A Sailor From Nowhere

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

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

Elisabeth Teige (Senta). Photo: Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

All’s Well, Captain!

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

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

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

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

Rachel Nicholls (Senta). Photo: Grange Park Opera

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

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

Nicky Spence (Eric). Photo: Grange Park Opera

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

That Wound Must Be Healed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Carmen in the Arms of a Psychopath

I was going to see Calixto Bieito’s legendary production in Oslo over two years ago, but my plans were thwarted by the COVID outbreak. When the pandemic subsided and the operatic life returned to a fragile normal, I tried again. My friends could not understand why I ignored fresh revivals of the Spanish iconoclast’s Carmen at other, much “trendier” opera houses, for example the Viennese Staatsoper or Paris Opera. I had my reason: although in 2018 I returned from The Queen of Spades at Operahuset with very mixed feelings – for which the fault lay primarily with the director and the otherwise superb conductor, who failed to figure out the stylistic idiom of Tchaikovsky’s late oeuvre – what prevailed in the end was the delight in the white nights and dazzling architecture of the Norwegian opera house, but, above all, the palpable, even in the adverse circumstances, enthusiasm of the artists, who approached each task with a sincerity and enthusiasm worthy of the best craftsmen.

This is rather important in this case, for Bieito’s production is almost a quarter of a century old and in most opera houses has lost the charm of its original freshness. Few people remember that at the 1999 festival in the Catalan town of Perelada it caused a true storm. The director was accused of vulgarity, of celebrating brutal sex and violence – as if everyone had forgotten that Bizet himself deliberately did not put the tragic story in inverted commas, did not clearly define the character of the protagonists, that departed from the established pattern to go astray into the dangers of realism and so outraged the Parisians with all this that they paid no attention to the mastery of the music. It is worth noting that the international operatic career of Bieito, the son of a humble railway worker, an admirer of Iberian zarzuelas and at that time newly appointed artistic director of Bilbao’s Teatro Arriaga, began precisely with Carmen. Those who know only this one among Bieito’s productions have no idea of his later creative development, which began barely a year later with the scandalising staging of Verdi’s Ballo in maschera and the opening scene featuring men with their pants down and relieving themselves on toilets with transparent walls. Those who have seen only Bieito’s most recent productions have no idea that his famous Carmen is, in fact, a model example of Regietheater from the end of last century – a production that is not so much provocative, but one that provokes the audience into thinking, trying to reach the audience’s sensibility without losing nothing of what the authors of the work wanted to say.

Carmen, Den Norske Opera, 2015. Photo: Erik Berg

A spectre of machismo hovers over Bieito’s concept. The stage – like in Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production premiered two years earlier, in 1997 – literally reeks of sweat, unfulfilled male lust, female loneliness, omnipresent lasciviousness and need for ordinary human closeness. Bieito can even be forgiven for copying the corrida scene in Act 4 from the two Frenchmen – though his result is inferior. He shifts the narrative both in time and in space. The action in his Carmen takes place in post-Francoist Spain, perhaps somewhere in its overseas exclaves like Ceuta or Melilla. Everything else is like in Bizet’s work: animal desires, moral mess, all-encompassing slackness. Apart from a few characteristic props – a flagpole in Act 1, very uncool Mercedes W123 signifying the tackiness of the smuggling trade, crates of alcohol and cartons of cigarettes, electronic equipment and household goods marked with distorted but still recognisable logos of international companies – the stage is virtually empty. Bieito is very precise in presenting the relationships between the characters. Carmen is a quintessence of alluring strangeness, Don José – a dull, brutal soldier, Escamillo – a primitive male who knows how to turn his popularity in the bullring to his advantage.

The theme of bullfighting runs constantly through the production – from the pantomime in the overture, featuring Lilas Pastia, who pretends to be a prestidigitator, playing with a red handkerchief from underneath which, instead of the expected magic ball, he will show his finger in a vulgar gesture, to the symbolic presence of the “Osborne bull”, which appears in a beautiful, discreetly erotic scene at the beginning of Act 3. The advertisement for the Veterano brandy, produced by the Andalusian company Osborne and introduced into the Spanish landscape in 1957 in the form of distinctive wooden boards – which some tried to eradicate from the public space five years before the premiere of Bieito’s Carmen – also plays an important role in the introduction to Act 4. When the board with the bull collapses with a bang onto the stage, its shattered remains take part a moment later in a parody of a corrida.

Carmen, Den Norske Opera, 2017. Photo: Erik Berg

Significantly, most directors today would not dare to use the solutions that constitute the strength of Bieito’s concept. There would not be a little girl lasciviously dancing flamenco. There would be no such vivid images of sex. There would be no brutal scenes of violence requiring true film acting skills from the singers.

This is why I went to see that Carmen in Oslo, the capital of a country which knows how to distinguish stage illusion from reality. And yet I froze, when the smugglers threw Zuniga like a sack of potatoes against the body of a dilapidated Mercedes-Benz. That is why I watched the love scenes with such admiration. That is why I could not help laughing when drunken girls literally rolled out of a car outside Lilas Pastia’s tavern. This was the kind of theatre I needed and I did not even expect that following a sudden cast change I would also get a cast as starry as those in Paris or Vienna.

Carmen, Den Norske Opera, 2022. Photo: Erik Berg

Don José was sung that one evening by Charles Castronovo, known to Polish opera lovers from the Wrocław Tales of Hoffmann, a performance for which he paid with a serious case of COVID. I hasten to report that the American tenor is back in top form, impressing not only with his golden, almost baritonal voice, but also with beautiful phrasing and well though-out character concept. Ingeborg Gillebo, a singer with a soft mezzo-soprano, secure intonation-wise and perfectly suited to the title role, did not pace herself well and ran out of steam in the final duet with her former lover, played out on an empty stage. Marita Sølberg was an excellent Micaëla. She not only has a technically well-assured soprano, but can also act brilliantly. It was wonderful to hear the soubrette-like Frøy Hovland Holtbakk (Frasquita), as if taken straight out of the old Opéra-Comique, with the irresistibly funny and vocally compelling Christina Jønsi as Mercedes. There were also two revelatory performances: the phenomenal Dmitry Cheblykov as Escamillo, a young but already fully formed, slightly “grainy” baritone, impeccable both in terms of voice production and diction; and the velvety-voiced Jacob Abel Tjeldberg, making his debut as Zuniga.

In addition to the repeated praise for the chorus and the orchestra, I must express my highest admiration for Ariane Matiakh, a French conductor who fell in love with Bizet’s music at home and then got an opportunity to share that love with opera houses in Europe. It is good that she accepted Bieito’s concept and skilfully combined it with Bizet’s score: into a bitter reflection on the twilight of male gods and an uncertain hope for the dawn of female deities.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Tale of the One Who Went Out Into the World

As time goes by I get less and less surprised why I was such a passionate reader of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I had an elder brother, who was wise, clever and knew how to handle anything, reinforcing my belief that I was stupid and couldn’t understand or learn anything. In a way he was right: I still haven’t mastered the art of not biting off more than I can chew, so when Longborough Festival Opera, after two years of pandemic-related restrictions, decided to enter the new season at full steam, I immediately set off for the Cotswolds hills. You keep coming back to your spiritual homeland despite adversities, and there were quite a few of them, given that I decided to see a performance of Siegfried precisely during the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’ Platinum Jubilee, which coincided with a half-term break at British schools. But simpletons from fairy tales and passionate music critics get everything right in the end. I managed to get hold of the last plane ticket, miraculously book a room in my favourite B&B and found myself again, like always, to a town from an eighteenth-century couplet, “where men are fools and women are bold, and many a wicked tale is told” – a few kilometres from a village which was once jokingly said to be aspiring to be the English Bayreuth, and which is now increasingly being hailed as a place headed by the most eminent, albeit invariably modest, Richard Wagner specialist in the world.

The plan was for LFO’s new staging of the Ring, conducted by Anthony Negus and directed by Amy Lane, to have its great finale next year. The pandemic has postponed it for at least a year, not to mention the fact that last year’s Die Walküre was presented with much reduced forces, in a semi-staged version, without overseas visitors, held back by the long quarantine in force in Britain at the time. I wrote about Das Rheingold six months before the outbreak of the pandemic and about Die Walküre – on the basis of a streamed performance generously made available by the management of Longborough Festival Opera. I went to see Siegried with hope, but, at the same time, with my head full of doubts: I make no secret of the fact that I still consider the third part of Wagner’s tetralogy to be its weakest link, inferior in both dramatic compactness and coherence of musical vision to the other three parts of the Ring: the brilliant reinterpretation of satyr drama in Das Rheingold, the movingly human tragedy of Die Walküre and the sumptuous grand opéra-like concept of the final Götterdämmerung. What seems to be the most problematic element of Siegfried is the eponymous protagonist, a herald of a new model of humanity, a hero from nowhere, a naive simpleton, a stupid “younger one”, who seems to embody the idea of freedom above all in his blessed incomprehension of the mechanisms governing the modern world. Wagner – at least on the surface – made a mistake in constructing this character, putting to the fore his naive, primal “fearlessness”, which, in the hands of most conductors interpreting Siegfried, leads to the highlighting of the already blatant disproportion between Siegmund’s son, raised in the forest, and Wotan’s cursed daughter Brünnhilde – poignantly “human”, compassionate and capable of true love.

Paul Carey Jones (Wanderer) and Adrian Dwyer (Mime). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Yet, as I have already mentioned, these are just appearances, resulting from the now common tendency to elevate the character of Siegfried and to seek in him a model for Walther and Parsifal – characters who acquire charisma and refinement in the course of the narrative in order to triumph in the finale as heralds of a new order. When it comes to Siegfried, the matter is much more complicated and, at the same time, tragic. This herald of inevitable change will never mature, will never – or perhaps will, shortly before his death in Götterdämmerung – become sufficiently self-aware to change anything in this world. In order to present Siegfried’s story persuasively, without trying to cover up his inherent traits – thoughtlessness, ingratitude and obtuse cruelty – one has to believe this fairy tale. Like a modern child or a nineteenth-century reader of Brothers Grimm’s tales, thinking in terms completely different from those used today, absorbed by the story of Kaspar Hauser, which reverberated throughout Europe, a mystery of his day and, at the same time, an embodiment of longing for Rousseau’s utopia of the natural man.

Negus does believe in that fairy tale, of which more in a moment. The matter is not as straightforward with Amy Lane, who – after an ambivalent reception of her Rheingold – seems to be plunging deeper and deeper into “homemade” theatre, as if not quite trusting that the audience at a Gloucestershire countryside opera house would be capable to follow, without detailed explanations, a bold metaphor. At Longborough the singers move within a confined space, which is governed by rules quite different from those of the large, state-of-the-art stages of Cardiff or London. The unnecessary accumulation of props (set designs by Rhiannon Newman Brown) works against the narrative in this case, not only distracting from what is essential in the score, but also – unintentionally – focusing the audience’s gaze on coarse details that would go unnoticed on a larger stage. Paradoxically, the further into the work, the purer the staging got, the clearer the projections (bringing to mind vague but probably correct associations with the Ossianic landscapes from Gottfried Keller’s 1845 Green Henry, an autobiographical novel of a failed painter who had problems with distinguishing between reality and his own ideas), and the darker the finale, which only in the last scene shone with the illusory light of fulfilled love.

Bradley Daley (Siegfried). Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

The stage movement, however, followed in every detail the dazzling musical vision of Negus, who – as I have said – not only believes in this fairy tale about a boy who went out into the world to learn to be afraid, but also, as is his custom, turns it into a whole where no tacking can be heard between the individual scenes, where the orchestra does not accompany, but takes turns in picking up the singing of the soloists or in tossing them a melody, on the basis of which they develop their own story, where everything pulsates like a living organism, talks in its own voice, demands the listener’s attention to the tiniest, often overlooked details in the texture. Negus’ interpretations have this uncanny quality of being able both to appeal to the novice Wagnerians and to persuade the seasoned pundits to explore the details of past performances – and leave them convinced that LFO’s music director is perhaps the only living conductor who manages to get to the heart of Wagner’s intentions, despite the recent attempts to present his music with period instruments and historical performance practices.

This is evidenced by the very choice of the soloists, headed by the Australian tenor Bradley Daley in the title role. Daley has a voice that is not very noble in its timbre, not very nuanced, but in this it is in some primaeval, even seductive way refreshing and reliable. His singing is clearly marked by childlike freedom, unbridled determination of a feral orphan from the forest who finds fear not where he expected it, and before he does, he discovers a completely different emotion neglected by most conductors – sympathy for Fafner, a “collateral” victim, as it were, of his true aspirations. The role of the giant turned dragon was quite finely played by Simon Wilding, who had become known as Fafner already in Das Rheingold. Among the remaining members of the cast from three years ago, the one that made the biggest impression on me was Adrian Dwyer (Mime), an artist endowed with a bright and, at the same time, meaty tenor, technically well-assured, never falling into a caricature of this altogether tragic figure. Though perhaps he was not as expressive as some previous performers of the role, above all the late lamented Erwin Wohlfahrt, known from, for example, Karl Böhm’s legendary interpretation at the 1967 Bayreuth Festival. Mark Stone as Alberich was slightly less impressive than before – although it has to be said that in Siegfried his role is less prominent than in Das Rheingold, which is reflected not only in the dramaturgy of this part of the tetralogy, but also in the score itself. As Erda, Mae Heydorn capitalised on her past success – however, she is more of a mezzo-soprano than contralto, which could be heard at times in her not very dense lower register. A magnificent Wanderer came from Paul Carey Jones, whose musicality and sensibility I had admired already in Die Walküre, yet it was only now that I could fully appreciate the assets of his velvety bass-baritone. Separate praise is due to the young Colombian singer Julieth Lozano in the part of Woodbird, at last sung with a sensuous soprano sparkling with colours, at last portrayed as an erotic “arouser” of Siegfried – certainly in accordance with the intention of the composer, who entrusted the role in Bayreuth to Marie Haupt, a pupil of Pauline Viardot and performer of Venus in Tannhäuser on numerous occasions. Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde), who was phenomenal in her acting, struggled at times to control the wide vibrato in her dense, gorgeous and truly dramatic soprano – I hope that the problem will pass, because I’m really looking forward to hearing her in the final part of the Longborough Ring.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Bradley Daley. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

I have to complement the already-mentioned assets of Negus’ interpretation with a description of two revelations. First of all, a breathtaking “Verfluchtes Licht!” episode from Act I featuring Mime – a wild feast of lights and flames, just as emphatic as in Karajan’s famous 1969 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, but much more vivid and three-dimensional: the first episode in this performance that made me believe in the fairy tale and immerse myself completely in Wagner’s mythical reality. The other revelation, perhaps even more overwhelming, was Siegfried’s famous song of the melting and reforging of Nothung (“Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!”), for the first time in decades performed in accordance with the composer’s original instructions (“Kräftig, doch nicht zu schnell”, “Schwer und kräftig, nicht zu schnell”). Nothung’s rebirth was finally given proper weight – thanks to wise collaboration between the singer and the knowledgeable conductor. I need not even mention the ecstatic finale of Act III, in which Brünnhilde bids farewell to the old order of things and throws herself into the arms of her long-awaited lover. Negus has already proved many times that he is able to control tension until the very last bar, which reverberates, fades away and rouses the audience to a frenetic ovation.

I will repeat the words of the simpleton from Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale: I finally know what fear is. Most importantly, however, in Longborough I also got to know what love and compassion is.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A God That Listeneth Not

The occasional tourists who stray off the main route and reach Monieux in the Provençal department of Vaucluse are not likely to spend more than a few hours there. Having seen the vestiges of old fortifications and guard tower, having visited the Romanesque church of Saint-Pierre, and ventured into some picturesque backstreets – they will proceed on their way, possibly carrying off a pouch of lavender, a piece of sheep’s cheese, or a jar of honey from a local apiary in their rucksacks. There is plenty more to see in the area, from the Nesque River gorges to the soaring limestone peak of Mont Ventoux, towering above the entire delta of the Rhône. A writer, however, will look at Monieux with a different eye, especially once he has taken the fateful decision to settle there. Stefan Hertmans (for he is meant here), also known in Poland for, among others, his daring novel War and Turpentine, resolved to settle into the local community, to develop an intimate relation with the landscape, get a feel for the flavours of sun-scorched rosemary and thyme, and hearken to the voices of the past. Local legends and neighbours’ tales inspired him to explore by himself. With time, this became his creative obsession. Hertmans began to see ghosts in the waking state. He gave them names and realised the meanings of their journey. Rummaging through sources and supported by his own imagination, he reconstructed the complicated life story of a woman who had reportedly lived in that commune a thousand years before. This led to the publication, three years after War and Turpentine, of his next book, De bekeerlinge (2016), which soon came out in English as The Convert.

The book is neither a fictionalized documentary nor a historical novel. Hertmans’ narrative unfolds on several planes – temporal, spatial, and emotional. It takes us back to a time when, after a long period of relatively peaceful co-existence between Jews and Christians, something began to go wrong. It was the time of the first separate settlements, originally built on the initiative of both communities; the time of the early expulsions, and of massacres of the Jewish population in the years of the first and only successful crusade. The author remains in the present, recounting – in the convention of a meta-story – his own effort to come to grips with the town’s past and his countless attempts to solve its mystery. These two layers are bound by the surprisingly durable mortar of sensations and sensory experience. Descriptions of unimaginable suffering appear side by side with poetic images of beauty, while life smoothly passes into death, and vice versa. The world has not changed in the last thousand years; this is bad news. A pretext will always be found to crush the Other like a bug and to deprive him or her of their humanity. The world has not changed in the last thousand years; this is good news. Burnt down and gutted, it keeps arising from the ashes, and invariably it smells of thyme and honey, restoring, be it for a brief moment, the lost hope for a better tomorrow.

Details no longer count in this story. Hertmans makes no effort to conceal that he based his tale of the eponymous convert on flimsy evidence. Most researchers reject Norman Golb’s thesis that the toponym MNYW (appearing in one of the documents found in the Cairo Genizah, the storeroom in which worn-out or no longer used text from the Ben Ezra Synagogue were “buried”) refers to Monieux, in its medieval spelling as Moniou. There is much to indicate that this one of the ghastliest massacres of the Jews during the First Crusade took place in a completely different location, most likely in Spain. We have no way to relate these Cairo manuscripts to the story of an anonymous convert who married Rabbi David Todros of Narbonne against her parents’ will and later, for the sake of her love, lost her husband, children, and mind. As a writer, Hertmans has done what no historian would dare to do: He bestowed an individual identity on the hapless collective victim. He called her Vigdis Adelaïs, a Christian descendant of the Norman Vikings, who was reciprocally in love with a yeshiva student at Rouen and embraced his faith, which proved to be her undoing. The names that Hertmans gave her are telling ones: Vigdis – a Norse ‘war goddess’; Hamutal – interpreted in The Convert as ‘the heat of dew’, though the Biblical associations of this Hebrew name are rather different and more patriarchal; and the Egyptian Galana, which only refers to the alien blurry blue of her eyes. He bestowed on her the fate of other women, either born Jewish or converted to Judaism – torn alive to bits and pieces, murdered in their own homes, or begging to be spared the sight of their children being slaughtered by their husbands; eventually losing their faith in God and hope in humankind.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon and Vincenzo Neri. Photo: Annemie Augustijns

The Flemish composer Wim Henderickx immediately sensed the operatic potential of this tale. We are told that it took him just a few days for Vigdis’ tragic story to take shape in his mind. The painstaking task of adapting the novel into a libretto was taken up by Krystian Lada. The pandemic proved to act as an unwanted and humility-inspiring ally to this project. Henderickx’s nearly three-hour-long work evolved under the strict lockdown conditions and was premiered in the first half of May at Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera.

Though Lada had already tried his hand at libretto writing, this is apparently his first attempt at a work of such dimensions, which moreover called for a precise translation of the author’s intentions into the language of musical theatre. There are virtually no dialogues in Hertmans’ book. Its radically subjective narration had to be rarefied, stripped of the author’s commentaries, and transformed into a sequence of intimate monologues separated by snatches of prayers, rituals, and heartrendingly sad lullabies. The universal lot of Vigdis/Hamutal has been enclosed in the words of a moving ballad that returns like a refrain, bringing relief at the moments of greatest suffering. This was clad by Henderickx in a suitably timeless melody of his own (“Once upon a dream / there was a princess unseen / there was a Love unspoken / But God stood in between”). In contemporary operatic libretti, it is very rare for the audience to leave the theatre with a motif that remains so profoundly memorable to both the ear and the heart, one that smoothly carries the narration forward, releases and spins the tale in accordance with the author’s wish, defining the beginning and the end of the whole story.

Lada’s libretto, whose ragged and fragmentary character paradoxically enhances its grip on the imagination, has received a wholly appropriate musical setting from Wim Henderickx, a composer who, despite his training at the IRCAM in Paris and the Darmstadt Summer Courses, has boldly followed his own path, primarily inspired by the Hindu raga and the distinctive rhythmic patterns of traditional African music. It is indeed a rare phenomenon for a Western composer so skilfully to incorporate instruments from other musical cultures into the texture of a large orchestra (efficiently conducted here by Koen Kessels). These instruments are the Arabian oud, the Middle-Eastern zither called qanun, and, most prominently, the double-reed duduk, sobbing in the voice of all the victims of the great Armenian genocide under the Ottoman empire.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon (centre). Photo: Annemie Augustijns

Hendericxs is equally skilful at managing the orchestra as he is at the use of human voices, both in the solo and choral parts. Casting the Belgian soprano Lore Binon in the role of Vigdis was an excellent idea. Her pure, fleshy, and richly expressive voice, well tested not only in Baroque music but also in art song repertoire and in the works of Schönberg and Mahler – proved an exceptionally accomplished vehicle to convey the ‘otherness’ of this tragic figure lost in the melting pot of cultures. Vincenzo Neri was her worthy partner in his fourfold role as David, Shipowner, merchant Embriachi, and Commander. His soft, beautifully rounded baritone is coupled with an excellent stage presence. The very young velvet-voiced South African baritone Luvuyo Mbundu truly shone as Rabbi Obadiah. The fine acting and great vocal ability of Spanish tenor Daniel Arnaldos likewise deserves a kind mention, particularly in the part of Pope Urban II. There were virtually no weak points in the cast, except for the otherwise outstanding Sephardic singer Françoise Atlan, for whom the burden of four hard, fully operatic parts that the Convert composer entrusted her with proved a bit too much. The choirs deserve separate praise, especially the members of the amateur community ensemble Stadskoor Madam Fortuna.

De bekeerlinge. Lore Binon with her doll double. Photo: Annemie Augustijns

Wim Henderickx’s De bekeerlinge is a work accessible to the ear, but also extremely skilfully composed, demonstrating a great sense of orchestral colour and fine balance between the stage and the pit. As for the few long-drawn-out bits, the director Hans Op de Beeck turns out to be the one to blame. He is an eminent visual artist, but a rather less competent director, especially in the opera. The idea of limiting nearly all the stage design to splendidly painted horizons moved by means of hand-operated machinery visible on the stage would have been much more successful had he not ordered that each of the eleven scenes be preceded by a compulsive and fundamentally redundant change of scenery. The other stage events, apart from the shocking episode of raping Vigdis’ doll double, seemed superfluous and not very well thought out.

At a meeting before the premiere Stefan Hertmans spoke with approval about the reduction of the novel’s material. He also appreciated the idea of having the Jewish Kaddish heard in the final scene, after the tormented Vigdis’ death in the ruins of the Moniou synagogue. Frequently wrongly identified with a prayer for the dead, the Kaddish is, after all, a prayer for life, the most important part of collective devotion in Judaism, and a hymn of praise for God present in the energy of all the departed ones. This world will come back to life: in the fragrances of Rouen, the flavour of Provençal lavender, and the golden brilliance of Egyptian oases. Only why so much suffering, and so little love? Why such an ocean of contempt? And what is the point of converting if there is no one up there to listen?

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

Where Roses and Sounds Bloom

As Javier Marías once said, Madrid seems to be in a hurry to say everything. My visits to the Spanish capital have always been very brief. This time I spent nearly a week there, in the company of friends who know the city inside out – and yet Madrid kept nudging me, showed me unknown backstreets, had me lost in the crowd at El Rastro, gorge on snails in a thick broth of Spanish ham and chorizo, and absorb the fragrance of the roses in full bloom in the Retiro park. Obviously, Madrid would not have been itself, if it had not remained me even before my departure to take a look at the April repertoire of Teatro Real. In the end I chose two performances – less and more obvious – not expecting, however, that both would turn out to be a source of surprises and give me plenty of food for thought.

The Catalan ensemble Agrupación Señor Serrano, which combines in its productions elements of performance, dance, video art and interactive stage actions, has appeared many times in Poland, for example at Konfrontacje Teatralne in Lublin or Kontrapunkt Festival in Szczecin. The Teatro de La Abadía, where its latest venture, Extinción, was premiered, was talked about in Poland in 2010, in connection with the premiere of Beckett’s Endgame directed by Krystian Lupa (with music by Paweł Szymański) – a production in which Hamm was played by no less a figure than José Luis Gómez, for me a memorable Luis from Saura’s Blindfolded Eyes, while younger viewers may remember his performance in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. It was Gómez, who in 1995 established this theatrical laboratory, as it were – in the chapel and assembly hall of a former boarding school for girls, a complex constructed in the 1940s in the late art déco style – and still tirelessly keeps an eye on all its initiatives.

Extinción. Marcel Borràs. Photo: Teatro de La Abadía

The Señor Serrano group has for years been exploring the theme of increasing destruction of the natural environment, combined with a tragedy for humanity, inevitable in the face of this catastrophe. This time, however, the group decided to couple this vision with the music of a Catalan Benedictine monk, Joan Cererols, performed live by members of the Teatro Real chorus and instrumentalists of the Nereydas ensemble conducted by Javier Ulises Illán. The artists chose two masses by Cererols, popularised in the Iberian world by the memorable recordings of La Capella Reial de Catalunya conducted by Jordi Savall: Missa de Batalla, commemorating the victory of the Spanish army and regaining of control over Naples in 1648, after the independent Neapolitan Republic episode, which lasted less than a year; and the slightly later Missa pro defunctis, dedicated to the victims of a plague epidemic, which decimated the population of Barcelona in the 1650s.

As usual, Àlex Serrano and Pau Palacios – the director and dramaturg of Extinción – abandoned a coherent linear narrative in favour of free-flowing digressions. From the conquistador Francisco de Orellan’s expedition to find the legendary land of El Dorado to the illegal – on account of a civil war – exploitation of the Congolese deposits of coltan, this modern “gold”, needed to produce smartphones, among other things. From reflections of philosophers and physicians on the seat of the human soul to dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence. Everything intertwines and intermingles as if in a dream: a hand immersed in the black soil of the Amazon forest fishes out a mobile phone, a hand immersed in the body of a dead human releases liquid gold from his guts. Destructive fanaticism goes hand in hand with an orgy of consumerism. All these images, generated on site with the help of three performers – Carlota Grau, Marcel Borràs and Serrano himself – transformed and projected on a screen placed upstage, reminded me vaguely of Rodrigo García’s scandalising Golgota Picnic . Unlike most of my Polish colleagues I saw that production live. I was not outraged, but was left with a feeling that somebody was reinventing the wheel. I had a similar impression when watching Extinción – at times vivid, but more often getting bogged down in a chaos of confused associations, unnecessarily revealing the “behind the scenes” at the expense of the magic of the theatre. I felt that magic only in the finale, in the perverse scene of the redemption of humanity by the sacrifice of its consumeristic madness. The convulsive dance to the sounds of the Agnus Dei from Missa de Batalla (phenomenal Carlota Grau) took place in a shower of fresh popcorn pouring from hot “thuribles” hanging above the stage. Memories of Golgota Picnic were revived again: the buttery aroma of García’s buns symbolising excessive feeding of the multitude blended for me with the buttery aroma of popcorn – the incense in the twenty-first-century temple of universal excess. The metaphor may not be revelatory, but it is finally clear.

Extinción. Carlota Grau in the final scene. Photo: Teatro de La Abadía

Unfortunately, apart from this one exception theatrical actions did not go hand in hand with the narrative of Cererols’ mass. This is partly the fault of the overall concept, pushing the musicians to the background with regard to the performing artists and, above all, the performance itself. While the instrumentalists from the Nereydas ensemble were impeccable, although their subtle, stylish playing often got lost way upstage, the Teatro Real chorus members lacked either the will or the skill to get to grips with the unique idiom of the Catalan composer. Intonation was poor, there were no dynamic nuances, and the insecure and often unbeautiful singing smothered both the intricacies of the polychoral texture of Missa de Batalla and the rough asceticism of Missa pro defunctis, in which Cererols consciously alludes to the late Renaissance rhetoric of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s works.

Thus I treated Extincion  as an interesting, though not fully successful performative experiment, pinning more hopes on the creative team and performers of The Marriage of Figaro on Teatro Real’s main stage. Initially, this was supposed to be the premiere of a new directorial vision of Lotte de Beer in a co-production with the Aix-en-Provence Festival, but as early as last December a decision was made to replace de Beer’s controversial and, to put it mildly, not very successful staging with a revival of Claus Guth’s notorious 2006 production. Guth’s Salzburg staging once generated extreme controversy and was treated by many critics as an attempt on Mozart’s masterpiece. Refreshed years later, it leads to the conclusion that an attempt on a sacred interpretative tradition was made at the time not so much by the director, but the conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt. It was Harnoncourt who, with Guth’s considerable help, extracted from the score of The Marriage of Figaro unexpected tones of grotesque and tragedy, supported by expressive acting on the part of the singers and clear, ascetic sets designed by Christian Schmidt.

The Marriage of Figaro. André Schouen (Count Almaviva), and Uli Kirsch (Angel). Photo: Javier del Real

In the Madrid production the focus again shifted a little and the whole, especially when compared with Guth’s later stagings in Vienna and Frankfurt, seemed almost like a classical approach, largely in keeping with the authors’ intentions. Only now did I appreciate the aptness of the mirror-like division of the stage space into the “downstairs” part; the “upstairs”, inaccessible to the lowly mortals, where only those closest to the count and countess were allowed; and the ambiguous mezzanine, a place of actions going beyond the convention, actions the nature of which we can only guess. Once again I was stunned with admiration at the precision of the Countess and Count’s silent quarrel to the accompaniment of the wedding march in Act 3. I was much more sympathetic this time to the introduction of the additional character of Angel (Uli Kirsch), who in Guth’s concept is not only a defeated Cupid but also an alter ego of the naïve, hormonally tormented Cherubino.

The production does have its weaknesses, but their number is small enough not to disrupt the flow of the narrative and to provoke the audience not only to reflect, but also to burst out laughing. I find Ivor Bolton’s approach to the whole more acceptable in some respects than Harnoncourt’s dark interpretation. Bolton conducts The Marriage of Figaro with an assured hand, avoids too sharp contrasts in tempi, but strongly emphasises expression instead, bringing out from the texture plenty of underappreciated details (like the splendidly accented grace notes in the bassoons and oboes in the wedding march). He is also helpful to the singers, who were truly excellent in the first cast I heard – led by Julie Fuchs (Susanna), dazzling in her acting and extraordinarily musical, a singer with an agile soprano with a beautiful silvery timbre. Marie José Moreno (Countess) was not much inferior to her in terms of the beauty of her voice, and even surpassed her with the power of expression and maturity of interpretation in the melancholic aria “Dove sono”. It’s been a long time since there were two baritones so cleverly juxtaposed in the leading male roles: one robust, impetuous, and tinged with a distinctive plebeian note (Vito Priante as Figaro), and the other noble, velvety, irresistibly seductive in his singing (André Schouen as the Count). Although Rachael Wilson’s light, silky, well-assured mezzo-soprano sounded too feminine for the trouser role of Cherubino, the singer masked this shortcoming with brilliant acting. Particularly memorable performances in the supporting roles came from Monica Baccelli, an expressive singer with an extraordinary sense of comedy, as Marcellina and Christophe Mortagne, an excellent French character tenor, as Basilio.

The Marriage of Figaro, Act 3. Photo: Javier del Real

It’s a strange feeling, travelling across the operatic world these days. Every sound, every gesture and every image is absorbed, analysed and contemplated: just in case the current journey should turn out to be the last. And then all this is described. With passion but also out of a sense of duty, because – to refer to Marías again – the world depends on its storytellers. Also the enchanted world of opera.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Bard of the Community

Jane Austen was a wonderful storyteller. So wonderful that I owe my entire notion of Bath – where she spent six years of her life and where her pastor father was buried – to her books. I remembered from Northanger Abbey that Bath was a delightful place, provided you knew someone there, and that fine weather drove all the locals out for a walk, prompting weather-themed conversations. Raised in the countryside, Austen had an ambivalent – to put it mildly – attitude to Bath. She moved here with her family at a time when the town was already enjoying a reputation as the most fashionable and elegant resort in England thanks to the forefather of British dandies known as “Beau Nash” ­– an arbiter elegantiarum, informal master of ceremonies, keen gambler and a lady killer. To Austen Bath must have seemed like a metropolis – a city dazzling with the beauty of its buildings, full of temples of culture, tempting with a multitude of shops, but, at the same time, terrifying: because of the crowds of visitors, the abundance of brothels and the suffocating atmosphere of a “seat of amusement and dissipation”.

Amazingly, my impressions from my first visit to Bath were similar to Austen’s. Gigs made in London were replaced with omnipresent cars. The streets were teeming not with spring-craving aristocrats, but with crowds of tourists making up for the time lost during the pandemic. The more convinced I was that I was following the simplest route to my destination, the more astray I went. Yet I left the city believing that Bath was a delightful place – especially given that I managed to fulfil Mrs Allen’s requirement from Northanger Abbey. I knew someone here.

I had met this someone before, more precisely – I had met his extraordinary theatrical imagination, returning from performances directed and devised by him as Joanna Kulmowa writes in her poem Po co jest teatr (What is theatre for): deep in thought, but above all in awe. Thomas Guthrie began as a fine singer with a warm, handsome baritone, great musical sensitivity and exceptional interpretative instinct. He followed a path similar to that of most of his British colleagues: from a child chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge, through reading Classics at the local Trinity College and studying music at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, to first prizes in vocal competitions and scholarships to study under renowned masters like Thomas Allen. He took part in small-scale operatic ventures as well as events under the baton of outstanding conductors. He was equally enthusiastic performing in both leading and episodic roles. In addition, he sang in the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and collaborated with early music ensembles. He took part in the famous pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner’s musicians, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death with concerts in churches all over the world, during which almost all of Bach’s cantatas were performed. With time Guthrie gained recognition as a performer and scholar of the art song repertoire, including the legendary cycles of Schubert and Schumann.

Thomas Guthrie. Photo: Frances Marshall

However, there was something that always made him different from the aspiring singers from his homeland, who were busy climbing their career ladders and building their own positions on prestigious stages across the world. It became apparent that Guthrie was a born storyteller, a modern-day aoidos, who spun his stories in such a way that he was able not only to include in them the author’s intentions and his own interpretation of them, but also to draw the audience into the discourse – the less familiar the audience was with the material and convention of the work, the better. Other artists delivered their musical sermons from the inaccessible heights of the stage. Guthrie discovered he had the soul of an itinerant preacher. He began to direct. By accident or out of contrariness, in the course of preparations for a production staged by a certain ambitious opera troupe. He sang a small role in the production and eventually ended up on the poster as co-director, convinced from the first rehearsals – apparently rightly so – that he was able to better direct his fellow singers. In 2004, commissioned by New Kent Opera, he produced a venture that gave everyone a foretaste of the vision of theatre that had been forming in his mind and took the critics’ breath away – a semi-staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, in which Guthrie the singer was hidden behind a coarsely carved puppet wandering through a monochrome deserted landscape of animated drawings by Peter Bailey.

Three years later Guthrie became a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, London, where he assisted in productions by Robert Carsen and Katie Mitchell, among others. Yet it was Winterreise and “grassroots work” that set the course for his later activities. Guthrie is not so much an educator as a restorer of community through music and theatre. He loves working with amateurs, children, people unjustly excluded and those who have become demoralised through fault of their own, but not in order to “train” them to appreciate high art.  On the contrary, Guthrie listens to them, searches for a common ground and only then does he introduce them to the world of his own imagination and co-creates theatre with them, theatre where every shadow, every flash of light and visual sign becomes a fully-fledged participant in the drama, a disembodied being conducting a dialogue with the audience. Where a puppet is more alive than a human, where everything is “different than ever before” (Kulmowa again) and constantly balances on the thin line between adult fantasy longing for childhood, and the world of primeval emotions and fears.

My first live performance of one of his productions was five years ago at Longborough. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in which Guthrie easily involved the audience in the production of additional special effects. I did not think that this stylised, minimalistic, sometimes even naïve theatre would work even better in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman – without a ship, without a sea and without a port, but with such an emphatic suggestion of their existence, achieved with a few gestures and inconspicuous props, that every staging of this opera has seemed overloaded to me ever since. For more than a decade Guthrie has been making his tiny theatre in the most unlikely configurations and spaces – in 2017 he staged an adaptation of Carmen at the Dartmoor Prison, with the production featuring the local inmates. However, as a director he prefers to tell more intimate stories: through art songs cycles and masterpieces of the oratorio repertoire.

Der fliegende Holländer at the LFO, 2018. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

From the beginning of the pandemic, which hit the British music community particularly hard, Guthrie sought not only to financially support artists confined to their homes. Above all, he pulled them out of their apathy and hopelessness, initiated new ventures and called for a complete change in their thinking about art and its contribution to the life of the community at large. Last year, together with the Oxford Bach Soloists, he directed an online-only staging of Bach’s St John Passion, again combining the asceticism of theatrical means with an incredible precision of directing actors: those of flesh and blood, in the persons of the musicians, and those from a different, symbolic narrative order – dead or at least silent witnesses of Jesus’ Passion, “played” by elements of technical equipment.

In Bath he produced a project drawing on his earlier experiences with Bach’s Passion and motets. This time he joined forces with a similar enthusiast of community music making: Sarah Latto, artistic director of the Echo, a young professional vocal ensemble, and current head of Paragon Singers, which has grown from a group of eight music lovers meeting for rehearsals in a flat near Bath’s Georgian Paragon Buildings complex to become one of the finest chamber choirs in the region. The very fact that Messiah 250 did take place testifies to the artists’ inexhaustible tenacity. The title refers to the 250th anniversary of a performance of Handel’s masterpiece at the local Octagon Chapel under the direction of William Herschel, the discoverer of planet Uranus and infrared radiation, who was also a keen musician and composer – as well as the first organist at the newly built chapel. Project events were planned for 2019 – with some delay with regard to the anniversary, as Herschel’s concert took place in 1767. Nothing came out of these plans in 2019, then came the pandemic, but the project originators had their own way in the end. The concert on 5 March crowned the whole venture, which also included sessions for beginners and advanced music lovers, documentary workshops for Bath Spa University students as well as a partnership with the local charity Julian House, which focuses on supporting and activating the homeless.

Messiah 250 at St Swithin’s Church. Photo: Echo Vocal Ensemble

The Octagon, a private chapel, was never consecrated and lost its religious function already in the 19th century. Thus the concert was held at St Swithin’s Church, next to which the remains of Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, were laid to rest in 1805. The small church in what used to be the outskirts of Bath was full. The story of the Annunciation, the suffering of Jesus and the promise of universal resurrection was told again by Guthrie in a language derived directly from music and drawing on the most sincere emotions. What mastery and, at the same time, simplicity in the communication of the directorial cues are needed in order for joy, uncertainty, awe, despair and ecstasy to be marked with a different shade on the face and in the gestures of each musician, including the instrumentalists? What understanding is needed between Latto, who holds the whole thing together, and the director to make every gesture of the conductor both musically legible and significant in the story, to make it at one time resemble maternal tenderness, at another a grimace of derision, at yet another pure ecstasy? What wisdom to trust that such theatre liberates, purifies, allows musicians to reach their interpretative best? And to be right to boot?

I don’t know whether Jane Austen would have liked a Messiah told in such a way. I have a feeling that, indeed, she would. Perhaps she would have felt less strange in this unfriendly city. In Austen’s times the world suffered from a shortage of men. Today it suffers from a shortage of storyteller directors, especially ones that are worth their salt.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article available at: https://teatr-pismo.pl/18069-piewca-wspolnoty/

Wars Cannot Be Won

The Finnish National Opera has been really lucky. After several good years under the baton of Patrick Fournillier, an able and reliable conductor, who took up the post of Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera in the 2020/21 season, it placed its orchestra in the hands of a musical visionary, and one who was present on site at that. Hannu Lintu has been collaborating with the Helsinki Opera for years, or in any case since he took charge, in 2013, of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, now based in the new Helsingin musiikkitalo building, located halfway between the legendary Finlandia-talo designed by Alvar Aalto and the Kiasma contemporary art museum, built some twenty years later. He took up the baton as Chief Conductor of the Suomen Kansallisooppera – a few hundred metres’ walk from all the institutions mentioned above, in a park along the picturesque Töölö Bay – in January in this year, shortly after the very well received revival of The Flying Dutchman, with which he made his debut at Paris’ Opéra Bastille.

It was precisely Lintu that was the main reason behind my trip to Helsinki – to see Billy Budd directed by Annilese Miskimmon, a Norwegian-Polish-Finnish co-production premiered  in Oslo in 2019. The Finnish conductor attracted my attention already with his recording of Witold Lutosławski’s Venetian Games and complete symphonies for the Ondine label with his previous orchestra. Lintu’s interpretations – from Sibelius, Rautavaara and Saariaho to his phenomenal readings of Beethoven’s, Wagner’s and Mahler’s scores – are at once disciplined and full of emotions vibrating somewhere deep inside, marked by extraordinary attention to detail and, at the same time, an ability to extract from that detail surprisingly relevant content. The other reason – in some respects just as important to me – was Peter Wedd’s debut in the role of Captain Vere, especially as in recent years I had encountered two outstanding, though radically different incarnations of this tragic character: by Alan Oke and Toby Spence. What I did not expect, however, was that through Lintu I would be gripped by a completely different scene than usual, that the conductor would use Wedd’s greatest assets to sum up, as it were, his unusual and revelatory interpretation of Britten’s masterpiece.

Billy Budd: Scene from Act 1. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

But more about this in a moment. I will start with the staging, which turned out to be as visually attractive (set designs by Annemarie Woods) and as underdeveloped in terms of directing as it had been in Oslo and Warsaw. Miskimmon chose to further emphasise the impression of the impossibility of escaping from a ship “lost on the infinite sea” by transporting Billy Budd to 1940, to a submarine involved in an operation to destroy French vessels after France’s surrender to the Third Reich. The decision proved dramatically ineffective and at times downright absurd in its effects. I still do not understand, for example, how the “cursed mist” would any way affect the accuracy of a torpedo attack. All the nautical commands with which E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier packed the libretto, and to which Britten provided a worthy musical equivalent in the score were out of place on board a submarine. Details such as the idea of having Billy hanged somewhere outside the surfaced watercraft – in the heat of naval warfare – are not even worth mentioning. Busy as she was updating the plot, Miskimmon did not have enough energy left to direct the characters. The story is somewhat of an allegory and will not tell itself – the director needs to skilfully draw the sinister, erotically charged triangle in which Captain Vere, the seemingly implacable guardian of the war order, occupies an unclear position between Claggart, inhuman in his corruption, and Budd, inhuman in his perfection, the obverse and the reverse of the same coin. A coherent tragedy, swelling like a festering ulcer, has been transformed by Miskimmon into a series of loosely connected and paradoxically static – despite the frequent running around on stage – episodes.

Jussi Merikanto (Mr. Redburn), and Juha Pikkarainen (Bosun). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Yet musically the Finnish Billy Budd exceeded my wildest expectations. The great collective hero of the evening was the chorus, brilliantly prepared by Marge Mehilane and Marc Ozbiča. It delivered the text perfectly and at the same time responded alertly to Linto, who skilfully emphasised the relentless drive of the chorus’ music, its sometimes painful harmonic roughness and surprising richness of sound hues. A thunderous and fully deserved applause greeted Ville Rusanen in the title role – a singer endowed with a not very beautiful, but movingly “human” baritone voice, and building his character with the perceptiveness of a veritable dramatic actor. His Billy was stronger in heart than fear, stronger in instinct than the will to survive, stronger in spirit than death – a true holy fool, the only one in this predicament of war who knew how to accept the inevitable. I was a bit disappointed with Timo Olavi Riihonen, partly because of the director, who had no sensible idea how to deal with the character of Claggart. The reasons were partly objective: Riihonen’s beautiful, rounded bass had nothing demonic about it; at times it sounded good-natured even. There were practically no weak links in the supporting roles, though it is worth singling out the performance of Jussi Merikanto (Mr. Redburn), a singer with a resonant, handsome and technically well-assured baritone, who made his character credible not only through excellent acting, but above all through musical means.

Ville Rusanen (Billy Budd). Photo: Heikki Tuuli

It is time to explain the revelation announced at the beginning. Lintu, a conductor sensitive to detail and capable of reading between the lines of the score, brought out in his interpretation something that many other masters of the baton miss. It was not until the epilogue that I understood why his Billy Budd was “dirtier”, more cruel, at times even merciless in the orchestral layer, why there was so little obvious beauty in it. Peter Wedd is certainly not a classic Britten tenor; he has clearly not yet fully “grown into” the part of Captain Vere, his performance not yet sufficiently nuanced dynamically, too heavy-handed in the upper register. However, as is his wont, Wedd saved his best for the final monologue – a divine cantilena, ethereal piani, a forte in which the despair of the whole world could be heard. The structure of the work suggests that towards the end Vere tries to give himself an answer to the question that troubled him in the opening monologue. Hannu Lintu makes it very clear that he will not find this answer. In his interpretation the Captain only seemingly achieves peace of mind, in vain seeking support in the orchestra, which constantly deceives him, fails to provide him with a harmonic basis, and every now and then drowns out his thoughts with sounds of war (the relentless beats of the timpani and the bass drum are still ringing in my ears). In the last phrase, the line “centuries ago, when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable”, the Captain gives up in this unequal struggle. The orchestra dies out, Vere’s voice tails off, everything breaks up into nothingness.

I have never heard such a harrowing ending of Billy Budd. And it’s been a long time since I saw such a moved audience. That eerie, disintegrated phrase carried a warning that was clear to all. May it never come true.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Circe From the Southern Seas

The premiere of Alcina, Handel’s third opera based on themes from Orlando furioso, came at the height of his London rivalry with Nicola Porpora, who not only was Italian, but also had talent, huge financial support from Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, and several stars in his ensemble – headed by two famous castratos, Senesino and Farinelli. When Popora stormed triumphantly into the King’s Theatre, Handel packed his stuff and moved a few streets away, to a brand new theatre in Covent Garden. He started modestly, from the pasticcio Oreste; less than a month later, in January 1735, had to live with the cold reception of  Ariodante; but persevered and on 16 April put on Alcina, this time with more success. He tinkered with the score until the very last moment, got his best singers involved in the production, kept adding new roles and wove into the typically Italian fabric of opera seria choruses and dance divertissements, fashionable in France at the time, taking advantage of the presence of Marie Sallé’s famous troupe. Alcina was performed eighteen times in less than two months, was revived after Sallé’s departure without the ballet scenes and its run ended for good in 1737. In the same season Handel saw the rival Opera of the Nobility go bankrupt, with Porpora fleeing London in ignominy. Handel soon went back to the Haymarket theatre, but after the failure of Serse he abandoned Italian opera forever.

Resurrected nearly two hundred years later, the “enchanted” Alcina is now considered to be one of Handel’s greatest masterpieces. The story of a sorceress who “having enjoyed her lovers for a brief moment, would then turn them into animals and trees,” – as we read in the author’s commentary to the first Polish translation of Ariosto’s poem by Piotr Kochanowski – suggests a number of tropes that are by no means obvious. Alcina can be seen as a figure of transience, a metaphor for the loneliness of a woman who, after years of amorous games, has finally fallen in love and is unable to keep the object of her affections with her. The man in question is the noble knight Ruggiero, rescued by the intrepid Bradamante in the male guise of Ricciardo. As can easily be imagined, this operatic qui pro quo launches a whole sequence of surprising events and amorous errors. What is harder to imagine, the whole thing ends with an extraordinarily emotional clash between the sorceress and a pair of “true” lovers, a class that leaves the audience with a vague feeling of compassion for the abandoned Alcina. This whole convoluted story brings to mind more or less obvious associations with Odysseus’ year-long sojourn on the island of the enchantress Circe, who turned his companions into pigs and bore him a son, Telegonus, who, in one version of the myth, would later kill his father and marry Penelope, left behind on Ithaca.

Alcina in Brno. Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Alcina’s island is located in an operatic Neverland, in the middle of the ocean, somewhere east of India. The sorceress’ successive conquests are witnessed by her former lovers – turned into wild beasts, trees and sea waves. Her palace is only an illusion that will be shattered with the destruction of the magic urn and triumph of true love. Nothing is what it seems to be here, no one is an unequivocal hero nor – even more so – an obvious villain. Although since the great revival of the opera at Venice’s La Fenice in 1960, when Alcina was sung by Joan Sutherland and the production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, dozens of artists have taken on Handel’s masterpiece, no one has ever thought about destroying this enchanted world, engaging in a futile dispute with a fairy tale and rationalising the rather irrational choices of its protagonists.

In Poland Alcina has never been staged, except once at the Dramma per Musica Festival in Warsaw (2018). The story of the absence of Handel’s works and other pieces from the standard Baroque repertoire from our stages is part of a broader tale about the state of Polish opera houses and the thinking of their directors. A way out of this impasse would require a radical change of approach: to the music itself, to its links to theatre and literary tradition, and to the people who are experts and can infect others with their enthusiasm. How this is done I will briefly say, referring to the recent premiere at the National Theatre in Brno, a co-production with Théâtre de Caen and Opéra Royal–Château de Versailles.

Let me start by pointing out that the whole venture was done from scratch at a Czech opera house – true, in close collaboration with an external ensemble, but it was a Czech ensemble as well: the Collegium 1704 headed by Václav Luks, who have been consistently building their position as one of the best period performance ensembles in the world, with the joy of playing, singing and understanding on all levels accompanying them at every step of their intense activity. Then I will move to a decision that seems completely incomprehensible in Poland – to present an international star team of soloists only in one performance in Brno, and not the opening night at that. The remaining performances featured mainly local singers, perhaps not quite on a par with foreign specialists, but competent enough not to bring disgrace to the second biggest centre of musical culture in Czechia, where Leoš Janáček spent most of his life.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

Then I will stress that the whole production was the work of a Czech creative team – members of which were not only experts at their trade, but also devoted to opera with their hearts and souls, musically well-educated and familiar with the specificity of this extraordinary form. I have written about Jiří Heřman’s directorial art many times, on these pages too. Heřman is also a singer, which is why it is hardly surprising that his ideas rarely miss the essence of the work. His theatre is clear, visually beautiful and highly symbolic – like the entire Czech operatic theatre, smoothly continuing the local traditions of expressionism, Liberated Theatre poeticism and the aesthetic legacy of černé divadlo.

Heřman’s Alcina impresses with attention to detail and coherence of staging, another evidence of excellent collaboration with the other members of the creative team. Dragan Stojčevski’s sets – enhanced and made unreal by a system of theatrical mirrors – combine the ostentatious splendour of Baroque interiors with the oneiricism of fairy-tale landscapes, allusions to Boticelli with references to Magritte’s mysterious worlds. The pitch blackness, pale gold, turquoise and smoky pink of the costumes designed by Alexandra Gruskova stand out sharply against the greyness of the sky, the cobalt blue of the sea and malachite green of the vegetation. In Jan Kodet’s phenomenal choreography each of the enchanted lovers creates a multidimensional character whose mute tragedy can be discerned even from behind a fixed animal mask.

Heřman balances the dramaturgical shortcomings of Alcina by  grotesque and often broad humour (among the hapless enchanted lovers we find also a large pufferfish as well as a huge penguin introducing some additional chaos into the already convoluted love plot of the opera). Although the director sometimes repeats his gags and other stage ideas, especially in Act III, which at some point gets dangerously close to losing its momentum, fortunately he makes up for these losses in the beautiful finale – with a lonely sorceress no longer entertaining any illusions, an Indian Circe “who cannot die as long as the world lasts”, but who probably has no hope that some lost Odysseus will drop anchor by the shores of her ruined kingdom.

Photo: Marek Olbrzymek

A production put together with such expertise and care opens up a possibility for a truly honest discussion about performance details. The cast I saw at the second performance – the international one, who will soon present Alcina to the wider world – had virtually no weak links. The artistry that shone the brightest was that of Karina Gauvin, an experienced Handelian, who sang the title role. The revelation of the evening was the young Czech contralto Monika Jägerová as Bradamante. Tomáš Král (Melisso) and Krystian Adam (Oronte) were in a class of their own in their small but important roles. However, we may wonder whether the role of Ruggiero, written for Carestini, an alto castrato, should have been entrusted to the otherwise phenomenal Kangmin Justin Kim, a singer with a highly lyrical male soprano voice.  We may argue whether Mirella Hagen’s light and girlish flightiness are appropriate for Morgana, who is Alcina’s sister after all.

I envy the French, who will soon have an opportunity to relish the whole production and, if necessary, point to a few slight shortcomings in it. That is, if it occurs to them to complain about anything. Representatives of the co-producing companies leaped to their feet after the curtain came down and gave the artists a round of prolonged thunderous applause. This did not surprise me at all. I still cannot believe what I saw and heard so near our southern border.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article at: https://teatr-pismo.pl/17792-kirke-z-morz-poludniowych/