Lili of Einar’s Body

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

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

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

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

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

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

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

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

Photo: Edyta Dufaj

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

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

Translated by:
Anna Kijak

Hell, Purgatory, Paradise

It is hard to believe that Bayreuth – the capital and second largest city of the Regierungsbezirk of Upper Franconia – is still almost exclusively associated with the Wagner Festival. Few people know that it was the birthplace of Christiane Eberhardine, the uncrowned queen of Poland – wife of Augustus II the Strong and mother of Augustus III – for whose funeral ceremony Bach composed the famous Trauer-Ode BWV 198. Tourists marvel at the gems of German Rococo in Dresden and Potsdam, having no idea of how many treasures of architecture of this style can be found in Bayreuth itself and on the outskirts of the city. Judaica devotees often fail to note that the Great Synagogue, which has been in operation since 1760, emerged almost unscathed from Kristallnacht: only because its building was adjacent to the Margravial Opera House. Few music lovers remember that this magnificent theatre, a UNESCO heritage site since 2012, hosted a baroque music festival already in the first decade of this century. The decision to revive the event, as Bayreuth Baroque, was not made until 2019, after a major renovation of the building.

Not only the Bayreuther Festspiele on the Green Hill, but also the new festival, under the artistic direction of Max Emanuel Cenčić, almost fell victim to the 2020 pandemic. Fortunately, the organisers managed to “squeeze” into the short break between the waves of the pandemic and hold Bayreuth Baroque under a strict sanitary regime, with no programme cuts. I went to Bayreuth at the time literally for just one evening, for a concert performance of Vinci’s Gismondo by the soloists and {oh!} Orkiestra led by Martyna Pastuszka.

In the years that followed Bayreuth Baroque managed to consolidate its reputation and attract new audiences to the city, which, much to the despair of its councillors, became deserted every time after the Wagner Festival ended. For various reasons I was unable to make it to the second and third instalments of the event, received increasingly well also by critics. This year I decided not to give up and to go to see performances of both staged operas included in the programme; sandwiched between them was a recital by a singer who has been all the rage recently among lovers of stylish performance of Baroque music.

Rolando Villazón as Orfeo. Photo: Clemens Manser

The performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, in a production directed by Thanos Papakonstantinou, left me confused, to say the least. The production is by no means new: this theatrical experiment, featuring live-electronics and material arranged and composed by Panos Iliopoulos, was premiered in 2017 at Athens’ Megaron. It was quite favourably received by Greek critics and ignored by most foreign reviewers – not without reason, as it was one of the many events accompanying the “true” celebrations of the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The creative team honestly admitted at the time that it would be an Orfeo “with a twist”, a staging appealing to the sensibilities of audiences other than the supporters of historical performance truth. Indeed, there were plenty of surprises: from the addition to the Baroque instruments (Latinitas Nostra ensemble led from the harpsichord by Markellos Chryssicos) of, among others, the saw, bass guitar and theremin, the rather intrusive identification of Orpheus with the figure of Christ, to bizarre casting decisions. To make the matters worse, most of Iliopoulos’ ideas were not only in poor taste, but also contradicted the musical and dramatic logic of the original.

This is, in fact, also true of the staging, which, although quite pleasing to the eye (set design by Niki Psyhogoiu, lighting by Christina Thanasoula), puts spectators familiar with the work and the reception of Orphic literature in Monteverdi’s time to a severe test. Especially given that ideas like wedding dances with ribbons being wrapped around a cross (and a Latin cross at that) neither are revealing, nor reflect too well on the cultural competence of the creative team. Nor am I convinced by the concept of turning the entire opera into a thriller, announced already in the prologue, in which the famous toccata is replaced with a melody from an ominously jamming music box. Monteverdi resorts to a masterful dramatic trick, conducting the narrative of Act I in an atmosphere of growing joy and ecstasy – so convincing that the listeners forget what comes next; that the news of Eurydice’s death is as unexpected for them as it is for Orpheus. This adaptation oozes horror from the very beginning and everything is heading towards the final pandemonium, that is the version – abandoned by the composer – with a frenzy of maenads tearing apart the Thracian singer. I should add that this version was lost, so Iliopoulos went the whole hog and added something that had no connection to Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo whatsoever.

Another thing is that he managed to spoil the original as well. His insertions and arrangements disrupted the chord base in the basso continuo to such an extent that the singers had trouble intoning their lines correctly. Chryssicos compounded this, further confusing the artists with his bizarre choice of tempi and disregard for the internal symbolism of key passages in the work (for example, in “Possente spirto”, a poignant clash of emotion and convention, which in this interpretation was more like the soundtrack to a B horror film). The soloists sang generally correctly but unstylishly, with an excessively wide vibrato, leaving out most of Monteverdi’s characteristic ornamental figures. The notable exception was Marios Sarantidis, who with his lovely, brilliantly controlled bass impressed already in the ensembles – unfortunately, as Charon he was effectively drowned out by the electronics. Different dilemmas were posed for me by Rolando Villazón’s participation in the venture. After his vocal crisis, his voice returned in a completely different form: smoky, gravelly, less wide in terms of range, which, however, the artist knows how to mask and even turn to his own advantage with his excellent technique and expressive interpretation. This time he did not succeed. In Act I his Orpheus was literally fighting to survive. After that things improved somewhat, although I could not shake the feeling that Villazón strayed into this experiment from a completely different story and got no support from anyone: neither the conductor, the director, nor the author of this bizarre adaptation.

After the performance all hell broke loose. Half of the audience booed like mad, drowned out by the other half with frenetic applause and shouts of enthusiasm. I hanged on in silence, feverishly gathering my thoughts and anxiously preparing for the following evening.

Bruno de Sá and the ensemble Nuovo Barocco. Photo:

My fear proved unfounded. The recital by the Brazilian male soprano Bruno de Sá at the Baroque Ordenskirche St. Georgen, founded by Margrave George William for the courtly order of knighthood Ordre de la Sincerité, impressed not only with the quality of the performance and the deeply thought-out arrangement of the programme, but also with its unique atmosphere – it took place in an interior bathed in natural candlelight, in close contact with the musicians positioned in the middle of the Greek cross on the plan of which the church was built.

I needed such a purgatory after the hellish torments of the previous day. Let me start by praising the excellent Nuovo Barocco ensemble, founded by the Hungarian oboist Bettina Simon and the Greek violinist Dimitris Karakantas. Until recently, fans of historical performance could choose between the cold perfection of Northern European Baroque ensembles and the fiery, often sloppy element of the Southerners. Nuovo Barocco is part of a whole new trend of playing that is energetic and passionate, at the same time characterised by a dazzling, almost romantic beauty of sound, evident both in the accompaniments to the arias and in the instrumental pieces (phenomenally highlighted “sentimental” texture of Francesco Durante’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor ).

The musicians presented a programme made up of works by composers of the Neapolitan school: in the first part, Bruno de Sá sang arias intended for soprano castrati in female roles (Cunegunda from Gismondo and the eponymous heroine of Vinci’s Didone abbandonata, Sabina from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria and Ismena from Giuseppe Sellitto’s opera Siface); in the second – arias of male protagonists (Curiazio from Cimarosa’s Gli Orazi e I Curiazi, Volusio from Hasse’s opera Cajo Fabricio, Arminio from Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, and the aria “Son qual nave”, written by Riccardo Broschi for his brother Farinelli for the pasticcio opera Artaserse).

After the great revival of the countertenor voice, the time has come for the much more exclusive voice of male soprano, that is, the singing of men who, for various reasons, did not undergo mutation in adolescence. Of the three brightest stars in this rarefied vocal fach (I am also thinking of Samuel Mariño and Dennis Orellana), de Sá is unquestionably the most musical and technically the best. He is proficient in coloratura, can maintain a balance of tone in the transitions between registers, his phrasing is smooth and done with a great sense of style. In addition, his range is very wide – but it turned out not to be wide enough to meet all the challenges of the recital’s closing aria from Artaserse. The reason is simple: Farinelli moved with ease within a range of three and a half octaves and his breathing capabilities were remarkable even for a castrato.

And this raises the question of the usefulness of male sopranos in historical performance. Countertenors are unable to match the art of the castrati of the past either, but their voices are denser and more expressive. Bruno de Sá’s soprano, on the other hand, sounds like a lovely, incredibly well-trained voice of an adolescent girl, which necessarily limits the singer in his choice of female roles and almost disqualifies him as a performer of male roles in Baroque opera. It is unlikely that the problem will disappear in the future, when the pioneers –de Sá among them – will begin to give way to increasingly technically proficient male sopranos. This is because the problem is not in the technique, but in the physiology. In my opinion we should already start thinking about a suitable niche for male sopranos, whose instrument is fascinating, but much more delicate than that of most countertenors. I was reaffirmed in this belief by the encores of the singer, who was clearly tired at this point: from a not very convincing interpretation of “Tu del Ciel ministro eletto” from Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, to “Ombra mai fu” from Bononcini’s Xerse, where even the dazzling timbre of his voice failed to mask the problem of tone stability.

Flavio, re de’ Longobardi. Julia Lezhneva (Emilia) and Max Emanuel Cenčić (Guido). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg

Yet overall the recital left a very good impression and I did not expect that the final performance of my trip, of Flavio, re de’ Longobardi, the fourth of Handel’s operas for the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, would take me straight to paradise. I can confidently say that I had not seen such a visually beautiful yet clever staging of a Baroque work for at least a decade. The creative team decided to stage the whole thing in the style of a courtly tragicomedy, highlighting the peculiar heterogeneity of this dramma per musica, which at times really verges on a parody of opera seria. Helmut Stürmer’s superbly designed sets, making up a new space again and again, provided a background for scenes reminiscent of Corneille’s and Molière’s theatre, Hogarth’s prints and Gainsborough’s paintings – possibly also filtered through Kubrick’s film adaptation of Barry Lyndon. However, the efforts of the set designer, costume designer (Corina Grămoşteanu) and lighting designer (Romain De Lagarde) would have been in vain, if it had not been for the direction of Max Cenčić, who, following the example of the greatest masters of opera theatre, derived this convoluted story not only from the libretto, but also from the score, phenomenally arranged the crowd scenes, and, at the same time, took care of every gesture, glance and change of facial expression of the singers as well as the several silent actors who were used in the action. Cenčić brilliantly weaves comedy and love with elements of the grotesque, sometimes on the verge of overdoing it, as in the episode when offspring is being conceived by Flavio, who fulfils his royal duty in front of a cheering court. However, Cenčić does not overdo it in the end – indeed, he forces laughter back down our throats when the debased queen emerges from her bed and, in the silence of the interrupted musical narrative, finds comfort in the tenderness of the court dwarf, who leads his mistress backstage, glaring at those present with contempt (excellent Mick Morris Mehnert).

There were many more such episodes in this performance, and the spectators had to swallow tears of emotion as often as they had to suppress violent fits of giggles. In several fragments the creative team invoked the convention of pasticcio, incorporating into the opera other works by Handel, instrumental compositions by Telemann, an aria from Lotti’s Theophane and Michel Lambert’s air de court “Vos mépris chaque jour” – that last piece performed by a lady-in-waiting singing delightfully out of tune (the actress Filippa Kaye). How on earth Cenčić managed to unleash such reserves of acting talent from all the cast members, I truly have no idea. All the more credit to him for that, as he assembled a dream cast. He himself took up the mantle of Senesino and sang the heroic role of Guido, in which he impressed not only with the luscious sound of his increasingly beautiful countertenor, but also with his extremely stylish ornamentation in da capo arias. The audience was completely bowled over by Julia Lezhneva in the role of Emilia, engaged to Guido: her round soprano was enriched with deeper, truly “feminine” tones and her improvisational skills were at their peak – I don’t know what purists would say, but in the third segment of the aria “Mà chi punir desio” she created a showpiece ornament from an excerpt from Nino Rota’s soundtrack to the film Romeo and Juliet. In the second pair of lovers Yuriy Mynenko (Vitige) was particularly worthy of note with his superbly placed soprano countertenor beautifully open at the top. He found a fine partner in Monika Jägerová (Teodata), a singer endowed with a contralto of extraordinary beauty, which in the last act, however, began to betray signs of fatigue. The eponymous Flavio was sung by the young French countertenor Rémy Brè-Feuillet, making up for minor technical shortcomings with an uncommon sense of comedy. The character roles of Ugone and Lotario were brilliantly performed by Fabio Trümpy and Sreten Manojlović – the former a bit better vocally, the latter incomparably better as an actor. The excellent as usual Concerto Köln orchestra was led from the harpsichord by Benjamin Bayl: precisely, with a flawless sense of the form of the work and the capabilities of the soloists involved in its performance.

When the applause finally died down, I really felt like an exile from the garden of delights. From now on, I will tirelessly seek to return. I have a vague feeling that this paradise can be regained. Because where I lost it, I now know for certain.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Equal, Like in Oslo

One day during a recent stay in Oslo, I decided to return to my hotel by tram. After a while I got the impression that the tram turned the wrong way. No one reacted. However, the calmness of the passengers ceased to infect me, when the tram came to a halt between stops. The driver announced that he had forgotten to move the points, but would rectify his mistake immediately. The tram began to reverse, with the passengers still on board and still not commenting on the incident. It moved back to the junction and rolled in the right direction. A few streets down it had to return to the depot. Everyone got off without a word and continued on foot.

The situation made me think about a book by Thorbjørn Egner I read as a child. More specifically, about the fragment in which the three eponymous robbers of Cardamom are released from jail: “‘Why don’t you take a ride on the tram?’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ they replied (…). ‘It’ll be nice to take a ride now’. (…) The conductor rang the bell and the tram began to move”. This is a summary, as it were, of Kardemommeloven, or the law of Cardamon Town: you must not tease anyone, you must be nice and polite, apart from that everything is allowed. The Norwegians are held up as a model of civil society. Mutual respect, observance of legal norms and cooperation with state agencies are not seen as a sign of weakness in this country. Just as reticence in showing feelings is not a sign of boorishness, but stems from a reluctance to do unto another what is disagreeable to you. Norwegians value their peace and, therefore, do not disturb others.

How effective a strategy this is has been demonstrated by the last century of the country’s history. In 1905, after the dissolution of the personal union with Sweden, Norway began to rebuild its identity and patiently develop a velferdsstat – a welfare state. Today it boasts one of the highest levels of per capita income in the world and ranks second in the global Human Development Index. Citizens pay their high taxes conscientiously, benefiting in exchange from state-funded education, social welfare and health care. Norway is an extremely egalitarian country, where the principle of equality applies irrespective of gender, religion, social background and ability. Egalitarianism is also advocated by members of the royal family, led by King Harald V, who ascended the throne in 1991, inheriting from his ancestors the motto “Alt for Norge”: everything for Norway. The king’s 2016 speech contained some memorable words: that Norway is first and foremost about people; girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and boys and girls in love with each other who believe in God, in Everything or in Nothing. Kai Østensen – a Christian LGBT activist – summed up the speech with the words “I love the king. Amen”.

Liv Redpath at Oscarshall. Photo: Per Ole Hagen

The king is also loved by his wife, Queen Sonja: it is possible that their complicated love story has also contributed to his worldview. Sonja was a “commoner”, the daughter of a small businessman, a graduate of a tailoring programme at a vocational school, a boarding school in Lausanne and the University of Oslo, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree. For a  long time the young couple kept their relationship a secret. Finally, Harald told his father that if he stood in the way of his happiness with Sonja, he would not marry anyone else. The argument proved irrefutable: the crown prince was the only male heir to the Norwegian throne. The wedding ceremony took place in 1968 at Oslo Cathedral. King Olaf V led his bride down the aisle to the sounds of Purcell’s Trumpet Tune And Air, and the newlyweds left the church to the accompaniment of Bach’s Prelude in E flat major BWV 552/1.

A lavish musical setting of the ceremony was a tradition in the Norwegian royal family, which is related to the ruling houses of Denmark, Sweden and United Kingdom. The future king studied at Oxford, but that period brought him primarily a love of water sports. His wife, on the other hand, an avid music lover and patron of young artists, turned out to be a true ambassador of music in Norway. An initiative that has become firmly established in the international music community is the Queen Sonja Competition, launched in 1988. This year – at the invitation of the organisers and the Ophelias Culture PR agency – I had the pleasure of watching the events of the final few days of the competition.

They began with a private concert at Oscarshall, a neo-Gothic maison de plaisance built on the Bygdøy peninsula above the Frognerkilen fjord. The palace, the decor of which is the work of Norwegian craftsmen and artists, was opened to the public as early as in 1881. Converted into a museum during the reign of the current royal couple, it proved an ideal venue for an intimate recital of songs and chamber works by Grieg, Debussy and Walton, featuring the soprano Liv Redpath and the pianist Sveinung Bjelland. The young American, who won the Lied Prize at the previous competition, is already making a career on both sides of the Atlantic. Deservedly so: her colourful, sensual voice and wise interpretations whetted everyone’s appetite for the auditions of this year’s finalists.

The auditions took place at the Norwegian National Opera, one of the first architectural wonders of the twenty-first century. The building blends perfectly into the urban fabric, also attracting tourists, who begin exploring it on the very shore of Oslofjorden, before climbing to the top of the building on the slanted roof, from which they can admire the panorama of the capital to their hearts’ content.

QSSC final concert: Vladyslav Tlushch, baritone, Ukraine. Photo: Per Ole Hagen

The Norwegian government launched a competition for the Opera House building in 1999. The submissions were evaluated by a professional jury and more than seventy thousand residents of Oslo. The winner was a design by the international Snøhetta group. Construction work began in 2003 and was completed four years later – not only ahead of schedule, but also at a much lower cost than planned, despite the fact that the finest materials were used in the construction.

White granite and marble create an impression of a glacier flowing into the waters of the bay. Above the stage rises an aluminium tower covered with a pattern reminiscent of Norwegian weaving techniques. The entrance is through a gap in the façade – directly into the foyer, with panels of glass supported by steel columns and a wooden “core” that surrounds the stage and the auditorium. The oak slats used for the interior were treated with ammonia, giving them the appearance of seasoned wood. The plafond chandelier casts light diffused through six thousand hand-cut crystals. Several hundred computer models were tested in the design of the acoustics, a process resulting in a perfect two-second reverberation.

At the Opera House we had a meeting with the executive director of the competition, Lars Hallvard Flaeten, who made us aware of the surprising conflict between the Norwegian mentality and the very idea of musical competition. What Norwegians regarded as a mad idea came from the conductor Mariss Jansons, who arrived in Oslo in 1979. If he had not elevated the local Philharmonic Orchestra to a European level during his tenure, even the crown princess would not have been persuaded. However, her competition was to be governed by different rules: uniting rather than dividing, opening a window to the world for Norwegian artists, and opening the eyes of the world to the Norwegian music scene. It started as a piano competition. In 1995 it changed its profile and has been held as the Queen Sonja Singing Competition every two years ever since. Today anyone can apply for entry. The participants’ contest is accompanied by master classes and stage interpretation workshops. The main goal, Flaeten argues, is not to win, but to gain the experience needed in the increasingly versatile world of modern opera.

This year the Norwegian egalitarianism came up against war. The organisers decided not to admit participants from Russia and Belarus – a difficult decision because of the singers’ protests and because of concerns about the quality of the competition, in which representatives of the two nations had ranked among the finalists and winners for years. Yet works by Russian composers were allowed in the repertoire: on the last day Tchaikovsky’s music was heard as many as three times. Doubts arise as to whether the jury acted in accordance with the Kardemommeloven, since in the finals it is the jury that selects the participants’ repertoire, and among those admitted to the final was a Ukrainian national.

QSSC final concert: Jasmin White, contralto, USA. Photo: Per Ole Hagen

However, the atmosphere of the concert – featuring the local orchestra under the baton of James Gaffigan, and Lise Davidsen, who as a host was as brilliant as she had been in Wagner’s roles on the world’s best stages – was joyful and unpretentious. The contest was close, although the podium – apart from the winner, Jasmin White from the United States, a singer endowed with a beautiful contralto voice and an endearing personality – lacked individuality to match the challenges of twenty-first-century opera. We will certainly hear more about White in the future: their final performance was not without some lapses, nevertheless the way White concealed them with purely musical means (especially in Juno’s aria from Handel’s Semele) testifies to the singer’s uncommon intelligence and stage presence. The second prize winner, Armenian baritone Aksel Daveyan, has a lovely, well-controlled voice of the kind that is quickly forgotten – perhaps because his interpretations did not give the impression that they were supported by any in-depth reflection. I found the third prize winner, German countertenor Nils Wanderer, more memorable, mainly because of his poignant performance of “Stille amare” from Handel’s Tolomeo – though I suspect the singer’s voice is not agile enough to win the listeners’ hearts with his overall take on roles in the Baroque repertoire. I wish the Ukrainian baritone Vladyslav Tlushch had made it to the podium. He was rather pale in the aria from Bellini’s I Puritani, but impressed me greatly with his perfect sense of the French style in the chanson bacchique from Thomas’ Hamlet . However, I have no right to question the jury’s verdict on the basis of one stage of the competition, especially as singing is no longer the only indicator of an artist’s potential on contemporary stages.

Let us assume, therefore, that in Oslo all were primi inter pares. I guess we need such a conclusion, not only in the ruthless world of the operatic business.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Link to the source text:

The Art of Eternal Love

I remember a conversation with a University of Göttingen professor who in 2019 spoke of the imminent death of the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, an event that, in his view, was anachronistic, cultivated nineteenth-century rituals of art reception and, despite its attempts to woo younger audiences, completely ruled out any in-depth reflection on the composer’s work. His predictions nearly came true just a year later, when the Festspielhaus slammed its doors shut – for the first time in its post-war history. The festival rose back in convulsions from the devastations of the pandemic. In 2021 the organisers had to cancel the new production of Ring and resign themselves to presenting all performances with the house half full. Last season Katharina Wagner still had to take into account the risk of cancelling performances involving a large chorus and a large cast of soloists. In order to prevent any downtime, she commissioned Roland Schwab to prepare a “spare” staging of Tristan and Isolde to fill gaps in the repertoire, if it became necessary.

Making his Bayreuth debut, Schwab accepted the offer without a second thought, despite the fact that he had to deliver the commission in record time. The offer came in December 2021: given the unique scheduling of the preparations for the Green Hill premieres, the director presented a preliminary version of his concept just a month later. He took into account in it the “Covid” distance between the singers. The relatively sparse sets were designed by Piero Vinciguerra, the costumes by Gabrielle Ruprecht, while the lighting was directed by Nicol Rungsberg. In many respects the new production of Tristan appealed to the sensibility and sense of aesthetics of older, more experienced Wagnerites. The oval space above the stage, matched by an analogous shape on the stage floor, brought to mind not only Wieland Wagner’s legendary stagings, but also Vera Nemirova’s Frankfurt Ring. Restrained stage gesture, limited props, and lights emphasising the stark contrast of black and white completed the impression of asceticism of the whole.

Catherine Foster (Isolde) and Christa Mayer (Brangäne). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

After Valentin Schwarz’s mercilessly booed Ring, the new Tristan was received like an answer to everyone’s prayers. The staging had only two performances – despite constant cast changes, the festival programme went on as originally planned. This year Tristan returned to the Festspielhaus and was again very well received, although Schwab’s concept is not flawless. And yet – compared with the avalanche of trashy ugliness sweeping across most European stages – it fulfils the promise made by the director even before the premiere: that this would be a show in which the spectators would not want to find themselves, but, on the contrary, lose themselves.

From the beginning Schwab tries to convince us that Tristan is essentially a story with a happy ending, a tale of the power of true love all the way to the grave and beyond. To highlight this trope, he resorts to some questionable solutions, however. One them is an allusion to Wagner’s alleged Buddhist inspirations – in the form of a neon sign in the  Devanāgarī script, which accompanies us throughout the performance with the Sanskrit word śāśvata, which means more than “eternal” (because it also means primordial, recurring, continuous, lasting forever), and is essentially at odds with the Buddhist message rejecting the errors of both nihilism and eternalism. The word śāśvata refers precisely to the eternalist belief in the real existence of phenomena as they appear to manifest themselves. Thus, it fits neither the Buddhist worldview nor the message of Wagner’s opera. Doubts are also raised by the fact that the story of Tristan and Isolde has been linked to the late ancient myth of Philemon and Baucis, first told in the eighth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After all, the story of two Phrygian villagers who were the only people to take under their roof Zeus and Hermes – disguised as poor wanderers – and as a reward for their generosity were transformed posthumously into two trees with intertwined branches, is about love that is fulfilled and lasting. Nor am I convinced by Schwab’s argument that the fate of Tristan and Isolde was similarly summarised by the thirteenth-century German writer Ulrich von Türheim in his completed version of Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem. Let me say once again that Wagner’s Tristan is neither an autobiographical work, nor an operatic adaptation of a medieval romance.

Catherine Foster and Clay Hilley (Tristan). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

This does not change the fact that Schwab’s production reaches the realm of the metaphysical and transcendent in many respects. First of all, this is because of the clear separation of the oval on the stage floor from the rest of the theatrical space. That place, which at the beginning of Act I brings to mind vague associations with a swimming pool aboard a luxurious cruise ship, can be accessed only by the protagonists and only from the moment of their amorous confession. However, something strange happens earlier, when the water turns red at the sound of Isolde’s story about the death of the brave Morold. The oval shape gradually draws both protagonists in, like a dizzying whirl of passion. Yet it does not allow them to become united, either in Act II, when their great duet, begun on a surface in which the light of stars is reflected, ends in a desperate struggle of contrasts between the dazzling World of Day and the fathomless, ink-black World of Night; or in the finale of Act III, when the oval freezes into a silvery-grey, motionless pond. A strong idea – though interpreted by some spectators as an allusion to the practices of totalitarian systems – was to have Tristan mortally wounded by strands of white light descending from the flies. This execution, as it were, resembling death in the electric chair, was preceded by tortures inflicted on the lovers by the jealous Melot, who shone a spotlight in their eyes – a moving symbol of the world from which they both wanted to escape into the night.

In the face of so much magnificence, it is not hard to forgive the director for having the transformed Isolde/Baucis begin her final monologue from behind a thicket of green leaves; it is also possible to turn a blind eye to the idea of bringing on stage three pairs of the lovers’ alter egos embodying the youthful, mature and old ages of their love. Especially given that Markus Poschner dressed the whole thing in a surprisingly subtle musical garment sparkling with flashes of bright orchestral colours (excellent woodwind!) against the dark sounds of instruments in the lower register, constructing the narrative with the method of persistent gradation of tensions. If anything can be said against him, it’s the occasional unstable proportions between the stage and the covered orchestra pit, which was especially problematic for Tristan in Act II. The American tenor Clay Hilley, who stepped in for Stephen Gould at the last moment, has a voice that is slightly smaller and less developed at the top; in addition, he does not always know how to cover minor technical deficiencies with expressive text delivery. However, it must be said that his phrasing is sensitive and elegant enough for him to possibly join the ranks of the best “lyrical” Tristans in the world in a few seasons. Catherine Foster, endowed with a harsh, but assured and perfectly placed soprano, confirmed her class as Isolde: it is a pity that she ran out of steam for the final “Mild und leise wie er lächelt”, for which she paid with too wide a vibrato and several intonation lapses. Christa Mayer did well as Brangäne, although her singing lacked the softness characteristic of the best performers of the role. I found Ólafur Sigurdarson (Melot), who possesses a rather gravelly baritone, more convincing as an actor. Jorge Rodríguez-Norton (Shepherd), Raimund Nolte (Steersman) and Siyabonga Maqungo (Young Sailor) handled their respective episodic roles efficiently.

Clay Hilley and Catherine Foster. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

However, complete understanding of the text, both literary and musical, was demonstrated only by Markus Eiche (a surprisingly fragile Kurwenal, with a baritone voice that is bright and melancholy in tone), and above all by Georg Zeppenfeld in the role of King Marke. His extraordinarily handsome bass, phenomenal diction and unfailing sense of the stage were as usual appreciated by the audience, who rewarded their favourite with a roar of applause.

And so Tristan, as presented by Roland Schwab, again served to wipe away the tears of music lovers disappointed with the new Ring, which reportedly somehow failed to settle. I was about to say that makeshift solutions sometimes proved to be the most durable, but not this time – the staging has been removed from the repertoire for good; next season it will be replaced by a new production by the Icelandic director Þorleifur Örn Arnarsson, with an almost completely different cast conducted by Semyon Bychkov. This was not the end of the festival surprises, especially for fans of good singing. The rumours of the Bayreuther Festspiele’s death turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Max Shoots at the Eagle, Semele Loves the Eagle

During operatic holidays I no longer feel like discovering new lands. I prefer to return to places that bring back good memories: to trips to tried and tested theatres, to favourite works featuring reliable singers. So I planned both my July trips to Germany well in advance. My pretext for going to Dresden was Günther Groissböck’s appearance in the role of the demonic Caspar in Weber’s Der Freischütz – a little over a year after Kirill Serebrennikov’s bizarre and not entirely successful staging of the opera at Amsterdam’s De Nationale Opera with Groissböck in the cast. I travelled to Munich – unlike some of my colleagues who went there to see the new production of Semele directed by Claus Guth primarily because of Jakub Józef Orliński in the role of Athamas – to hear Jupiter as portrayed by Michael Spyres and to compare his interpretation with Jeremy Ovenden’s recent performance at the Göttingen Handel Festival.

I’ve written so much recently about Der Freischütz – admired not only by Chopin, but also by the young Zygmunt Krasiński, who reported to his father after the Warsaw premiere that the piece was “full of ghosts, monsters, bats, thunders, etc., etc., very much in the Romantic taste” – that I’ll get straight to the point. I saw the thirty-fifth performance of the staging, which has been in Dresden’s Semperoper repertoire for over eight years. Responsible for the direction is the Dresden-born countertenor Axel Köhler, who first tried his hand at the directing in 2000, thirteen years after making his debut in the part of Eustazio in Rinaldo, on the stage of the Staatstheater Halle. Since then he has directed more than fifty productions, while continuing his singing career and achieving notable successes as a teacher. His Freischütz gets rave reviews after each revival. This is hardly surprising – in a seemingly traditional production Köhler has managed to successfully move the action from the times of the Thirty Years’ War to a decidedly more recent period, with a conflict lurking somewhere in the distance, a conflict that only in the scene of the casting of bullets in Wolf’s Glen begins to evoke irresistible associations with the Second World War. However, there is no “for dummies” approach; instead there are monsters and thunders, there is a lot of laughter, even more emotion, and in the finale there is bright hope for redemption. Most significantly, however, Köhler – in perfect collaboration with the set designer Arne Walther and lighting director Fabio Antoci – has created a space that is extremely friendly to the singers, giving them not only vocal freedom, but also an opportunity to consciously use the tools of acting expression.

Der Freischütz, Dresden, 2015. Sara Jakubiak (Agathe) and Christina Landshamer (Ännchen). Photo: Matthias Creutziger

Such a clear and carefully thought-out concept facilitates the appreciation of the musical qualities of the production. The 2015 premiere was prepared by Christian Thielemann, who contributed to the subsequent success of the staging recorded on DVD. This season Antonello Manacorda took over the baton, leading the soloists and ensembles with a decidedly lighter hand, with verve, but not too excessive tempi, and above all with extraordinary attention to the variety of orchestral colours, emphasising the masterful dramatic structure of the work. He also had at his disposal a very even cast, the weakest link of which was, I regret to say, Groissböck, who sang forcefully, with intonationally uncertain phrasing, on the verge of audibility in the lower register and with an ugly, dull sound at the top of the range. Judging from the Austrian artist’s recent performances, his voice is beginning to betray the first signs of fatigue. Perhaps this could be remedied, for example by a more prudent choice of roles: the part of Caspar, however, requires a different kind of bass, with a bigger volume and more demonic colour. A much better impression was made by Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max. He is a singer possessing the truest “French” lirico spinto tenor, with a beautiful golden tone and the makings of a great old-style dramatic voice. The only thing he could have done better in the Dresden performance was to have paced himself more wisely: after a very well sung Act I (excellent rendition of the aria “Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen”), he lacked energy in the Wolf’s Glen scene, but fortunately regained his form in the finale. Of the two performers of the main female roles, I was more impressed by Nikola Hillebrand (Ännchen), who has a warm, perfectly controlled, rich voice that may soon develop into a beautiful jugendlich dramatischer Sopran. The youthful freedom, especially at the upper end of the range, was somewhat lacking in Johanna van Oostrum’s singing, but the artist nevertheless managed to create a sympathetic and touching character of Agathe. Among the singers in the supporting roles, special mention goes to Sebastian Wartig, whose round, dignified baritone was a perfect match for the part of the good Prince Ottokar.

Der Freischütz, Dresden, 2015. Michael König (Max). Photo: Matthias Creutziger

Der Freischütz was played to a packed audience, as is usual in Dresden, where spectators celebrate every performance of this opera – starting in 1985, when it was presented during the inauguration of the Semperoper, rebuilt after the war. There was a slightly different atmosphere at the summer festival organised under the aegis of the Bayerische Staatsoper, which has grown to become one of the most important theatre and music events in Europe. It attracts music lovers and the curious from all over the world, and at the same time does not get in the way of the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, which start a little later. The programme of this year’s Münchner Opernfestspiele included Handel’s Semele in a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, where it will be presented in November 2024. In Munich it was staged at the Prinzregententheater, more than three times smaller than the Met and built in 1900–1901 after a design modelled on that of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This is especially true of the amphitheatre-like auditorium – the exterior of the theatre, designed by Max Littmann, is more reminiscent of Gottfried Semper’s earlier, historicising buildings. Originally conceived as a Wagnerian theatre and opened with a production of Die Meistersinger, today the building is home to the Theaterakademie August Everding and a second stage of the Bavarian Opera, hosting concerts as well as performances of Baroque, twentieth-century and contemporary operas.

In Semele, prepared for this year’s festival, Claus Guth again analyses the motivation and behaviour of his characters from the perspective of modern psychology. He transforms the story of the Theban princess into a tale of her desperate attempt to break free from the glitz of the world around her, to transcend her own boundaries, to reach regions where a frenzied pursuit of happiness may end in failure and bring even more suffering. Semele pierces the wall between reality and the unknown with a few axe blows. She finds herself transported from an ice-cold, blinding white to an equally blinding black of the land of the subconscious and myth. The two worlds begin to intermingle, squeezing into a space that is not their own. At one point the audience is no longer certain of whether it is Semele who is trying to worm her way into Jupiter’s good graces, or whether the god is invading her world and ruthlessly cornering her. Black feathers – symbolizing Jupiter’s eagle – ooze through cracks in the white walls and ceiling like a thick, sticky lava. A crystal chandelier from “this” world illuminates the thick, sticky darkness on “the other” side. In the lieto fine reality only seemingly comes together. The scene is shrouded in semi-darkness, Semele sits alone in a chair away from everyone, in a shaft of white light, clutching in her arms a bundle of cloth – hiding the void left by Dionysus or the child that never was.

As usual, Guth’s concept can be debated, but it is hard to deny its suggestiveness, achieved thanks to – apart from the director’s mastery of his craft – Ramses Siegel’s choreography and, above all, Michael Levine’s set design, phenomenally lit by Michael Bauer. It’s been a long time since I saw such fathomless black and such cool, polar white on stage, both softened by a number of significant intermediate hues. The few comic elements – including Orliński’s breakdancing act, widely commented on in the media – seemed like ghastly hallucinations against this background.

Semele, Munich, 2023. Brenda Rae (Semele) and Michael Spyres (Jupiter). Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The musical assessment of the performance will not be so easy. First, this is because of the participation of regular Bayerische Staatsorchester musicians, whom even Gianluca Capuano was unable to inspire to play stylishly, with both the tone colour and clarity of Handel’s texture suffering as a result. I also have to admit that I was annoyed by the basso continuo group playing its part in the manner of a folk or janissary band, which I can tolerate only in Jordi Savall’s old recordings. Secondly – because of the decision to cast Brenda Rae in the title role. Rae’s is a soprano with a puny volume, excessively wide vibrato and a coloratura technique that leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, Rae made up for this with her excellent acting, for which the audience rewarded her with a true storm of applause.

The other soloists were at least fine, although there were no revelations. Michael Spyres as Jupiter outclassed Ovenden from the Göttingen Semele in every respect, singing with a tenor beautifully open at the top, seductively deep in the lower register, improvising very stylishly as much as he could – but I have the impression that this excellent singer is still looking for a métier for himself after the inevitable evolution of his voice towards spinto. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his way in this search, being fully aware that the bravura roles in French grand opera are slowly beginning to elude him. The roles of Juno and Ino this time went to two singers, Emily d’Angelo and Nadezhda Karyazina, respectively. It was probably the right decision: both singers have magnificent, dense mezzo-sopranos with a truly contralto low register. However, they lack the ability to differentiate their interpretations – although in this respect Karyazina, who is almost a decade older, still compares favourably with her colleague. Philippe Sly, cast in the dual role of Cadmus and Somnus (the short role of the High Priest was sung by Milan Siljanov), impressed me particularly with his sensitive portrayal of Semele’s father.

Semele, Munich, 2023. Final scene. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

I have left Jakub Józef Orlinski for last, as his participation in this production involved not only daring directorial ideas, but also interesting musical solutions. Let’s start with the fact that Handel wrote the part of Athamas for a tenor, then rewrote it for the first performer, the countertenor Daniel Sullivan (who did not sing in falsetto, but in his own natural voice, with the full alto range). In addition, Handel removed the soprano part of Cupid in its entirety even before the premiere of the work. In modern productions the character of Cupid is often brought back – primarily for the heavenly beautiful aria “Come Zephyrs, come” – sometimes combined with the role of Iris. In Munich Orliński sang the role of Athamas in a truncated version, but in Act II got Cupid’s aria, which was transposed down and which Guth very cleverly integrated into the dramaturgy of the staging. What was the result? Well, with his angelic, honeyed voice Orliński did much better with Cupid’s aria than with the role of Athamas, in which his light countertenor often disappeared in the lower register and did not reveal all the harmonics in the middle range. Whatever motivated the producers of the staging, they went for a Solomonic decision in allowing Orliński to develop his acting talent in the role of Athamas and showcase the best of his vocal technique in an aria intended for a different voice type. It’s a pity that this intelligent solution has not been honestly commented on by either the creators of the production or most critics.

All in all, however, there is nothing to argue about. Both the Dresden Der Freischütz and the Munich Semele gave me at least a brief respite from the usual blandness of the summer opera season, artificially hyped up by the media as a feast for music lovers and theatre enthusiasts. It’s good to return to tried and tested places. It is good to be able to enjoy art that does not offend anyone’s aesthetic sensibilities and openly invites discussion.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Isolde the Fair and Brunhilde of the White Hands

The circle is slowly closing. April marked nine years since the Warsaw premiere of Lohengrin in a co-production with Welsh National Opera, a staging that brought me – through a complicated coincidence – to Longborough for a performance of Tristan the following year. Since I found my Wagnerian Promised Land there, every June has been associated with a new production conducted by Anthony Negus. This year LFO staged Götterdämmerung, before the presentation of all parts of the tetralogy, originally planned for this season, but delayed by the pandemic. Next season the Bühnenfestspiel will take place three times, directed by Amy Lane, who still has not managed to show us her complete concept. She prepared Die Walküre in 2021 in a semi-staged version, fortunately available for some time on the OperaVision platform – to wipe away the tears of overseas music lovers and critics, unable to travel to the UK.

When the borders did finally open, I began visiting the British Isles with even greater intensity than before the pandemic. Last season I wrote about a production of The Flying Dutchman by Grange Park Opera, one of the youngest and most ambitious “countryside opera” companies in England. That experience was linked to Longborough through the person of Negus, who confirmed his class as an outstanding interpreter of Wagner’s legacy, leading an ensemble unfamiliar with his baton with a truly stellar cast of solo voices. This time I got the opportunity to make a completely different comparison. The Longborough Götterdämmerung and the new staging of Tristan in Grange Park featured both Isoldes discovered by Negus: Lee Bisset, who sang Brunhilde in LFO’s latest Ring, and Rachel Nicholls, whose 2015 debut in Tristan proved to be a prelude to an international career in the Wagnerian and Straussian repertoire. Two excellent singers representing a distinct, specifically British Wagnerian singing tradition. Two operas about the end of the world or, depending on the interpretation, a hope of building this world completely from scratch. Two stories of transfiguration through love. Two productions the final form of which was largely influenced by the personality of these two artists.

In Longborough the stage is tiny, the orchestra pit is really deep and contact with the audience is extremely intimate. This was one of the reasons why I got the best impressions at LFO from performances presented in a space almost devoid of props, masterfully painted with light by Ben Ormerod, who, following the example of Alphonse Appia, proclaims the primacy of the author and the drama, synchronising the intensity and colours of light with the plot and musical narrative of the work. Amy Lane is a very insightful director, revealing layers of meaning in the Ring that are inaccessible to most contemporary directors of the tetralogy. Unfortunately, her sensitivity is not always matched by the ideas of the other participants in the theatrical concept. Lane’s apposite interpretive cues were not fully reflected in either Rhiannon Newman Brown’s sets – fortunately less overloaded than in last year’s Siegfried – or in the not very inspired lighting direction (Charlie Morgan Jones), or Tim Baxter’s overly literal projections. The director managed to achieve the best understanding with the costume designer (Emma Ryott), who correctly read the intention of universalising the myth, combining the traditional ideas of the appearance of eternal beings (the Norns) with the slightly more contemporary dress – though still not placed in any specific context – of the other dramatis personae.

Götterdämmerung, LFO. Freddie Tong (Alberich) and Julian Close (Hunding). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

There are several memorable and harrowing tropes in Amy Lane’s concept, from the idea to have the thread woven by the Norns bring to mind associations with both the earthly umbilical cord and the roots of the sacred ash tree, chopped down at Wotan’s command before the expected “twilight of the gods”, to the extraordinary scene of Hunding’s Dream, which in Lane’s rendition took the form of a Freudian showdown between the father and the son. Most of Lane’s directorial decisions found their justification in the work and were appropriately reflected in the concept followed by Negus, who, as usual, made sure that there would be logic in the musical dramaturgy and that the narrative pulse would remain brisk without becoming lofty – this was evidence by, for example, Siegfried’s Funeral March, in which the procession did not drag, and the sounds of the orchestra rose like the waves of an angry Rhine or shot sparks from the flames of the funeral pyre and the upcoming conflagration of Valhalla. Negus has an uncanny ability to tell stories with music and engage the listener’s attention to the point of hypnosis. Nevertheless, the level of attention to every detail of the texture, to even the smallest elements of the sound of the various orchestral groups, to every syllable and phrase of the sung text – in Götterdämmerung it exceeded anything we had dealt with in previous parts of the Ring.

The same goes for the vocal side of the performance. Bradley Daley was more convincing than in last year’s Siegfried. His indefatigable, a bit rough, but superbly controlled tenor gained powerful expression in the dying monologue in which the singer gave the audience a sense of who Siegfried would have become, if fate had allowed him to mature enough to become a worthy partner for Brunhilde. For most of the drama the phenomenal Julian Close reigned supreme on stage as Hunding – superb as an actor, but building his character equally with purely musical means. An ominous majesty hides in Close’s voice, black as new moon night, yet seductively beautiful, derived from the best tradition of powerful and dark German basses of the Gottlob Frick variety. Similar power was missing in Freddie Tong’s singing, but the conductor and the director turned this to his advantage in the poignant Hunding’s Dream scene, skilfully contrasting Alberich’s humiliation with the storm of conflicting feelings tormenting his son. Plenty of passion was infused into Waltraute’s short part by the ever reliable Catherine Carby, the memorable Brangäne from the 2015 Tristan. A superb pair of the naïve Gibichungs was created by Laure Meloy (Gutrune), a singer with a round soprano and very secure intonation, and Benedict Nelson (Gunther), who is blessed with a lovely, intelligently used baritone and great dramatic instinct, thanks to which he was able to create a multi-dimensional character, full genuine shame and contempt for his own weakness in the finale. A separate word of praise should go to the two finely tuned ensembles – the Norns (Mae Heydorn, Harriet Williams and Katie Lowe) and the Rhinemaidens (Mari Wyn Williams, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Katie Stevenson) – as well as the Festival Chorus, reinforced by members of Longborough’s Community Chorus.

Götterdämmerung, LFO. Lee Bisset (Brunhilde) and Bradley Daley (Siegfried). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

I left the great role of Brunhilde performed by Lee Bisset for last. This splendid actress and, in my opinion, still underappreciated singer should appear on stage more often, if only to make critics realise that the too wide vibrato and squeezed high notes – which the critics like to point out to her sometimes – are not the result of voice fatigue, but the opposite: of not singing enough. I realized already back in December in Inverness that the minor technical shortcomings in her singing were slowly becoming a thing of the past, revealing the incredible beauty of her dark yet surprisingly warm soprano. In Götterdämmerung under Negus’ baton Bisset’s vocal potential went hand in hand with interpretive wisdom. With each line her Brunhilde became – in an almost palpable way – more and more aware of the role assigned to her by fate in the inevitable end of the old world order. She reached the fullness of this enlightenment in her final monologue. Most contemporary Wagnerian sopranos put all their strength into merely singing this powerful scene. Bisset was able to make it varied: with gestures, facial expressions, a whole palette of voice colours, speaking to the Gibichungs in one tone, accusing Wotan in another, using a different one still to delve into the meaning and cause of Siegfried’s death, and finally becoming united with him in the ecstatic words “Selig grüsst dich dein Weib”. In such an interpretation Brunhilde’s transfiguration appeals much more strongly to the imagination than any transfiguration of Isolde – especially when complemented by such a painterly interpretation of the annihilation of the Ring and the ruin of Valhalla. No wonder, therefore, that after the last chord in the orchestra died down, complete silence fell in the auditorium, broken only after a minute by an outburst of frenetic applause. After such twilight, dawn does not come soon.

This was not, in any case, the first such experience in Longborough. I don’t think I will live to see another Tristan on a par with the premiere and the subsequent revival at LFO two years later – conducted by Negus and directed by Carmen Jakobi. I have not given up hope yet: every season I try to see and hear at least two new productions of this opera. And I must admit that this year’s Tristan at Grange Park Opera turned out to be one of the best in musical terms.

I can’t say the same about the theatrical side of things, despite the fact that Charles Edwards is a very versatile artist and has an impressive number of opera productions to his credit – mainly as set designer, but also as lighting director and creator of original productions in which he was responsible for the whole staging concept. Frankly speaking, I would have trouble pointing out characteristic elements of his style, which is in constant flux – largely dependent, I think, on the current demand for specific aesthetics and interpretive themes. I admired his superb set design for Katia Kabanova directed by David Alden in Warsaw; I wrote warmly about the coherent visual concept of the Little Greats cycle at Opera North, where Edwards also directed I Pagliacci; my hair stood on end when I saw how he littered the stage in the bizarre production of Gounod’s Faust at Poznań’s Teatr Wielki, a production directed by Karolina Sofulak. In his Tristan for Grange Park Opera, he followed the fashionable biographical trope, suggesting – rightly, to some extent – that Wagner composed the opera in the throes of passion for Mathilde von Wesendonck, forgetting, however, that the composer had come up with the idea several years earlier and under the influence not of his affection for the silk merchant’s beautiful wife, but of reading Schopenhauer. Edwards cluttered the stage almost as much as in Poznań, styling it neither as the interior of the Wesendoncks’ Zurich villa, nor as the chambers of the fairytale castle of Neuschweinstein, and closing it with sets that, contrary to the pre-premiere hype and misleading announcements, did not draw on the first performance of Tristan, but on later productions in Bayreuth, the first of which was presented three years after Wagner’s death. It was for this production, directed by Cosima herself, that Max Brückner designed the sets. But Edwards did not stop there: in Act III he used Kurt Söhnlein’s design for Siegfried Wagner’s famous 1927 staging.

Tristan und Isolde, GPO. Gwyn Hughes Jones (Tristan). Photo: Marc Brenner

This is what may happen when the director doesn’t commission thorough research before getting down to work. Instead of a bold reinterpretation we got a cliché replicating common myths about the circumstances of the work’s creation and its Munich premiere. Edwards entrusted the lighting direction to Tim Mitchell, who bathed this panopticon in colours that brought to mind a B grade horror film rather than the story of two lovers joined in death. The situation was remedied a bit by Gabrielle Dalton’s stylish costumes, but we still got a story of common marital infidelity instead of symbolism and metaphysics. In addition, the finale was dangerously reminiscent of the ending of Katharina Thoma’s Frankfurt staging three years ago, where Isolde’s love’s transfiguration, like in Edwards’ interpretation, took place without Tristan, sent backstage before that.

Tristan was rescued by Wagner himself or, more precisely, by his music – in an above-average, at times even thrilling performance. Stephen Barlow conducted, confidently and elegantly, though approaching the Wagnerian matter quite differently from Negus, who builds up the dramaturgy in Tristan by alternating tensions and relaxations. In Barlow’s interpretation the musical narrative follows an ascending curve slowly but inexorably, especially in the overall agogic plan. At first I found this boring then began to appreciate it, especially since the Gascoigne Orchestra played under Barlow’s baton with precision, a beautifully balanced sound and an excellent sense of the proportion between the pit and the stage.

The Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, who had been primarily associated with Italian repertoire over the years, made his debut as Tristan in Grange Park. Jones has a soft voice with a beautiful, golden tone, excellent technique and a valuable ability to pace himself throughout the performance. His melancholic, endearingly lyrical Tristan may not have appealed to the advocates, so numerous today, of casting stentorian Heldentenors in the role, but I think he would have won praise from Wagner himself, who valued intelligence and a sense of musical drama in singers above all. Both qualities were not lacking in Jones’ performance in the great monologue of Act III, from the first bars shrouded in the darkness of the longed-for night of death. Keeping vigil over the wounded hero was one of the finest Kurwenals I had heard in recent seasons – David Stout, who with such sensitivity and with such a well-controlled baritone, perfectly developed in the lower register, could soon begin to consider making a debut in any of the heavier Wagnerian roles. That was not the end of the revelations, however. Matthew Rose provided me with yet another argument to substantiate the thesis that in the finale of Act II of Tristan Wagner came the closest to the heart of ancient tragedy. King Marke’s monologue, phenomenally interpreted by Rose, contained neither fury nor shame: only a calm, bitter statement of a fact that can no longer be reversed. I think that the English bass deliberately added a bit of a Verdian hue to his singing: I was not the only one who began to wonder about a possible affinity between Don Carlos and Tristan, premiered a few years before Verdi’s opera. Brangäne found an equally outstanding interpreter in the person of Christine Rice, one of the finest mezzo-sopranos of her generation as well as an excellent actress. Very decent performances in minor roles came from Sam Utley (Shepherd) and Thomas Isherwood (Steersman). Mark Le Brocq deserves separate praise for his take on the role in which Edwards merged the characters of Melot and Young Sailor into one. A silly idea, but splendid performance: especially memorable for me was the sneer heard in the sailor’s song “Irische Maid, du wilde, minnige Maid”, fully justifying Isolde’s later outburst of rage.

Tristan und Isolde, GPO. Rachel Nicholls (Isolde). Photo: Marc Brenner

Isolde was portrayed, once again in her career, by Rachel Nicholls, an extremely musical singer with an exuberant stage temperament and expressive personality. Her voice is as full as Bisset’s, but sharper, more girlish, sparkling with different colours. There is more frustration and rebellion in her anger, and more impulsive passion than calm, intimate closeness in her displays of feeling. In Edwards’ staging she had to play the role of an unfulfilled bourgeois woman who did not appreciate the potential of her femininity until the final transfiguration. Nicholls correctly read this cue as a turn towards modernism, including musical modernism. She imbued her interpretation with her recent experience in the Straussian repertoire, building a character at times more human than Tristan, or in any case better understood by a contemporary audience. She created a memorable Isolde, also, I think, thanks to her own efforts, because I saw in her singing and acting many gestures remembered from earlier productions.

And we are complaining about the twilight of Wagnerian idols. Perhaps it’s time to set fire to this rotten Valhalla and start everything all over again?

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Roses, Thorns and Diamonds

I missed Handel. The last time I listened to him to my heart’s content was in 2019, at the Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, the place where the oeuvre of Il caro Sassone was revived on 26 June 1920, when the first modern performance of Rodelinda took place thanks to the efforts of Oskar Hagen. In 2020 an anniversary festival was being prepared with great pomp to mark the centenary of those memorable events. The organisers intended to present – in one form or another – all 42 of Handel’s operas, headed by Rodelinda in a fully staged production at the local Deutsches Theater. Their plans were thwarted by the pandemic. It was not until the following autumn that the festival returned – the long-awaited premiere of Rodelinda was not only the most important element in the truncated programme of the event, but also a farewell to Laurence Cummings, who ended his ten-year tenure in Göttingen. The following season the Greek conductor, pianist and director George Petrou took over as artistic director of the Händel-Festspiele, while the outgoing general director Tobias Wolff handed over his duties to Jochen Schäfsmeier, the manager of Concerto Köln until then.

After forty years of absolute British rule the festival changed its course. Which way it is now going I was not able to find out until this year,  and in a rather limited way at that, as I could make it only to the last three days of the Göttingen Handel celebration. In all respects the trip was informative and successful. However, I did not expect I would precede it with a Venetian prologue of uncommon beauty: the premiere of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Teatro Malibran as part of the La Fenice season. Such an opportunity was something I could not miss. This was because today’s name of Malibran is that of the oldest surviving opera theatre in Venice, erected on the remains of Marco Polo’s residence – the famous Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, which was opened in 1678 with a production of Carlo Pallavicino’s Vespasiano, and served as the venue of the world premieres of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore and Handel’s Agrippina, the title role of which was sung on 26 December 1709 by the then prima donna Margherita Durastanti. The golden age was fairly brief: the theatre began to decline already in the 1730s; it changed hands, but nevertheless continued to operate. Maria Malibran sang there in 1835: appalled by the technical condition of the theatre, she gave up her fee so that it could be used for the renovation of the building. Renamed in the singer’s honour, Teatro Malibran continued to experience various ups and downs. In the 1980s it began collaborating with La Fenice. It was only natural that it took in the La Fenice ensembles after the disastrous fire of 1996. Today it operates independently, but also hosts concerts and some productions of the Venetian Phoenix.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Handel’s first oratorio, composed in the spring of 1707 and soon after that performed at the palace of Pietro Ottoboni, superintendent of the Apostolic See in Rome, has enjoyed remarkable success on stage recently. This is all the more surprising given that the libretto, by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, is practically without any action and from the point of view of today’s audiences it carries little dramatic tension. It is, in fact, a philosophical dispute – true, heated at times – involving four paired allegories: Beauty and Pleasure, as well as Time and Disillusion. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that spiritual beauty is superior to sensual beauty, and eternal life is superior to earthly life. If there is anything theatrical in this work, it is Handel’s music, which became for him an inexhaustible source of self-quotations, like Pleasure’s aria “Lascia la spina”, echoes of which would appear later in Rinaldo and the magic opera Amadigi di Gaula.

Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Teatro Malibran, Venice. Photo: Michele Crosera

This is the track followed by Saburo Teshigawara – director, dancer, choreographer as well designer of sets and costumes for the Venetian production of Il trionfo. The Japanese artist finds his inspiration in the butoh dance, in Martha Graham’s techniques, in Tadeusz Kantor’s “zero theatre”; he plays with time and space, combines very expressive dance – alternating between dynamism and stillness – with a bright play of light, and with optical illusion. The stage is black as night and on it Teshigawara “tells” the music with four singers – personified concepts whose message he emphasises with the colours of the costumes (from snow-white Beauty, silvery Pleasure, grey Disillusion to black Time). He complements the concepts with the movement and gesture of four dancers (Alexandre Ryabko, Javier Ara Sauco, and sometimes also the director himself and his assistant Rihoko Sato), and frames them in the only props used in the production: four openwork metal cubes, which delimit the space of the discourse as well as boundaries between concepts.

The clockwork precision of Teshigawara’s concept was perfectly matched by Andrea Marcon’s interpretation – highly expressive, detail-oriented and insightful in terms of shaping the dramaturgy and musical time. The Teatro La Fenice orchestra was inspired in its playing, with the singers generally giving fine performances. Among the female soloists one that deserved particular praise was Silvia Frigato as Beauty. Hers is a light, luminous soprano, used with ease and a great sense of phrase. Not far behind her was Giuseppina Bridelli (Pleasure), whose dark mezzo-soprano, silky in the middle range, only initially sounded jarring with an insufficiently rounded tone in the coloratura. Slightly less successful was Valeria Girardello – in my opinion miscast as Disillusion, a typically contralto role requiring a voice finely developed in all registers. However, she made up for her colour shortcomings and some intonation flaws with good acting and considerable expressive power. Surprisingly – and not only for yours truly – the strongest point of the cast turned out to be Krystian Adam (Time), singing with an uncommonly handsome tenor, with a dark spinto hue, with excellent diction and, above all, with a sense of the intense, typically Baroque play of affect. His spine-chilling aria “Urne voi”, rightly rewarded with the first ovation of the evening, found a worthy equivalent only in Beauty’s final declaration “Tu del Ciel ministro eletto”, interpreted by Frigato with admirable lyricism and restraint.

After such a powerful dose of excitement in Venice, I found myself almost overnight in Göttingen’s Deutsches Theater for a performance of Semele, a musical “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and one of Handel’s most original stage works, which the composer disguised as an oratorio and presented as part of a series of Lenten concerts at Covent Garden in 1744. Rediscovered and appreciated only in the twentieth century, today it is among the top ten of Handel’s most frequently staged operas. After Giulio Cesare, which in 2022 opened up “new horizons” for the festival, time came for Semele, which, owing to its mythological inspirations, fitted in perfectly with this year’s motto of the event: “Hellas!”. The devil is in the detail, for the formula of the Händel-Festspiele has remained essentially unchanged. George Petrou, however, puts greater emphasis on the continuity of the Mediterranean cultural tradition, on the exploration of the oeuvres of lesser known composers, and above all on a radically different approach to the music of Handel himself – fiery, effervescent, closer (all things considered) to Marc Minkowski’s extremely theatrical interpretations than to the intellectual, balanced interpretations of the masters of the English historically informed performance.

In the case of Petrou – who not only conducted, but also directed the two productions at the Deutsches Theater – a substantial role is also played by a bond with the legacy of Greek theatre: with the seriousness and realism of ancient tragedy, understood by modern audiences, and on the other hand with the bawdiness – quite surprising today – of plays by Aristophanes and later authors of Attic comedy. There is a bit of everything in Semele, though in Petrou’s directorial concept the comic element, sometimes bordering on slapstick farce, prevails. However, the production begins on a dramatic note: a pantomime reenactment – to the sounds of the overture – of the death of the Theban princess in a maternity ward, in a bed surrounded by relatives and medical staff. The mood soon changes: we are entering a conventional space with no direct associations with the temple of Juno, where the action of Act I takes place. Things pick up only in Act II, when Juno descends into a nightclub, where access to Jupiter’s love nest is guarded by two bodyguards instead of fire-breathing dragons. The whole gets really funny in Act III, with Somnus characterised as the leader of Hindu sadhus plunged into a drug-induced trance and confused by the sudden intrusion of Iris and Juno at least as much as their semi-conscious guru. The final scene of Semele veers dangerously towards a lieto fine: in my opinion the least successful element of the staging, as we learn of Semele’s tragedy already in the prologue and are moved to tears by her martyrdom at the end of the opera. I’m not sure whether the idea of Bacchus being born from Semele’s ashes in the form of a bottle of champagne won anyone over to this risky Baroque convention.

Semele, Deutsches Theater Göttingen. Photo: Alciro Theodoro da Silva

Compared with Teshigawara’s poetic, visually stunning theatre, Petrou’s concept (created together  with the set and costume designer Paris Mexis, and the lighting director Stella Kaltsou) war neither revelatory, nor particularly captivating. The main contributors to the unquestionable success of the venture were the performers, led by Marie Lys in the title role, a singer who boasts a clear, well-placed soprano, excellent technique and good acting skills. She may have been outclassed in that last respect by Vivica Genaux in the double role of Ino and Juno – changed beyond recognition by a fat-suit, red wig and red glasses as the former, made to look like Jackie Onassis as the latter. I have to admit that I am not a fan of the unique timbre of her voice or her peculiar coloratura, but I did not expect her to show such a sense of comedy and verve on stage: as Ino, she even sang with a different timbre to make the roles entrusted to her all the more different. Marilena Striftombola was a phenomenal Iris (and Cupid). She is a quicksilver artist wielding her agile soprano with a truly youthful lightness and bravura. Jeremy Ovenden (Jupiter) is past his prime, but he made up for it with his musicality and experience, which came to the fore especially in the famous aria “Where’er you walk” in Act II. Riccardo Novaro gave a very decent performance in the triple role of Cadmus, Somnus and High Priest, as did Rafał Tomkiewicz – excellent in terms of singing and acting as usual – in the thankless role of Athamas. The whole – with an Athenian chorus under Agathangelos Georgakatos and the FestspielOrchester Göttingen – was conducted by George Petrou with truly Mediterranean verve and panache, often at breakneck tempi, though without destroying the formal freedom of Handel’s score, one of the most beautiful ones in the composer’s oeuvre.

Later that same evening I let myself be led blindfolded – like Bruegel’s blind man – to the Concert in the Dark in the Lokhalle, a former Göttingen locomotive depot, where festival instrumentalists and singers played with our perception for over an hour, presenting in the darkness music from Delphic Hymns to Rautavaara – in the most diverse line-ups and spatial configurations. The following day I listened with the greatest pleasure to an intimate performance by the French Ensemble Masques – over coffee and cakes, as part of the Café George series at the Forum Wissen Göttingen. Earlier, in the University Auditorium I admired the virtuosity of the flautist Erik Bosgraaf and the harpsichordist Francesco Corti in a programme featuring works by composers associated with the court of Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, a favourite pupil of Handel. I grumbled a bit that the immanent melodiousness of these gems got lost a bit in the dizzying tempi of their performances. I stopped grumbling, when Fanie Antonelou, the soloist of the Greek ensemble Ex Silentio sang Handel’s solo cantatas without the slightest sense of the composer’s idiom and with an instrumental accompaniment equally lacking in style. Pity, because the programme of the concert in the great hall of the picturesque Welfenschloss near Hannover could have been limited to pieces by unknown composers from Crete, which the Venetians ruled until the Ottoman conquest in 1669.

Jeanine de Bique. Photo: Sorek Artists

However, this year’s festival ended on a very strong note in the form of a gala recital by Jeanine De Bique, a Trinidadian soprano and graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, who recorded her first solo album Mirrors in 2021 with Concerto Köln – featuring arias of female characters from Handel’s works, juxtaposed as if in a musical mirror with portraits of the same women in works by other composers of the period, including Carl Heinrich Graun and Georg Philippe Telemann. De Bique has been presenting this programme in concert for the past two years, sometimes shifting the emphasis a little, as she did in St John’s Church in Göttingen, where she replaced the aria “Mi restano le lagrime” from Alcina with the much more spectacular monologue “Ombre pallide”. I listened to her streamed recital from last year’s Bayreuth Baroque festival. Since then the singer has matured, has become more at ease, has engaged in a wonderful dialogue with both the musicians and the audience. Her voice is a true diamond, still not fully polished, but nevertheless worth hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling – it already shines like a crown jewel in the royal treasury: indomitable, clear, captivating with its brilliance and rainbow of colours. If it still lacks anything, it is only some softness in the upper register and a touch of vividness in the low notes of the range. De Bique’s interpretations – supported by Concerto Köln’s extraordinary sensitive accompaniment – touch the heart and at the same time make us realise the essence of the greatness of Handel, who favoured complex musical drama, revelatory colour effects and poignant lyricism over empty virtuosity.

Called to sing encore after encore, De Bique finally sang “Tu del Ciel ministro eletto” from Il trionfo. I will not compare the two performances. Let me just write that I find it hard to imagine a more beautiful link between the impressions of these few days in Venice and Göttingen.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Fine Trills Make Fine Birds

When Gottfried Keller lost his father and found himself alone in this world with his mother and younger sister, he was only five years old. Rudolf – a turner, self-taught builder and head of the Keller family – died of tuberculosis shortly after turning thirty, having previously buried four of his six children with wife Elisabeth. In many respects he was an extraordinary man: as a teenage journeyman he travelled across Europe, returning to Zurich not only as a comprehensively educated craftsman, but also a mature, freedom-loving citizen. Before he departed this world, he had given his wife detailed instructions on how to instil his ideals into his only surviving son. The widowed Elisabeth was barely able to make ends meet, but she did do all he could not to disappoint her husband’s ambitions. Little Gottfried was brought up in a household free from any prejudice and carefully watched the reality around him. After the failure of the November Uprising Polish émigrés seeking refuge under Mrs Keller’s hospitable roof became a permanent part of this reality. What the future writer and poet gained from those days were not just beautiful memories of friendship – memories he referred to in his autobiographical novel Green Henry, but also a lasting interest in the cause of political refugees and their fight for their lost statehood.

More waves of émigrés from Poland came to Switzerland after the Spring of the Peoples and the failed January Uprising. In 1863 Gottfried Keller – at that time already the secretary of the Canton of Zurich – founded, together with Count Władysław Plater, the Central Committee for Aiding Poles. First, they financed the purchase of weapons for the insurgents and after the fall of the independence uprising they organised all kinds of support for nearly two thousand emigrants. Although there were some impostors among true heroes, nothing would shake Keller’s sympathy for the newcomers from a distant country in the east of Europe. Even if he did admonish them, he did so delicately and with compassion – like in the short story, written more or less at that time but published only in 1874, Kleider machen Leute (which can be freely translated as “clothes do make the man”). Its protagonist is a young tailor, Wenzel Strapinski, who has just lost his job and has set off “on an unpleasant November day” to seek luck elsewhere. He had to content himself with just a few snowflakes for his breakfast and had only a thimble in his pocket – but he looked beautiful in his handmade Sunday best, a velvet-lined cape and fur hat. Perhaps this is why the coachman from a coach he passed on the way offered him a lift to a nearby town, introduced him to everyone as a Polish count and then disappeared before the young man had time to protest. Confused, Wenzel assumes the role of an aristocrat – first unwittingly, then deliberately, when he wins the affection of the daughter of the city council chairman. Although he will be exposed by a jealous rival, all will end well: his beloved will declare that she does not have to be a countess,  that it will be enough for her to become the wife of a true master tailor.

Photo: Serghei Gherciu

Keller’s short story enjoyed great popularity in the German-speaking world at the time, also in Austria-Hungary, where many imperial subjects built their status with methods similar to Wenzel’s. The subjects included Zemlinsky’s father – a Viennese-born son of an Austrian Catholic mother and a father from Žilina, Hungary – who added the noble preposition “von” to his surname and before marrying Klara Semo, daughter of a Bosnian Muslim woman and a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo, converted to Judaism. Thus little Alexander was born as a fully-fledged member of the Viennese Jewish community, but he left it as early as in 1899 following the Dreyfus affair and the growing wave of anti-Semitism. He began composing the comic opera Kleider machen Leute in 1907, after the earlier successes of Sarema and Es war einmal, and the failed premiere of Der Traumgörge, which was planned at Vienna’s  Staatsoper under Mahler’s baton, but which did not take place after Mahler resigned as the company’s music director shortly before the first performance. The libretto to Kleider machen Leute – as in the case of the unlucky Traumgörge – was written by Leo Feld, who significantly condensed the narrative and made it somewhat lighter than in Keller’s original. The premiere of the first, three-act version took place in 1910 at Vienna’s Volksoper. The critics cool reception prompted Zemlinsky to introduce major changes into the libretto and the score. After a few failed attempts to have the revised two-act version of the opera staged, Kleider machen Leute was revived in 1922 at the Neues Deutsches Theater, the current home of the State Opera in Prague.

The work, rediscovered only in the 1980s, arrived in the Prague theatre in February 2023, as part of the huge four-season Czech-German project “Musica non grata”, the main aim of which is to bring back from obscurity the oeuvres of artists active in inter-war Czechoslovakia who were eliminated from musical life after the Nazis came to power: eliminated because of their origin, religion and political views, as well as their gender and sexual orientation. Launched in 2020 under the aegis of Prague’s National Theatre and financially supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the project can already be regarded as one of the most successful initiatives of this kind in Europe – geared towards introducing forgotten works into the cultural bloodstream permanently, rather than towards a one-off, superficial effect that caters to a less sophisticated audience.

Photo: Serghei Gherciu

Hence the idea to stage Kleider machen Leute with mainly local musicians, led by two artists whose collaboration had previously been appreciated, when Janáček’s Katia Kabanova was staged at Komische Oper Berlin: the Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen and the Lithuanian conductor Giedrė Šlekytė. Mijnssen represents a theatre-making style typical of her country, pared-down in terms of the means of expression, drawing at times on Willy Decker’s austere minimalism. In her interpretation the action of Zemlinsky’s opera takes place primarily on the proscenium, within a space delimited by Herbert Murauer’s symmetrical, tripartite sets (ingeniously lit by Bernd Purkrabek), the main element of which is a semicircular wall placed on the revolving stage. The sets are complemented by simple pieces of furniture, sometimes serving as far from obvious props (an example is Wenzel’s journey in a coach made up of several chairs, showing the protagonist in a different grotesque position with each turn of the revolving stage). The director balanced out the sparseness of the sets with an exaggerated, almost expressionistic theatrical gesture – generally to good effect, although Zemlinsky’s dancing score could have done with more choreographic work (Dustin Klein, who was responsible for the stage movement, opted instead for pantomime, spectacular in, for example, the slow-motion scene featuring the pursuit of the exposed fake count). However, the most important error in the staging lay in the insufficient highlighting of Wenzel’s innate elegance. With the exception of his fur hat, the young tailor did not stand out in any way from the crowd of characters dressed by Julia Katharina Berndt in costumes from the inter-war period – from straw pork pie hats from the wild 1920s to the jazzy zoot suits characteristic of  Polish Bikini Boys from a later period.

Yet Mijnssen’s clean and precise direction went side by side with the dramaturgy of the work, although it did lead several soloists into an acoustic trap – their voices, emphasised on the proscenium, often sounded unnatural, standing out excessively from the orchestral fabric. Those who emerged unscathed from this predicament were the two lead singers – Joseph Dennis as Wenzel, an artist boasting a strong, resonant and perfectly controlled tenor, and Jana Sibera as Nettchen, a singer with a soft, beautifully saturated and very sensuous soprano (especially in the particularly well-sung aria “Lehn deine Wang’ an meine Wang’” with Heine’s text at the beginning of Act II). Fine moments also came from Ivo Hrachovec in the bass part of the Innkeeper and the baritone Markus Butter singing the role of Melchior Böhni, a rejected suitor for Nettchen’s hand. Other members of the huge cast of a dozen or so singers were less successful in battling the capricious acoustics. It is hard for me to judge to what extent this could have been prevented by Giedrė Šlekytė, who, apart from failing to control the capricious acoustics, led the State Opera ensembles very efficiently and energetically, with a perfect sense of the mosaic style of this composition, which combines late Romantic inspirations by the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss – and, by extension, also the young Schönberg – with a truly Mozartian bravura in the shaping of group scenes, and the ever-present lightness of Viennese operetta.

Photo: Serghei Gherciu

Kleider machen Leute is not a masterpiece on a par with Der Zwerg or Eine florentinische Tragödie. There is no doubt, however, that it deserves love: as does the modest and shy Wenzel Strapinski: a fake count, true, yet still endearing in his large, black velvet-lined capes, with a pale, noble countenance of a Polish émigré.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Music of Tears

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Barda

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Barda

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Barda

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Red Sails Over the Tagus

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

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

Tómas Tómasson (Dutchman). Photo: António Pedro Ferreira

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

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

Scene from Act 3. Photo: António Pedro Ferreira

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak