The Tale of Hoffmann Who Regained Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerstin Avemo (Stella). Photo: Lennart Sjöberg

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Marke und Isolde

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomas Leakey. Photo: Mahler Players

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Love and Eternal Life

It took me eight years to come full circle and return to the beginnings to my freelancing career. In 2014, instead of celebrating the 160th anniversary of my favourite composer at home by the loudspeakers, I decided to go to a performance of The Cunning Little Vixen in a production that originated in Prague and was brought to Brno for the Janáček Brno festival – the motto of which was “Happy Birthday Leoš!”. After more than two decades on the editorial board of Ruch Muzyczny I made my debut as a freelancer with a review of Ondřej Havelka’s production. Janáček’s oeuvre has always been at the top of my priorities as a reviewer. As it happened, however, I made it to the Brno biennial for the second time only now: partly because I was always at a loss as to what to choose from the festival’s rich offerings. I nearly gave up again, because this year the organisers exceeded themselves: the programme of the nineteen-day event included no fewer than thirty-six musical events, among them five opera performances, headed by the hosts’ production of From the House of the Dead combined with the Glagolitic Mass, directed by Jiří Heřman and conducted by Jakub Hrůša, the newly appointed successor to Antonio Pappano at London’s Royal Opera House; as well as non-operatic performances of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, conducted by its boss Tomáš Hanus, and of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with Tomáš Netopil. I decided to content myself with the last four days of the festival, not wanting to miss a rare opportunity to hear Erwin Schulhoff’s only opera Plameny in its entirety. For the next two years I will wonder how to see the most of the 2024 biennial, which will last over three weeks.

Janáček Brno is a fairly new venture, launched in 2008 with an overview of all stage works of its patron. With time music by other composers was added to Janáček’s oeuvre, making it possible to show his legacy in a broader context of the period. However, the main programme axis is still opera of the modernist era – which is what adds uniqueness to the event, appreciated by, for example, the jury of the International Opera Awards, who in 2018 presented Janáček Brno with an award for the best festival. I have written many times about how the Czechs love their national repertoire and know how to popularise it all over the world. When I was in Brno I saw once again that they also know how to appreciate the mastery of foreign performers, but – unlike my compatriots – do not feel that their own music requires persistent promotion by great stars from the West.

Věc Makropulos. Nicky Spence (Gregor) and Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Emilia Marty). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

This is hardly surprising given that Czech conductors – well-versed in the idiom of Central and Eastern European music – head some of the best orchestras in the world. I had an opportunity to admire Tomáš Hanus shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic: in a brilliant interpretation of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and soon after that at the helm of WNO in a stylish and disciplined approach to Prokofiev’s War and Peace. On the day of my arrival in Brno, which happened to coincide with the Czech Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day, Hanus led the Welsh orchestra in a programme consisting of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Dvořák’s Biblical Songs, Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and Janáček’s Sinfonietta, which was highly appropriate in the circumstances. I had the impression that Hanus felt the least “at home” in Wagner’s music – played too smoothly, without an inner pulse and appropriate gradation of tension. On the other hand he was able to beautifully highlight the exuberant contrasts and shimmering nature of the textures in Britten’s Interludes and at the same time surprisingly emphatically stress the composer’s Mussorgsky inspirations (for example, in the swaying Allegro spiritoso). He provided a wonderful example of collaboration with the singer in Dvořák’s songs – Adam Plachetka’s velvety bass-baritone is often lost in the sumptuous acoustics of grand opera houses; in Hanus’ subtle interpretation the soloist impressed not only with the beauty of his voice and soft phrasing, but also with wisely delivered text, taken from the 16th-century Kralice Bible. But all this was nothing in comparison with the thrilling performance of the Sinfonietta, in which the fanfare – as Janáček would have it – was played by thirteen musicians of the Czech Armed Forces’ brass band. Unlike most symphony orchestra players, they did it without a single slip-up, which clearly suggests that Janáček knew what he was doing. The concert received a tumultuous and fully deserved standing ovation, which may have contributed to WNO’s even greater success in the performance of Věc Makropulos the following day.

To this day I shudder at the memory of the only staging of this masterpiece in Poland, presented exactly ten years ago at Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera, when the spectators – lured by a misleading promise of a science-fiction comedy, accustomed to the image of a cheerful Czech over a pint of beer, and unfamiliar with both Janáček’s oeuvre and Karel Čapek’s bitter dystopia – began to leave the auditorium in droves already halfway through the performance. What must have also contributed to this was the inept playing of the orchestra under Gerd Schaller, who not only failed to control the various instrumental groups, but also to explain to the musicians what the score was about. Hanus didn’t have the slightest problem with this, probably also because he had been poring over the score for months together with Jonáš Hájek and Annette Thein, preparing a new edition for the Prague branch of the Bärenreiter publishing house. In addition, in their interpretation of Janáček’s operas British musicians equal and sometimes even surpass Czech performers. Among the members of the international cast of WNO’s Věc Makropulos the most pleasant surprise came from the Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín in the role of Emilia Marty – a singer endowed with a small but very charming and exceedingly expressive voice, appropriately “old-fashioned” for this difficult part, and supported by excellent acting and a great feel for the character. When it comes to the rest of the cast, the most noteworthy performances came from Nicky Spence as Gregor, David Stout as Baron Prus and the ever-reliable Mark Le Brocq as Vítek, whose monologue explaining the intricacies of the libretto – during the interval between the first and second acts – won far more approval from the Czech audience than from the blasé spectators at the Cardiff premiere. Yet who knows, perhaps my most vivid memory of the production – in a pared-down, but very stylish staging by Olivia Fuchs (director), Nicola Turner (set and costume designer), Robbie Butler (lighting designer) and Sam Sharpless (video projections) – will be Alan Oke’s brilliant performance in the episodic role of Count Hauk-Šendorf. In any case, it has to be said that the creative team hit the nail on the head when it came to Čapek’s and Janáček’s message – this is one of the masterpieces of the modernist grotesque, which in the finale should force guffaws back down our throats and transform them into helpless sobs. The creators of the Welsh production fully succeeded in this.

Plameny. Tone Kummervold (La Morte) and Denys Pivnitskyi (Don Juan). Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Not quite so in the case of the creative team of the eagerly awaited Flammen, brought from the National Theatre in Prague and presented in its original Czech version as Plameny. Schulhoff’s only opera was unlucky, as was its composer: after the failure of the Brno premiere, nothing  came out of Erich Kleiber’s plans for a Berlin staging, due to the Nazi campaign against modern art. Schulhoff, cursed as a representative of Entartete Kunst, and hated as a Jew and a communist, after the Nazis seized Czechoslovakia he applied for Soviet citizenship, which did not protect him from deportation to the Bavarian fortress of Wülzburg, where he died of tuberculosis in 1942. He came up with the idea for an opera loosely based on the myth of Don Juan in 1923 and discussed his vision with Max Brod, a friend and biographer of Kafka, and translator of Janáček’s librettos into German. Brod advised him to collaborate with the Czech scriptwriter Karl Josef Beneš, who together with Schulhoff created an oneiric, surreal tale of a seducer in love with Death – the only woman he is unable to seduce and who ultimately seals his fate. The dissolute Don Juan will not end up in hell: the punishment for his transgressions will be the curse of eternal life, with no hope of fulfilment.

Schulhoff got down to work on the score in 1929 and slugged away at it for three years. The premiere in January 1932, at the Divadlo na Veveří, the former seat of the National Theatre in Brno, was a complete fiasco. The audience rejected not only the unique structure of the work – which combined elements of opera, pantomime and symphonic poem – but also its exuberant eclecticism, vacillating between impressionism, brutal expressionism and relatively orderly neoclassicism. Plameny begins like Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, only to end in gentle sounds of the glockenspiel and the celesta, which initially bring to mind the operas of Richards Strauss and then – of his not always inspired numerous imitators. In the middle it is possible to find literally everything – from almost line-for-line quotations from Berg’s Wozzeck to New Orleans jazz inspirations and an archaising pastiche in the style of Szymanowski. Schulhoff treats the human voice in Plameny in a strictly instrumental manner: perhaps the only truly “operatic” fragment in the work is La Morte’s solo in the finale of the tenth scene: with a moving glissando of the mezzo-soprano at the end of the phrase “salvation is so far away again”.

I have to do justice to Jiří Rožeň, who managed to keep the sometimes unruly musicians of the Prague orchestra in check throughout the opera. Among the soloists the singer who deserved the biggest applause was the Norwegian Tone Kummervold, underestimated by the audience, who in the thankless role of La Morte showed the full range of now nearly obsolete vocal techniques. A very decent performance came from the female chorus of Shadows, but the performers of the main roles were disappointing, which is especially true of Denys Pivnitskyi as Don Juan, a singer who is not very musical, though gifted with a healthy and strong tenor. Slightly more satisfying was the soprano Victoria Korosunova in the multiplied role of the seducer’s previous mistresses. However, I can hardly blame the singers, as the chaos on stage was primarily caused by Calixto Bieito, a director who after a few phenomenal productions in the early days of his career lost his inspiration completely and has been frittering away his talent ever since. I would advise those of my colleagues who compare Bieito’s concepts to Luis Buñuel’s to go and watch some of the latter’s films again and refresh their memories of their youth. All in all, Plameny turned out to be a beautiful catastrophe giving us hope that Schulhoff’s forgotten work would eventually return to the stage for good – hopefully in a better thought-out staging.

Jan Jirasky. Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

However, Brno did not live by opera alone. During these four days, I also managed to form an opinion (a very favourable one) on the Brno Children’s Choir under the direction of Valeria Mat’ašová and the mixed Kühn Choir, which fared slightly worse under the direction of Jakub Pikla; admire the stylish playing – reminiscent of Rudolf Firkušný’s artistry – of Jan Jirasky, a professor at the Brno Academy of Music and an outstanding specialist on Janáček piano music; and contemplate the condition of contemporary piano playing after a recital by Linda Lee, winner of this year’s Janáček Competition. Lee is technically phenomenal, but completely unaware of the meaning of the music, which pours from her fingers like perfectly round and clearly artificial pearls.

Still, I will go back to Brno, the city where Janáček spent over forty years, created his biggest masterpieces and to this day has not let himself be forgotten.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Polish Week in London

I didn’t expect that after nearly two years of pandemic scarcity I would be travelling to the United Kingdom as often as I have done recently. In the past six months alone, despite concerns over the war and the growing post-Brexit chaos, I have visited two of London’s most important concert halls and three English opera houses, one of them twice. The occasion for my November trip was another festival of Polish sacred music, Joy & Devotion (which I wanted to hear in its entirety after the excellent impressions of last year’s inaugural concert), and the world premiere of Agata Zubel’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – two events co-organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and included in London’s still extremely rich musical offerings within just one week.

London greeted me in its usual way: with torrential rain, deafening noise and plenty of surprises in the hotel, which the following day – after I changed rooms – I linked to the presence of Sir John Barbirolli’s ghost roaming around. Had I realised earlier that the conductor had been born in that very house, in a flat above a bakery that closed down years ago, the ghost might have left me in peace already on the first night. He was more gracious later, although he continued his pranks until the end, breaking my radiator and from time to time, without any warning, turning on the shower in my tiny bathroom. Such things sometimes happen in England, and this is one of the reasons I love this country, where a newcomer is reminded at every turn that he or she is treading on the footsteps of the past. For example, on the way to St Martin-in-the-Fields, through a labyrinth of West End theatres, where the senior Mr Barbirolli, one-time violinist at La Scala, played, as did his son John, before he put aside his cello and took up the baton.

It is hard to find a place in this part of the capital without a thriving cultural life. All the more reason for me to admire the persistence and consistency of Paweł Łukaszewski, who not only managed to organise his festival for the second time – in one of Europe’s most famous churches – but is already making bold plans for next season. Once again he managed to persuade three English ensembles to work with him, each ensemble with a very different character and different mission, but all well known to the local audiences, and to the musicians who collaborate with them and often even were brought up within their ranks. I have already written extensively in Tygodnik Powszechny about The Gesualdo Six, an ensemble led by Owain Park, which opened last year’s festival. The leaders of the other two choirs fully deserve to be called icons of British musical life. Stephen Layton is one of the few choirmasters who are just as successful as conductors of orchestral ensembles (until 2016 he led the City of London Sinfonia, which he took over two years after the death of Richard Hickox). In 1986 he founded the chamber choir Polyphony with one concert in mind. The choir has been active ever since, recording more than a dozen albums, some of them for the Hyperion label, and establishing itself as one of the world’s leading ensembles specialising in Bach and Handel. Two years its “senior”, the Rodolfus Choir came into being thanks to the initiative of Ralph Allwood, former Director of Music at Eton College and a keen populariser of choral music among people of all ages and levels of musical ability. The choir is made up of young and very young singers, most of them participants in the famous Choral Courses, organised by Allwood for more than forty years – courses that for many became the springboard for future careers, not just in choral music.

Stephen Layton. Photo: Marcin Urban/IAM

The festival’s size and structure of its programme have remained unchanged: three concerts of Polish choral and organ music (the only departure from this pattern being the participation of the cello in a work by Roxanna Panufnik, but more on that in a moment), primarily works by contemporary composers, including those of the younger generation, works sometimes presented alongside the legacy of earlier periods. This time, however, there were no revelations on a par with Krzysztof Borek’s Missa Mater Matris, and the debutants were somewhat disappointing – among them Marek Raczyński, whose Missa brevis was heralded as the festival’s greatest sensation. Yet the members of The Gesualdo Six interspersed its individual segments with music by other composers, perhaps in the hope of concealing the formal shortcomings of the work, which lost its momentum already after a very interesting and original Kyrie, inspired – perhaps subconsciously – by the tradition of the Eastern Churches. In comparison with last year the performance of the phenomenal sextet (joined in several pieces by Fiona Fraser, Rachel Ambrose Evans and Will Prior) was not entirely satisfying. Despite their customary perfect intonation, wonderfully blended voices and overall culture of sound, their performance lacked the enthusiasm that so inspired the singers at the inauguration of the previous festival. The “Joy & Devotion” could only be felt in Górecki’s Veni, o mater terrae and O mater semper alma, which began the concert, and which are, after all, nothing more than extracts from the unfinished cycle Z pieśni kościelnych (Church Songs) based on the church songbook compiled by Father Jan Siedlecki – with a Latin text by Edward Tambling, published only after the composer’s death. Górecki’s harmonisations are simple and, at the same time sincere and decidedly “his own” – which cannot be said of Teofil Klonowski’s nineteenth-century setting of Gaude Mater Polonia, sung gloomily at the end of the evening. For us it is one of the most important historic pieces of Poland’s musical culture; for the English, well-versed in the history of plain-chant – another version of the popular Eucharistic hymn O salutaris hostia in an anachronic and rather graceless setting for four voices. I think that Owain Park’s ensemble needs to be intrigued by something again, be given pieces of the highest quality, be made proud that they are revealing to the local audience early music other than the relatively well-known works by Pękiel and Gorczycki.

Members of Rodolfus Choir during a rehearsal. Photo: Marcin Urban/IAM

Much more delight was provided by the excellent Polyphony choir, which opened the festival with a programme consisting exclusively of new music. This was the first time I heard the ensemble live and I fully agree that Layton has raised it to the highest world-class level. The singers’ clear voice production, beautiful, luminous timbre (especially in the even-voiced sopranos), and above all, their perfect sense of musical timing and drama, enabled them to emphasise all the more the strengths of works written in the aesthetics already familiar to the British (e.g. Paweł Łukaszewski’s Missa Sancti Papae), draw attention to the intriguing aspects of the style of the young composers (Ziółkowski’s subtle Ave Maris Stella, intriguing in terms of its colour) and cover the shortcomings of the weaker items on the programme (I will not mention the names, but just note that Polish choral music sometimes verges dangerously on kitsch). It was a display of sheer professionalism, just as the concert of the Rodolfus Choir three days later was an exemplary demonstration of the effects of working with a virtually amateur ensemble largely made up of teenage singers. Ralph Allwood chose their repertoire cleverly, selecting primarily texturally simpler gems of early music. Neither minor rhythmic stumbles nor occasional intonation slip-ups were offensive in their performance; instead, the audience was gripped by the joy of music-making and full commitment to the works presented. The experienced choirmasters instils in his choristers the most essential elements of their craft, as we saw during the performance of Roxanna Panufnik’s composition, which was interrupted by sudden applause. All Shall Be Well, a dialogue rich in complex harmonies and sudden dynamic shifts between the choir and the cello (Leo Popplewell), in which Panufnik juxtaposes the text and melody of Bogurodzica with the words of the English mystic Juliana of Norwich, requires maximum concentration, especially from such young performers. The choristers resumed the interrupted climax confidently and with a smile on their lips. This small incident encapsulated the essence of the festival slogan, also captured in the playing of the excellent organist Rupert Jeffcoat, who amazes not only with his technical virtuosity, but also with his sophisticated ornamentation and imaginative, often unusual registration of the instrument.

Edward Gardner, Tomoko Mukaiyama and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo: LPO

The walk across the Thames, to the Royal Festival Hall, proved not only to be a trip into entirely different aesthetics, but also an unexpected journey deep into musical time. Agata Zubel’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – a concerto with a single soloists but with two pianos, including one microtonally tuned – was written for Tomoko Mukaiyama, a Japanese-Dutch pianist, visual artist and performer. Both the author of the programme note and later commentators stressed the performative aspect of the piece – of little significance in my opinion in comparison with the intricate form, the polyphony of sparkling colours typical of Zubel and the subtle references to Lutosławski – in terms of working with rhythm and sophisticated transitions from chaos to order and back again. Particularly striking in the Concerto is the middle movement: a delicate, instrumental “song” in which faithful observers of the composer’s work will easily find grains of an almost human voice thrown into the spectral orchestral fabric. Zubel has been extraordinary lucky when it comes to performers. It would be hard to imagine more sensitive interpreters of this work than the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Edward Gardner, one of the world’s most distinguished specialists on Lutosławski’s legacy, who in the following items on the programme showed the inspirations of the Concerto in ever deeper retrospect. First, he unveiled the astonishingly classical beauty of Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4, which Andrzej Chłopecki once called the swan song of modernism, then he delighted the audience with a lyrical take on The Rite of Spring – two pieces without which Zubel’s Piano Concerto No. 2 would never have been written or would have sounded quite different.

So there are reasons for us to be proud, but we must not drown this pride in national complexes. I’m looking forward to future Joy & Devotion festivals. I wish Agata Zubel a speedy return to London concert halls. I expect that Polish music will be heard more and more in the British Isles. In the meantime let us explore, answer questions, reveal contexts and prepare programme booklets for future seasons. British music lovers are genuinely interested in music, and not only their own.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Love and Tongue-Tied Simplicity

Apparently Ingmar Bergman learned about his first success in the film industry, which was soon to set his career on a whole new track, while reading a newspaper in his own toilet. Although the Palme d’Or at the ninth Cannes Festival went to the documentary Le Monde du silence, directed by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle, Bergman’s 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) was also among the winners of six official prizes with the Prix de l’humour poétique, awarded in this particular category only once in the entire history of the festival. Bergman must have felt deeply embarrassed by this accolade and not only because the good news found him on the toilet. He had been directing films for nearly ten years. His oeuvre at that point included films – like Sawdust and Tinsel and Summer with Monika – which with time became part of the canon of Swedish cinema, and which their creator himself valued very highly. He may have been a little bit coy in his statements to the press, in which he emphasised that he took up comedy for financial reasons, without much conviction, as he had always been regarded in his family as a surly, touchy and humourless child. In any case, he left the Cannes screening halfway through, indignant that the audience – instead of laughing uproariously – only occasionally rewarded his Smiles of a Summer Night with a perfunctory round of applause.

He did not appreciate the sense of humour of the French, who immediately were taken by the Shakespearean farse about a superannuated lawyer Fredrik Egerman and the entire amorous constellation of characters complicating his life: his young wife Anne, “unconsummated” for two years; Henrik, his son from his first marriage, who is struggling with his desire for his nubile stepmother; the actress Desiree, with whom Fredrik once had an affair and who reappeared in his life with a child bearing his name and at an age unequivocally pointing to the date of his conception; her puppet lover, Count Malcolm, and the countess, who desperately flirts with Fredrik in order to draw on the inexhaustible pool of male jealousy and get her husband back. The intrigues of the upper classes are counterpointed by the coarse and painfully direct love of the servant Petra and the coachman Frid. Things take an unexpected turn, when Desiree, in love with Fredrik and seasoned in love battles, persuades her mother, Madame Armfeldt, to organise a party with all of the above at her country estate – at a very unusual time, in the middle of the joyous Swedish Midsommar celebrations …

If Bergman lacked a sense of humour, this would be like saying that Conrad, the protagonist of Erich Kästner’s novel The 35th of May, lacked imagination. In addition, Bergman drew on the best possible source, namely Shakespeare. The inspirations drawn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not only obvious but also filtered through the director’s unique sensibility and his extraordinary feel for erotic human relations. Smiles of a Summer Night even features a Puck – in the form of Desiree’s impish offspring – and the double role of Titania and Oberon is played by the mean, grumpy and yet irresistibly moving Madame Armfeldt. The audience in Cannes – instead of collapsing with laughter – froze in front of the screen in silent awe. After its festival success Bergman’s work was ranked among the ten most important films of the year by Cahiers du Cinéma and was nominated for the BAFTA award. Masterfully directed and brilliantly acted, the scene of the mutual unmasking of Desiree’s two lovers – the lawyer in a saggy nightcap and the count in a ridiculous hussar uniform – has gone down in the history of cinema. Fanclubs of the film were set up all over the world and there were several imitations, including Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

Agatha Meehan (Fredrika Armfeldt). Photo: Sharron Wallace

However, very few people in Poland realise that Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night was given a second life primarily thanks to Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music (the title of which refers not only to the amorous rituals of a “midsummer’s night”, but also to Mozart’s famous serenade, with its references to music accompanying outdoor flirtations in darkness lit by candles and torches). This may be because the musical as a form is still regarded in Poland as a guilty pleasure for less sophisticated audiences, the last resort for musicians and producers who have failed on the “real” operatic stage, a modern equivalent of a trashy operetta. Sondheim’s oeuvre reaches Poland by a roundabout route, paradoxically through film: older audiences were delighted by his songs in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), younger ones – by Tim Burton’s brilliant film adaptation of Sweeney Todd (2007). Yet A Little Night Music has an international reputation of one of the American composer’s most sophisticated masterpieces: musically, it requires truly operatic skills from the performers; dramatically – craftsmanship normally associated with outstanding performances in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Strindberg.

British opera companies try to include “lighter” operas and musicals in their repertoires every season. This is particularly true of Opera North, which has an exceptionally versatile orchestra and a team of soloists cast in roles allowing them to shine and show off all their current vocal and acting skills. That is why no one is surprised by the presence in this year’s production of A Little Night Music at Leeds’ Playhouse (in a co-production with the local Quarry Theatre) of Dame Josephine Barstow (Madame Armfeldt) – an eighty-two-year-old soprano who used to score triumphs in Bayreuth, London, Munich and Vienna in roles like the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s opera and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre – or of the excellent Dutch baritone Quirijn De Lang (Fredrik), a singer at the peak of his vocal powers, cast equally readily in oratorio parts, roles in classical Mozart operas as well as parts from the canon of modernist and contemporary repertoire. Shining performances among the rest of the cast – apart from the expressive Sandra Piques Eddy presenting a superbly acted Desiree – come not only from major performers of minor roles, but also from singers just taking their first steps on stage, still undecided as to whether they will devote themselves wholeheartedly to a career in London’s West End, or go for interpretations in the spirit of reconstructing old performance practices, or perhaps – as their voices and skills develop – take up challenges in a heavier operatic repertoire.

Dame Josephine Barstow (Madame Armfeldt). Photo: Sharron Wallace

The most admirable thing is that they all treat the spoken and the sung word with equal affection and competence. With an equally “poetic” sense of humour they portray their ambiguous characters, building bridges between radically different conventions, singing styles and acting techniques in an admirably offhand manner demanded by Sondheim’s genius (Madame Armfeldt’s phenomenal “Liaisons”, irresistibly bringing to mind both the reminiscences of the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, and Przybora and Wasowski’s frivolous song “Biżuteria” (Jewellery) performed by Barbara Krafftówna). Hidden behind a semi-transparent curtain, the orchestra under Oliver Rundell accompanies the soloists as alertly as a bird – in the original Broadway line-up with a discreet brass accompaniment, with the piano and celesta, without a large rhythm section that effortlessly “carries” most standard musical productions.

James Brining’s direction in Madeleine Boyd’s sets and costumes is certainly no match for Bergman’s original in either panache or splendour of imagination. It is, nevertheless, effective in organising the varied planes of this convoluted tale: by moving the narrative to a time a little closer to us, presumably the inter-war era, it makes it more digestible for British audiences, obsessed as they are with the period. The staging requires no additional explanation: thanks to the singers’ impeccable diction and superb voice production, it goes straight to the hearts of the Yorkshire theatre regulars, who come here not only for musicals and Christmas adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Old Wardrobe, but also – and perhaps above all – for plays like Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus and offerings from the youngest luminaries of British drama.

Quirijn de Lang (Fredrik Egerman). Photo: Sharron Wallace

It would be hard for me to try to convince my readers of the intrinsic value of A Little Night Music, written in collaboration between the great – though still not appreciated everywhere – composer and the eminent British screenwriter and librettist Hugh Wheeler, known to fans of classic detective novels for the books he published under the pseudonym Patrick Quentin, in fact a partnership of authors with several writers, primarily Richard Wilson Webb. And yet I will try: a good whodunnit can tell us more about the people and the world around us than pretentious “high” literature written in line with the dictates of fashions making it possible to become well-known on the international publishing market. Well-performed, A Little Night Music still says more about the human need for truth and love than a thoughtlessly sung operatic masterpiece.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original text available at:

The Seasons of the Year and of Life

There was a time when Mozart’s oeuvre was put above the music of the good old Haydn. There was also a time when Haydn’s Creation was valued more highly than his Seasons, although in any case both oratorios were considered masterpieces in comparison with Il ritorno di Tobia, composed more or less a quarter of a century earlier. According to Charles Rosen, in neither of the two works did Haydn achieve the level of his quartets and great symphonies, and after completing The Seasons he even experienced an artist’s block, too old and too weak to hold on to even a fraction of the ideas rushing into his head. It is as if the master, who was not yet seventy, reached a point when he had ceased to refer to anything except his own experience and own impotence.

Rumour also had it that Gottfried van Swieten, author of the libretti to both The Creation and The Seasons, in vain tried to persuade Haydn to close the cycle with a third oratorio, The Last Judgement. Yet a letter by Georg August Griesinger – Haydn’s diplomat friend – to Empress Maria Theresa suggests something quite different: that the initiative came from the composer, who asked Christoph Martin Wieland, called the German Voltaire, for a libretto. Wieland refused. Thus it would be hard to lay the blame for the fiasco on the artist’s block afflicting Haydn – after all, he went on to write two magnificent masses, Schöpfungsmesse  and Harmoniemesse, and fell silent for good five years before he died.

However, there is no denying that it took him two years to write The Seasons and that at times the work was hard going. What undoubtedly contributed to this were the composer’s health problems as well as the libretto by van Swieten, who this time clearly bit off more than he could chew. He took as his basis James Thomson’s extremely popular poem The Seasons, although a lot suggests that he first went for Barthold Heinrich Brockes’ German translation and on its basis produced the text of the oratorio, spicing it up with numerous additions from other sources and with his own imagination. What emerged as a result was a rather misshapen work, in which the charm of the original was lost, while van Swieten’s deficient skills were revealed to the full. If that had not been enough, van Swieten, despite his poor command of the language, undertook, like in the case of The Creation, to translate the libretto into English, which produced an even more inferior result than before. Suffice it to say that until recently British artists used to perform The Seasons in German, because the “English” original would have listeners break into uncontrollable laughter. There were several more or less fortunate attempts to make van Swieten’s libretto palatable until Paul McCreesh came up with his own, exceptionally graceful translation, which may stay in concert repertoires for good.

Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings. Photo: Mark Allan

Laurence Cummings used the translation – to the benefit of the work and much to the delight of the audience gathered at London’s Barbican Hall – during the inauguration of the second season of the Academy of Ancient Music under his leadership, in a dramatised performance of the oratorio with stage movement by Martin Parr presented against the background of pleasant but in fact unnecessary projections by Nina Dunn Studio. I reviewed last year’s Creation, inaccessible to observers from outside the United Kingdom because of the covid restrictions in place at the time, on the basis of a broadcast. This time I decided not to miss an opportunity to hear the AAM in The Seasons live, especially given that I had had intense previous contact with McCreesh’s translation, translating it into Polish for a CD booklet for Signum Records.

Haydn was undoubtedly right, when he demanded that his oratorios be performed in languages understood to local audiences. That is why the premiere of Die Jahreszeiten was very warmly received at the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna, while The Seasons with the original version of the libretto was not performed even once in the composer’s lifetime. This is a work carried by text: only in symbiosis with the word does it reveal its true nature. Only then does it pave the way for the listener to understand the refined harmonic and textural devices, justify numerous self-quotations, make it possible to appreciate the novelty of solutions soon after used in the oeuvres of Beethoven, Weber, Schubert and even Wagner. Only on this condition does it reveal the tribute to the prematurely deceased Mozart hidden between the lines: when a theme from the Requiem appears in the triple fugue from Spring, when Sarastro’s wisdom resounds in Simon’s singing, when we can hear the voices of Papageno and Papagena in the love duet between Hanne and Lukas from Autumn, when in Winter a quotation from the second movement of the Great Symphony KV 550 appears with the words about the passing summer of human life.

Rachel Nicholls nad Benjamin Hulett. Photo: Mark Allan

For nearly half a century the sound of the Academy of Ancient Music evolved under the influence of two distinctive musicians with extremely different personalities: Christopher Hogwood and Richard Egarr. Laurence Cummings has added another important element to the identity of his ensembles: an irrepressible joy of music making, an enthusiasm that makes it possible to become engrossed in the rhetorical intricacies of the score. The AAM chorus not only impresses with its excellent voice production and impeccable diction; it savours its singing and imbues it a powerful emotional charge. Each instrument in the orchestra speaks with its own conscious voice – when necessary blended and balanced with the sound of the rest of the ensemble, at other times unceremoniously highlighted, surprisingly bright, saturated in the extreme, balancing on the edge of ugliness. There is dazzling brightness and deep darkness, the heat of the sun and the cold of the ice in this playing – everything needed to convey the changeability of the seasons and the inexorable cycle of earthly existence.

Of the three soloists I was the most pleasantly surprised by Rachel Nicholls, who replaced the indisposed Sophie Bevan at the last minute. I must confess contritely that I had my doubts whether the soprano, who has been scoring triumphs in the Straussian and Wagnerian repertoire for several years, would be able to find her way back into the long-abandoned idiom of pre-Romantic music. I am critic of little faith: Nicholls is perfectly capable of embedding her supple, radiant voice in a very different style of singing, phrasing in line with all the classical rules, flashing lightly through long passages and embellishments. Similar brilliance came from Benjamin Hulett’s tenor, silvery and bright, impressing both with confident intonation and wide, open breathing, allowing the melodic line to be free and expressive. The ardour of the two young lovers found a perfect counterbalance in the dignified singing of Jonathan Lemalu, marked by the wisdom of mature age. With his warm and velvet soft bass-baritone Lemalu was able to paint each affect with a slightly different hue, to outline each reflection with a line of different thickness.

Rachel Nicholls, Jonathan Lemalu and Benjamin Hulett. Photo: Mark Allan

In May 1809 the Napoleonic army set off against Vienna. The city surrendered after a brief and uneven fight. The ailing Haydn collapsed at the piano one day and never got up from his bed. He died on 31 May, shortly after midnight. His last words are circulated in several versions. After listening to The Seasons at the Barbican, I am willing to believe that shortly before he died he said: “Cheer up, children, I am all right”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Three Billboards Outside Caprarola, Viterbo

Do you remember Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? Or, more precisely, the music Mildred Mayes is listening to in the car at the very beginning of the film? Most movie buffs were led to believe that they were dealing with a contemporary arrangement of a traditional Irish melody, while in fact Renée Fleming sings Lady Harriet’s aria “Letzte Rose” from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha, though with Thomas Moore’s original text, taken from the 1813 collection Irish Melodies. The composer indeed referred to a popular song of the day, but transformed it in his own way and made it the basis not only of the aria, but also of the love theme that runs through the piece. Martha, staged in 1847 in Vienna, turned out to be Flotow’s second and last operatic success. Known to music lovers today for several immortal hits, it completely overshadowed his previous work: the opera Alessandro Stradella, the triumph of which at the Hamburg Opera subsequently led to a contract to stage Martha at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

Flotow was neither the first nor the last among 19th-century composers who decided to make one of the most influential yet most mysterious composers of the Italian Baroque the protagonist of their operas. However, they were not interested in his music, but in his sensational biography, described in, for example, Histoire de la musique et de ses effets, the first compendium of the history of music in French literature, written by Pierre Bourdelot, a libertine, freethinker and physician to Louis XIII, later supplemented by his nephew Pierre Bonnet-Bourdelot and published only after the death of both by another heir of the family in 1715. The ambiguities of Stradella’s biography – which gradually expanded to include tales of his difficult character, propensity for scheming and gambling, and promiscuity, which ultimately brought upon him the revenge of his cuckolded rivals and death at the hands of assassins – became ideal fodder for Romantic librettists. However, instead of perpetrating a black legend of him, like the one surrounding the tragic figure of Caravaggio, the librettists came up with more and more complicated cloak-and-dagger stories, with the amorous Stradella successfully throwing a spanner in the works of torturers and guardians of female virtue, stories with an obligatory happy ending. This Stradella-mania even affected the teenage César Franck, who in 1841 – four years after the failure of Louis Niedermeyer’s five-act grand opéra at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris – composed his own Stradella, but stopped at the voices with piano stage and left the work unfinished.

Interest in Stradella waned at the turn of the 20th century, only to be revived in recent decades, thanks in part to new research which has finally made it possible to look at his life and work in a broader historical and aesthetic context. We know now that he was not born in 1639 in Nepi, but four years later in Bologna, though the most formative period of his life was his childhood and youth spent in Rome, where he received his musical education. We know that his innate independence combined with immense talent and extraordinary ambition got him into trouble more than once, and it is difficult to say whether his tragic death at the hands of Genoese thugs – when he was not yet forty – had more to do with his propensity for reckless love affairs or his inability to navigate the labyrinth of political and moral intrigues of the day. Stradella left behind a huge and immensely valuable body of work, rivalling the legacy of Purcell and Biber in originality, and going far beyond the stylistic framework of the period in innovation and imagination. He was a precursor of the concerto grosso. In experimenting with a more tuneful, rhythmically freer variety of counterpoint, full of dissonant tensions, he was more than ten years ahead of Corelli. He came up with the idea of the da capo aria before he had time to give it a proper form.

There is something spectral in Stradella’s oeuvre. It is possible to hear in it things that are not physically there yet, that were only geminating in the composer’s visionary imagination. This is probably why it is so admired by Salvatore Sciarrino, a contemporary master of musical understatements, thinned out consonances, of silence louder than sounds. In 2017 Sciarrino wrote an opera, Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo (I see you, I hear you, I lose myself), whose protagonist is Stradella – or rather his absence. The action takes place in 1682, in one of the Roman palazzi, where rehearsals take place before a performance of Stradella’s cantata. Everybody is waiting for a new aria promised by the composer, but instead they get the news of his sudden death. The truth about the composer, who became a legend during his lifetime, must from now on be sought in in-depth reflection on his music.

Andrea De Carlo. Photo: Famiano Crispi & Vincenzo Scudieri

The man at the forefront of this reflection is Andrea De Carlo, one of the world’s most eminent specialists in the legacy of Alessandro Stradella, an artist well known also to Polish music lovers from his collaboration with Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano ensemble, not to mention the student production of Stradella’s comic opera Il Trespolo tutore (2018), which featured Polish musicians and was recorded on DVD. De Carlo began his career as a jazz double bass player, later joined in the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo and eventually – after studying with the gambist Paolo Pandolfo – devoted himself almost entirely to the practice and theory of historical performance. In 2005 he founded his own ensemble, Mare Nostrum, which has evolved from a homogeneous viol consort into an extremely versatile and dynamic early music ensemble. Following their first, critically acclaimed concerts and recordings of German and French Baroque music, De Carlo and his musicians began to focus increasingly on the works of 17th-century composers associated with Rome. This naturally led to “The Stradella Project” – initiated as part of the Baroque Festival in Viterbo, headed by De Carlo – which has already resulted in eight excellent albums of monographic recordings for the French label Arcana. Young talent and future collaborators of De Carlo are forged in the “Stradella Young Project”, an education and research initiative launched in 2011, whose apprentices regularly participate in De Carlo’s projects.

This year I had the pleasure of accepting an invitation from the event organisers and the Munich-based agency Ophelias Culture to attend the first days of Festival Barocco Alessandro Stradella. And thus I was able not only enjoy the music, but also to relish the beauty of the historic region of Tuscia, the cradle of Etruscan civilisation, a land stretching among the hills between the Tiber and the Apennine range, in a territory that overlaps not only with today’s province of Viterbo in the northernmost part of Lazio, but also with the whole area of Tuscany and a large swathe of Umbria. Viterbo, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in central Italy – with its imposing Cathedral of Saint Lawrence, supposedly built on the ruins of an Etruscan temple of Heracles, and the mighty Palazzo dei Papi, where from November 1268 to September 1271 the cardinals were held on bread and water during the longest conclave in the history of the Church, before the election of Pope Gregory X – was preparing for the Macchina di Santa Rosa procession.

The march with the relics of St. Rose, a Franciscan tertiary expelled from the city by the Cathars, takes place year after year on the night of 3 September, along a route of more than a kilometre from Porta Romana to the steep climb to the church of Viterbo’s patron saint. One hundred men from the Sodality of the Porters (Facchini di Santa Rosa) carry a nearly 30-metre high tower, weighing five tons, through the streets, literally in the dark, following only the directions of the capofacchini, who march at the four corners of the enormous machine. In the days leading up to the procession residents are busy building stands in the traditional stopping places of the porters, and members of the Sodality proudly display its banners in the windows of their homes, in shop windows, restaurants and craftsmen’s workshops. Admission to the porters community is considered an exceptional honour in the local community – not least because, as part of the test, each candidate must lift a 150-kg box on his shoulders and carry it at least a hundred metres.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that the first concerts of the Festival took place outside the province’s capital. Yet it would be hard to imagine a better venue for the inauguration, with an opera by Stradella, than the Mannerist Villa Farnese, a gem of the late Italian Renaissance, towering over the town of Caprarola, which clings to the volcanic Cimini Hills. The young Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, only thirty-something at the time, acquired the estate at the very beginning of the 16th century. Educated by Pomponius Laetus to love classical proportions, he decided to erect a defensive palace above the settlement and commissioned the best architects active in Rome at the time to prepare the designs. The architects included Baldassare Peruzzi, who drew out the shape of the future fortress on a pentagonal plan. The construction of the foundations was completed only a few years before the cardinal was elected pope, who went down in history as Paul III. The work on the fortress was understandably put on hold. Nearly thirty years later it was resumed by the pope’s namesake and grandson, Alessandro Farnese: a cardinal, diplomat and generous patron of artists, who replaced the idea of completing the palazzo di fortezza with the idea of erecting a grand country villa on its foundations. The arduous mission of incorporating the body of the palace into the pentagon of the fortifications was undertaken by Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, one of the most eminent architects of the second half of the 16th century, not only in Italy.

The result was a building of uncommon beauty, in the form of a pentagonal prism, but with a regular four-storey façade and a circular arcaded courtyard inside. Each storey of the villa served a different purpose and was furnished accordingly. Visitors are dazzled by the Sala dei Fasti Farnesiani on the piano nobile level. It is richly decorated with frescoes by the Zuccari brothers depicting the greatest achievements of the Farnese family. Taddeo Zuccari and his assistants are also the authors of the allegorical paintings in the Jupiter Room, accessible from the courtyard, which served as a sort of reception room for guests and a vestibule to the summer apartments. To enter it, visitors must first take their eyes off the illusion of foliage rustling in the wind, birds’ wings flapping and glimpses of sunlight on the azure of the frescoes on the arcade vaults.

Moro per amore, Villa Farnese, Caprarola. Eleonora Filipponi (Lindora) and Danilo Pastore (Floridoro/Feraspe). Photo: Famiano Crispi & Vincenzo Scudieri

This was the venue of the Festival’s inaugural performance – of Moro per amore, Stradella’s last opera, completed in 1681, a few months before his death. A similar villa, castello or palazzo may have been the venue for the first rehearsals before the work was staged at some theatre in Rome or Genoa. Similar frescoes may have witnessed cardinals, princes and their mistresses taking pleasure in making music, especially as the libretto was written by another well-educated aristocrat with a passion for the arts: Flavio Orsini, who sometimes wrote under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Filosinavoro.

The seven soloists and the nine-member Mare Nostrum ensemble, conducted by Andrea De Carlo, entered this space richer in knowledge and experience which the pioneers of historical performance could only envy. De Carlo’s musicians are fully aware of the fact that today no one will get all the allusions, references and puns in the allegedly absurd libretto, but they nevertheless should try to get as many of them as possible and then help the audience get them. Since the trap is set already in the ambiguous title of the piece (no one really dies of love here, but it takes a Moor to make a certain beautiful queen finally fall in love), every pun that is caught needs to be supported by an appropriate gesture, passion in the music, a meaningful glance. The artists need to attract attention to the passage that, for some reason, Stradella himself highlighted: by strengthening the articulation in the singing, bashing body of the instrument. They need not to wring their hands over the sense of humour of the Orsinis, the Farneses or suchlike, but to laugh at what made people laugh at the time (for example, the aging, contralto nanny and the soprano castrato proposing to her in the finale). The Mare Nostrum musicians know how to enthral the listeners and teach them something at the same time – and this is an increasingly rare skill, even among people involved in education on a daily basis.

View from Torre Monaldesca, Civitella d’Agliano. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

This year Festival Barocco Alessandro Stradella takes place until the end of September. It does not rely on Stradella alone. Over the next two days I went on two sentimental journeys to the repertoire from which my experience of historical performance had begun: the instrumental dances of the Ars Nova era (the excellent lutenist player Peppe Frana, partnered brilliantly by the flutist Alessandro de Carolis and the percussionist Antonino Anastasia); and the music wandering between Iberia and the New World since the first wave of the conquistador conquests (participants in the Stradella Young Project). The first concert took place in the rooms of Torre Monaldesca in Civitella d’Agliano: a tower from the top of which the local Guelphs used to look out for their enemies, the Ghibellins. The second concert was an open-air event in Borgo Fantasma, one of hundreds of “ghost towns” scattered around Tuscia, destroyed by landslides, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

I will have to go back there one day. For the austere beauty of the stone towns, for the effusion of colours in the frescoes in the cardinals’ villas, for the music of Stradella – brought back from oblivion by people who go forward full of love and don’t look back.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

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A Sailor From Nowhere

When it seemed that nothing could disorganise operatic life more than COVID, war was added to the still smouldering pandemic. It has changed little in Polish opera houses. If anything, it has further depleted their repertoires and for a long time to come at that, for we Poles observe the total boycott of Russian culture sometimes even more strictly than the Ukrainians themselves. This is not the case  elsewhere, as the world at large has lost faith in the efficacy of artistic sanctions and has experienced a backlash for implementing them too zealously in the first months of the invasion. Solidarity with the fighting Ukraine is now manifested in other fields. It could be said that the opera community has entered the stage of positional warfare. A no-man’s land stretches between advocates of laissez-faire and advocates of categorical sanctions, controlled by neither side. Those taking the rap are those disrupting this fragile equilibrium, as happened to Oksana Lyniv, who, shortly after taking over the musical directorship of Teatro Comunale di Bologna, decided she would not conduct concert performances of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. The decision was prompted by a wave of violent protests by her compatriots, outraged not only by the choice of the work, but also by the casting of a Russian singer in one of the supporting roles.

There were no such controversies at Bayreuth. Lyniv enjoys enduring sympathy of the local audience, who pay attention not so much to her gaffes, but to her general attitude towards the war. Last season she was welcomed with open arms as the first ever female conductor in the history of the festival. This year she returned to the Green Hill with Der fliegende Holländer as seen by the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. In a staging that would have attracted crowds of Polish opera lovers to Bayreuth, if the title role had been sung, as originally planned, by Tomasz Konieczny. Many of these opera lovers would not have let Tcherniakov into any opera house in Poland: not only because of his nationality, but also because Tcherniakov was one of the signatories of the famous petition against the boycott of Russian artists signed by, among others, Barbara Hannigan and Antonio Pappano. For Lyniv it was enough that Tcherniakov showed unequivocal support to Ukrainians affected by the war. That was enough for me as well; I came and I was not disappointed.

Elisabeth Teige (Senta). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth productions – unless they are complete failures – clearly improve over successive seasons. Yuval Sharon’s production of Lohengrin, criticised shortly after the premiere, ended its run this year to almost tearful goodbyes. Something similar will probably happen to Tcherniakov’s Holländer, although the director – as is his wont – tells a completely different story in it, seemingly without engaging in any dialogue with the original. Let me stress this: seemingly. If we can manage to overcome the understandable rebellion of a Wagnerite within ourselves and approach this staging with a completely open mind, it will turn out that Tcherniakov has disposed of what is unbearable and incomprehensible in the work. Above all – of the motives driving Senta, who, indeed, is a prototype for the later Wagnerian redeeming female figures, but at the same time an extremely irritating character crossing the thin line between the obstinacy of a spoilt teenager, and just as childish stupidity and naivety. By turning the tormented wandering sailor into a calculated avenger, Tcherniakov has finally explained this stupidity and thus, paradoxically, made the story told by Wagner more credible. Senta’s teenage rebellion takes the form of a mindless infatuation with the mysterious stranger – an infatuation that does not pass even when the Dutchman reveal his true face. Her love resembles the feelings which emotionally immature women have for terrorists and serial killers.

Elisabeth Teige and Eric Cutler (Erik). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

Such a story requires an introduction (in the form of a moving pantomime to the sounds of the overture, when we get to know the cause of the Dutchman’s trauma: his mother, rejected by Daland, committed suicide before the boy’s eyes) and a modified ending, again only seemingly contradicting the composer’s intention (the orgy of revenge is interrupted by Mary – Daland’s wife in Tcherniakov’s version – killing the stranger; Senta’s coming to her senses and reconciliation with her mother replace the traditional vision of transfiguration). Tcherniakov’s implements his concept with admirable precision, in a clean, singer-friendly, visually stunning space (among sets designed, as usual, by himself, and perfectly lit by Gleb Filshtinsky). It is not true that his staging lacks a sea or a ship. The proximity of the ocean is suggested by Yelena Zaytseva’s costumes. The phantom ship appears during one of the scene changes – or, rather, intricate turnovers of the same sets – in the form of a sail gliding across the upstage, which in the end, much to the surprise of the audience, turns out to be the tower of a town church. There are several memorable moments in this production: from the desperate attempt to restore the dignity of the suicidal woman, when the shocked boy stops his mother’s corpse swinging on a rope and laces up her shoes, the tragicomic scene of the Dutchman’s proposal on the glazed veranda of Daland’s house, to the ominous contrast of the two choruses in Act Three, in which the ghostly sailors bring to mind equally ghostly associations with members of the gangster group Solntsevskaya Bratva. In light of the events of recent months, the blue and yellow colours of the production spoke all the more powerfully, especially in the final scene of the conflagration of the town, with a swirling mass of “black kites” in the air – debris from burned down houses, as in Czesław Miłosz’s poem.

I have to admit that my recent experience with Der fliegende Holländer conducted by Anthony Negus raised my musical expectations very high indeed. They were more than satisfied by Elisabeth Teige as Senta, a singer blessed with a meaty soprano of great beauty and velvety tone, which she wields masterfully, subtly shading the dynamics and emphasising tensions in almost every phrase. I was slightly disappointed with Thomas J. Mayer in the title role. Mayer is a very capable and cultured singer, but lacks the expressiveness of his predecessor, John Lundgren, who created a chilling portrayal of a man as repulsive in his personality as he was seductive in the beauty of his dramatic, metallically sparkling baritone. The ever dependable Georg Zeppenfeld was in a class of his own – also acting-wise – as Daland. Eric Cutler as Erik could not be faulted vocally, although he lacked subtlety and moderation in shaping this dramaturgically thankless character. A fine Steersman came from Attilio Glaser, a singer with a healthy, bright and excellently supported lyric tenor. The deep, round contralto of Nadine Weissman (Mary) showed some signs of tiredness, but they were counterbalanced by Weissman’s full commitment to the role of Daland’s tragic partner, a character by no means easy to present in such a production.

The final scene: Eric Cutler, Elisabeth Teige and Nadine Weissman (Mary). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

However, it is difficult to say how the singers would have found their way through this score, if Oksana Lyniv, instead of focusing on restraining the orchestral volume for most of the narrative, had taken care of the musical logic of the story and the resulting richness of the motivic work. In her interpretation Der fliegende Holländer fell apart into a set of unconnected numbers, with the orchestra simply providing an accompaniment and not contributing to the narrative fabric of the work, and with the soloists left to their own devices by the instruments hidden somewhere in the background. Lyniv’s interpretation lacked weight, vividness of sound, and at times simply freedom, which on several occasions ended in asynchrony between the stage and the covered pit, not to mention rough, intonationally uncertain passages in the strings and play-safe entrances in the winds. However, the Ukrainian conductor was given the benefit of the doubt by the Bayreuth audience and the critics present at the performances, and I will do likewise – in the hope that in a future season, under more favourable circumstances, everything will come together, be put in order and harmonised.

It’d better be very soon. The world really needs some consolation. And not just of the naive variety.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

All’s Well, Captain!

Whenever I sit down to write a review, I feel like a Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh telling Kanga an Interesting Anecdote full of long words like Encyclopaedia and Rhododendron – to which Kanga isn’t listening. Hard is the fate of a critic in a reality without rules, in a world in which freedom is mixed with arbitrariness and attempts at honest assessment supported by arguments are equated with heartless nit-picking. However, there is nothing to complain about, especially when there emerges an opportunity to experience a work as an “ordinary” music lover, which a true critic remains till the end of his or her life – contrary to accusations of having lost the ability to listen spontaneously. This is precisely what happened to me with Der fliegende Holländer, performed just twice at the new house of Grange Park Opera: treated by the company’s CEO Wasfi Kani as a test, as it were, making it possible to see whether Wagner would be catch on in a country house theatre in Surrey – and in keeping with this strategy, presented without any support (or protest) from British or foreign critics, in a pared-down production mysteriously labelled “free staging”, but with a fine cast and conducted by Anthony Negus, a representative of the Red List of endangered conductors who believe that opera can be as intense an experience as it was in the days before the internet and streaming platforms. An opportunity came, the experiment was successful, and deep down in my critic’s soul there arose an irresistible temptation to share my delight with as many readers as possible.

Peter Rose (Daland) and Bryn Terfel (Dutchman). Photo: Grange Park Opera

I began with a cheerful essay for Tygodnik Powszechny, in which I described the story of the problematic inheritance from Bamber Gascoigne’s aunt, encouraging potential tourists to visit the picturesque “The Horsleys” at least for a day. I intended to stop at that. I changed my mind. Having left aside the memories of the intrinsic element of performances at British country house operas – a parade of cocktail dresses, dinner jackets and straw hats, hampers filled to the full and stands with champagne and elderflower lemonade – I decided to come to the point. The musical point of Negus’ concept which had been maturing for years and which I had been watching for five years – since his Dutchman at Theater Lübeck, followed one year later by performances of Wagner’s Romantic opera launching another season at Longborough Festival Opera. Before that Negus conducted Der fliegende  Holländer at the Welsh National Opera, in David Pountney’s staging and under Carlo Rizzi’s musical directorship. After what I heard at West Horsley, I no longer wonder how much Negus owes to his long apprenticeship under the guidance of famous masters of the baton. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how much these masters missed in their contact with one of the most sensitive and, at the same time, the humblest, unassuming specialists in dramatic-musical narrative of Wagner’s masterpieces.

The brick edifice of Grange Park Opera, which from the outside brings to mind the bizarre structures designed by William King-Noel, Earl of Lovelace, scattered nearby, but inside hides an acoustically phenomenal, multi-level auditorium with a typically “Italian” stage in the style of Milan’s La Scala. Clear sound, undampened by anything, carries evenly throughout the interior. The singers do not have to engage in shouting matches with the orchestra, and the orchestra does not have to restrain itself too much in order not to overwhelm the singers. The listeners are transported into a bygone operatic world from before the expansion of loud, sometimes frightfully “perfected” orchestral instruments, from before the demise of the bel canto technique, annihilated in the uneven fight between the human voice, and the inhuman space and increasingly cruel demands of audiences, often unfamiliar with the physiology of singing.

Rachel Nicholls (Senta). Photo: Grange Park Opera

I have already written so much about Negus’ interpretations of Der fliegende  Holländer that I can unashamedly admit that each new performance under his baton suggests to me comparisons with achievements of old Kapellmeisters. This is not to point to sources of alleged inspiration, but to be confirmed in my conviction that Negus is one of the few conductors today who subordinate the entirety of their approach to Wagner’s scores to the laws of musical storytelling. And every time it is his own story – open to discussion, but always clear, highlighting those elements which, according to Negus, matter the most when it is necessary, which carry the narrative forward or push it to the background on other occasions. Negus is not afraid of “old-fashioned” portamenti or strong dynamic contrasts, or of accelerating and slowing down of the narrative in the spirit of genuine tempo rubato, in which time is not “stolen” with impunity, but is always given back at the end of the swaying musical phrase. By some mysterious way he maintains a balance between lyricism and declamation: the words delivered by the soloists under his baton flow from their mouths like ordinary speech, yet they are breathtaking in their tunefulness and uncommon melodic elegance.

Negus’ individual approach to the score of Der fliegende  Holländer can be felt already in the overture: with vividly highlighted, precisely delivered motifs of the eponymous hero, of love and of redemption. Negus’ storm has all the markings of a sea squall: it does not rage, like in Krauss’ interpretation, like a storm on Alpine peaks, it does not roll along with a solid sequence of thunders like in Keilberth’s and Knappertsbusch’s interpretations. It washes the ship’s deck in waves, it furls in the ragged sails, it dies down deceptively only to flare up again a moment later. Nothing is either unequivocally ghostly or entirely human. The swaggering singing of sailors from Act One bears a similarity to the initial scene of Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr, the chorus “Summ und brumm” from Act 2 – to the illustrative nature of musical devices from Weber’s Freischütz. The Dutchman is surprisingly fragile and vulnerable here, Senta – surprisingly strong and determined in the pursuit of her goal. At the end of the spectrum opposite to the romantic protagonists we find characters so humanly ordinary that it is hard not to empathise with them. They include, above all, Daland, who brings to mind irresistible associations with Rocco from Fidelio, and Eric – touchingly lyrical, Schumannian even. The narrative constructed by Negus seems like a prequel to Wagner’s later masterpieces: in the middle section of the Dutchman’s monologue “Die frist ist um”  we can already hear the anguish of Kundry from Parsifal, in the finale the love’s transfiguration of Isolde can be heard more emphatically than usual.

Nicky Spence (Eric). Photo: Grange Park Opera

Negus was able to finally present this tender and insightful interpretation in its full glory: with the superb Gascoigne Orchestra, excellent festival chorus and brilliant cast, sensitive to every suggestion. Bryn Terfel may be the most outstanding Dutchman in the world at the moment: together with Negus he turned some signs of tiredness in the voice and shortcomings in the upper register to the advantage of his protagonist, like Hans Hotter had done years later in collaboration with Fritz Reiner. Rachel Nicholls’ dark, round soprano turned out to be a perfect vehicle of determination of a very feminine Senta. It’s been a long time since I heard Eric (Nicky Spence) so wonderfully lyrical yet vocally at ease. The velvety-voiced Peter Rose was in a class of his own as Daland, torn between greed and his feelings for his daughter. Carolyn Dobbin as Mary fully capitalised on her earlier success from Longborough. Elgan Llŷr Thomas made his debut as Steersman. His is a handsome, metallic tenor with the makings of a spinto, although still a bit uneven across the registers.

The “free staging”  proved to be Stephen Medcalf’s clear and well-organised directing in Francis O’Connor’s sets from the last act of Ponchielli’s Gioconda  – the two men’s joint production premiered at Grange Park just over a month earlier. It was a commendable example of operatic recycling – at a time when opera houses in much poorer countries waste most of their budgets on lavish stagings, which often fail completely.

Everything seems to suggest that Wasfi Kani’s experiment – organised without much publicity but fully successful – will lead to more Wagnerian ventures at Grange Park Opera. In the meantime – to refer to Winnie-the-Pooh once again – as that is really the end of the story, and I am very tired after that last sentence, I think we shall stop there for a moment.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

That Wound Must Be Healed

In 1979, in the preface to Słownik mitów i tradycji kultury (Dictionary of Myths and Traditions of Culture), Władysław Kopaliński sounded the alarm that “the conditions of modern life (…) drive us increasingly away from our cultural heritage”. He went on to explain that “this process of the breaking of cultural ties” upsets not only identity, but also the ability to participate in the collective social consciousness. The great polymath and indefatigable lexicographer died in 2007, at the age of nearly one hundred. He was always a pessimist, but even he did not suspect that the process in question would speed up so insanely in recent decades, at the threshold of the biggest crisis of Western culture in living memory. Shying away from suffering and longing for an irretrievably lost world of habits generate an ever stronger hunger for ignorance, trigger aggression, discourage thinking.

This makes me even more impressed by the initiatives of opera companies which in the general flood of mediocrity go for works that force one to make a deeper intellectual effort, to go beyond one’s comfort zone, to reflect more insightfully on the failing mechanism of cultural inheritance. The world had to face a similar crisis – in many respects – at the turn of the twentieth century, for example. The slow agony of Romantic thinking and the painful birth of modernism produced some masterpieces that right now, at a time of growing conflicts, of the atrophy of ethics, faith and hope, we need not only to bring back from obscurity, but also to subject them to contemporary judgement, looking for their essence and, at the same time, avoiding the temptation to distort it for our own purposes.

Such works include Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, of which I have written several times that it is a metaphor for emerging from mourning, a metaphor particularly emphatic in the context of its premiere, which took place two years after the end of the Great War. That the protagonist of both Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte and the libretto of the opera, which Korngold and his father based on the play Le mirage, adapted for the stage by Rodenbach himself, is not a human being but Bruges – a “Venice of the North”, kingdom of medieval bankers and clothmakers, city of Memling and Van Eyck – which began to die already in the early sixteenth century, when the canals became silted up, driving the merchants and craftsmen to Antwerp, less than one hundred kilometres away. Bruges-la-Morte is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of symbolism. Without it there would be no Death in Venice by Mann, perhaps no Ulysses by Joyce, and according to some no Emigrants by Sebald either. The dead Bruges is also a woman, who in Rodenbach’s novella will drive a widower into madness and persuade him to kill. In Korngold’s opera she will open the gateway to another world to him, will initiate a katabasis from which – like Orpheus – the protagonist will return alone, though ready to work through his bitter loss and go into the uncertain future.

It is no coincidence that Die tote Stadt is sometimes compared with Die Frau ohne Schatten. Yet usually these comparisons are unjust, referring to the alleged “imitative” nature of young Korngold’s opera with regard to the oeuvre of Richard Strauss, over thirty years his senior. However, the most important thread these two difficult and for years neglected works share is hope – in Strauss’ case for the mourning of all the children unborn because of the war, in Korngold’s case for the mourning of all the unnecessary adult victims of the war. In both cases that hope is filtered through mourning for a lost world. Bruges in Die tote Stadt became a symbol of  Vienna, degraded and deprived of its former glory. In 1915, five years before the double premiere of Korngold’s opera in Hamburg and Cologne – Bruges-la-Morte  was adapted for film by Yevgeni Bauer, who transferred it to the reality of a degraded, starving Moscow affected by a refugee crisis. Rodenbach’s masterpiece resonated throughout the war-ravaged Europe. But only in Korngold’s piece did it find a reinterpretation that gave audiences some hope for the future.

Die tote Stadt. Rachel Nicholls (Marietta). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Longborough Festival Opera initially planned to present Die tote Stadt in a semi-staged version. Fortunately, the initial concept grew and stormed onto the tiny stage of the Gloucestershire theatre in the form of a staging that was well thought out and visually stunning. The director Carmen Jakobi – in collaboration with the set designer Nat Gibson, Elaine Brown, who was responsible for stage movement, and the reliable lighting director Ben Ormerod – created an illusion of Bruges set in the turn-of-the-century Viennese imaginarium. Bridges over the canals, stairs and gates of the tenement houses were supported by a “scaffolding” made of dozens of empty frames in a reference to the geometry of Gustav Klimt’s golden squares and rectangles. The clear division of the stage into the overwhelming memorial room of the deceased wife, the cramped bedroom of the widower and the space in the middle, where the boundaries between the real world, dreams and nightmares were blurred, helped the creative team to highlight the Freudian aspects of the story. The vivid interactions between the characters brought to mind Art Nouveau allegories or the drastic expressionism of Egon Schiele’s paintings. The narrative came alive in the bright colours of Marietta and her company, only to fade a moment later in the brownish greens, gloomy blues and black of the memories of the dead Maria, just like in Klimt’s famous painting Death and Life, in which a dark, starved Grim Reaper watches an exuberant apotheosis of the human family – full of life and pushing aside into infinity the prospect of the end of the earthly wandering.

As usual, Jakobi focused on working with the singer-actors, building the characters from dozens of simple and thus even more telling gestures. Paul consolidates his obsession by repeating the same, absurdly unnecessary rituals: he organises the gallery of Maria’s portraits according to a strictly defined pattern, always lights candles in the same order in front of a relic of his beloved’s hair, and even in his own nightmares behaves like an automaton. Marietta is imperceptibly transformed from an innocent child-woman into a predatory, seductive Lilith: the spectators are no longer certain whether the supposed lookalike of the protagonist’s deceased wife is a flesh-and-blood being or merely a projection of all Paul’s fears and delusions. The church processions come as if straight from Robert le diable, where Marietta is dancing the risen abbess, but in the end turn out to be a procession of demons from the hell of Paul’s loneliness. The finale is beautifully equivocal: the widower recovers from his apathy, but we don’t know which path he will now take. Jakobi swiftly builds up tension in the silent scene of Paul’s farewell to the faithful Brigitta, only to defuse it just as quickly. There are no easy solutions here. After all, the world has collapsed. But there is hope that it can be put together anew.

Die tote Stadt. Peter Auty (Paul) and Rachel Nicholls. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

The huge orchestra with its particularly elaborate percussion section had to be reduced to the size of the LFO pit. It’s good that the production team decided to use for the purpose the “Covid” version presented in late 2020 at La Monnaie. Due to the pandemic-period requirement of presenting the opera without an interval, certain cuts were made, but I must emphasise the mastery of the arrangement produced by Leonard Eröd, who limited the ensemble to less than sixty instrumentalists and yet managed to preserve the unique sound colour of the score, highlighting not only the rather obvious influences of Puccini, Strauss and Wagner, but also Korngold’s original, quite modernist ideas of expanding the harmony to the limits of the tonal system. All these elements were consistently extracted from the musicians by Justin Brown, who conducted the performance with a confident, expressive gesture to which the orchestra reacted at times with too big a sound, which certainly did not helped the singers. Still rarely presented, Die tote Stadt creates the biggest problems for the performers of the two leading roles. Contrary to what some say, the fault lies not with Korngold, but with inevitable changes in the audiences’ expectations and singing aesthetics. There are no more and probably will never again be artists who one hundred years ago were equally at home singing the protagonists of Strauss’ and Puccini’s operas, and those of Lehár’s and Suppé’s operettas. Hence the constant problems with casting the role of Maria/Marietta and Paul, which require precisely such a stylistic juggling act as well as the ability to pace oneself over the whole period. Emerging from this mostly unscathed was the excellent Rachel Nicholls, who, incidentally, joined the cast quite late and quickly mastered previously unknown material. But even in her case excessive expression led to a few shouted top notes and too wide vibrato in the middle register. Peter Auty, a singer with a strong, handsome, dark tenor was impressive in the dramatic fragments of the role of Paul, but disappointed – several times – in the quasi-operetta song “Glück, das mir verblieb”, attacking the high notes in full chest voice. Nevertheless, both artists created memorable portrayals, largely thanks to their acting skills, and I’m almost certain that with time they will be able to present true tours de force in Die tote Stadt. Among the rest of the cast particularly worthy of note were the young New Zealand baritone Benson Wilson as Frank/Fritz (especially because of the lyricism and beauty of phrasing in Pierrot’s serenade) and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Brigitta/Lucienne, a singer endowed with a mezzo-soprano that is assured intonation-wise and excellently placed.

This time I decided to extend my trip to the summer festival in Cotswolds by one day and end it at the Royal Festival Hall, London, with a performance of Parsifal, in Opera North’s last concert on the tour following four semi-staged performances at Leeds’ Grand Theatre. I could not let that opportunity pass: for obvious reasons nothing came out of the venture last year and it’s difficult to predict whether the excellent northern English opera company will decide to repeat it in the coming seasons. In any case, this was the first time the company tackled Wagner’s last masterpiece, which in a country of music lovers passionate about the composer’s oeuvre and usually knowledgeable about it should provide some food for thought. I myself approach Parsifal with a mixture of admiration and reverent fear. I was brought up on Knapperstbusch’s famous 1962 recording and since then I cannot stop thinking that every performance of this most complete embodiment of Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk is an act of foolhardy bravery.

Especially given that Parsifal continues to closely guard its secret, which defies the common summary that it is a story of suffering, compassion and redemption. It ultimately convinced Nietzsche that Wagner was not a Dionysian artist after all, and forced the philosopher to finally disassociate himself from the music and aesthetics of the composer he had once worshipped. It first gave the teenage Reger a nervous breakdown and then influenced his decision to devote himself to a career in music. Last century it became the subject of numerous debates over Wagner’s racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny. One thing is certain: in musical terms Parsifal is an absolutely complete work, a recapitulation of all the most important threads in Wagner’s oeuvre, an ocean of sound from which it would be terrible to spill even a single drop. Besides, as Gurnemanz’s says, “zum Raum wird hier die Zeit”. Whatever it is, a mystery or “only” an opera, time becomes space here.

Parsifal. Brindley Sherratt (Gurnemanz). Photo: Mark Allan

I had never been to the Royal Festival Hall before and I have to admit that after the first few bars I was afraid whether a concert performance would succeed in its confrontation with the dry and very selective acoustics of the hall. Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded: Richard Farnes led Parsifal rather briskly (at least in comparison with the canonical interpretations), but with a wide breath and mostly appropriate dramatic pulse, which fell to pieces only in Act III, paradoxically slowing down the narrative. What matters is that the conductor drew up the tensions already in Act 1, effectively capturing the audience’s attention (the magnificent bells at the opening of the unveiling of the Grail, with a real Glockenklavier and a set of suspended metal plates). The vivid, clear sound of the orchestra usually did not overwhelm the singers, placed conveniently at the front of the stage.

Among them, the undisputed revelation of the evening was Brindley Sherratt, a warm and fatherly Gurnemanz, yet full of solemnity and dignity, aware of the content and emotion contained in every phrase – delivered with a velvety bass, beautiful in tone, flowing freely in all registers. Sherratt’s wise, mature approach to the role is on a par with Günther Groissböck’s lyrical Bayreuth interpretation from three years ago, and even supersedes it in technical terms. That Bayreuth cast also included Derek Welton, whose Klingsor did not seem distinctive enough for me at the time. Unfortunately, that impression persisted in London as well, which is a pity, because Welton’s is a large and handsome voice, though not very ringing in the lower register, a problem of most of today’s bass-baritones. Robert Hayward was in a class of his own as Amfortas. He is experienced enough as an artist to turn some of his shortcomings to the advantage of his interpretation. I have to admit I have a problem with judging Toby Spence’s performance in the title role. I really appreciate the singer: for his excellent technique, sensitivity and musicality. However, I still remember the times when Siegfried Jerusalem was viewed as a too “light” Parsifal. There was a reason: Spence’s delicate tenor, too, struggled at times to be heard over the dense orchestral texture. More importantly, the expressive weight of some fragments of the role was beyond him; this included “Amfortas! Die Wunde!”, where a sudden feeling of compassion borders on nearly erotic ecstasy. Spence put into the role everything he could – that in spite or everything he turned out to be a Parsifal convincing in his boyishness was thanks his above-average intelligence. A separate word of praise should go to the excellent bass Stephen Richardson: his Titurel was imperious and truly spine-chilling.

Parsifal. Toby Spence (Parsifal) and Brindley Sherratt. Photo: Mark Allan

I’ve left Kundry till the end, perhaps because Farnes made her redemption the centre of the narrative. Katarina Karnéus’ beautiful mezzo-soprano has lost a lot of its former glory, but it is still secured intonation-wise and indefatigably passionate, thanks to which it gradually became increasingly expressive. What the singer is really capable of was revealed only in Act 2. My heart almost broke after her desperate “Ich sah Ihn – Ihn – und lachte” and I have to admit that it’s been a long time since I heard a Kundry so close to seducing the pure simpleton.

I have grumbled a bit, but the finale nearly knocked us off our seats. The applause was long and well deserved. There are still places where it is possible to participate in the collective social consciousness – and this during performances of works that are difficult, force us to reflect and demand intellectual effort from both the artists and the audience. Hard times are coming. There is faith that we will not run out of hope.

Translated by: Anna Kijak