Bayreuth 20.21

Approximately twenty minutes before the appointed hour the audience begins to gather near the Festspielhaus balcony, waiting for the signal beginning the ritual.  The Bayreuth fanfares were devised by Wagner himself, who arranged motifs from his various works for an eight-strong brass ensemble. The first, single fanfare calls audience members a quarter before the beginning of a performance. A  double fanfare is sounded five minutes later. After the third, triple fanfare, people really have to hurry up. Right on time there begins a short sequence of sounds which speak to my imagination much more powerfully than the famous balcony performances of the Festspielorchester musicians. First we hear a short bell, like in an ordinary theatre, though this time it is not for the audience, but for the ushers, who in a few seconds slam the wooden doors shut, draw the curtains and cut the Wagnerian temple off from the outside world. There is no longer a way in nor a way out. Soon the lights will be dimmed and we will be left alone with the creative team’s concept and our own expectations concerning Wagner’s masterpieces.

It was only during the pandemic that I became aware of the cramped conditions in the Festspielhaus. Even though the auditorium has been reduced to half of its capacity, it still seems full. Yet this year it is at least possible to breathe there – despite the mandatory use of FFP2 masks throughout the performance – and music is not disrupted by persistent coughing or exceedingly irritating hum and clatter of theatrical fans, banned due to hygienic reasons in order to prevent the spread of pathogenic aerosols.  After an interval of one year – unprecedented in the post-war history of the festival – I went to Bayreuth to see Barrie Kosky’s staging of Die Meistersinger, which will probably not return to this stage; Tobias Kratzer’s production of Tannhäuser; and a semi-staged performance of Die Walküre, which was accompanied by a performance piece by the Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch: the only surviving part of the Ring supposed to be directed by Valentin Schwarz, which was to have been premiered last season, but had to be moved to 2022.

I had seen both Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser on video and had accompanied both productions from the very beginning, co-hosting the broadcasts of the premieres on Polish Radio 2. When it comes to the former, I wanted to confront my impressions not only with the recording, but also with Michael Sturm’s inept directorial plagiarism presented in Poznań in 2018, when Die Meistersinger returned to Poland after an absence of over one hundred years. When it came to Tannhäuser, I hoped I would appreciate the production even more when seeing it live, like in the case of Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin, so underrated by the critics and the audience. I chose Die Walküre primarily because of Günther Groissböck’s long-awaited debut as Wotan – a dream, which ultimately did not come true, of hearing, for the first time in many years, an insightful, lyrical approach to this ambiguous character, an approach Bayreuth had not experienced since Hans Hotter’s memorable portrayal conducted by Clemens Krauss.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

I make no secret of the fact that I am an admirer of Barrie Kosky, an artist with an extraordinary imagination, an unfailing dramatic instinct and a sense of humour rare among Regieoper luminaries. This is not to say that I agree unreservedly with every one of his concepts, especially since Kosky is prone to “excess”, to building the action on many levels and to constructing his interpretation on the basis of associations that are not obvious and sometimes clearly misguided. Yet in the case of Die Meistersinger Kosky was spot on when it came to the essence of Wagner’s message – the opera is not a trivial story of a good-natured cobbler, a jealous town clerk and a pair of young lovers. It is a much more serious, though at times irresistibly funny, debate about the links between the avant-garde and traditionalism set not so much in actual Nuremberg, but in a symbolic, ideal city – unofficial capital of the Reich, a city of Sachs, Dürer and Pachelbel. A mysterious city into which Kaspar Hauser wandered one day in 1828. Much more importantly, it is an opera which ceased to tally with the composer’s intentions many years after it was written. It became incorporated into the infamous Nazi discourse and came to be linked to a totally different Nuremberg – a city associated with laws meant to protect German blood and German honour – so much so that when Wieland Wagner prepared the first post-war staging of Die Meistersinger in Bayreuth, he opted for total abstraction. His production was quite aptly called Die Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg.

In Kosky’s interpretation the “imagined” Nuremberg penetrates the reality of Wagner’s Wahnfried villa and then the reality of Schwurgerichtssaal 600, the venue of trials of Third Reich war criminals from 1945 onwards. Kosky chose this anachronism not in order to put on trial Wagner and his nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, so different from that of the national socialists. He put history on trial. At the centre of his concept stands Beckmesser, a Frankenstein-like figure sewn together from all of Wagner’s prejudices, as the director himself stressed. He is not only a Jew, but also a eulogist of the French grand opéra and the Italian bel canto, a fierce critic fighting all manifestations of innovation in music. A grotesque, not to say repulsive figure, whose actions, however, provoke a response incommensurate with his alleged crime.

And this is where the power of Kosky’s staging lies: Kosky does not turn Bekcmesser – who in Act I assumes the identity of Hermann Levi, the conductor of the premiere of Parsifal and musical master of ceremonies at Wagner’s funeral –  into an “Untermensch”, despised by the Nazi ideologists and generating instinctive compassion in twenty-first-century audiences. Barrie Kosky, the first ever Jew to direct at Bayreuth, makes the modern spectators aware of where the later evil came from: not from a sense of superiority, but from a fear of the “Überjude” who for decades shaped Germany’s culture and political life.

There are many more pertinent tropes in this intelligent, intricately constructed staging – all of them make up a coherent whole, something which cannot be said about Kratzer’s striking but superficial concept. His Tannhäuser breaks up into several parts which do not quite fit together. The eponymous hero tries to break free from Venus – a vulgar circus performer who shares her cave of pleasure in the form of a battered Citroën H not only with her lover, but also with a black drag-queen (Le Gateau Chocolat, this year replaced on stage by the dancer Kyle Patrick) and the dwarf Oscar (moving, phenomenal actor Manni Laudenbach), straight from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. The action builds up laboriously and unconvincingly, to gain momentum only in Act II, when the rebellious Tannhäuser enters the stage of the singing contest – literally, since the competition involving the medieval minnesingers is part of a performance taking place in the local Festspielhaus. Act III again takes place “outside”, on a grim refuse dump, the venue of the ultimate confrontations between the protagonists and the finale that will bring salvation to no one.

Tannhäuser. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

Kratzer’s vision requires clockwork precision and a lot of money: otherwise the production looks tacky (La forza del destino in Frankfurt) or even grotesque (Götterdämmerung in Karlsruhe). In Bayreuth the director did not have to worry about the budget, as a result of which his Tannhäuser – leaving aside the initial narrative shortcomings – is like a good psychological thriller. The problem is that although Kratzer went to a lot of trouble to explore the meaning of the work, he ultimately missed the point and came up with his usual obtrusively stereotype-shattering story about unlimited freedom leading to absolute loneliness. However, Kratzer knows his theatrical stuff like few others, thanks to which several episodes are painfully memorable: like the terribly sad intercourse between Elisabeth and Wolfram in which the frustrated woman has her unwanted admirer wear a wig and a coat of her beloved for whom she has been waiting in vain.

The last time I came across Hermann Nitsch’s provocations was in 2007, at the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin. I wrote at the time that his performance was on the fringes of the event, that it was quite nice to have a good laugh, watching Nitsch – a faded legend of Viennese Actionism – abuse the Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche organ in the company of two assistants and a crate of beer. This time there was no beer, but there were ten assistants, the master of the Orgy Mystery Theatre remained in the wings, but his action on the fringes of Die Walküre was undoubtedly part of the main strand of Bayreuther Festspiele. And it caused quite a stir among the audience, divided into supporters and opponents of Nitsch’s performance, which consisted in vertical and horizontal planes being slowly filled with paint in shades corresponding to a colour leitmotif system devised by Nitsch himself. It is a pity that it had nothing to do with the score and the libretto of Die Walküre, although the artist does deserve some credit for using only paints and not blood, excrements and animal guts, once characteristic of his ritual of the senses. But enough of these jokes – the biggest sin of Nitsch’s action was that it had absolutely nothing in common with what the singers were doing on stage. Clearly Nitsch could not decide whether to give them consistent acting tasks or simply position them on the proscenium like in an ordinary concert performance. As a result, everybody did what they wanted as if it were in some nineteenth-century Italian opera house in the provinces. Someone took a swing, someone threw themselves into someone else’s arms, no one fought with anyone, characters who were dead or unnecessary at a given moment in the narrative calmly left the stage, making way for other singers. All this was accompanied by a rhythmic splashing of paint and an unbearable stench of solvent.

Die Walküre. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

My conclusions from an analysis of visual and theatrical means consistently go hand in hand with an musical assessment of the consecutive productions. Die Meistersinger succeeded largely thanks to Philippe Jordan, who conducted the whole softly, subtly, at the same time displaying an unerring sense of the inner pulse and taking care to extract the full expressive potential of the piece from its intricate texture. Jordan is wonderfully sensitive to the singers – also in the ensembles and choruses – helping them in key moments not only to be heard, but also to catch their breath and build up strength to shape another phrase. This must have given additional splendour to the artistry of Michael Volle, who sang Hans Sachs, the longest role in Wagner’s entire oeuvre. Volle has a handsome, technically-assured baritone with various shades of emotions and, it has to be said, he knows how to pace himself to be able to sing the part, in which extensive monologues and fiery orations alternate with long recitatives sounding almost like ordinary human speech. Bekmesser was portrayed by Bo Skovhus – replacing an indisposed Johannes Martin Kränzle – an extremely musical singer with an exceptional dramatic nerve, which I had an opportunity to admire with those present at the second performance: during the first the Danish baritone “stood in” for his colleague in the wings.  Walther was entrusted to Klaus Florian Vogt, a favourite of the Bayreuth audience and a reliable artist, but to my ears far from any models of Wagnerian singing, not only as a Jugendlicher Heldentenor. Contrary to the opinion of those who know him only from recordings, his is a powerful voice, generally secure when it comes to intonation and practically indestructible.  The problem lies elsewhere, not so much in the timbre – supposedly boyish, yet in my opinion flat and dull – but in the extremely “neoclassical” approach to the score. Vogt sings “by the notes”, against the natural rhythm of the narrative, which makes his performance invariably stand apart from the other elements of the musical work. By comparison Daniel Behle shone in the role of David, with his well-projected and flexible tenor, which has a beautiful metallic glow.  Outstanding among the rest of the cast were primarily Georg Zeppenfeld as a solid Veit Pogner and Camilla Nylund, whose warm soprano with a rather narrow vibrato is perfect for the “girlish” part of Eva.

Axel Kober’s clear, romantic interpretation of Tannhäuser with his skilful highlighting of all Weberisms and Meyerbeerisms in the work was a nice change after Gergiev’s messiness and Thielmann’s vigorous, though at time bombastic approach. Kober is a born operatic conductor, which is work stressing in this case, as Kratzer’s dynamic, “cinematic” staging demands considerable sensitivity and an assured hand when assisting the singers. Those who stood out in the male cast were primarily Günther Groissböck as Landgraf, which has become his signature role, and – to a lesser extent – Markus Eiche, who was technically brilliant and spot on intonation-wise, but who lacked lyricism as Wolfram. Like in the case of Vogt, I have a problem with Stephen Gould, who sang the title role: an indestructible singer almost completely devoid of emotion. I have to admit, however, that his voice – not very beautiful either and slightly smoky in the upper register – falls undoubtedly into the Wagnerian voices category. This time it was the ladies who led the way. The audience applauded the vivacious Venus of Ekaterina Gubanova, a singer with a velvety mezzo-soprano supported by great sensitivity to the dramaturgy of the libretto. The small role of the Shepherd was sung by Katharina Konradi, a soprano with a crystal-clear voice, fresh from her success as Sophie in the Munich Rosenkavalier.  The biggest, though expected, star of the show was Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth. It was only this year that I heard her live for the first time and my earlier suspicions were confirmed: we had not seen such a Wagnerian phenomenon for decades. Davidsen has a powerful, perfectly controlled voice, even across the registers, dark, rich and incredibly handsome. Her ethereal piano is breathtaking. Her full, imperious forte never turns into a scream. The singer impresses with her splendid diction, excellent sense of text and – as if that were not enough – commanding stage presence.  The Norwegians are already sensing that they might be getting a new Flagstad. May this extraordinary talent survive in the cruel world of today’s opera and develop to the full.

Davidsen’s Sieglinde was certainly the only highlight in this year’s Die Walküre. It is difficult for me to judge this peculiar undertaking – just as it must have been difficult for the soloists to sing in chemical fumes, with a constant accompaniment of distracting sounds, under the unhelpful hand of Pietari Inkinen, who is unable to grasp this score at the macro-form level, although occasionally he does manage to extract from it some ear-pleasing fragments. Groissböck cancelled his Wotan performances five days before the premiere, not giving the organisers a choice, as it were. Tomasz Konieczny did save the show, but I’m not sure whether he saved his reputation as one of the world’s best interpreters of the role. Irrespective of doubts over his interpretation (his Wotan had always been an aggressive villain devoid of lyricism and majesty), this time he also had me concerned about his vocal condition: never mind the forceful, shouted forte – more worrying are softer fragments, marked with a tight larynx, on the verge of a whisper or even voicelessness. While there are redeeming features in Klaus Florian Vogt’s performance as Walther, the singer fails completely as Siegmund, especially with a Sieglinde of Davidsen’s class at his side. Iréne Theorin (Brunhilde) almost ran out of steam and had to rely solely on her technique. Christa Mayer, warmly received by the critics, was on the verge of hysteria as Fricka. The eight Valkyries, whom the conductor failed to rein in, engaged in a battle of voices. It was not hard to see who won, as each of the ladies’ voice was completely different in terms of timbre and production.  The only survivor – apart from Lise Davidsen – was Dmitry Belosselsky, offering an assured and thoughtful portrayal of Hunding.

Sei Siegfried. Photo: Jay Scheib

There is still one year left until the complete staging of The Ring. The first decisions have already been taken: the roles of Wotan in Die Walküre and Wanderer in Siegfried will be entrusted to John Lundgren, who sang the Dutchman in Tscherniakov’s staging inaugurating the festival. We’ll see what will happen. I have learned one, very important lesson from the fight against the pandemic, which has been going on for well over a year: the world will have been turned upside down at least five times by the time of the premiere. After a brilliant Meistersinger and an excellent Tannhäuser I went to a disappointing performance of my beloved Walküre. As a consolation, I got to see other elements of the “substitute” Ring 20.21 – Gordon Kampe’s short opera Immer noch Loge, staged on the bank and in the water of the park pond (with a very good Stephanie Houtzeel as Erda and the Second Rhinemaiden); an opportunity to take part in a several-minute fight against Fafner as part of a virtual reality project, Sei Siegfried, by Jay Scheib; and a delicious installation The Thread of Life by Chiharu Shiota, a Japanese sculptor and performer who works with Sasha Waltz and Toshio Hosokawa, among others. I defeated the dragon. Let us hope we will all be able to defeat the demon of uncertainty, which prevents us from planning anything more than a month ahead.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Rusalka From Mondsee and Die Vögel From Nowhere

I have recently extracted from the depth of my archive an essay on the dilemmas of a critic who sometimes dreams of going to the opera just for pleasure, in nice company, of not analysing every element of the work done on stage and, finally, of simply listening to the music. I wanted it and I got it. Between two Very Serious Jobs I received a proposal from a music loving friend of mine to pop over to Munich for a few days and see two performances at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The trip turned out to be wonderfully successful: excellent company, beautiful weather, very decent performances – at times even dazzling in musical terms. I initially thought about summing up this trip with a short summer post, but the unrelenting critical mechanism made its presence felt already during the first evening. I decided to feed the demon of compulsion – perhaps it is already too late to change certain habits.

I planned to see Rusalka, which had been present in the company’s repertoire for nearly eleven years, and a new production of Braunfels’ Die Vögel, marking the centenary of the Munich premiere, even before the pandemic. And then I forgot all about it. Maybe it is a good thing that someone made the decision for me, because in this way I could compare two extremely different proposals of Regietheater, in which the supposedly autonomous author of the stage vision enters into a risky dialogue with the text. The problem, missed by a majority of the autonomous directors fiddling around with opera, is that there are at least two parallel texts in this form – the score and the libretto. A wise dispute with both hardly ever happens. The text “overwritten” by the director is rarely an added value. However, there are stagings in which audiences do nevertheless get seduced by a strange story The key to an ambiguous success of such productions is cold precision and iron consistency in rule breaking. Something will always fall through, because operatic texts are exceptionally resistant to deconstruction. This does not change the fact that if I’m moved by something in such a staging, I must admit it.

Rusalka in Munich. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

This was the case of Rusalka as presented by Martin Kušej – a production that will be easy to date even a hundred years from now. The Austrian director began to work on Dvořák’s masterpiece, when the world was engrossed in the case of Joseph Fritzl, which in March 2009 ended with Fritzl being convicted of murder, multiple rapes, paedophilia, incest, imprisonment and enslavement. The unimaginable nightmare of Elisabeth, Fritzl’s daughter and mother of his seven children, lasted over thirty years. For nearly a quarter of a century it unfolded underground, in the cellar of the house in Amstetten, in close proximity to Rosemarie Fritzl, Joseph’s wife and Elisabeth’s mother, who was allegedly unaware of what was going on. It is not for me to reveal the winding paths Kušej’s mind followed to make a connection between this story and a poetic tale of a clash of two world orders and love, of barren pain and vain sacrifices which Vodnik wanted to spare his beloved daughter Rusalka. Yet there are hardly any weak points in the narrative imposed on Dvořák by Kušej. Ježibaba sits half-dazed on the first floor, against a massive wallpaper with a picture of Lake Mondsee, where the “real” wife of Fritzl once ran an inn. Beneath the floor lurks the dark abyss of the cellar, where Vodnik imprisons his victims. It is not difficult to work out that the ghastly polonaise of the brides hugging skinned doe is a nightmare of Elisabeth – being raped, miscarrying and losing her newborn baby after a few days. It is hard to imagine a blunter and more coherent theatrical vision of the Stockholm syndrome – complete helplessness resulting in the victims’ animal-like attachment to their abusers.

Günther Groissböck (Vodnik) and Kristine Opolais (Rusalka). Photo: Wilfried Hösl

Kušej raped Rusalka, he imprisoned her in the cellar of his own imagination: so effectively, in fact, that at times the operatic text began to pity him. It is impossible to watch it calmly, impossible to consent to it and yet there is no denying that the director is a master when it comes to creating his characters and formulating the general framework of his concept. At least we have room for a dispute, room for sharp disagreement. Nothing of the sort remains after a performance of Die Vögel as presented by Frank Castorf, once a prophet of German political theatre, today a worn-out scandaliser, provocateur, who has gone so far in his contempt for texts that he no longer wants – or is unable – to put together a convincing whole from the shattered remains of the narrative.

The premiere seemed ill-fated from the start. The director, who had called for a “civic rebellion” against the pandemic-related restrictions, and shouted in interviews that he would not be taught by that Merkel woman how to wash his hands, had to share his work in a strict lockdown: with an audience of fifty people, who after the first performance neither burst into rapturous applause, nor dared to boo. Castorf did not expect this, used as he is to strong reactions. The staging, available as a stream for some time, has only now gone through a trial by fire in front of a still limited audience. I suspect it has disappointed everyone. For it has so much of everything that it really has nothing. In a sense it can be seen as a museum of the now outdated art of the erstwhile restorer of the Volksbühne. We have a revolving stage and structural elements seen in the infamous Bayreuth Ring. We have containers and other cramped interiors, filmed, as usual, by two cameras, which enable the audience to see what goes on inside. There is chaos so beloved by the director. What is missing, however, is substance, even pointless substance.

Die Vögel. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

And I wanted to argue with Castorf so much. I was wrong when I suspected that he would transform Braunfels’ very loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy – with its bitter-sweet finale, so typical of other German works from that period – into a sharp social satire. Instead, Castorf prevented me from entering into any discussion, as he used in his staging of Die Vögel free, schizophrenic even, associations. If there are birds, then we must have Hitchcock or a poster for a concert by The Byrds. If there is Prometheus, he has to be dressed as Karl Marx. Something going not quite right in the birds’ realm? It is a certain sign that Ratefreund and Hoffegut should put on SS uniforms. I have to admit that I still have not figured out why Castorf decided to blight the stage with a huge copy of Rubens’ The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. Perhaps the only reason is that the original can be admired in Munich’s Pinakothek.

Caroline Wettergreen (Nachtigall). Photo: Wilfried Hösl

During my first evening in Munich I saw a beautiful theatrical catastrophe, during the second – a catastrophe that was hideous as much as it was dead boring. Fortunately, the Bavarian Opera is one of the few opera houses in Europe, where at least the musical side of productions gives no cause for concern. Both Robert Jindra in Rusalka and Ingo Metzmacher in Die Vögel  led the Staatsoper forces in calm, measured tempi, brilliantly highlighting the vivid sound of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. I still hear the painfully inevitable finale of Dvořák’s opera, rolling like black water. I did not expect that the duet between the Nachtigall (excellent Caroline Wettergreen) and Hoffegut er reliable Charles Workman) from the second act of Die Vögel under Metzmacher’s relaxed, unhurried baton would reveal so many similarities with not just Ariadne auf Naxos and Tristan, fairly obvious in this context, but also with the shimmering texture of Berlioz’s scores. I heard several outstanding singers, primarily Wolfgang Koch as Prometheus in Braunfels’ opera, a singer consolidating his position as one of the leading dramatic baritones today; Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), who is paying a high price for overusing her voice in the past, but manages it so wisely that she is able to hide signs of wear and tear; and Günther Groissböck, who once again shook me in his Vodnik’s monologue from Act II. I experienced a moment of true rapture thanks to a long-awaited, nearly perfect interpreter of the Prince in the form of Dmytro Popov, a singer with a ravishing, thick and dark tenor, phenomenal breath support and sensitivity which is unusual in such a young singer.

So much musical happiness over two short days of summer holidays – if it had happened two years ago, I would be already making plans for the next season. Now each decision will have to be thought over three times, and information will have to be looked for not on agents’ websites or Operabase, but in tweets and Facebook posts. One has to get used to it. What is meant to be is already here, only we refuse to acknowledge it.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Verklärt Tristan

“Not until the turn of the century did the outlines of the new world discovered in Tristan begin to take shape. Music reacted to it as a human body to an injected serum, which it at first strives to exclude as a poison, and only afterwards learns to accept as necessary and even wholesome,” wrote Paul Hindemith in 1937 in the first volume of his textbook The Craft of Musical Composition (trans. Arthur Mendel). A sea of ink has already been used to describe the novelty of Wagner’s masterpiece – suffice it to say that the prelude to Act I stunned no less a figure than Hector Berlioz. Yet whenever the word intimacy is mentioned with reference to the work, some cannot help rolling their eyes. Everything seems to suggest they are right: large forces needed to perform the piece, the longest love duet in the history of the genre or the dying protagonist’s monologue that last half of Act III.  However, the essence is not in the size but in the violent accumulation of emotions – in what is the most profound and the most intense and thus the most strongly linked to the experience of true closeness. Over the last few seasons there have been several significant attempts to turn Tristan into a chamber piece, at least in its interpretative dimension: by lightening up the orchestral textures and encouraging the singers to make their characters psychologically credible. Musicians’ efforts were not always matched by those of the directors wavering between asceticism in their staging and the temptation to heap upon it a whole range of unjustified symbols and references.

Günther Groissböck’s directorial debut announced before the pandemic piqued my curiosity even more so given the fact that by definition, as it were, it excluded an “excessive” approach to Tristan und Isolde. The venture – laudably and honestly termed Tristan Experiment – was planned in the tiny interior of Vienna’s Kammeroper operating under the auspices of the Theater an der Wien. The same theatre where Krystian Lada staged Vivaldi’s Bajazet last year, shortly before another closure of most European opera houses. Its stage is the size of a narrow platform in a cinema, the auditorium has fewer than three hundred seats and the orchestra pit can accommodate more or less one-fourth of the forces intended by Wagner.

I arrived in Vienna after the premiere, having already heard that Matthias Wegele had devised a chamber version of Tristan for just 21 musicians and that in Groissböck’s concept the eponymous protagonists were taking part in a mysterious experiment – medical? psychiatric? – which took a turn quite unexpected by its supervisors and participants. I became truly intrigued by the former: I had already encountered examples of remarkably successful reductions of Wagnerian scores and begun to pursue them as valuable in themselves. I decided to see the director’s vision with an open mind. It is one thing to have the French straitjacketing characters from Russian operas and another to have an Austrian tinkering with an opera born of Schopenhauerian pessimism and staging it in a city where Doctor Leopold von Auenbrugger treated mental disorders with orally administered camphor, Freud gorged himself on cocaine for the purpose of research and the Am Steinhof hospital became an official centre of extermination of people with disabilities during the Second World War. I expected an unconventional approach from Groissböck and I was not disappointed.

Kristiane Kaiser (Isolde) and Norbert Ernst (Tristan). Photo: Herwig Prammer

It is hard to say whether Tristan and Isolde in this version are two patients who have no recollection of their past relationship, or a couple of complete strangers in whom the staff of an experimental hospital are trying to induce passion and test its limits. It is not that important anyway: what does matter is the fact that the three researchers drive the protagonists into a state of hallucination mixed with ecstasy, revive genuine or fake memories of their love, make them identify with Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck and then lose control over them. The biggest asset of the staging is a precise distinction between the two worlds: the hospital flooded by merciless light, and the swaying “night of love”, at times blurry like a phantom, from which emerge again and again the interiors and building of the Wesendoncks’ villa in Zurich. Inconspicuous and vulnerable in their hospital gowns, Tristan and Isolde regain their dignity and sense of purpose as Mathilde and Richard. The trio of experimenters manipulating them reveal the less obvious traits of the remaining protagonists: “Doctor” Marke’s frustration that the patient fails to fulfil his research expectations; the false friendship of the character in the double role of Kurwenal and Melot; Brangäne’s naive stupidity.

The performance is a treat for the eyes thanks to the set built practically without props, but primarily with light and image (sets and costumes – Stefanie Seitz, video – Philipp Batereau, lighting design – Franz Tscheck). The theatrical gesture still needs some polishing, especially in the case of Brangäne and Kurwenal/Melot, portrayed by singers less used to the stage and, consequently, less comfortable in the microscopic Kammeroper. But before I discuss the vocal part of the venture, I would like to dwell for a moment on Wegele’s phenomenal orchestration and the cuts he made together with Groissböck.

Kristján Jóhannesson (Kurwenal) and Norbert Ernst. Photo: Herwig Prammer

Wegele did not limit himself to mechanically reducing the orchestral forces. He cut the string quintet in unevenly, leaving three instruments in the first violins, violas and cellos, two in the second violins and one double bass. He left out the percussion, harp and tuba, entrusted all wind parts to single instruments, and complemented the bass in the orchestra with the accordion, practically unrecognisable to the untrained ear. Thus he built many textures from scratch, as it were, achieving very convincing sound effects (the harp replaced by the flute and string pizzicato). Consequently, he was able to bring out from the score what can be heard in it anyway, but what often is missed by the listener: a spectral harbinger of Mahler’s symphonies, Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Zemlinsky’s rough harmonies. Some cuts in the score were questionable, however: while a smooth transition from the love potion scene to the great duet made it possible to quite convincingly link the two acts in the first part of the performance, the fact that the group scene towards the end of Act III was retained was surprising – the logic of such dramaturgy would suggest just as smooth transition from Tristan’s death to Isolde’s final monologue.

Kristiane Kaiser, Günther Groissböck (King Marke), Juliette Mars (Brangäne), Kristján Jóhannesson and Norbert Ernst. Photo: Herwig Prammer

Yet these are only quibbles, which I had to mention given the surprisingly high musical quality of the whole. Despite the reduced line-up the sound of the Wiener KammerOrchester conducted by Hartmut Keil was rounded and vivid, not for a moment suggesting that we were dealing with an “economical” version of Tristan. The title roles were entrusted to two singers with a lot of experience but not usually associated with the great Wagnerian repertoire: Kristiane Kaiser, a long-time soloist with the Volksoper Wien, an artist with a soft soprano with a lovely colour, though at times insufficiently ringing in the middle register, which suggests that she might not be able to cope with the part on a bigger stage; and Norbert Ernst, an excellent singer from Vienna. I hope with all my heart that directors of opera houses will stop pigeonholing him as a “character tenor” and make more courageous casting decisions with him in mind. He may not be a Heldentenor with the makings of a Tannhäuser, but he is certainly an extremely musical singer, with a great sense of text and rhythm of the phrase, and a ringing, thick, technically-assured voice. I hope that his Tokyo debut as Walther in Die Meistersinger will take place and will be a complete success. Groissböck was in a class of his own – also acting-wise – as the wounded King Marke: at times he just had to be careful not to blast out the tiny stage at Fleischmarkt with his powerful bass. Juliette Mars (Brangäne) was excellent as a character but slightly disappointing as a singer: her sharp, not very even mezzo-soprano sounded brighter at times than Isolde’s singing. Let us hope that Kristján Jóhannesson (Kurwenal/Melot) will soon dazzle us not only with the volume of his beautiful baritone, but also with his ability to vividly portray his characters.

I left Kammeroper, feeling that no harm had been done to Wagner. May there will be more such experiments. They may turn beneficial to the health of opera – still deep in the pandemic-induced crisis and crying over the times that will never be back.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Lullaby for Mother

For a bunch of scamps kicking each other in the ankles and pulling girls by their pigtails in our primary school, the war was an event as distant as the mission of the Polish Military Contingent in Afghanistan or Adam Małysz’s successes at the Salt Lake City Olympics will one day be for Poles born during the pandemic. The post-war rubble still lying around was brilliant for playing Indians, the sight of war invalids and thirty-year-olds with bodies twisted by rickets was not much of a surprise to anyone and our grandparents preferred to tell us about the good old days before the war. Our teachers and all kind of educators were left to make sure we would not forget what we could not remember anyway. We were fed Cold War propaganda of the “never again” variety each and every step of the way. Every month a grim-looking soldier visited our classroom, showing us horrible slides and instructing us what to do in case of an air raid, explosion of an atom bomb or biological attack.  A textbook nuclear shelter was to be found in the school cellar. During Polish lessons we were tormented with stories of child protagonists all being killed by the Gestapo or dying of exhaustion or various diseases in camps. But there was no mention of the Shoah: I still remember the shame, when the headmaster summoned my parents for a serious talk, because as a first-former I had drawn a night sky with six-pointed stars.

I understood everything later. Yet I remained with the belief that during the war, epidemic and famine the world froze as if in a blurred black and white photograph. I was an adult when I ended up in several zones of contemporary conflicts. I realised that even there people were still able to laugh, love, mate and make feasts out of nothing. And that in the past, too, life went back to relative normal in moments of respite from the greatest horrors. This discovery, fairly recent, has helped me survive the current pandemic crisis fairly well. We simply need to find a balance between public safety and relative comfort of our daily functioning. But I could not fathom out one thing: how to raise a newborn child in such a situation? How to muster so much calm, cheerfulness and love to help it begin life without being marked by trauma and yet wiser thanks to the experience of the crisis, brave, resourceful and at the same time sensitive and empathic?

Little Ezra was born before the pandemic. His mother, the Dutch soprano Channa Malkin, had already made her operatic debut as Barbarina in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (when she was not yet seventeen) and had appeared in an impressive number of concerts, singing a wide-ranging repertoire, from Baroque music to traditional Sephardic songs. Her name also appeared in the programme of the 100th anniversary Handel Festival in Göttingen, which was to have been one of the highlights of my previous season as a reviewer. The singer contacted me in February 2020 through a mutual acquaintance from Amsterdam: she asked me to help her find the score of a song cycle with music by Mieczysław Weinberg and words by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.

Channa Malkin. Photo: Brendon Heinst

I became intrigued. I did not know the songs. Fairly soon I managed to find out that their opus number was 110 and that they had been written in the year of the coup, when power in Chile, following Allende’s suicide, was seized by a military junta headed by General Pinochet. The songs are missing from the list of Weinberg’s compositions on the website of the Polish Music Information Centre. There is an inexplicable gap between two operas from 1972 and 1975, marked op. 109 and 111 respectively. As I continued to search, I came across contact data of a translator representing an independent music publisher in Hamburg, which had published facsimiles of several dozen of Weinberg’s manuscripts, including the songs to Mistral’s poems. I gave Channa Malkin the addresses and phone numbers, offering to help her further, if the contact data proved useless.

Three weeks later Europe became the epicentre of the pandemic. Public life and the economy froze. One by one cultural institutions cancelled events planned not only for the second half of the season, but also for the following years. I did not go to Göttingen. I did not meet Channa Malkin and did not hear her sing live. Sometimes I would think back to our online conversation, though I did not expect that Malkin’s fascination with Weinberg’s forgotten song cycle would stand the test of time. I was wrong. The next message from the singer came over one year later, in early April. It turned out I had sent her to the right address. Malkin got her hands on the score of the piece she had come across accidently, browsing through the internet during one of her sleepless nights with Ezra, then a year and a half old. What’s more, she spent the months of pandemic isolation preparing a recording featuring compositions by other authors as well. She made the recording with two friends: Artem Belogurov, a pianist and virtuoso of period keyboard instruments, and the cellist Maya Fridman. Malkin promised to send me the recording as soon as it was released.

The CD arrived in late May. Beautifully published, recorded at the Philharmonie Haarlem, in an ultramodern format, Digital eXtreme Definition, for a small label, TRPTK from Utrecht. First, I began to listen: to subtle, emotionally nuanced interpretations highlighting not only the content, but also purely musical assets of the compositions. I became enraptured with Malkin’s light, translucent, technically immaculate soprano, and the attentive, supportive accompaniment of her instrumentalists. Only then did I pay attention to the overall concept of the album. It was like an illumination.

Channa Malkin has called her recording This is not a lullaby. She has dedicated it to her son, but decided to go beyond the common pattern of lulling a child to sleep. Using the pieces included in the recording, she has created a multi-layered, unlikely tale of the experience of childhood and parenthood told by poets not all of whom had children, by composers who put memory, trauma, illness, remorse, motherhood and fatherhood – presented in a broader perspective of human existence on earth – into sound.

Mieczysław Weinberg. Photo: Tommy Persson

Weinberg’s cycle is based on pieces by the Chilean poet from her 1924 collection Tenderness. Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, in the Andean town of Vicuña, in a mixed Indian-Spanish-Basque family. Her father was a teacher as well as an itinerant pallador, a vagrant poet cobbling together verses to mark traditional folk festivities. He left his women for good before Lucila turned three. From that moment the girl was brought up with her stepsister, older by almost a generation, slogging mother, and grandmother seeking solace in religion and feeding her magical local tales and verses from the Psalms of David. At the age of fifteen Lucila decided to become a teacher – following in the footsteps of her absent father and perhaps excessively present sister Emilia. Despite lacking the right qualifications, she began to work as an assistant teacher in Compañia Baja, on the outskirts of La Serena. Soon, in 1904, she made her debut as a poet in the local paper El Coquimbo. Two years later she published in it an article devoted to the painful limitations in the education of Chilean women. She was not yet twenty, when her life broke in two and took a different course or rather courses. First came a tragedy which destroyed her hopes for a happy relationship and motherhood – this was the course of the poet’s first love for the railway woker Romelio Ureta, who committed suicide two years after their engagement, and then of another, just as fatal attraction to a writer friend of hers.  The other course led Gabriela Mistral – who coined her pseudonym using the names of her two favourite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral – to absolute heights in education, backstage of great politics and in 1945 to the Nobel Prize award ceremony: she won the prize for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”. Mistral was the fifth woman to win the Swedish Academy’s literature prize and is still the only female laureate from Latin America.

I keep hearing in my mind the last lines from her poem “We were all to be queens”, which in Doris Dana’s English translation reads as follows: “And our four kingdoms, we said, so vast and great would be, that as certain as the Koran they would all reach the sea.” Gabriela Mistral certainly reached the sea of a barren mother fighting for the welfare of offspring that were not her own: a magical mother finding fulfilment in writing, concerned about the misery of children born of incestuous relationships, abandoned by their fathers, sent by their mothers to brothels, unwanted, living under the shadow of violence, addiction and omnipresent corruption.

Gabriela Mistral. Photo: La Tercera

Weinberg dedicated these sorrowful songs to his daughter Anna. Remembering the experiences of his parents, who after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 – in which, according to the official tsarist figures, 49 Jews were killed, over 500 were wounded, 700 houses and 600 shops were plundered – decided to move to Warsaw. Remembering his own experiences from 1939, when as the only member of his family he escaped to the East and survived – his father Samuel, mother Sonia and sister Estera stayed in Poland. Having been interned in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, they ended up in the Trawniki concentration camp near Lublin.  They were killed in the infamous Operation Harvest carried out on 3 November 1943 on Himmler’s orders. Channa Malkin was born in somewhat better times, in the family of a Jewish violinist born in the Soviet Tbilisi, who decided to emigrate to Israel when he was studying in Moscow. In Tel Aviv he met his future wife; their joined decision to spent their student gap year in Holland had an impact on their entire life together. They settled in Amsterdam. Josef Malkin worked for over twenty-five years in the legendary Concertgebouw orchestra. He also tried his hand – quite successfully – at composing. Channa Malkin selected five of her father’s songs to Russian lyrics, beginning with a teasing letter of a five-year-old to his mother by Ilya Selvinsky, a Jewish modernist from Simferopol, Crimean, and ending with heartbreaking poems by Boris Rhyzy, a tragic representative of the “lost generation”, people who grew up during the breakup of the Soviet Union, tried to start families, had children and then hanged themselves, drunk, in their own flats.

The album closes with six songs by John Tavener to Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. In an extensive, beautifully written introduction Channa Malkin deftly anticipates questions about what these songs have to do with motherhood. Well, not much, admits the singer. But they do have a lot to do with mothers – looking for an inspiration other than the role imposed on them by love and biology, understanding all too well that their children will one day call them to account not only for their parental care and affection, but also for their lesson in humanity.

There are no benefits in forgetting. There are no benefits in denial, which irrevocably separates consciousness from feelings, from memories, even traumatic ones, from living impulses and desires for the future. The ability to confront pain, to work through pain is an art which we should practice ourselves and instil in our newborn children, especially at a time of crisis. Little Ezra has recently celebrated his second birthday. Little Ezra probably already understands the last verse of Akhmatova’s Lullaby. “Trouble’s coming, trouble’s staying, trouble’s never wane.” But perhaps Ezra will stand up to trouble when he’s grown up. His mother hasn’t told him to close his eyes. She has given him courage to open them to all miseries of the world.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Link to the source:

Furor Musicus

The day before yesterday, on the 24th of June: Projekt Krynicki. One poet, four of his poems, three composers and three world premieres of their works commissioned by the Malta Festival Poznań. While the music was still hatching, I wrote an essay for the programme book: about inspiration, writer’s block and other assorted joys and challenges of creativity.


It is not easy to be a poet. Let alone a composer. Especially today, when it is increasingly difficult (also for health-related and geopolitical reasons) to lean on Juda’s Cliff and look with concentration on battling waves. For the waves, as if out of spite, like to crash against the impotence plaguing artists who still shy away from being called artisans and are desperately seeking inspiration. It seems easier to find it in poetry, but one needs to be careful not to fall into one of the types of madness described by Plato and not to ride roughshod over the rules which still seem essential in the clever art of composing. Plato himself was quite a talented poet, and that is why his contemporaries were amazed by the vehemence with which he belittled poetry and, in a broader perspective, all manifestations of “mechanical” art, which included music, according to the ancient Greeks. In his famous dialogue Socrates tells the beautiful boy Phaedrus that “he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door of poetry and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art” creates works born of reason, which are no match for the oeuvres of madmen seized by the furor divinus, oblivious to or even unaware of the existence of any rules governing poetry and the art of arranging sounds into cogent systems. Not to mention rules which must be observed by individuals shaping the civic community, Plato’s ideal state. It is better to stay away from those “inspired” men, at least in public life. This was incomprehensible to the Greeks, and, over two thousand years later, was the source of bitter lamentations of the Romantics, who cried over the fate of nymphs driven out of trees and springs by cold science and heartless philosophy.

It would seem that the era of bards is long behind us, that it is enough to commission a poet to write a specific number of pages of epigrams arranged in quatrains, and pay a flat rate for them a month after delivery of the work, and to sign a contract with a composer for a specific piece to be performed by a line-up available in the circumstances defined in the contract and when it comes to copyright on further performances – to come to some agreement later. Yet I know, also from my own experience, that some people get paralysed by the Rule of the Order of St. Deadline, while others – by Plato’s promise that an artist’s soul, provided it follows divine inspiration, has a chance to see something of the world of truth, and if it is consistent enough, it will not suffer as a result, even when it fails to meet all the deadlines. Pietro Aretino, the “the Scourge of Princes”, a lascivious bard praising the erotic life of courtesans, was no believer in the torments of creative work. He claimed that art required only an “inspiration, an inkwell, a quill and a clean sheet of paper”. Flaubert saw this differently, sitting for days on end with his head in his hands and trying to squeeze a word or two from his sluggish mind.

Ryszard Krynicki. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski /

Sometimes it might seem that artists are suffering not from a lack but excess of inspiration. A composer reads a poem, picks out the noun “cat”, an image of a city or a notion of truth, and no longer knows how to stop his racing thoughts, what image or memory to use to spin a musical idea. One artist will be inspired by someone else’s or their own work from the past. Another will stare at an object that will bring to mind a poem and will combine the two inspirations. Yet another will get down to work after a long walk in the wilderness. There are those who will not compose a single bar without first discussing the matter with friends or colleagues. Others, when reading poetry, will see a completely different work of art. Some artists will link a poem to an anecdote, others will discover in it an element of their own biography. When writing down their music on a piece of paper or computer screen, composers are guided by a variety of emotions: they want to be amazed by their talent, to dig up some truth about the world, to repress a trauma or to coldly calculate what musical message will be the easiest for the audience to get and to be applauded.

Among them we will find meticulous maximalists as well as individuals to whom everything comes easy. The Rite of Spring apparently came to Stravinsky in his sleep: it sprang into being just like that, gathered in his head as if in a vessel and then flowed on its own. Mahler, who retreated to his hut on the shore of the Wörthersee in Carinthia in order to introduce the necessary corrections into the orchestration of his Symphony No. 8, decided, in a sudden surge of inspiration, to focus on a new piece, beginning it with the ninth-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. The initial idea to create a fairly traditional four-movement symphony quickly gave way to a concept of a work “so peculiar in its content and form that it is simply beyond description”. Three successive movements of the Symphony of a Thousand merged into a powerful, separate part based on the last scene of Faust. It would be naive to think that Mahler found his inspiration only in the Carolingian hymn and the finale of Goethe’s masterpiece.

Composers are generally reluctant to talk about their unborn musical children. Critics are not eager to write about works that are yet to acquire a sound form, to settle in their context, to be heard in a higher number of performances. My profession, too, is a variety of the mechanical techne, a reproductive craft which cannot exist without a work. But that work cannot do without inspiration either, inspiration drawn from sometimes surprising sources and associations. As I was writing this piece, there loomed over it the spectre of Bohumil Hrabal, who in Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, a compilation of interviews with László Szigeti, said: “It’s always been my impression that ordinary people live much more intensely: people who keep rabbits, people who know how to hoe their own potatoes, go to their local, people who live quite ordinary lives; these folk get much more out of life than intellectuals. In other words, even in writing it’s been my endeavour to suppress the intellectual overlay. (…) an intellectual merely knows things, whereas the common man has experienced them profoundly, and experience, that’s the point from which I sail off on my voyage.” (Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, p. 67, translation by David Short).

Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski /

Before I began to write about music, I had experienced something very strange. During one of my first visits to Prague I walked into the U Zlatého Tygra inn and, looking for a seat, I ended up in a room at the back of the establishment. And there, at a long table, with his arms folded across his chest, sat Hrabal, silent. That day he was clearly in no mood for a conversation with any of the regulars. All other chairs had their backs leaning on the tabletop with two legs hanging in the air. The heartbreaking sadness of this scene, which for some reason I remember in black and white, will stay with me for the rest of my life. The rhythmic order of this composition just as inexplicably influenced my decision to become a music critic. Why did I remember this now? How should I know? Perhaps it’s because of Hrabal’s cats, God’s finest creatures, or perhaps it’s because no one believed my story and I had to ask myself: what is truth?

I read in the stage directions to Paweł Szymański’s sketch Two Poems by Ryszard Krynicki that “on the stage, close to its edge, equally distanced from the left and right, stands a rocking chair, facing the audience. Enters the Cat followed by two Mice. The Cat sits in the chair, assuming a comfortable and casual pose”. I delve into the score and I know that once again Szymański, who has never had any illusions about the reception of his work, will be right. “Someone might respond to my music in a way that is completely different from what I intended, in a way that may even be unthinkable to me, and yet be aesthetically satisfying,” he confessed in one of his rare interviews, which he avoids like the plague. During my first (failed) attempt to contact him professionally, some thirty years ago, I panicked and threw down the receiver, having heard a message on the answering machine: “This is an automatic speech identification system. Please leave a sample of your voice”.

As I read in the score of Aleksander Nowak’s Symphony No. 1 “Truth?”, “singing in the violins should be done by all performers, with their natural voices, in any octave they find the most comfortable”. I delve even deeper and I am no longer surprised that Andrzej Chłopecki has found traces of compositional “life writing”, so beloved by Hrabal, already in Nowak’s first pieces; that Nowak weaves seemingly banal elements of everyday life into the universal fabric of human existence; that he is peculiarly sensitive to the word; that what makes his music extraordinary are not only surprising harmonic textures, but also functions of the various voices in the score.

I read nothing in the case of Paweł Mykietyn, who, as usual, introduces an element of tension and does not reveal his sound installation ideas until the very last moment. I can only guess that the source of his inspiration is again a town where I and Mykietyn spent a substantial part of our lives, though not at the same time. A town where no one could shingle a roof as deftly as a certain bearded man with a leg in an orthopaedic boot who dried some strange herbs on his balcony. And in front of the shoe shop on the ground floor of the same tenement house, year after year, there were stalls where you could buy green poppy heads and unripe hazelnuts. A sleepy town which came alive only on market days, when dozens of carts driven by skinny jades would arrive in the market square. A town of regulars who were not enamoured of holidaymakers: they had their own enclaves, ate at the locals’ and sometimes went to buy fresh bread rolls, but very early in the morning, because by eight the baker’s was practically empty. Dogs would lie on the cobbles by the well. They all had owners but seemed stray. They liked it when we took them for a walk by the Vistula River. The locals would smile, seeing the pack of scruffy mongrels following us.

But perhaps am I wrong this time? If I am, then it is my problem. My favourite composers will bring me freshly caught musical fledgelings anyway.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Hell Was Shut Off and Heaven Was Opened

The hated lockdown has never been associated in Poland with what it should be associated with – a tool for fighting the pandemic in a comprehensive manner based on Erasmus’ principle that prevention is better than cure. A tool requiring integrity and consistency from governments, insight and humility in the face of the unknown from experts, and ethical sensibility, solidarity and empathy from societies. The restrictions – annoying and incomprehensible to most Poles – have proved ineffective for a variety of reasons. Instead of giving us hope, they have left us believing that they undermine our freedom, that they become an element of a ruthless political fight, that they – and not the disease – lead to thousands of human tragedies and unprecedented crisis of our healthcare system.

Above all, however, they have destroyed in us the vestiges of our already underdeveloped communal thinking – an prerequisite of survival, thanks to which the United Kingdom is now exiting from a lockdown no one in Poland can even imagine. It emerges from lockdown not only healthier and more prudent, but also equipped with a range of skills developed in the most difficult moments of isolation. I’ve been watching the Brits’ musical initiatives from the beginning of the pandemic – with growing admiration. Culture in the British Isles has not frozen even for a moment: it has simply become locked in people’s homes, connecting with the world by means of modern technology, which makes it possible not only to stay in touch with the audience, but also to continue earlier projects and make constructive plans for the future.

The fruits of such painstaking preparations include the first, still virtual, Easter Festival of the Oxford Bach Soloists – an ensemble founded in 2015 by Tom Hammond-Davies and from the very beginning operating as a musical community, bringing together renowned singers and orchestral musicians, students, amateurs, educators as well as scholars representing a variety of disciplines, from history and theology to literature studies and philology. The ensemble and its boss have set a rather extraordinary goal for themselves: to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s entire vocal legacy in chronological order and in combination with the context and purpose of each work. They have planned the venture for twelve years – who knows, the seemingly lost year of the great pandemic may have equipped them with interesting tools which might be used successfully in future seasons.

Tom Hammond-Davies. Photo: Nick Rutter

The programme of this year’s festival featured Cantatas BWV 4 and BWV 31 as well as the Easter Oratorio. Yet for a variety of reasons I will focus on St John Passion, a masterpiece which for some time has been winning back the performers and listeners by storm. Hans-Georg Gadamer writes in The Relevance of the Beautiful that the phenomenon of Passion music ranges “from the highest claims of artistic, historical and musical culture to the openness of the simplest and most heartfelt human needs”. It is indeed a communal phenomenon: it explains the meaning and purpose of suffering, teaches compassion, helps carry the burden of one’s fears and misfortunes. In their remarkable undertaking the Oxford Bach Soloists managed to fulfil all the conditions detailed by Gadamer and elevate St John Passion to the rank of a powerful metaphor for the current crisis.

Both of Bach’s surviving Passions date from his late period, after he became cantor at Leipzig’s St Thomas’ Church in 1723. His predecessor there was Johannes Kuhnau, an organist and music theorist, composer of a Passion According to St. Mark which had been performed alternately during Good Friday Vespers at St. Thomas’ and St. Nicholas’ in Leipzig since 1721. As he was writing his St John Passion, Bach expected it to be performed in his own church, yet as the practice observed in Leipzig would have it, the premiere of the new passion was to take place at St Nicholas’ Church. The misunderstanding came to light just four days before the event. At the last minute the cantor had to bring together a huge vocal-instrumental ensemble featuring musicians from both churches: his new piece was larger than any previous cantatas and the Magnificat, his first significant composition for Leipzig’s main churches. Despite these perturbations Bach’s St John Passion was heard in its original version on 7 April 1724. The starting point for the libretto was the Gospel of John, to which were added individuals verses from, among others, the Brockes Passion, a popular work at the time. The inconsistencies in the text later prompted Bach to introduce a number of modifications. This may be why St John Passion has been labelled an incomplete work, interrupted in the middle of its conception.

Just how undeserved the label is can be seen in the growing number of interpretations by the most distinguished specialists in historical performance. With their own experience of last year’s “St John Passion from isolation”, the Oxford Bach Soloists decided to add another dimension to their venture, inviting Thomas Guthrie to direct it. Guthrie, an English director, singer and actor, has for years been fascinated by the idea of staging a musical work not only through a dialogue between the artists and the audience, but also in terms of communal experience – being part of the narrative of the work, experienced bodily and sensually by the performers.

Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist. Photo: Helena Cooke

Guthrie the director is like an honest and ingenuous child: he knows that miracles happen in the theatre and he knows how to convince his audience of that. In 2017 I experienced this first-hand during a performance of The Magic Flute in Longborough, when he stepped into the role of performance creator to such an extent that he directed an unexpected technical break in the first act, addressing the audience as if they were a bunch of overgrown nursery school kids: much to those kids’ delight. Guthrie once compared the expression of singers to the cry of an infant who would not rest until it had conveyed its weighty message to all those present. I didn’t expect, however, that in St John Passion inside Oxford’s Christ Church Guthrie would look at the drama of Jesus, his judges, disciples and torturers through the eyes of a precocious child who understands more from this tragedy than many adults.

This was already felt in the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher”, based on musical and rhetorical antitheses and making us realise the paradox of Jesus’ glory and humiliation. In his staging Guthrie plays with literally every gesture, colour and prop. Wherever in the music we have earth and the temporal world, the image sparkles with bright colours. When Bach transports us to Heaven, Guthrie paints it using pastel, even unreal hues. Christ’s Passion is black and white, shrouded in a grey mist of pain. The masterful camerawork brings to mind associations with old painting, in which artists smuggled elements of their own world into the biblical landscape. In Guthrie’s staging our rightful companions in the Way of the Cross include microphones on sliding tripods, flashing  camera lights, clothes abandoned in the aisle and instrument cases.

Peter Harvey (Christ) and Hugh Cutting.

The director was just as meticulous in making sure that there would be inner tension between all the participants in the dramatic action, from the main characters to the individual orchestral musicians (needless to say, all involved in the performance fully respected the rules of physical distancing). The Oxford Passion is equally an open allegory and a deeply lived experience of community – with the narrated story, with the other performers, with oneself. This is hugely thanks to Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist – sung with a light and superbly articulated tenor, beautifully open in the upper register – who supported his vocal artistry with excellent acting, creating an unforgettable portrayal of a fragile, often helpless witness to a tragedy, overwhelmed with despair. Just as memorable was Peter Harvey’s Christ: subdued, bitter, fearful in the face of impending death. I think that some shortage of volume in his beautiful and technically assured voice worked fine in such a concept of the role. Alex Ashworth was a movingly human, dithering Pilate, singing with a baritone that was robust, agile and spot-on when it came intonation. Worthy of note among the other soloists were Lucy Cox with her luminous, truly joyful soprano (a riveting “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”), the countertenor Hugh Cutting, whose rendition of “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” sent shivers down my spine, and, especially, the velvety-voiced Ben Davies, who impressed with his cultured singing and extraordinary sensitivity in the bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen” from the scourging scene.

When it comes to the singing of the chorus I was impressed above all by their understanding of the text, delivered with ardour, pain and compassion, and at the same time exemplary voice projection and a touch of individuality, which I value highly in performances of Baroque music. In the instrumental ensemble every musician was in a class of his or her own. I am also full of admiration for the elegance and effectiveness of the conducting of Tom Hammond-Davies, who directed the whole performance in the rather difficult acoustic conditions of Christ Church, with the musicians placed rather untypically and widely apart at times.

I keep thinking about this Passion and constantly hope to hear it live one day performed by these artists in Guthrie’s staging: simple, economical, painfully thought-provoking. Is it really necessary to die so many times in order to finally rise from the dead? Hasn’t there been enough of this suffering?

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Das Antipodengold

Last season I cried bitterly over the cancellation of Die Walküre at the Longborough Festival Opera. I expected – naïvely – that in our (not just operatic) life we would follow the famous “hammer and dance” strategy proposed by Tomas Pueyo as early as last March. According to this strategy, in the first stage we would try to suppress the epidemic as much as possible and then gradually “unfreeze” some areas of activity, introducing short lockdowns if necessary. This was to be done consistently and without any compromises: with the hope of returning to the pre-crisis era as quickly as possible. Time has shown that the model, seemingly so rational and obvious, requires cooperation on the local and international level. We now know that the cooperation has been a failure and that the various countries – for a variety of reasons among which public health was pushed aside with priority being given to the interests of some groups within society – have implemented their own “strategies” often standing in stark contrast with the latest information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

I did not expect that Anthony Negus would nevertheless take the risk and set off for Australia to conduct Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s Ring, for Melbourne Opera. He plucked up his courage at a point when Australia’s state of Victoria had announced victory over the virus, bringing down the level of infections to almost zero and making it possible for local institutions to take on cultural challenges unimaginable to the Europeans as yet. This is worthy of note all the more so given the fact that Melbourne Opera is an organisation which can rely on the support of only its friends and sponsors – despite its impressive history, beginning in 2002, when the company was set up thanks to the efforts of individuals like Zelman Cowen, expert on constitutional law of the Commonwealth and former Governor-General of Australia; Richard Divall, a pupil of Harnoucourt, Mackerras and Goodall, music director of the hugely successful 1987 Sydney Alcina with Joan Sutherland as well as earlier performances of Lohengrin and Les Troyens at the Victoria State Opera featuring the phenomenal Alberto Remedios; Sir Rupert Hammer, member of the Australian Liberal Party; and Joan Sutherland herself. In 2018 Rossini’s Otello was directed for Melbourne Opera by Bruce Beresford, the director of Driving Miss Daisy, a film that was popular in Poland as well.

At the entrance to the Regent Theatre. Photo: Melbourne Opera

If we add to that the Richard Divall Emerging Artists Programme, established less than three years ago to support the professional careers of the most talented local singers, Melbourne Opera can aspire to be called one of Australia’s most thriving operatic institutions. Most of the company’s activities focus on the Melbourne Athenaeum, a building erected in 1839 and altered many times since. The recent premiere of Das Rheingold was presented across the street, at the Regent Theatre, where in 1929 the most impressive picture palace in the state’s capital was opened, boasting over three thousand seats, a Wurlitzer organ, a Neo-Gothic lobby, a Louis XVI-style auditorium and a Neo-Baroque “Spanish” ballroom. In April 2019 a major renovation of the building began and was completed in January 2020.

Soon after the re-opening with the famous production of War Horse from London’s Royal National Theatre – the first stage production in the ninety-year history of the Regent Theatre – the building had to close its doors because of the attack of the COVID-19 virus. When the pandemic was suppressed, the theatre reopened again with a production of Das Rheingold, a prologue to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, initially planned for mid-2020 and eventually premiered on 3 February 2021. Everything went according to plan, although almost till the very last moment Negus had to take into account the possibility of not being able to leave the United Kingdom and having to pass the baton to David Kram, who had conducted a production of Tannhäuser in Melbourne. And so, almost imperceptibly to European opera fans, a breakthrough in “pandemic” Wagner performances took place. A privately funded company presented the world’s first pandemic staging of Wagner’s opera and at the same time a foretaste of the entire Ring, which should be presented in Melbourne in 2023.

Rebbecca Rashleigh (Woglinde), Louise Keast (Wellgunde), Simon Meadows (Alberich), Karen van Spall (Flosshilde), and Strange Fruit Performers Emily Ryan and Lily Paskas Goodfellow. Photo: Robin Halls

How Das Rheingold sounds under Negus’ inspired direction was something I could experience already in 2019 in Longborough. I did not expect that Melbourne Opera would decide, on the spur of the moment, to stream the last performance. When it did, I jumped at the opportunity fully aware that Negus was working in Australia in conditions less favourable than at the LFO: without an orchestra pit, with some musicians placed in the stalls of the Regent Theatre, with a cast made up largely of young singers not necessarily experienced as Wagnerians, with a staging put together on a shoestring and in accordance with the aesthetics of the earlier productions by Suzanne Chaundy, who has collaborated with Melbourne Opera on a majority of its project in recent years.

The result exceeded my wildest expectations. Negus’ interpretation has settled and despite some shortcomings in the orchestra it has become even more distinctive. For Negus the key to Wagner’s narrative is pulse –incessant, permeating each phrase, turning all, including the smallest, elements of the macroform into a whole. The “music of the beginning” praised by Thomas Mann begins to sway already in the first bars of the prelude, polished intricately in every instrument part separately only to gradually pile up in a relentless mass of successive passages and then subside like a dead wave, giving way to Woglinde’s first phrase “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle”. Negus chisels the various leitmotifs confidently: he doesn’t shy away from seemingly excessive roughness of the structure heralding the coming of the giants or from the intense lyricism of the musical symbol of the curse of love, or the ecstatic energy of the rainbow motif. Everything in this score breathes, laughs, cries, calls for help and mercy, and tells the story so swiftly that in the final procession of the gods we can already hear echoes of the following parts of the Ring. The unassuming master of Longborough possesses a skill which eludes a majority of today’s Wagner conductors: he gives formal cohesion to what otherwise would be only a formless stream of musical events.

James Egglestone (Loge), Lee Abrahmsen (Freia), Jason Wasley (Froh), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Wotan), Sarah Sweeting (Fricka), and Darcy Carroll (Donner). Photo: Robin Halls

No wonder that in such a narrative the soloists moved with an assurance of stage actors, portraying their characters with full commitment and conviction. It is hard to assess the skills of the various singers on the basis of the imperfect streaming quality. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there were virtually no weak links in the cast of the Australian Rheingold, with several artists managing to create outstanding interpretations. This applies particularly to Simon Meadows’ Alberich, Shakespearean in his tragedy; James Egglestone’s Loge, seductive in his cunning and dangerous charm; and Lee Abrahmsen’s movingly vulnerable Freia. Suzanne Chaundy provided the whole with a rather conventional though at times striking stage setting – in terms of theatrical imagination, however, it was inferior to the modernist simplicity I got used to during my annual visits to Longborough.

I watched the streaming… and I grieved even more, as Norwid writes in his poem “My song”. In order for Wagner to return to European stages in full glory, we need governments as wise and indomitable as that of Australia, which is fighting the pandemic by means of the model “hammer and dance” strategy. A few days after the last performance in Melbourne and slightly more than a week before a performance in Bendigo, the state of Victoria announced another strict and short lockdown – after  only thirteen (!) new cases had been diagnosed. Hopefully by Wednesday the restrictions will be lifted and everything will get back to normal. I’m quite seriously considering a trip to Melbourne to see the entire Ring des Nibelungen in 2023. I’m afraid that Negus’ Australian venture has more chances of success than the Longborough Ring planned for the following year. Would that I were wrong this time!

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Writing Music About Life

I liked to argue with Andrzej Chłopecki. Uncompromising and mischievous, but at the same time very insightful, the contemporary music critic would build his opinions on solid theoretical foundations. And once he had built them, there was no mercy: a true Monsieur Sans-Gêne, he was the male version of the outspoken laundress. When punching, he would punch you hard, when loving, he would love you more than life itself. Nobody dared dispute the value of works produced by his few chosen ones, for those by Paweł Mykietyn. Yet when Chłopecki heralded the birth of a new star in the composing firmament and likened it to Krzysztof Penderecki’s daring beginnings at the turn of the 1970s, his younger fellow critics felt defiant. Chłopecki discovered the “unusual flow of an artist extraordinary” in Aleksander Nowak’s music. This was a subject of fiery dispute with his opponents. They wrote that Nowak shamelessly reached for old composing techniques, that his music actually lacked flow and that the face the undeservedly praised epigone of the “Stalowa Wola generation” revealed in his pieces was not one of a postmodernist, but one of a common mountebank. I have once myself yielded to the suggestions coming from the “progressivists” and mistakenly stuffed Nowak’s compositions into a deep drawer labelled “even newer romanticism”.

What happened to the Gliwice-born composer’s work that made us all suddenly change our minds? Quite possibly nothing happened to it. It was us who changed, or maybe just grew to appreciate the musical “life-writing”, as his method was aptly described by Andrzej Chłopecki. Since the beginning, Nowak’s strategy has been about interweaving superficially banal fragments of everyday life with the universal mythical tissue of human existence. The composer refers to formative memories, listens to others, closely observes reality, cools down emotions and tries to establish a connection with the listener. As he has once himself stressed, he finds music to be “a form of communication which does have individual «senders» and «receivers», but its actual message is transferred rather on the level of collective than individual consciousness”. Every piece written by Nowak has a text behind it: the text, however, does not have to be a poem or a libretto assigning functions to particular voices in the score. Sometimes it is a song, a canticle recalled from the depths of memory, while at other times it might be somebody’s note or a superficially banal anecdote. There is no parody or pastiche here, only deeply moving dialogue with the past, sometimes not distant at all and sometimes lost in the darkness of myth.

Aleksander Nowak. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

Nowak’s composer’s path started at the State Music School in Gliwice. It was there that Uliana Biłan, a Lviv conservatoire graduate, working as an accompanist, was helping the young guitar student make up for his shortcomings in harmony and ear training. While doing that, she brought to his attention treasures of 20th-century musical literature, first and foremost Messiaen and Shostakovich. It was her who encouraged Nowak to undertake his first attempts at forging thoughts and emotions into a score. It was thanks to her that he became sure of his intent to create structures in which each element – from melody, through rhythm, to texture – would start to speak to the listener with its own voice, win them over completely and on every level of communication.  In 2001, Nowak started regular studies at the faculty of composition of the Academy of Music in Katowice, tutored by Aleksander Lasoń, a major representative of the aforementioned “Stalowa Wola generation”. Lasoń had always adored “pure” music and treated composition as a task of craftsmanship. He proved, however, a limitlessly patient professor for his, somewhat lost, new student. Lasoń let Nowak search – first as if blindfolded, then gradually more consciously – for a path leading to his individual idiom: one of music sounding naturally, but composed from a multitude of unconventionally joined building blocks. It is narration bursting with quotations, self-quotations and crypto quotations, sonically glittering charades, musical riddles, sometimes unsolvable.

Nowak’s first successful attempt at his “life-writing” opened up a path to cooperation with the PWM. It was the Sonata ‘June-December’  for violin and piano (2005), the initial part of which is based on a quotation from a simple melody for a piece Nowak wrote as Biłan’s student at high school. Conversations with Andrzej Chłopecki and Eugeniusz Knapik made him realise how far-reaching the horizons of contemporary music can be. Marcin Trzęsiok enabled Nowak to sail out to the high seas of musical aesthetics and helped to locate his work within a context of philosophy and history of culture. In 2006, granted a Moritz von Bomhard Fellowship, Nowak began 2-year studies in composition at the University of Louisville, tutored by Steve Rouse.

It was, however, earlier that a breakthrough happened. In 2005, shortly before receiving his diploma from the Katowice Academy, Nowak realised a dream of his youth. He participated in a high-seas sail to Svalbard. A year later, a hundred years after Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the Northwest Passage, the composer embarked on the Polish yacht “Stary” and sailed by Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Shetlands, and the Faroes to reach Iceland. He financed the enterprise with the first installment of the „Förderpreise für Polen” scholarship from the Munich-based Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. The second installment was promised to him for completing a serious composing commission – a musical journal of the journey to the North Sea. After his return, having already begun his studies in Louisville, Nowak embarked on composing Fiddler’s Green and White Savannas Never More for male voices and chamber orchestra. The piece’s premiere, at the Lviv Velvet Curtain festival in October 2006, was received with an ovation. Founded on irony and anxiety, the longing for Fiddler’s Green – sailors’ legendary realm, a land of perpetual gaiety, never-quiet fiddle and unwearying dancers – resounded also with a longing for a renewal of the form of the symphonic poem: in a coherent, yet multi-threaded shape, skillfully highlighted with a masterful layering of texture in the orchestra. It was also in the United States that Nowak wrote the Last Days of Wanda B. (2006), “a record of emotions accompanying the farewell and a set of still-frame memories, interwoven with remnant quotations from her favourite melodies” dedicated to his recently deceased grandmother. The personal thread started to play an ever more significant part in the composer’s work, at the same time quite unexpectedly intertwining with his new fascination, one with the form of opera, which continues until now.

Sudden Rain. Photo: Bartłomiej Sowa

The chamber opera Sudden Rain was Nowak’s diploma piece crowning his studies with Rouse. It premiered in 2009, at the The Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in Warsaw. It was there that She, He and Something else – tropes accompanying all Nowak’s subsequent stage works – appeared for the first time. The composer and the librettist, Anna Konieczna, put fragments of letters and notes written by a person with Asperger’s syndrome together with a conversation of a married couple on the day of their wedding anniversary. She had been waiting for a proof of love, He gave her freedom, which She interpreted as a prophecy of parting. Something stood in their way: the Something was unawareness of one’s own emotions and inability to express the heart of the matter beyond words and silence. It proved, for the first time, that Nowak was not in the least an epigone of the “Stalowa Wola generation”, that he could juggle both tradition and the sound of the avant-garde, the latter being what his teachers had once rebelled against.

At the next stage of his career, Nowak started composing what might be classified as exercises before a large, full-scale opera. These include: the Dark Haired Girl in a Black Sports Car for chamber orchestra (2009), based on an anecdote about a woman seen in the traffic who “drove away after a moment, never looking in my direction”; King of the Cosmos Disappears for orchestra, threads and piano (2010) – about a schoolmate who called himself the master of the Cosmos and disappeared without a trace; Concerto for Guitar in Peculiar Tuning and Chamber Orchestra (2012); and the Half-filled Diary (2013) presented in this recording.

After a year of cooperation with Georgi Gospodinov, a Bulgarian poet, prose writer and playwright, the Space Opera (2015) was born. It is a story of the first manned journey to Mars, told from points of view including that of a stowaway accompanying the two astronauts – a fly who had wandered into the spaceship’s capsule. The music Nowak built around this narrative is difficult, woven from heterogenous and fascinating chords, rich in its orchestral layer, sensual in the vocal parts, with clever references to the legacy of 20th-century titans, primarily that of the not-so-obvious-anymore Stravinsky. Nowak set out to construct his own mythical universe: in his first “true” opera, he created a vision of an apocalypse of disregarded beings, reaching beyond the anthropomorphic way of representing nature.

Working on Ahat-Ili – Sister of Gods (2018) with libretto by Olga Tokarczuk, based on her novel Anna In in the Tombs of the World, Nowak persuaded the writer to make Ninszubur, Inanna’s mortal confidant, the primary character of the story. Each of the five main characters was assigned a separate element, while each of the elements was assigned its own microharmonic structure. The world-governing rule was rendered with a mysterious twelve-tone chord, which appears at the onset of the composition and later reappears like a leitmotif. Ninszubur, the confidant’s monologues correlate with a cello melody referencing a Sumerian hymn, which survived to this day in the Persian dastgah-e nava melodic pattern and in a related Arabic maqam. The flawlessly written music in this opera, planned with a great sense of dramaturgy, seduces us with a subtle and unobvious beauty, supported with an uncommon sonic imagination – proved in fragments such as the duet of the countertenor Dumuzi and the contralto Ereszkigal, where Nowak juxtaposed two voices of similar ranges and tessituras, yet a completely different timbre.

Marek Moś and AUKSO during rehearsal of Ahat Ilī in Gdańsk, 2020. Photo: Dorota Koperska

Nominating Nowak for the prestigious “Paszport Polityki” award, I wrote that I was doing it because of his “creative independence and an original musical perspective on the world”. I added that he was most worthy of the award for Ahat Ilī, which “restores faith in the future of the opera”. Nowak won the award, which is all the more important, as he emphasises himself, in light of the fact that he had not won any composition competition before. A few months later, he announced the premiere of another piece, Drach, a fruit of his cooperation with Szczepan Twardoch, the author of the novel by the same title. The first performance took place over the three evenings of the Auksodrone festival at the Mediateka in Tychy, in October 2019. Nowak called his new piece for soloists, strings and looper dramma per musica, thus reaching for the roots of the operatic form. Twardoch distilled the essence out of his Drach, making personified emotions the protagonists and leaving but very few remnants of the plot and dramaturgy of the original in place. Nowak framed the composition into three short “chapters”, set on a few parallel planes. The narrative – as the ever-reborn Drach – develops in a circular manner, from a prologue using the harpsichord tuned to a meantone temperament, where the first musical suggestions of a “perpetual return” appear, through singing supported by a harmonically distorted accompaniment, to “romanticising” culminations and returning to the baroque part symbolising the primeval beginning.

In the near future, about which Nowak – very aptly – says “it is difficult to foresee, but possible, with a certain probability, to assume”, we are in for at least two important premieres of his compositions: „Prawda?”  [Truth?] Symphony No. 1 and Syreny [Sirens] – „melodramma aeterna”, yet again with libretto by Szczepan Twardoch. It is probably high time we agreed with Chłopecki, even if it is in the afterworld. Nowak’s music seduces with a quality that our ireful and distrustful generation has scorned for long years – it is simply beautiful.

Translated by: Mikołaj Witkowski

Drach Sempiternal Seed

Instead of a teaser – the CD is already available all over Europe: stay at home and go to the PWM’s online shop:,aleksander-nowak,24030,ksiegarnia.htm. The LP on vinyl is ready for purchase here:,aleksander-nowak,23931,ksiegarnia.htm.


The action of the second chapter of Szczepan Twardoch’s novel Drach is set in the years 1241, 1906, and 1918. As in the whole book, events take place on all the temporal levels at once. The chapter opens with the words: “A tree, a human, a roe deer, a stone. All the same.” A moment later, we hear the same words spoken in Silesian by old Pindur, who is a village philosopher and at the same time a village fool, derided by everyone around, but penetrating deep into the past with his instinct. For a brief moment we find ourselves in 1906 and sit on a fallen trunk with Pindur and eight-year-old Josef, called Zeflik by some. The libretto of the opera Drach, written by Twardoch himself, starts with similar words, but in Silesian: Czowiek, chop i baba, sŏrnik, hazŏk, kot a pies, a strōm, wszyjsko to samo (“A human, man and woman, roe deer, hare, cat and dog, and the tree, all the same”), sung this time by Drach, who is Pindur at the same time. He is a doubly omniscient narrator; not only a holy fool whom little Zeflik listened to, swinging his legs shod in shapely bootees; not only the dragon of Silesian legends, but the serpent of old, the gnostic Ouroboros, god of fertility and the dead, symbol of all things being one. He is everything: taste and smell, light and darkness, pure sunshine, tree and stone, a sacrificial offering and the barking of dogs, the earth damaged by tanks’ caterpillar tracks and furrowed by trenches, the soil that devours dead bodies and spits new life out of its entrails in the spring. He is a creature that sees, feels and hears everything, has a part in everything, is everyone, and is inferior to none.

When Aleksander Nowak told me of his intention to compose Drach and later sent me Twardoch’s complete libretto, I was afraid even to look at the text. True enough, I had already had the chance to see how Nowak takes advantage of his extraordinary sense of operatic potential inherent in contemporary literature, and of his equally uncommon ability to persuade writers that they should grapple with a form seemingly alien to their own sensitivity. The scripts of his successive operas have emerged as a result of painstaking negotiations and of equally laborious effort to educate the authors, who, though inexperienced in this field, under the composer’s guidance came up, to their own surprise, with clear and coherent narrations unfolding simultaneously on several levels and suited to the conventions of the music theatre. The libretto of Space Opera, written by Georgi Gospodinov, the Bulgarian master of ‘private apocalypse’, tells the story of the first manned flight to Mars from the perspective of an astronaut (married) couple, a stowaway fly that travels with them, the cynical flight manager, and a Chorus of Souls, made up of all the creatures ever sent by humans into the outer space. Its masterly construction in sixteen scenes (including prologue and epilogue) brings to mind associations with Britten’s Death in Venice. During his work on Ahat-ilī – Sister of Gods, based on Olga Tokarczuk’s Anna In in Tombs of the World, the composer managed to persuade the writer to shift the accents in her narration, confuse the protagonists’ tongues, and make the tale theatrical using all the means available. Both these projects undeniably proved a success. As for Drach, the idea was initiated in October 2018 by Filip Berkowicz, originator and curator of Auksodrone festival in Tychy, who wanted a ‘Silesian’ opera based on a Silesian topic and featuring a Silesian orchestra – AUKSO, under the baton of another Silesian, Marek Moś; an opera emerging as the joint work of a composer and a writer from that region. Still, I could hardly imagine how a vast and multi-layered saga of two families could possibly be condensed into a music work for three soloists and chamber orchestra with harpsichord, taking a bit more than an hour to perform.

Gleiwitz, Germaniaplatz, ca. 1915

Nowak warned his audience in advance that the unusual libretto replaces the traditional protagonists with personified emotions, whereas of the original plots and dramatic concepts only some vestigial traces have been preserved. As the composer had predicted, Szczepan Twardoch had rejected this proposal at first. Though they had Silesian roots in common, and shared memories of secondary school, artistically speaking they seemed to be poles apart. Twardoch later admitted that the idea appeared to him just as absurd as if he had been asked to dance in a ballet. He changed his mind, though, during a wintertime walk in the waterlogged fields near Pilchowice. He spotted roe deer, and when the beautiful creatures bolted away, he recalled that they also lived in Jakobswalde, had no names, and left their faeces in the fields. He recalled that he remembered it all, like Drach and Pindur, and so he decided he would start with the deer. He thus got down to writing, or rather – to distilling Drach into a myth about Silesia’s arché, the cyclic nature of time, and the inseparable link between humans and nature. The work took him less than a year. Nowak indefatigably supported his new librettist and patiently introduced him to the secrets of contemporary opera.

Nowak labelled his new piece with the old-fashioned term dramma per musica, thus referring to the origins of the operatic form and to the historical characteristics of late 16th / early 17th-century ‘music drama’, such as: declamatory recitatives resembling human speech; the use of the instrumental layer to emphasise the message and meaning of each situation; intense interplay of affections, supported by the introduction of selected rhetorical figures. The whole opens with a prologue, featuring a harpsichord in meantone temperament, which affords a highly expressive use of chromatic progressions. Already this extensive introduction comprises musical suggestions of the ‘eternal return’, from incessant repetitions of one and the same note to a rhetorical katabasis in the form of a descending melodic line. From the very beginning, the harpsichord produces disturbing and false-sounding ‘patterns’ centred around a few stable tonal centres.

Pig slaughter near Pilchowice at the beginning of 1920th

The drama proper, told in three languages (Polish, Silesian, and German), takes on a curious, seductively beautiful musical form, meandering (or rather circularly reverting) from the Baroque beginnings to the extremes of modernism and back. This music curls in on itself like the immortal Drach – from expressive solo parts supported by a harmonically distorted accompaniment, to an interplay of tensions, brought to a halt and then relaxed in the ensemble sections, to truly Strauss-like tutti culminations. Nowak subdivided his work into three brief chapters, in which, as in Space Opera, the action takes place on several parallel planes. There is ‘realistic’ narration, in the form of He’s flashes of memories from his childhood and from the Great War; the story of his marriage to the girl who owned six acres in Żernica; as well as the episode of infidelity, which led him to murder and eventually madness. This interweaves with the ‘expressive’ narration, which represents pure emotions, both human and animal: the anxiety of a chased doe and her lost fawn; the mortal fear of a pig being slaughtered; the longing of a mother; the hunger of dogs; the pain of a neglected wife, and the lust of an unfaithful husband who does not have the courage to tell his spouse about “yonder German lass from Gliwice.” The vehicle of both these narrations is He’s baritone and She’s soprano, who stand for the male and all his women – the mother, the wife, and the lover. Both also symbolise the eternal ‘voice of all things’ – of the hare, the cat, the dog, the stone, and the tree. Of those creatures that live on Drach’s body and those that rot inside it after their death; also those that are born of the soil fertilised with the mortal remains. The human voice imperceptibly transforms into a pig’s squealing or a fawn’s grunting. All the same. Drach comments on all this from a distance, with the ambivalent voice of a countertenor, closing each ‘chapter’ of the drama with a prayer to himself, multiplied by a looper, which sounds now like a medieval lament, now – like a luminous Lutheran chorale.

Drach is not an opera about Silesia, just as the original novel is not about the writer’s Heimat. The operatic and the literary Drach is a soul that informs all living creatures. By paying homage to this soul, Nowak and Twardoch ennoble their Silesian homeland and elevate it into the sphere of myth, as the ultimate cause of all being and the fundamental component of reality; of a world governed by deterministic chance and by the ruthless laws of nature, in which everything is one, everything has its end, and everything returns. Thus all things are in Drach and are from Drach; Drach is dirt, coal, flesh, and sunshine.

The First Holy Communion of my uncle Henryk. Kattowitz, Königshütter Straße in the first half of 1940th

Time gets even denser in the last chapter of Twardoch’s novel, whose action takes place in 1915–1918, 1921, 1925, 1938, 1939, 1945, 1986, and 2014. This chapter ends with the sentence: “Frozen bare-calved corpses in the snowbound fields in front of the hospital; the January wind tears at their hospital gowns.” In the third chapter of Nowak’s opera, a soldier shoots at his own brother near Gliwice; a pack of dogs hunts down a doe between Pilchowice and Stanica, and Josef tightens the deadly grip around Caroline’s neck. Everything dies. “The light shineth not in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it.” And yet, catharsis will come, for it is only through death that the secret can be found out. Death lets one fathom the mystery of Silesia, get reconciled to its tragic history, refer to the collective wisdom and experience of the Silesian population. Curled in on himself, trampled by humans and deer, riddled with mineshafts, Drach watches from aside and prophesies: “Whoever is born shall die, and who dies must be born again.” This is the order of every world, even the smallest one.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

There and Back Again, or a Biography Enclosed in Song  

I am happy to announce that the new album Romuald Twardowski. Songs & Sonnets – the part of the series Portraits under the label of Anaklasis, launched by PWM Editions – was published at the end of October. The CD is already available to purchase all over Europe: stay at home and go to the PWM’s online shop:–sonnets,romuald-twardowski,23970,ksiegarnia.htm. Instead of a teaser, I post my text from the album booklet here. Enjoy!


Three coincidences in succession can no longer be called a coincidence, someone said. The first working of fate is that Romuald Twardowski’s birthplace, Vilnius, was also the cradle of the Polish Romanticism, the city “one can never truly leave,” if I may paraphrase Czesław Miłosz’s poem. Before the war Twardowski spent his childhood days in the eastern part of the Old Town, in what was then Metropolitarna Street, half way between Writers’ Lane, packed full of first- and second-hand bookshops (where Adam Mickiewicz had lived following his return from Kaunas, and where he had been arrested in the autumn of 1823), and the 19th-century Georgian-style Cathedral of the Theotokos. The second ‘chance event’ took place one winter afternoon during the war, in Zamkowa Street, the main road of the medieval Vilnius. The little Romek was gazing at the window display of a music instruments shop when he was approached by a kind gentleman, who, as it turned out, was an ex-member of one of Petersburg’s orchestras. His name was Władysław Gelard. He discovered the passion for playing music in the boy, made  him a gift of a violin, and gave him free lessons throughout the war. The third coincidence made Romek put his violin aside. After the war, the Holy Cross Church, abandoned by the Knights Hospitallers, was also lacking an organist. In the hope of filling this vacancy, a monk who knew Twardowski recommended him to the piano teacher Maria Zgirska, who quickly prepared the young man for further apprenticeship with organist and choirmaster Jan Żebrowski. It was also the latter who awakened Twardowski’s latent gift for composition.

Vilnius, Zamkowa Street at the beginning of the 20th century

The combination of these rather curious circumstances undoubtedly determined the life decisions of the boy from Vilnius Old Town. He studied composition with, among others, Julius Juzeliūnas at the Lithuanian State Conservatory. It is possibly to the latter that Twardowski owes his predilection for stylistic diversity, ranging from late Romantic aesthetic to dodecaphony to minimalism, and combined with an openness to the worlds of folk and traditional music. After moving to postwar Poland, he continued his music education under the guidance of one of Poland’s most eminent neo-Classicists, Bolesław Woytowicz, whose music betrays a strong influence of the French impressionism. With Nadia Boulanger in Paris he studied, first and foremost, plainchant and medieval polyphony. Twardowski frequently derived inspiration from tradition, daringly juxtaposing classical with modernist elements. He emphatically stressed his opposition to “those who preach novelty at any cost.” He created his own musical language, to which he referred, a bit provocatively, as “neo-archaism”. At the same time, though, he did not impose limitations on himself, and skilfully adjusted the character of each piece to the semantic and emotional content which it was meant to convey. His love of literature, originating in his early Vilnius years, made him highly sensitive to the word, and therefore the human voice became a nearly indispensable element of his musical language.

Choral music is undoubtedly central to Twardowski’s output. He took this genre up on a major scale in the 1950s. To him it was, as he admits himself, a way of mapping out the uncharted territories and ‘neglected areas’ in Polish music. The other wasteland which most of our avant-garde composers have failed to cultivate, but which Twardowski once entered on a similarly grand scale, was music theatre, from his ‘romantic’ opera Cyrano de Bergerac (1962) to the morality play The Life of St Catherine (1981). His solo songs are less known but equally individual in style, highly expressive and filled with internal drama, at the same time – amazingly communicative. He wrote them throughout his career. For various reasons, together they add up to a kind of highly personal, in some cases almost intimate biography of the composer.

The works selected for this CD were written over the period of two decades, in 1970–1990. All of them represent Twardowski’s fully developed, individual style, and a masterful command of musical form. In Twardowski’s songs music plays a subordinate role to the text. Sometimes it hides ‘in the shadow’ of the words in order to highlight their meanings; on other occasions it actively reinforces the text, and brings out the emotions inherent in the lines of verse. Such an approach comes as no surprise if we consider the high calibre of the poetry taken up by Twardowski. Sonnets by Michelangelo (1988) are settings of three late poems by one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, in congenial Polish translations by Leopold Staff. Twardowski speaks here with his own language, albeit strictly subordinated to the moods of the aging Michelangelo, fascinated with the beauty and sensitivity of the nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri, affected by the inevitable passage of time, and torn between “fear and the phantoms of love and death.” Three Sonnets to Don Quixote, written two years later, constitute a similar homage to another Renaissance master, this time – a Spanish one. The title is a bit misleading, since in fact they are two sonnets plus a verse epitaph in honour of the knight errant. Nevertheless, all of them were written by Miguel de Cervantes and incorporated into his famous novel. Twardowski makes effective use of Anna Ludwika Czerny’s first postwar translation of Don Quixote, turning these three poems into a bitter-sweet musical portrait of a certain nobleman whose “brain got so dry” for lack of sleep and too much reading that “he finally lost his sense.” These provocatively ‘Woytowicz-like’ songs, rooted in the spirit of French music, attracting the ear with the freshness and wealth of various shades of sound – could well serve as a complement for Ravel’s last unfinished masterpiece, the cycle of three songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.

Composed a little earlier, in 1987, Three Songs to words by Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski may seem to be ‘lighter weight’, but they conceal a secret hinted at in their very sequence, which represents a progression from lyrical reflections on the departure of the beloved to the playful experience of reality in The Warsaw Sparrows, to the broad and familiar humour of Non è vero, sung ‘straight into the ear’. The other three cycles, despite variable atmosphere, are quite serious and can be read as miniature treatises on nostalgia, longing, and the sorrows of parting.

From the Viliya (1990) to words by Helena Massalska-Kołaczkowska, co-founder of Polish Radio Song Theatre and author of the lyrics of Alfred Gradstein’s late 1940s hit A Bridge to the Left, a Bridge to the Right as well as of several children’s fables set to music by Ryszard Sielicki, is a cycle dedicated by Twardowski to his mother Paulina. In these three brief songs, filled with references to Lithuanian folklore, the composer returns to the city of his childhood; to the Green Lakes near Vilnius, whose water owes its unusual colour to minerals washed off the chalk bottom; to the Łukiski (now Lukiškės) Square, where the famous Kaziuki fair has been held annually on St Casimir’s Day, complete with jugglers and people in fancy dress; and, finally, to the shore of the icebound Viliya, where sleigh rides with torches were held in the winter.

The five-part Face of the Sea (1979) to poems by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Jacek Łukasiewicz, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and Kazimierz Sowiński, can be considered, in some ways, as an echo of Twardowski’s earlier opera Lord Jim, where the composer employed the wistful motif of undulating sea waves. On the other hand, this cycle is part of the wider ‘seafaring’ trend known from that period.

The profoundly moving Trois sonnets d’adieu to words by three French poets of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (a mannerist, a libertine, and a member of La Pléiade) were composed in 1970, directly after the tragic and still unexplained death of composer Elisabeth Tramsen, Twardowski’s fiancée, the eldest daughter of a Danish surgeon who in 1943, as a member of an international committee, had conducted the autopsies of Polish officers, victims of the Katyn Massacre. Originally composed for bass-baritone and chamber orchestra, this cycle, and especially its last element, the sonnet by Pontus de Tyard in Wisława Szymborska’s phenomenal translation – serves as an excellent conclusion for the entire tale told on this album. “Come, much craved Sleep, wrap around my flesh / since I sincerely accept your cherished nightshade and poppy.” The end turns out to be a beginning. Sleep has come at last, and has dispelled anxiety, bringing genuine solace. Now everything could start over again.

Jan Kaczmarkiewicz: Portrait of a young composer (Romuald Twardowski)

The album has been programmed and the songs performed by Tomasz Konieczny, who is a great fan of Romuald Twardowski’s songs and a sincere enthusiast of the poetry set by this composer. It is thanks to Konieczny’s initiative that we can see how also in this field, much depleted after the war, Twardowski proved to be a skilful gardener. This may be why he never truly left Vilnius, either mentally or in his heart. It was in that city that Stanisław Moniuszko had settled for good in 1840 after his wedding to beloved Aleksandra née Müller, met several years earlier at a noblemen’s inn situated in Niemiecka Street. From Vilnius, Twardowski recalls the scattered pages of Moniuszko’s Songbook for Home Use, left behind in the turmoil of war and kicked around in the streets. Someone had to pick those pages up, and reassemble them into his own, quite separate songbook of life.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer