valkyries was created by Karen Vermeiren, Tineke van Ingelgem, Polly Leech, Lotte Verstaen, Katie Lowe, Marié-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur, Iris van Wijnen and Christel Loetzsch.

Gabor Bretz (Wotan). Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The biggest revelation of the evening, however, was Altinoglu, conducting the whole thing with a precision worthy of André Cluytens and attention to narrative cohesion that Charles Munch himself would have been proud of. It was the first time I heard live a truly “French” Wagner, which in this interpretation betrayed non-obvious affinities with Berlioz’s oeuvre, for example. Altinoglu keeps the pulse in check, does not overwhelm with the mass of sound, contrasts the tempos clearly, but always in accordance with the musical logic, and, above all, impresses with his extraordinary attention to detail and ability to bring out surprising sound effects from the texture, especially in the woodwind (phenomenal clarinets and oboes). We could use a few more equally sensitive conductors to finally make a breakthrough in the performance of Wagner’s music, still played with admirable persistence in a quite ahistorical manner.

Some predict that Castellucci’s Brussels stagings will make up the first Ring worthy of our century. They are quite likely right. We live in a civilisation of images, but, fortunately, we are still able to make a distinction between artistry and chutzpah. Castellucci himself once said that good theatre has power. Can create. It testifies to the existence of another, parallel world.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Mourning Does Not Become Elektra

Soon – if I don’t run out of steam – we will celebrate together the tenth anniversary of this website, and with this small jubilee various other anniversaries, both sad and happy. However, let me once again put my nose out of our backyard and point out that various eras are coming to an end across the operatic world: entire generations of musicians associated with a particular performance practice are passing away, the splendour of companies that were supposed to last forever is fading, great projects initiated years ago are coming to a close. What is also coming to an end is Antonio Pappano’s musical reign at the Royal Opera House. The conductor, in the prime of his life and at the height of his creative powers, is leaving the legendary Bow Street building after twenty-two years to take the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra in September. In January Pappano bid a symbolic farewell to the ROH audience, choosing for his final premiere a work by the same composer and prepared with the same director with whom he triumphed in 2002, when he opened his first London season as Covent Garden’s Music Director. From Ariadne auf Naxos to Elektra. From a magnificent, colourful staging of an opera the creators of which deliberately juxtaposed the world of Greek myth with Wagner’s ideal of boundless love, to a dark study of revenge derived from Sophocles’ tragedy. A brilliant closure of the collaboration with the German freelancer Christof Loy, with whom Pappano has come a long way – from the youngest-ever boss of the ROH to the acclaimed architect of the London company’s undisputed greatness.

This time I went to London in a semi-official capacity, making it a social occasion as well, and after the performance I was able to share my impressions about the musical and theatrical side of the farewell event as much as I wanted. I knew Ariadne – revived at the ROH four times, last time in 2015 – only from video recordings, but I always thought it was an outstanding production. I was surprised, like Pappano, that for so many years he had not decided to have his “own” Elektra, even though during his reign Strauss’ one-act opera had appeared on the London stage several times under different conductors and in staging by other directors. I expected from the very beginning that the production would attract extraordinary attention of both critics and music lovers. I decided to come to see the third of the six scheduled performances – after the general slackening and decline of form that usually accompanies the so-called second premiere, at a point when the singers are beginning to identify with their characters and the conductor is coming to a full understanding with the ensemble he is leading.

Nina Stemme (Elektra) and Sara Jakubiak (Chrysothemis). Photo: Tristram Kenton

However, I could not have predicted that Nina Stemme would withdraw already after the first performance to be replaced by the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė (in the end, the Swedish artist returned to the stage for the last two performances). The London audience, discouraged by the scathing reviews of Stemme’s performance at the premiere, was beside itself with joy. I was reserved, having seen Stundytė’s portrayal of Renata in Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel in Warsaw. It was nearly six years ago, the singer was just over forty, but already at that time her voice was tired, had too much vibrato and unattractive colour. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed by the London Elektra, although I suspect that Stundytė’s intelligence and uncommon musicianship won the hearts of some English music lovers, who were charmed by her fragility and unexpectedly gentle take on the eponymous heroine of Strauss’ opera.

The problem is that this is probably not what Pappano and, especially, Loy had in mind. Loy this time created an unambiguously dirty staging, set in the static space of an unspecified bourgeois residence in Vienna during the Strauss-Hofmannsthal era. In this concept, Elektra – with her heart seething alternately with love, hatred and desire for revenge – does not wander around the palace in rags. Dressed in a modest black-and-white maid’s uniform, she coexists with the rest of the palace staff in the home of Klytaemnestra and her lover. She sneaks out into the coal-smeared courtyard with the Oversser and five Maids, for whom the ultimate freedom is to be able to crouch, even for a moment, on the steps of the staircase leading to the rear of the queen’s residence. We can only guess what happens inside the palace: the world lost by Elektra after Agamemnon’s death hides even deeper, behind one of the doors in the faintly yellowish-lit corridor. This space – positioned by the set designer Johannes Leiacker on a low mezzanine floor of the building surrounding the courtyard and perfectly lit by Olaf Winter – creates a striking impression of inaccessibility. Behind the high windows something is still going on, but in dead silence. The space of human relationships is suggested primarily by the costumes, especially of the three female protagonists: Elektra, relegated to the role of a servant; Chrysothemis, locked in a schoolgirl’s dream of normality (wearing a girlish, pale pink dress that looks as if it has aged with its owner); and Klytaemnestra, guilty of her two daughter’s misfortune  (wearing sapphire silks and a white fur stole, the sumptuousness of which cannot hide the passage of years or the inner ugliness of the character).

Karita Mattila (Klytaemnestra) and Nina Stemme. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Such a staging – minimalist, far from being literal, operating primarily with symbols – has no room for a fragile Elektra and Stemme probably did not portrayed her as such. It is difficult for me to objectively assess Loy’s concept, because I suspect that the weakening of dramatic tension may have been caused by the sudden cast change, rather than any shortcomings on the director’s part. With Stundytė in the title role, Elektra came across as more delicate and in some ways less determined than Chrysothemis. The scene in which she recognised Orestes was indeed touching, but it didn’t touch the hearstrings the way it should have; even the eerie waltz in the finale, when Elektra can no longer hear anything but the music coming from within her, seemed strangely cautious and shaky.

Of course, I can’t put all the responsibility on Stundytė, who was brought to London at the last minute and had to add Loy’s instructions to her experience of recent productions by Warlikowski and Tcherniakov. There is this snag though – the Lithuanian soprano should not have taken on the role of Elektra in the first place. In no way does her voice resemble that of a “twenty-year-old Brünnhilde” demanded for the part: instead, she is a mature Tosca who has strayed into an unsuitable repertoire, being cast in Strauss and Wagner operas thanks to her musicality combined with fine stage presence and good acting skills. Stundytė’s soprano has a limited colour palette and lacks not only volume, but also the necessary intensity, traits that put Inge Borkh – whose voice was relatively small, but had exceptional dramatic potential – among the greatest Elektras of all time. Much better than Stundytė was Karita Mattila, a singer with great charisma, with which she skilfully masks the limitations of her inevitably aging soprano: although in the mezzo-soprano part of Klytaemnestra she had trouble projecting her voice in the upper and lower registers, she nevertheless managed to maintain her characteristic consistency and smoothness of sound across the scale. The thankless role of Aegisth was well sung by Charles Workman, whom I appreciate not only for the beauty of his voice, but also for his complete freedom and lightness of phrasing. Łukasz Goliński made a very successful ROH debut as Orestes. His is a resonant and deep baritone, golden in tone and wonderfully developed in the lower register. If he can be faulted for anything, it would a few intonational lapses, which can be put down to the earnestness of his interpretation. At least decent performances came from the rest of the numerous cast, led by the five Maidens (Noa Beinart, Veena Akama-Makia, Gabrielė Kupšytė, Ella Taylor and Valentina Puskás) and Lee Bisset in the small role of the Overseer.

Nina Stemme. Photo: Tristram Kenton

I left Chrysothemis for last, because it’s been a long time since I had to deal with a singer who would take control the entire stage from her first entrance on the word “Elektra!”. Sara Jakubiak was superior to Stundytė in every respect: her commitment to the character she created, the beauty of her voice, her phenomenal vocal technique and her extraordinary freedom in carrying out the tasks assigned to her by the director. I only hope – judging from the American singer’s career so far – that Jakubiak will not listen to the remarks of some reviewers who, having recovered from the initial shock, would like to cast her in the title role. God forbid: hers is a dark, powerful, but still lyrical soprano, crystal clear, floating over the orchestra like a voice from another world, impeccable in terms of production, the only one in the entire cast thanks to which the audience was able to marvel at the elegance of phrasing combined with a clear, deeply thought-out delivery of Hofmannsthal’s text. Had it not been for Jakubiak, I would sum up the vocal side of the London performance as generally decent, but unmemorable with few exceptions. Her portrayal of Chrysotemis was a memorable experience, somewhat unfairly overshadowing the other qualities of this altogether successful staging.

Pappano conducted the whole in line with Strauss’ own original instruction: “as if it were Mendelssohn”. He resisted the temptation to go for an extremely modernist reading of the score in terms of a persistent dramatic crescendo, an overwhelming cacophony of sounds, which many conductors further emphasise with a deliberately “dirty” sound of the various orchestral groups. Instead of the contrast between black and white, we got myriads of shades of love and hate, revenge and chaos, doubt and hope – and with them unexpected layers of lyricism, so often disregarded by contemporary conductors and so longingly remembered by admirers of Georg Solti’s legendary interpretation with Birgit Nilsson in the title role.

We didn’t get a new Nilsson, but no one dared doubt that Pappano was saying goodbye to the ROH in a style worthy of his greatest predecessors. Another circle is coming to a close. And I will soon share with you my impressions from La Monnaie, to whose glory Pappano contributed greatly before taking over the reins at the Royal Opera House; and from the English National Opera, which will soon disappear from London’s musical map. Let’s hope that this year I will witness the birth of new delights more often than bury irretrievably lost hopes.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Hwaet! Listen!

The artists who today can honestly be described as ambassadors of Polish culture in the world include several individuals whose careers I have followed from the very beginning. Agnieszka Budzinska-Bennett occupies a unique position among them: primarily because she has triumphantly followed the same path I began to tread tentatively in the early 1990s. The beginnings of a female medieval music ensemble which I co-led with Aldona Czechak for nearly a decade were as crazy as the whole era. I have said that it was beautiful but difficult. Experience gained at masterclasses in the West – where we were able to go with money scrimped and saved, borrowed or scrounged from institutions and foundations – were more often the subject of derision rather than genuine interest in Polish musical circles. I still find it hard to believe that we nevertheless notched up several important successes: first of all, abandon the „imitative” model of historically informed performance, common in Poland at the time, in favour of an engaged model requiring source research, work on manuscripts, comparative studies of vocal traditions and development of conscious improvisation skills. However, it so happened that I took up music criticism at more or less the same time. The conflict of interest grew. I gradually moved away from performance. Or maybe I simply lacked the determination, diligence, charisma and talent – all the qualities that have taken Agnieszka to the top and made her one of the leading specialists in this narrow and difficult field. By European, if not global standards.

I remember when she contacted me for the first time, while she was still a musicology student at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. She had already participated in several prestigious courses, including those with the British sopranos Evelyn Tubb and Emma Kirkby, for years associated with The Consort of Musicke. At the time I was involved in a research programme focused on the oeuvre of Hildegard von Bingen, initiated by Barbara Thornton and supported by Benjamin Bagby of the legendary ensemble Sequentia. I spent nearly two years shuttling between Poland, Belgium and Germany, gathering knowledge and experience, which we confronted every few months during intensive sessions at Barbara and Benjamin’s home in Cologne. Agnieszka – in love with the Middle Ages since childhood, engrossed in recordings by pioneers of period performance since high school, and confronting her life’s passions with the musicological knowledge at the university – inquired about everything in minute detail. Her passion, determination and a sense of self-worth as steadfast as it was justified made an electrifying impression on me. This exotic-looking, bright, energetic girl was a force of nature. I thought to myself that if she managed to take part in the courses taught by Sequentia’s co-founders, she would benefit a hundredfold more from them than I ever would. She managed to do that twice. And my intuition did not fail me.

Years later we started calling each other “sister”. This is because the beginnings of our foray into early music were surprisingly similar. From the beginning Agnieszka was fascinated by cooperation, teamwork. Although she conscientiously went through all levels of musical education in her hometown of Szczecin and received a diploma in piano at the end of her high school education, she never became friends with the three-legged black giant. She felt lonely at the keyboard: she was fascinated by the world of medieval dragons and heroes, courtly love and sophisticated poetry, over which she had been poring with dictionaries since childhood, absorbing the magic of foreign-sounding words and the melody of forgotten languages. She read Scandinavian sagas and Nibelungenlied, and then confronted them with Wagner’s Tetralogy. She devoured Beowulf as if it were the best crime novel. To this day she still has a weakness for fantasy literature and quirky television series, including Ragnarok, a Norwegian tale with more than one moral, the authors of which have brilliantly reinterpreted Norse myths to attract modern teenage viewers uncertain of their own identity. We recently shared our impressions of several episodes on Messenger, laughing uproariously and making sure no one was looking over our shoulders.

I spent years honing my reviews, essays and columns, while Agnieszka devoted herself wholeheartedly to musical archaeology and increasingly successful attempts to bring this world to life in performance practice. After the last semester of Poznań musicology, in 1997, she began her studies in Switzerland, at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, one of the most important centres of medieval music studies and the bastion of period performance. SCB students included Gustav Leonhardt and Jordi Savall; Sequentia, the fruit of Thornton and Bagby’s joint graduation concert, was also born within SCB’s walls; singing was taught there by the charismatic countertenor Richard Levitt, a member of the legendary Studio der frühen Musik, and a favourite teacher of Agnieszka, Andreas Scholl and… Sting, who used his advice when preparing an album of Dowland songs. It was there, in Heidrun Rosenzweig’s class, that Agnieszka mastered the basics of playing the medieval harp. It was there that in 1997 she founded the all-female ensemble Peregrina – or Wanderer – the name of which refers not only to a “pilgrimage” of musical ideas across medieval Europe, but also to the biographies of the ensemble’s members, who had come to Switzerland from the United States, United Kingdom and Finland in search of the musical Holy Grail.

Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett. Photo: Laelia Milleri

Along the way, in passing, as it were, Agnieszka learned six languages, including Latin, indispensable in her work. She completed a programme in Scandinavian studies, and a post-graduate course in musicology at the University of Basel. While working as an assistant at the Microfilm Archive of the Institute of Musicology there, she met her future husband Lucas Bennett, and thus happily married the worlds of medieval and contemporary music (Lucas, a theorist and musicologist, specialises in twentieth- and twenty-first-century works; his father, the composer Gerald Bennett, a longtime collaborator of Pierre Boulez, whom he helped found the famous IRCAM in Paris, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on computer and electroacoustic music). Agnieszka sealed her impressive education with an honours degree in vocal ensemble conducting from the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and a doctorate, defended in Poznań, on subtilitas, that is what can and cannot be heard in motets of the ars antiqua period. That was in 2010.

Peregrina already had two albums to its credit at the time: Mel et lac with twelfth-century Marian hymns and Filia praeclara with chants of the Poor Clares from Stary Sącz, for which I nominated Agnieszka for the first time for the Polityka weekly’s Passport Award. The nomination went unnoticed. The following year I mustered a small lobby, thanks to which Agnieszka made it to the top three “for her passion as a researcher who prepares concert and recording programmes through painstaking musicological, philological and historical work. For the excellent Crux album of Parisian Easter music from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century”. The Passport eluded her again. In 2012, with a persistence worthy of Cato the Elder, I urged the award jury members to open their ears to the artist’s new achievements, submitting her nomination “for another excellent album, Veiled Desires, an anthology that recounts the life, spirituality and sexuality of medieval nuns by means of music of that era. For her ability to embed artistic activity in a broader social and historical discourse. For the reliability of her source research, which is an essential part of the work of musicians performing early music”. Made it to the final again, passport denied again. Agnieszka hugged me backstage and asked me politely but firmly not to nominate her again.

I complied. However, I missed no opportunity to preach about Saint Agnieszka of Basel and her solid craftsmanship, which needs no passports. I appreciated the fact that in 2016 she was entrusted with the artistic supervision of a huge project of recording all the Melodies for the Polish Psalter by Mikołaj Gomółka with the Polish Radio Choir, but I still thought there was not enough response in Poland to what was closest to the hearts of both of us: medieval music. Music that is free of splendour, only seemingly easy, but in fact requiring maximum precision and concentration from the performers – in some ways similar to the Japanese Zen gardens, which encompass the entire universe, where gravel is raked into waves for hours, and a few stones are placed within a tiny space in such a way that it is impossible to take them all in at once.

Not everyone likes monochromatic landscapes of sand, moss and rock chips. Nor does everyone feel safe in them. So Agnieszka decided to rake, arrange and water her beloved music all the more calmly to give the listeners space and help them extract as much meaning from it as possible. She herself once recalled a mesmerising performance by Benjamin Bagby, who improvised an extensive passage from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, accompanying himself on a six-stringed lyre. His monologue went on for more than an hour, only some intelligible words could be extracted from the text, and yet, according to Agnieszka, everyone guessed at which point the monster “moved the third claw of its left hind paw”.

Agnieszka with Ensemble Dragma. Photo: Alejandro Lozano

With time similar things began to happen at her concerts. It is as if each one begins, as in Beowulf, with the famous cry of “Hwaet!”, which is usually translated as “Listen!”. In fact, it literally means “wait” and so the listeners obediently wait. Until a meaning emerges, until an image is outlined before their eyes, until hundreds of sounds, inconspicuous as couch grass flowers, form a symbolic pattern. The more inquisitive among the listeners will later start looking for contexts. The less inquisitive – or those simply tired of the chaos of the modern world – will be content with the sheer beauty of the composition.

Agnieszka is fully aware that it is impossible to impose on the audience one correct model of listening. Medievalist-musicians sometimes spend months preparing a short piece. They have to decipher it on several levels: read and understand the text, accurately interpret the notation, place the composition in a social, historical or liturgical context, combine it with the appropriate instrumentation if necessary. If doubts arise, they have to resolve them in the archives or ask colleagues for help. Once everything is ready, they have to check, if it can be played or sung at all. If not, they have to go back to the beginning and start all over again. They go to a lot of trouble and the listener may still turn a deaf ear to such an inconspicuous trifle. It thus takes a skill to arrange a programme, which in the case of medieval music is much more susceptible to the vagaries of acoustics, interior architecture and the general nature of the space.

This is why when I set off to attend the Swiss concerts under the “Kras 52” project, carried out by Agnieszka in cooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, I asked the organisers to let me listen to the same programme twice: in the late-Gothic Calvinist church in Biel in the Canton of Bern and the following day in the fifteenth-century Haus zum Hohen Dolder in Basel, the former seat of a medieval society from the monastery village of St. Alban, whose duties included overseeing local vineyards, settling border disputes and fire protection of the monastery’s estates.

A manuscript marked by the mysterious signature Kras 52 was once kept in Warsaw’s Krasiński Library in Okólnik Street. It ended up there in 1857, as part of the legacy of Konstanty Swidziński, a bibliophile, art collector and patron who before his death had amassed a collection larger than that of the Ossoliński Library at the time. More than half of the collection – including the building – went up in smoke in October 1944, in a fire set by the occupiers after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising. The manuscript was miraculously found three years after the war in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, where Karol Estreicher recognised it by its light-coloured leather binding and ornate inscription “Manuscript from the fifteenth century”. In addition to the sermons of Jacobus de Voragine, Gesta Romanorum collection and a treatise on the expulsion of demons, it contains more than forty works in black mensural notation with music by composers of the late ars nova period and early Franco-Flemish polyphony, as well as seven of the nine surviving compositions by Mikołaj of Radom, and other musical relics associated with Kraków and the court of Władysław Jagiełło.

Photo: Alejandro Lozano

The first part of the project, entitled Regina Gloriosa, is based on a Marian repertoire – a fascinating testimony to the interpenetration of Italian, Avignonian and local influences, as well as the earliest Polish, still tentative experiments with Western polyphony. Agnieszka, this time with Ensemble Dragma – made up of her regular collaborators – presented one of the most subtle and sophisticated programmes of recent years. Divided into four parts (Marian Mass, music for Christmas and Epiphany, music for the Presentation of the Lord, and Marian prayers separated by the Magnificat), and performed with only five musicians, it not only revealed the light texture of these works, translucent like parchment, but also, with its thoughtful arrangement and a few wisely chosen additions from other sources, effectively sustained the attention of the entire audience. Without flamboyance, but with the tried-and-tested method of delicate contrasts – Agnieszka’s sensual soprano with Tessa Roos’ angelic, focused voice, intriguing dialogues between the harp and Marc Lewon’s lute, conversations carried out in such an expressive whisper of the instruments that whenever Jane Achtman and Elizabeth Rumsey’s vielles and Lewon’s gittern joined in, the medieval ensemble gave the impression of total completeness.

The same music – which rose like a pillar of light towards the vault of the Calvinist church – heard in the tiny hall of the Haus zum Hohen Dolder with its squeaky boards spoke directly to the listeners, sometimes from a distance of less than a metre. And once again I was able to experience the quality of these performances, just as I experience the mastery of opera singing in modest five-hundred-seat theatre. In such conditions musicians stand before the audience exposed as they were at birth. Ecce homo. Ecce mulier. Any deficiency in the technique would have resounded in this chamber with the power of the trumpets of Jericho.

When it was all over, when – like in the good old days – we cleaned the room together and washed the dishes, Agnieszka’s family invited me to dinner at a restaurant the name of which I will not reveal. Look for yourself where to eat the real braised brawn and ossobuco in Basel. Because what I also have in common with Agnieszka, her husband Lucas, her beloved father-in-law Gerald and his partner Pam is that we like to eat well and sip good wine to go with the feast. We also love to cook, finding in this a delight similar to browsing through ancient archives. Next time we will make ourselves some Spanish salsify with red lentils or spicy chicken with pumpkin. Perhaps I will be able to rival Agnieszka in this particular art.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

On Goodness and Arts

Niespełna dwa tygodnie temu, a ściślej 22 grudnia, minęła 300. rocznica urodzin Karla Friedricha Abla. Z tej okazji, a także na dobry początek roku 2024 – roku wielkich nadziei, których nie pozwolimy nikomu popsuć – anonsuję płytę, o której walorach mogę śmiało Państwa zapewnić, i w której mam swój skromny udział w postaci eseju do książeczki: C. F. Abel / The Drexel Manuscript / Krzysztof Firlus (viola da gamba) / DUX 2027. Poniżej link do strony wytwórni. Miłej lektury, jeszcze milszego słuchania i jeszcze raz Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku.

Less than a fortnight ago, more precisely on 22 December, was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Friedrich Abel. On this occasion, and to mark the beginning of 2024 – the year of great hopes that we will not allow anyone to spoil – I am announcing a CD, the value of which I fully vouch for, and in which I have my modest contribution in the form of an essay in the booklet: C. F. Abel / The Drexel Manuscript / Krzysztof Firlus (viola da gamba) / DUX 2027. Below is a link to the label’s website. Enjoy reading, enjoy listening even more, and once again, Happy New Year.
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Gods did not like philanthropists. In the tragedy Prometheus Bound Aeschylus used the term philánthrōpos—the one who loves humanity—in the second scene of the exodos, when incensed Zeus, through his messenger Hermes, tries to convince the ‘fire thief’ to get rid of this love, which he considered a mockery of his divine honour. In vain, and it is hardly surprising. After all, Prometheus was the father of humans: he made them from clay mixed with tears and gave them the form of gods; although he created defective beings, of mean stature, weaker than titans, barely able to stand on their frail legs, whose bones cracked under the slightest weight, he still loved them. He smuggled them fire in a stalk of fennel, taught them to forge metal, farm, cook meals, read, write, and live in harmony with the forces of nature. Zeus was afraid of these creatures and therefore ordered to chain their creator to the rocks of the Caucasus.

Over time, the word philánthrōpos also appeared in Aristophanes’ comedies, Plato’s dialogues, and Xenophon’s speeches. The term was associated with a feature proper of true rebels—heroes fighting against gods and adversities for the good of their people; a feature attributed to rulers who care for the good of their subjects, characteristic of truly free people, concerned for the existence of every human being, including slaves deprived of legal and political personality.

Perhaps that is why the first modern philanthropists—among them William Wilberforce, member of the British Parliament from three different constituencies at the turn of the 19th century—were also zealously involved in the abolitionist movement. Back then, charity became a determinant of civic attitude, a virtue of moral people—well-mannered and free from vice. Some fought with weapons, while others carried the torch of enlightenment. Charity was no longer the sole domain of soft-hearted people. It was identified with a virtue that should be sought by all those aspiring to the elite opposing barbarity of culture. It also became a fashion; a remedy of wealthy burghers against the inefficiency of state administration; an alternative way to be remembered by descendants.

Even then not everyone was eager to go to war. Otherwise, it would be like in Stefan Żeromski’s novel entitled Ashes: ‘everyone would like to go across the Pilica River as quickly as possible, no one would like to work’. Francis Martin Drexel, born in 1792 in the Austrian town of Dornbirn near Bregenz, in Vorarlberg, historical land bordering Switzerland, definitely did not want to associate his future with the military. He was the eldest son of a wealthy merchant who skilfully took advantage of the privileges of Vorarlberg under the Habsburg rule. The lands of Vorarlberg had constituted a separate district since the 17th century, subject to the administration of goods in Tirol, and were under the administration of Western Austria only thirty years (from the middle of the 18th century). When little Francis was eleven, his father sent him to Italy so that the firstborn could at least learn the basics of Italian and French. The boy proved to be extremely talented—in two years he mastered as many as five foreign languages; in 1805, he returned to his hometown to learn a decent profession. He became an apprentice of a painter in a nearby village.

In the same year that Napoleon forced Vorarlberg and Tirol to join the Kingdom of Bavaria, Francis begged his father to help him avoid conscription. His father agreed to his request. The young man crossed the Rhine to get to Switzerland and holed himself up there for the next five years, making a living off of painting signs, renovating houses, and making custom portraits. In 1812, he secretly returned to Tirol. Before both countries were reunited with Austria, after the Vienna Congress, he had managed to get to Bern in Switzerland and enrolled in further painting lessons.

Three years after Napoleon’s abdication, in 1817, Francis went to the port of Amsterdam, bought a ticket for eighty dollars, and boarded the John of Baltimore. Two months later, he disembarked in Philadelphia. He quickly found a job as a drawing instructor at a girls’ school and made good money as a portraitist. After a family scandal involving his brother-in-law, however, he had to seek his fortune elsewhere. For several years, he travelled South America, where his painting talent was appreciated so highly that he triumphantly returned to Philadelphia and set up his own banking house. Drexel & Co. soon grew to become one of the most powerful banks in the United States of America.

The founder of the banking empire shared his wealth as Prometheus shared fire. Three times a week, he would welcome every pauper who knocked on his door. Together with his wife Emma, he distributed food, shoes, clothes, medicine, and money to those in need; the couple soon hired an assistant who visited the applicants at home, interviewed them, and, on this basis, issued them with special certificates entitling them to receive an allowance directly from the Drexels. Francis and Emma donated a substantial sum of $30,000 a year to charity at the time, paying rent for hundreds of families and financing the manufacture of clothing for the poor in one of Philadelphia’s monasteries.

Francis Martin Drexel died in a train crash in 1863. He had six children, including three sons who followed in his footsteps, tied their careers to the family bank, and continued their father’s philanthropic activities. Two of them, the eldest Francis Anthony and the youngest Joseph William, also inherited their father’s passion for art. Joseph turned out to be extremely musical too. He mastered several instruments, especially the violin. After moving to New York, not only did he support financially local musical institutions, but he also actively engaged in their activities (including as director of the Metropolitan Opera and chairperson of the New York Philharmonic Society). During his numerous trips around the world, he amassed a huge collection of instruments, and in 1858 he bought a collection of scores and books on music from the German immigrant Henry F. Albrecht, which gave a start to his own collection, twenty years later enlarged by invaluable manuscripts from collections of European connoisseurs.

Photo: Grzegorz Mart

The so-called Drexel Collection—donated by Joseph William in 1888, just before his death, to the Lenox Library, which together with the Astor collection gave rise to the existing New York Public Library—contains over six thousand priceless prints and musical manuscripts. It includes, among others, several unique sources for the history of the output of 17th-century English composers and a manuscript marked with the Drexel 5871 reference number, containing, in addition to seventeen sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli and an anonymous Presto in C major, twenty-nine pieces for viola da gamba by a German virtuoso of the instrument, Carl Friedrich Abel.

Abel, like Drexel, came from a family in which not only the profession, but also certain values were passed from generation to generation. His grandfather, Clamor Heinrich, an outstanding organist and violone master, was, among others, a court musician in Köthen, an instrumentalist of the Duke’s band in Hanover, and, finally, an Obermusicus in Bremen. His father, Christian Ferdinand, gained a reputation as one of the most excellent string musicians of his era. He managed to avoid serving in the Swedish army during the occupation of northern Germany by getting married. After moving to Köthen, he became friends with Johann Sebastian Bach, the successor of Kappelmeister Augustin Reinhard Stricker, who employed him in the court orchestra as a violinist and a viola da gamba player. Bach was godfather to his daughter Sophie-Charlotte and then took care of his son’s musical education at the Leipzig Thomasschule. In 1743, young Carl Friedrich Abel—on the recommendation of Bach—got a place in the court orchestra in Dresden. Fifteen years later, he left for London and soon became a court musician of Sophia Charlotte, German princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, newly crowned Queen of Great Britain. Shortly thereafter, he was joined by Johann Christian, the eleventh son of Johann Sebastian. The musicians’ cordial friendship resulted in the launch of Bach-Abel Concerts in 1764—the first subscription concerts in England, organised initially by retired Venetian singer Teresa Cornelys in her residence at Soho Square and then, until the death of Johann Christian in 1782, in the prestigious Hanover Square Rooms.

Abel outlived his friend, but he died younger, at the age of sixty-four—apparently because he enjoyed the pleasures of worldly life too much. He was a genuine life and soul of the party and revolved around the greatest artists of the era—among them Thomas Gainsborough, an excellent portraitist and landscape painter and a talented amateur violinist, probably the first owner of the manuscript of Abel’s works for viola da gamba, which, over time, fell into the hands of Joseph William Drexel.

Abel’s music is as pleasant to the ear as it is complicated to perform. In his music, the composer took full advantage of the possibilities of an instrument that was gradually going out of fashion while maintaining a reliable sense of form—both in free-form preludes and in more formal dances and rondos. He skilfully played with silence, intensifying in these short pieces the impression of a non-existent dialogue between several musical narrators. The richness of contrasts, concerning both dynamics and articulation, sometimes brings to mind Mozart’s early symphonies, but on the other hand, it takes the listener back into the past, into the world of unexpected sound solutions from the works of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe or Marin Marais.

Carl Friedrich Abel fell into oblivion for more than two centuries like many other composers, adored while alive and cast into the shadows shortly after their death. Had it not been for Drexel’s passion for collecting and a quite unexpected discovery of manuscripts in the Lower Silesian Maltzan palace in Milicz, Abel would have probably remained as enigmatic as one wealthy merchant from Vorarlberg, the father of Francis Martin, who decided to protect his offspring from the cruelty of war, thus inadvertently contributing not only to the development of banking and philanthropy, but also to the consolidation of artistic passion in his descendants.


Photo: Grzegorz Mart

Krzysztof Firlus plays a bass viola da gamba from the studio of Igor Przybyła—a copy of a seven-string instrument from 1693, by Michel Colichon, one of the most eminent Parisian luthiers of the late 17th century. Colichon’s gambas referred to the English model in terms of their structure—they had a slightly smaller body than their German counterparts but had a balanced sound despite shorter strings, and thus weaker tension. The top plate of the 2009 copy was made of spruce, while the back, ribs, and neck—of maple.

Carl Friedrich Abel used various instruments—in the portrait by the aforementioned Thomas Gainsborough, he plays a similar seven-string viol, although probably of German origin. However, it is also known that one of his favourite instruments was a six-string viol from the workshop of the Königsberg luthier Joachim Tielke (currently kept in the collection of the London Victoria & Albert Museum). This does not change the fact that none of the compositions preserved in the Drexel 5871 manuscript requires the use of a seventh string—which would confirm the thesis of most researchers that the aforementioned pieces were composed with a six-string viol in mind. Firlus’ choice is a kind of compromise between a still unattainable copy of the Tielke instrument and a reproduction of the French Colichon instrument, which allows to reflect all the nuances of these compositions.

Translated by: Żaneta Pniewska

It’s Easy to Lose Your Head in Brno

When it became clear that the number of premieres of this year’s season at Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera would come down to a total of three – a certain co-production that we will see four years after its opening in Salzburg lambasted by the critics; yet another staging of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire; and a world premiere of a work that I don’t quite see returning to any stage – I again became jealous of the Czechs. Czech opera companies offer a true embarrassment of riches, there are plenty of rarities in their repertoires and the interest of international critics is huge. This is hardly surprising: the Czechs don’t need to fill their casts with foreign stars of dubious quality, nor do they lack great directors or competent conductors. Besides, they don’t go to the opera once in a blue moon, but on a regular basis and they are really knowledgeable about it.

What has certainly contributed to this state of affairs is the bourgeois egalitarianism of our southern neighbours, who, unlike Poles with their sabre-wielding longings, have opera in their blood. Yet when I went to the Janáček Theatre in Brno for day-to-day performances of Strauss’ Salome and Dvorák’s comic opera Jakobín, completely unknown in Poland, I did not expect that in both cases I would be confronted with a theatre that was open and modern, and, at the same, time stemming from a tradition dating back at least to the beginning of the previous century.

Suffice it to say that David Radok, director of the Brno Salome, is the son of Alfréd, a legend of twentieth-century Czech theatre, co-creator – with Miloš Forman, among others – of the famous Laterna Magika, and a member of the D34 theatre company founded by Emil František Burian. Emil František, in turn, was the son of Emil Burian, one of the first performers of the role of the eponymous Jacobin in Dvorák’s opera. Emil’s younger brother Karel Burian sang the role of Herodes at the premiere of Salome at the Semperoper. When I began to investigate what the young Lucie Kaňková, Terinka in the Brno Jakobín, meant when she claimed to come from a family of respected Prague musicians, I discovered that on her father’s side she was a great-great-granddaughter of Jan Nepomuk Kaňka, Beethoven’s composer and lawyer friend, and on her mother’s side – a great-granddaughter of the violinist Jindřich Feld, whose students included Rafael Kubelik. I postponed further research, so as not to be influenced by anything. What if the apples did fall far from the tree this time?

Salome. Linda Ballová in the title role, and Jaroslav Březina (Herodes). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Born in 1954, David Radok emigrated with his family from Czechoslovakia after the defeat of the Prague Spring. He learned his craft in Gothenburg, primarily at the Folkteater, where his father Alfréd found refuge. He made his debut as a director at the local opera house with a staging of Menotti’s The Medium. In fact, he has continued his collaboration with Scandinavian companies to this day: he is the man behind the Peter Grimes production, dusted off after nearly thirty years and very well received in Copenhagen, which in May saved the honour of the Operaen, when a co-production with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera fell through for reasons that are yet to be explained. He has dozens of productions to his credit, primarily of Baroque and modernist operas. His stagings are clean, but dark, precise and marked by a uniquely Czech brand of black humour. This was also the case of Salome, although the action, set on an almost empty stage enclosed on three sides by a brick structure reminiscent of the interior of the ruined Basilica of Maxentius in Rome (set design by Dragan Stojčevski), unfolded rather sluggishly at first. I suspect that the director may have intended to build tension in this powerful one-act opera by means of the Hitchcock method, but the earthquake started only with the confrontation between Salome and Jochanaan. When the prophet emerged, dripping with water, from the trapdoor – with a black sack over his head, hauled out of the palace cistern in chains – the audience shuddered with horror for the first time. Radok’s concept proved coherent: Herodes’ palace was a universal metaphor for totalitarian violence and decay of all values. Hence the bizarre hotchpotch of costumes (designed by Zuzana Ježkova), ranging from operetta-style liveries, uniforms and suits, silk gowns and déshabillés, to the slightly over-the-top idea of having The Page of Herodias wear a Muslim niqab; hence the repulsive austerity of the sets and the terrifying indifferentism of the protagonists. There are only monsters roaming around the stage. Had the footmen not rushed to wipe the blood on the floor, Narraboth’s suicide would have gone unnoticed. Orgies and scheming take place somewhere in the background, almost imperceptibly, behind the semi-translucent glass of the palace’s living room. Paradoxically, the character that turns out to be the most human in the drama is the weak, demoralised Herodes – shouting that he will not allow the saviour of the world to raise the dead, because that would be horrible; frozen in humiliation when Salome, in the finale of the Dance of the Seven Veils, pushes his face into her crotch; vomiting with fear and disgust, when his stepdaughter gets her way and has the servants bring Jochanaan’s severed head on a silver platter. My perception of the Brno production may have been influenced by the current events in Poland – but I have to admit that the downfall of the grotesque tetrarch made a much bigger impression on me than the dilemmas and frustrations of the utterly spoiled Salome.

It is more likely, however, I was a bit disappointed by the performer of the title role, the Slovakian Linda Ballová – an excellent and extremely convincing actress as a psychopathic Lolita Salome, but possessing a soprano that I cannot, for the life of me, associate with a “sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde” as Strauss himself suggested. Ballová’s voice, relatively small, artificially darkened and characterised by a persistent, uncontrolled vibrato, pales in comparison with the luminous, truly girlish sopranos of Destinn and Cebotari, and above all the phenomenal Olive Fremstad, who sang Salome in the American premiere of the work at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. Despite the powerful orchestration, those singers easily cut through the dense tutti: Ballová continuously struggled with the matter, at times departing from the musical text, and even the famous low G flat on the last word of her monologue was lost in the flood of instrumental chords.

Salome. Linda Ballová. Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

However, the other members of the cast did a great job, led by the phenomenal – also acting-wise – Jaroslav Březina in the role of Herodes. Warm words of praise should go to Vit Nosek, who sang Narraboth with a rounded and ardent tenor, although he was not fully able to cope with the tasks entrusted to him by the director. The vengeful Heriodias was successfully portrayed by the experienced Eva Urbanová, a singer endowed with a powerful and superbly controlled soprano; Jochanaan was convincingly sung by the German baritone Birger Radde, a technically superb, extremely musical singer with a voice that is exceptionally noble, beautiful and rich. Marko Ivanovic led the whole thing with an assured hand, but at times paying too much attention to polishing individual details – at the expense of the agitated, kaleidoscopic narrative of this remarkable score.

After such intense impressions of the previous evening, the meeting with Jakobín obviously took place in a completely different atmosphere. The fruit of Dvorák’s second collaboration with the librettist Marie Červinkova-Riegrova – after the mediocre success of the 1882 production of Dimitrij – proved to be the first real triumph in the composer’s operatic career. The story of Bohuš, son of Count Vilém – who returns to his homeland incognito, together with his wife Julie, only to discover that his father is still convinced that his first-born has allied himself in France with the Jacobins and married a woman of ill repute in Paris – runs parallel to the love story of Terinka, daughter of the choirmaster Benda, and Jiří, gamekeeper at the count’s estates, jealous of burgrave Filip, who is courting his fiancée. Dramaturgically, the thing struggles a bit, musically it dazzles, both with the lyricism of the vocal parts and the sumptuous orchestration as well as references to, on the one hand, Czech folklore and on the other – Italian comic opera and the opéra à sauvetage, a genre popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the example of which was also Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Jakobín. Pavla Vykopalová (Julie), Jan Šťáva (Filip), and Roman Hoza (Bohuš). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

This convoluted story was tackled by Martin Glaser, a director a generation younger than Radok, but nevertheless faithful to the Czech tradition of engaged theatre, imbued with the spirit of satire and, at the same time, with the poetic magic of old school plays, which, in the words of Jan Komenský, were to entertain in a way that would make “our games a preparation for serious matters”. In his delightfully colourful Jakobín we can find not only inspirations from eighteenth-century Hanakian opera, but also less obvious, perhaps not entirely conscious references to the oeuvres of other directors from this part of Europe (I’m thinking of, for example, the undulating wooden platforms known from Nekrošius’ productions, with which Glaser builds the landscape of an imaginary town just as evocatively as he creates the interior of the count’s palace). How I miss such stagings: beautiful, clean and clear, human in the most literal sense of the word, provoking laughter and emotion, perfectly coupled with the composer’s idea.

This makes it all the more gratifying that the main contributor to the success of Jakobín was the Janáček Theatre team. The singers permanently affiliated with the Brno company were completed by just two artists: Lucie Kaňková, a singer blessed with a luminous, colourful soprano beautifully opened at the top, and Aleš Briscein as Jiří, an indefatigable and reliable tenor, who brings to mind Klaus Florian Vogt – the difference being, however, that, unlike the German star, he has a truly beautiful voice and uses it with admirable musicality. A lovely pair of the main protagonists came from Pavla Vykopalová (Julie), whose soft soprano had already delighted me in The Greek Passion, and the extraordinarily versatile baritone Roman Hoza (Bohuš), who had clearly worked diligently during his master classes with Christa Ludwig. The indisposed Petr Levíček heroically faced adversity and won over the audience with his bravura portrayal of the choirmaster Benda. The two priests from the production of Martinů’s opera I had seen – David Szendiuch and Jan Šťáva – showed themselves at their best as Count Vilém and the grotesque burgrave Filip. The role of the disreputable Adolf, who tries to seize Bohuš’s inheritance, was entrusted to Tadeáš Hoza, Roman’s younger brother, who possesses a baritone equally well placed, albeit a bit brighter and open more widely in the upper register. Jakub Klecker conducted, making good use of his extensive choral and choirmaster experience in this singing score.

Jakobín. David Szendiuch (Count Vilém). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Given the lack of operatic excitement in Poland, I will have to visit Brno more often. If I were to die in an isolation hospital, like field chaplain Matyáš from The Good Soldier Švejk, no one would be pulling their hair out in despair after me. My record is clean: even if I borrowed one thousand eight hundred crowns from someone, I gave it back long ago.

Translated by Anna Kijak

Lili of Einar’s Body

One day a woman locked in Einar Wegener’s body decided to tear down her prison. Had she chosen to act on the decision, the deed would have been referred to as suicide. She even set a date for herself: 1 May 1930. She had tried everything, but the doctors, instead of helping her, tried to forcibly treat Einar. They diagnosed him with either neurosis or schizophrenia, recommended a lobotomy and treated him with X-rays. Einar, exhausted by the treatment, was in anguish and so was Lili living inside him. When the anguish – described today as gender dysphoria – reached its peak, hope sprang up suddenly. The difficult case was taken up by the famous German gynaecologist Kurt Warnekros, a pioneer of gender-affirming surgery. No one before him had taken the risk of “completely transforming” a man into a woman. No one before had trusted him so desperately. The first surgery took place in February 1930. After the second Einar ceased to exist and the woman freed from him was issued a passport in the name of Lili Ilse Elvenes. We do not know whether she ever used the surname Elbe: perhaps this was a later invention of journalists seeking to commemorate the river flowing through Dresden, where Dr. Warnekros’ clinic was located.

A few months after the fourth procedure – groundbreaking from the medical point of view – the patient’s body rejected the transplanted uterus. And yet Lili welcomed death with calm and gratitude for the brief period spent in the body she had always dreamed of. She died on 13 September 1931, at the age of just under 49. Before her death she said that Einar had wanted to die for a long time: so that Lili could awake to life. This harrowing story, told by herself and compiled by a friend who hid under the pseudonym Niels Hoyer, was published as a book shortly after her death. The Danish original Fra Mand til Kvinde (Man into Woman) was immediately translated into German, an edition followed by two independent translations into English. Lili’s tragic fate,  discussed before the war mainly in terms of a moral sensation, kept returning from time to time in other contexts: in the middle of the last century on the wave of discussions about new methods of surgical gender reassignment, in the early twenty-first century – after the publication of David Ebershoff’s acclaimed novel The Danish Girl, subsequently filmed by Tom Hooper. The critics received Ebershoff’s debut with mixed feelings: although the author created a vivid story about the power of love, the essence of marriage and gender models, he let his imagination run wild, obscuring the already vague story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, who may have married Einar precisely because someone else lived in his body.

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

Both were talented and both very young when they fell in love with each other. They met at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts, having arrived there from provincial towns and conservative communities in the south of the country: Einar was the son of a spice merchant, Gerda – of a Lutheran pastor. He won acclaim as an author of atmospheric, impressionistic landscapes, while she dedicated herself primarily to illustration and portrait art combining Art Nouveau and Art Deco and characterised by ambiguous, decadent eroticism. It was apparently Gerda who awakened Lili in Einar – by prompting him to replace Anna Larssen, a popular actress at Copenhagen’s Folketeatret, during one of Gerda’s portrait sessions. Innocent dress-ups became a ritual. Dressed in female attire, Einar began to go out with Gerda for walks, to attend exhibition previews and social gatherings, with Gerda introducing him as her husband’s cousin from Jutland. Lili was given her own set of clothes, settled in the marital bedroom, but was afraid to come out in the stifling atmosphere of Puritan Denmark. The couple’s move to France proved of little help: Gerda flourished as an artist, but Lili felt increasingly bad in Einar’s hated body. Deliverance came with Dr. Warnekros’ offer. Lili emerged from the shadows as a mature woman and lived her entire new life over the course of fourteen months. The marriage was annulled. Lili became infatuated with a French art dealer, Gerda married an Italian pilot. Everything fell apart after Lili’s death. Gerda’s marriage turned out to be a mistake. The artist spent the last years of her life in poverty, forgotten, drinking herself into a stupor and supporting herself by selling hand-painted greeting cards. She died shortly after the outbreak of the war, at the age of just 54. She may have always loved the woman in her husband.

If Tobias Picker – author of six operas based on famous literary works, most of which were commissioned by major American theatre companies – had wanted to cash in on the success of Ebershoff’s novel, I probably would not have gone to the premiere of his Lili Elbe at the Theater St. Gallen. However, from the very beginning this project promised to be extraordinary. Just before the outbreak of the pandemic, Picker – then artistic director of Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma – cast the transgender Lucia Lucas in the role of Don Giovanni. The baritone-singing Lucas began the transition process in 2013, went through a hell, purgatory and heaven similar to that of Lili Elbe, and seemed to Picker the perfect performer for the opera he decided to compose especially for her. The libretto was written by his husband Aryeh Lev Stollman, a neuroradiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, using primarily the book Fra Mand til Kvinde; the dramaturgical side of the whole thing was handled by Lucas herself and direction – by Krystian Lada, who “discovered” Lucas for himself back in 2019, during the Brussels premiere of Unknown, I live with you.

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

Picker has created an opera of the kind that European composers are often unwilling or simply unable to write: real two-act opera with a linear plot that arouses strong emotions in both connoisseurs and people who come to the theatre for well-told stories. Above all, in Lili Elbe he has given a tremendous opportunity to shine to the singers, led by Lucia Lucas, who spins this treatise on recovered identity with the passion and understanding of a person who can really empathise with her character’s plight. In musical terms Picker does not so much juggle with convention as harnesses it in the service of the narrative: in the theatre within theatre scene, when Einar and Gerda watch a “modernist” performance of Orpheus and Eurydice, he draws on the treasury of Webern’s and Schönberg’s oeuvres; he conveys the atmosphere of the frenzied 1920s by means of references to Weill and Parisian cabarets; he interweaves the whole with threads drawn from the music of Korngold, Copland and Puccini; he dresses the moving finale in a robe of sound with clear allusions to Wagner’s Tristan and the love transfiguration of Isolde.

Krystian Lada presents the story within a space with few props (stage design cooperation by Łukasz Misztal), suggestively lit by Aleksander Prowaliński, as usual building tension with precise acting and expressive stage movement (choreography by Frank Fannar Pedersen). There are clear examples of his directorial “signatures”, like the half allegorical, half fairy-tale pantomime in the prologue: with bachelors and maidens pair up in the open, like princes with their Cinderellas, the maidens find the right shoes, one is left without a partner, little Einar runs off stage with one foot in a boy’s shoe and the other in a shiny pump. Another element that has become an integral part of Lada’s staging are theatrical emanations of the characters’ identities – when Lili awakens in Einar, she manifests herself under many guises: an Androgyne, a pregnant woman, a woman with a beard, and other vague visions of femininity, evocatively conveyed by dancers from the Tanzkompanie St. Gallen. Again, there is a great understanding between the director and the costume designer (Bente Rolandsdotter), who managed not only to emphasise the stark contrast between the grey everyday life in Denmark and the colourful world of bohemia, but also to contrast Gerda’s joyful colour imagination with a melancholic, subdued palette of shades suggesting the sadness of Lili locked inside Einar. A beautiful idea was the final cleansing of the protagonist from the dirt of her previous existence: in a ceremony that brought to mind associations with baptism as well as ritual washing of the body by the deceased’s loved ones.

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

The musical side of the production was overseen by Modestas Pitrenas, who led the soloists, the chorus and the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen with an assured hand, if a bit too heavy at times. I think, however, that with each successive performance the balance between the stage and the orchestra pit will continue to improve. Among the very large cast special mention should go to Sylvia d’Eramo, as Gerda, singing with a beautifully rounded soprano; the singing- and acting-wise superb mezzo-soprano Mack Wolz in the triple role of Anna Larssen, Wegener’s Mother and the Young Woman; the touchingly lyrical Brian Michael Moore in the tenor role of Lili’s beloved, Claude LeJeune; and, above all, the technically superb Théo Imart, endowed with an extraordinarily handsome soprano countertenor, and singing three extremely varied roles of the Danish Countess, Dagmar and Matron. However, I cannot help it, but what will stay in my memory above all is Lucia Lucas’ harrowing portrayal. Leaving aside her innate musicianship, mastery of nuanced dynamics and articulation, attention to rhythm and melody of phrasing – there is something irresistibly feminine about Lucas’ voice, more sonorous at the bottom of the scale and more widely open at the top than in the case of many performers of the role of Wotan. I have no idea where this comes from: certainly not from the timbre; if anything, then from the intensity and ardour of emotion, not normally associated with “male” singing. This sparkling baritone is clearly comfortable in its new body.

Yet after a long applause I became overwhelmed with sadness: that in Poland we are not yet mature enough to tell difficult stories using the language of opera. And even if we are mature enough, we do not know how to tell them with such sincerity and simplicity. It is either shouting or pathos, or allusion wrapped in black humour. And yet we need moderation so much.

Translated by:
Anna Kijak