In the Eye of a Cyclone

When about two weeks ago I was flying to Berlin via a roundabout route, black clouds of war were already gathering over Europe. That day, however, my attention was completely focused on the storm Eunice and on the fear that it might thwart my reviewing plans. I got to Berlin safely and before going to the first performance I had a discussion with my Berlin friends, during which we made various predictions – all of them wrong, as it later turned out – about the course of events beyond Poland’s eastern border. Unease was growing, but for the time being I was looking forward to two Wagner performances at the Deutsche Oper, performances of productions which had been in the company’s repertoire for quite some time, but which, strangely enough, I had not had the opportunity to see before.

Both originated at a unique moment in the company’s history. Tannhäuser, directed by Kirsten Harms, was premiered in 2008, more or less half way through her management of the company – two years after the famous scandal with the suspension of Hans Neuenfels’ staging of Idomeneo, following signals from the police and the Home Office that the epilogue added by Neuenfels and featuring the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Christ and Mohammed could provoke serious unrest in the city. As a result of this unprecedented act of censorship the theatre came under severe criticism, which soon, however, abated following a change of the fateful decision and Harms’ numerous subsequent achievements as a manager and artist. During her tenure the Deutsche Oper saw both the attendance and its income rise, with the company’s repertoire expanding to include a number of musical rarities and works of composers who had been silenced by history. After Harms’ departure the company experienced an interregnum of more than a year, the final phase of which was marked by the premiere of Lohengrin in April 2012, shortly before Dietmar Schwarz took over as General Manager. The production was directed by Kasper Holten, the newly appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House in London.

Tannhäuser, Act 2. Photo: Bettina Stöß

In the first few seasons of its stage existence it was Harms’ Tannhäuser that received much more favourable reviews. Holten’s Lohengrin had to face comparisons with the legend of Götz Friedrich’s 1990 concept – so beloved by the Berlin audience – and lost the first round. However, time proved kinder to Lohengrin, a production not without some faults, but nevertheless coherent and drawing attention to unsettling aspects of the story – perhaps unjustly neglected by the earlier directors.

The minimalistic and fairly conventional Tannhäuser offends primarily by its lack of any axis keeping the narrative together. The only trope that seems to lead anywhere – in line with the composer’s intention, it has to be said – is the combination of the figure of Venus and Elisabeth into one, also one singer. Yet in Harms’ interpretation nothing comes out of this. The conflict is not resolved, the scales do not turn the favour of either side of the female nature; even in the finale it remains unclear whose image Tannhäuser has in mind as he is dying and whether he is dying in the first place – perhaps he is just waking up from nightmares tormenting both the protagonist and the audience in equal measure. The whole poetry of theatre disappears after the first scene, in which an armour-clad supernumerary plunges slowly into the abyss of Venus’ grotto. After that there are only images, some spectacular (sets, lighting and costumes by Bernd Damovsky), but, to put it mildly, loosely linked to the action, the libretto and the score. Why is the pilgrims’ chorus in Act I roasting in hell, surrounded by a pack of demons straight from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost? Why in Act III do all the pilgrims end up in a field hospital, as if the pilgrimage to Rome has been clearly harmful to them? Why does the song contest in Act II look like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky and animated miniatures from the Codex Manesse? I am not judging the ideas in themselves – the could have certainly been enacted on stage brilliantly, if only the director had had any sense of humour and distance from the matter of the work. I also have the impression that the technical team were not convinced by Harms’ concept either. They did not make sure that the horse dummies pulled on wheels would not drown out the music in the hunting scene, nor did they intervene when one of the dozens of inflatable knights suspended from the flies began to swing jauntily from right to left and back again.

Tannhäuser, Act 3. Photo: Bettina Stöß

The minimalism of Holten’s Lohengrin from the very beginning was intended to serve a purpose; it emphasises all the more the spectacular nature of key scenes in the drama, including the appearance of the Swan Knight and his subsequent marriage to Elsa. This is a grim, dark production about war – not about Henry the Fowler’s expedition against the Hungarians, but about war as such, always the same, suggested by Steffen Aarfing’s costumes and sets, which refer equally to the fairy-tale Middle Ages and to the Dano-Prussian War of 1864 as well as earlier conflicts in northern Europe. It is also a production about wartime manipulation, a desperate search for a leader whom the oppressed people welcome with open arms: even if he comes from nowhere, even if he sets absurd conditions and treats everyone instrumentally, including Elsa of Brabant, who is waiting for a mysterious saviour. Instead of providing easy answers to the questions in this crime story with Gottfried in the background, Holten piles up even more mysteries. He leaves us uncertain as to whose victim Elsa’s brother was and whether he indeed was transformed into a swan. Lohengrin himself is a usurper swan, parading with wings attached to his back, a false archangel saviour, who in the Die Gralserzählung frantically turns the pages, as if until the last moment he could not decide with which version of the events to beguile his naive followers. The production features several memorable images: the “police-style” outline of a corpse, which from the very first scenes suggests that Gottfried will never return, the marital bed, which turns out to be a funeral catafalque, the sheet, unstained by traces of the wedding night, which in Act III will cover Telramund’s corpse. Again, no one will die in the finale, but shortly before the curtain comes down the chorus will stop Lohengrin, not letting him leave for an imaginary Monsalvat. We do not know what will happen next – except for a clear suggestion that the war machine has been operating in the same manner from times immemorial.

Lohengrin, Act 1. Photo: Bettina Stöß

Ironically, in musical terms the two productions stood in contrast with the stage concept. The moving Lohengrin, heavy-handed by the conductor Donald Runnicles, devoid of energy and with climaxes coming in the least expected moments in the score, was disappointing vocally as well. David Butt Philip, clearly indisposed that day, may have tackled the eponymous role too early. It is not enough to have a strong, handsome tenor with baritone hues to convey the multi-layered nature of the character and, above all, wisely pace yourself over the three treacherous acts of the opera. Jennifer Davis (Else), a singer with an otherwise pretty soprano, was flat almost throughout the entire evening; Ain Anger’s bass is too common and not very rich for the role of Henry; Iréne Theorin (Ortrud) too often had to make up for the deficiencies of her tired voice with overacting. The only bright point in the cast was Jordan Shanahan as Telramund – his full, healthy baritone was very much up to the demands of this truly tragic role: a man prepared to resort to any meanness to defend the time-honoured ancestral rules.

On the other hand the theatrically bland, at time grotesque Tannhäuser captivated the audience with the music – colourful, passionate and lively under the baton of a young Australian, Nicholas Carter. Stephen Gould may not be a singer who enchants with the power of his expression, but he has mastered the title role right down to the tiniest details and can still sing it thoughtfully with a technically-assured voice, just as the composer intended. Camilla Nylund, an artist with a luminous and excellently placed soprano, brilliantly sung the double role of Venus and Elisabeth. Markus Brück, an heir of the good old German school of baritone singing, proved to be one of the best Wolframs I had heard in recent years. Another singer deserving appreciation is Ante Jerkunica, whose warm, slightly “grainy” bass infused the role of Landgrave Hermann with plenty of tenderness and lyricism.

Lohengrin, Act 2. Photo: Markus Lieberenz

And yet it is Lohengrin that became embedded in my memory after this short, wind- and rain-lashed visit to Berlin. I came back to Poland to enjoy some sun. Three days later a war started: a war like the one in the vision presented by Holten, who in some prophetic inspiration revealed its less obvious mechanisms in the Berlin production. But even he may not have predicted that on the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine Lohengrin would return to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre after an absence of one hundred years. With a less ambiguous message than in Holten’s vision, I’m afraid. Over there they still trust knights who come from nowhere.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

The True Death in Venice

The story of the fall of an aging writer – whom Thomas Mann called Gustav von Aschenbach – is not a confession of the author, but a symbolic parable of a man whose well-ordered life was shattered by an encounter with a vision of pure beaty. Today, over one hundred years after the publication of the first edition of the novella, the most often cited sources of its inspiration are Mann’s personal experience at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, where in 1911 he encountered a boy of “truly divine beauty”; the shock of Gustav Mahler’s untimely death, about which Mann heard on his way to Venice; and finally his fascination with Freud’s theory of dreams and with the Apollonian-Dionysian conflict in Nietzsche’s philosophy. This image of Death in Venice has become firmly fixed in our collective imagination under the impact of Visconti’s famous film adaptation – sufficiently distant from the original to overshadow perhaps the most significant of the impulses behind Mann’s masterpiece.

That impulse was the death of Richard Wagner, who, unlike Mahler, really did die in Venice: in 1883, the year in which Robert Koch identified the bacterium responsible for the recurring cholera epidemics. The same plague which claimed Aschenbach’s life and which became a vehicle for additional symbolic meanings in the novella. Although the protagonist of Death in Venice inherited his first name from Mahler, his surname leads by a series of associations to Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of the epic Parzival, on the basis of which Wagner wrote his last operatic masterpiece. The beautiful Tadzio with his strange “hazy-gray” eyes is also a figure of the pure fool Parsifal, who saved Amfortas from his suffering, so why shouldn’t he relieve the anguish of the aging writer? It is surprising how many of these tropes are missed by the commentators on the novella, given that Mann constructed his Buddenbrooks in the image and likeness of Wagner’s Ring and put words imitating Lohengrin’s farewell to the swan into the mouth of one of the woodcutters encountered by Castorp in The Magic Mountain.

Carl Naya, The Molo and the Doge’s Palace with Gondola, Venice, albumen print on paper, before 1882. McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock

Wagner returned to Venice once again in September 1882, less than two months after the premiere of Parsifal. He rented the entire first floor of Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a Renaissance palazzo on the Canal Grande, from Enrico, Count de ‘Bardi, and moved there with Cosima, four children and servants. In October they were joined by Liszt, just as ailing and with a similar obsession of death as his son-in-law, barely two years his junior. Both men would look out of the palazzo windows, watching the gondolas – “black as only coffins can be”, to quote Mann again – gliding along the canal. Some of the gondolas were transporting corpses to the cemetery island of San Michele. In December Liszt sketched the first version of La lugubre gondola. In January he left for Budapest. Wagner died in February and his remains were transported on a funerary gondola to to the Venezia Santa Lucia station, from which they were taken by train to Bayreuth.

Thomas Mann was an indefatigable music lover. He did not miss the premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 or that of Berg’s Lulu over three decades later. When arranging his numerous itineraries, he always tried to include visits to the local opera houses, and he followed the careers of his favourite singers and conductors. He never recovered from the rapture he experienced as a young man in Lübeck during a performance of Lohengrin. Wagner’s oeuvre shaped his musical sensitivity, left its mark on his prose and took hold of his emotions and imagination. In my case the first attack of the “Wagner disease” coincided with my fascination with Mann’s writing while I was still at school. I feel the effects of this double illumination to this day. Longing for the aesthetic which Mann used to adhere to, I avoid mainstream performances and try to track down Wagnerian rarities. I follow musicians whose love for Wagner takes the form of a sophisticated intellectual game.

This is how I found myself in Inverness in 2019, attending a concert of the Mahler Players conducted by Tomas Leakey, who constructed the programme for the evening of Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Act I of Die Walküre in a chamber arrangement by Matthew King and Peter Longworth. On my return from Scotland, I wrote, in the introduction to my enthusiastic review, about the origins of the Siegfried Idyll, which is Wagner’s only work for chamber orchestra in the world repertoire. I also wrote about the musicians’ bold plans for the future, which included the premiere of a work by King based on late sketches from which Wagner intended to weave one day his own personal “symphonic dialogues”, alluding in their scope and form to the Idyll he wrote in 1870.

Matthew King. Photo:

Despite the pandemic the planned premiere did take place and was also recorded on the first ever CD of the Mahler Players, who not without reason added Siegfried Idyll to King’s symphony Richard Wagner in Venice commissioned by them. Matthew King, a professor at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama, is not only an extraordinarily imaginative composer, but also a sensitive researcher into the relations between cultural texts, a master of what he calls “speculative musical archaeology”. His symphony is neither his own variation on a theme nor a mechanical patchwork of the surviving fragments. Instead, it brings to mind an erudite play with the spirit of the dead composer, as inspired as Salvatore Sciarrino’s unsettling adaptations of Baroque music, and at the same time – paradoxically – closer to the non-existent, unfinished original. King puts together these scraps of music – including the legendary “Melodie der Porazzi”, sketched by Wagner in 1882 in Palermo and evoking strange associations with the Verwandlungsmusik from Act I of Parsifal – using a method described in Cosima’s diaries and articulated by Wagner himself. He arranges them into a warm, intimate, proto-impressionistic narrative flowing in an even stream of musical tensions and releases. With memories of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg echoing in the background of this conversation, the whole moves towards a coda in which the sound of the bells for the unveiling of the Holy Grail blends with the motivic material of Siegfried’s funeral music. Wagner is carried back to Bayreuth. A respectfully shocked world receives the news of his death – like in the last sentence of Mann’s novella.

It is difficult to determine today whether the fragmentary sketches from the last years of Wagner’s life originated with a larger work in mind, or a cycle of intimate poems modelled on the Siegfried Idyll. Or perhaps they are just testimony to the degeneration of an artist who, like Aschenbach, had to go astray? Whatever the case may be, Matthew King has breathed life into these fragments, developed them certainly not against their author’s intentions, and fashioned them into a whole that is not only convincing but also alluring. This is also thanks to Leakey’s musicians, playing with verve and a beautiful, selective sound, with British instrumentalists’ characteristic unity of intent combined with a diversity of individual tone. There is an admirable care for the context of the first meeting after a long lockdown and first recording of this extraordinary composition – in the Strathpeffer Pavilion in the north of Scotland, a Victorian building inspired by the architecture of the casino in Baden-Baden and thus, indirectly, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Visitors to that building include George Bernard Shaw, the author of The Perfect Wagnerite, a perverse philosophical commentary on Der Ring des Nibelungen.

It is worth reaching for the recording as a gift to yourself and to the ambitious Scottish musicians during this difficult time. And then worth returning to Death in Venice, which might also be a story of Amfortas, who did not live to receive the longed for blessing from Parsifal.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Ulisse’s Widow

Setting out on my journey back from Basel to Warsaw, I stopped in a little square in front of the hotel, lured by the sight of a glass-fronted cabinet with needless books. I expected to find there some easy read for the long journey with a change in Frankfurt; instead, much to my surprise I took off the shelf an edition of Sławomir Mrożek’s Ucieczka na południe (Escape to the South) – slightly yellowed, but otherwise untouched by time. Fate writes the best libretti for my operatic journeys. A severe winter approaches and I’m coming back from an escape to the south, to a city only five degrees of latitude farther north, where I will again try to find something that would free me from “a feeling of emptiness”. It would be interesting to see whether in six months, when I set off as usual on a tour of niche festivals, I’ll come across an abandoned copy of Mrożek’s Maleńkie lato (Little Summer).

What makes all this even more bizarre is the fact that I went to Basel – a city on the Rhine, between Switzerland, Germany and France – to see Il ritono d’Ulisse in patria. A production adapted and directed by Krystian Lada, delayed like Odysseus’ return – the March premiere was wiped out by the previous wave of the pandemic. An original vision of a supposedly flawed opera, Monteverdi’s “ugly duckling”, which hatches laboriously out of a great confusion of styles and only in the course of the narrative does it begin to reveal clearly contrasted emotions and moods, and, above all, wonderful portrayals of the two main characters. I had been dying of curiosity since spring, because Lada decided to remove the figure of Ulisse from the original structure, admitting openly that he intended to draw the audience into a performance, a “participatory project” based on Monteverdi’s work, presented deliberately not on the vast state of the Opera House, but in the adjacent Schauspielhaus. Lada replaced the eponymous King of Ithaca with a collective protagonist, a figure of alienness, an archetype filtered through the experience of reading Joyce, Hauptmann and Kazantzakis, reflected in the mirror of contemporary problems of refugees and migrants. He brought on stage eight “men of Basel”, strangers blending in with the local community. The musical portrait of Ulisse was replaced with their silence, snatches of utterances, body languages, electronics discreetly linking the various episodes.

Katarina Bradić (Penelope). Photo: Judith Schlosser

What makes Lada different from most young opera directors today is the fact that, having taken a work apart, he is able to put it together again – sometimes into a surprising whole, but without losing or spoiling anything along the way. It seems to me that in the pre-premiere talks he put too much emphasis on the idea of staging a “Ulisse without Ulisse”. The biggest asset of his concept is his masterful highlighting of a narrative element that has been there in Il Ritorno from the very beginning and is often missed by both directors and performers. The incredible convergence of dramaturgical patterns in Monteverdi’s operas and Shakespeare’s late plays has been pointed out by John Eliot Gardiner, among others. It is incredible, because it is highly unlikely that Monteverdi ever encountered Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Yet the works of the two men mirror each other, as if by some kind of cultural convergence: the tension in them stems from the contrast of quickly alternating tragic and ironic scenes triggering tears of laughter and sincere emotion. Lada condensed the opera’s three acts into an uninterrupted action, roughly two hours long, directed like an operatic Tempest or Winter’s Tale, fast flowing, coherent and engaging. And although his adaptation went very far – which he did not hide from the very beginning – he did not do any harm to Monteverdi, and at times even helped the myth by giving it a more human form. The poignant finale, in which Penelope cries “Or si, ti riconosco” at the sight of each of the eight strangers, makes me think of an alternative version of the myth, relegated to oblivion for millennia, in which the queen, consumed by longing and broken by loneliness, gives herself to all the suitors one by one.

The Basel production is full of other tropes and perfectly enacted episodes, which show that Lada understands the mechanism of the operatic form, that he knows how myth works, and that he is able to relate all this to the present – without falling into literality and banality. Having a limited number of singers at his disposal, he gives each of them several roles – not always in accordance with the traditional performance practice, following above all the logic of a focused narrative. Thus Penelope is also Human Frailty, the gods are transformed into suitors, the allegories of Time, Fortune and Love act as links between the earth and Olympus. The director offers us an Epicurean interpretation of the myth of the great journey and even greater longing. The beautiful, imperious, self-absorbed gods decide to play humans and fail in their confrontation with humanity: mortal, flawed and yet stubbornly seeking happiness that comes even if only from the absence of suffering. The most moving character is Eumete, naive four-eyes in overalls, ready to help all the Odysseuses of this world. His opposite is Iro – burning with hatred and aiming a knapsack sprayer at the strangers as if they were bedbugs. The central figure in the narrative is Penelope, an indomitable woman, faithful not only to her lost husband, but also to herself. Her love for Ulisse gives her strength and teaches her compassion. It helps her satisfy her own body, refuse love to the usurpers and give it to those who really needed it.

Katarina Bradić, Théo Imart (Giunone/Anfinomo/L’Amore), Alex Rosen (Nettuno/Antinoo/Il Tempo) and Rolf Romei (Giove/Pisandro/La Fortuna). Photo: Judith Schlosser

Drawing a preliminary sketch of characters on an open stage, before the first sounds of the music are heard is slowly beginning to become a distinctive feature of Lada’s productions. Radiant, elaborately coiffed gods, covering up deficiencies of their looks with grotesque jockstraps and corsets (excellent costumes by Bente Rolandsdotter), silently circulate among props, aiming from a bow at a man-shaped target signed with the name of Ulisse. In between their archery displays, they step onto the proscenium and gesticulate vigorously. Only after a while does the audience, snuggling down in their seats, realise that the deities control the traffic in the auditorium. Then with equal relish they “pull” the instrumentalists into the orchestra pit and give the signal for the story to begin.

The constant twists and turns of the narrative are accompanied by seamless changes of scenery (Didzis Jaunzems), consisting of a few simple ladders, boxes, scaffoldings and platforms, precisely controlled by the technical staff, the extras and the singers. The minimalistic nature of the sets focuses the audience’s attention all the more effectively on the psychology of the protagonists and the multifaceted story, which reaches its dramatic climax in the scene of the suitors’ trial. Penelope stands in the dust of the earth like a true shaman, covered by a dirty, decaying cloak of her lost husband, raising a bow made of deer antlers above her head. Disguised as humans, the deities lose their power before they so much as touch Odysseus’ weapon. They bow before a mortal woman, the most faithful of the faithful, the strongest of the strong, the most tender of the tender. They leave humiliated, retreating before the nameless wanderers who, by the end, will mingle with the audience, reveal their identities and complicated stories, and find their home in Ithaca. The myth comes full circle and, at the same time, clashes with reality. After an absence of twenty years Ulysses returns in a completely different form.

“Men of Basel”. Photo: Judith Schlosser

Basel is one of the bastions of the historical performance movement, so there is nothing surprising about the technical proficiency and sense of Monteverdian style of the members of the I Musici de la Cetra ensemble, prepared by Johannes Keller and Joan Boronat Sanz. However, I did not expect that this modest, experimental production would provide me with so many vocal thrills. The expected star of the evening was Katarina Bradić as Penelope, whom I had heard four years earlier in the same role in Brussels under René Jacobs’ baton. Not only has Bradić’s contralto grown in brilliance and density in all registers since then, but Lada also uses the singer’s acting potential to the full – my heart went up to my throat already in the opening lament “L’aspettato non giunge”. The real revelation, however, was Ronan Caillet as Eumete: the French tenor, a pupil of Christoph Prégardien, impresses with his extraordinary musicality, handsome voice with a slightly baritonal tinge, and excellent acting skills. It is impossible to ignore the talent of Théo Imart, a young male soprano who played Giunone, Anfinomo and L’Amore – another living proof that the time of “disembodied” countertenors is fortunately coming to an end, with their place being taken by singers with flexible, colourful and expressive voices. Equally promising is the presence of Jamez McCorkie in the cast. Not so long ago the Basel Telemaco sang baritone roles: he has recently changed his Fach to tenor, retaining a brassy brilliance in the lower register and a quasi-soul articulation, remarkably consistent with his “black” voice. Among the other soloists, special mention should be made of Rolf Romei (Giove/Pisandro/La Fortuna) – a Basel Opera veteran, and expressive spinto tenor normally associated with quite a different repertoire; and the actor Martin Hug, who created a brilliant and vocally surprisingly competent portrayal of the pathetic Iro.

This is the kind of theatre – insightful, economical, daring – I naively dreamt of when the Polish opera world was entering the dark night of the pandemic. Perhaps I will see it one day. With this hope I returned north, to a country, where “sometimes it was so boring that the local dignitaries, having carefully drawn the curtains, would put on fake paper noses in front of their mirrors just to amuse themselves a little”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Open the Door Before Music

The life of Bishop Martin of Tours was complicated enough even without the lofty embellishments of later hagiographers. A saint of the “undivided Church”, venerated by the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Anglicans alike, one of the first Confessors – witnesses of faith who somehow managed to die a natural death – Martin is also regarded as a pioneer of pacifist movements and modern humanitarianism. Contrary to Sulpicius Severus’ testimony, he did not run away from home to dedicate himself to God, nor was he forcibly dissuaded from baptism by his brute of a father or forcibly conscripted into the army.

The son of a Pannonian tribune seems to have simply missed the family calling. When he was a child, he moved with his family to Ticinum in Cisalpine Gaul – after his father had been granted veteran status as a reward for his faithful service, and with it numerous privileges as well as a large plot of land for cultivation. Indeed, Martin failed to meet the expectations of his progenitor, who named him after the Roman god of war for a reason. Not eager to fight, the ten-year-old Martin joined the ranks of the local catechumens, but was not baptised – not only out of fear of his parents, but also because the local bishop did not want to fall foul of the retired tribune and believed that one had to be mature enough in order to be initiated into Christianity. Martin became a legionary anyway, aware that as the son of a former cohort commander he did not have any other choice. According to some contemporary historians, he served in the army much longer than Sulpicius Severus claims, perhaps even as long as twenty-five years. Yet he did not turn out to be particularly good in this trade. On the eve of a battle against the Teutons, he tried to have his incentive bonus in the form of double pay exchanged for a discharge from the army. Arrested for cowardice, he faced serious consequences. He behaved like a true conscientious objector: he volunteered to go into battle at the front of the troops, defending himself only with the sign of the cross. But then a miracle happened: the enemy asked for peace.

Saint Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar. XIVth century wall painting from Skibby church, Denmark

Irrespective of whether Martin left the army as a youngster or a mature man, he was baptised shortly before returning to civilian life. He became an icon of charity thanks to a deed that ultimately determined his decision to become a Christian: when he encountered a half-naked beggar on his way to the city of Ambianum and was unable to give him alms, he cut his officer’s cloak in two and shared it with the beggar. His later life is the story of an unusual bishop of Caesarodunum (today’s Tours) who renounced the benefits of the his position in favour of living an ascetic life, preaching the faith “in the field” and ruthlessly fighting paganism. He zealously destroyed pagan idols and sacred groves, but forgave humans and took their sins upon himself. He died in missionary glory, away from his diocese. His body was ferried in secret on the rivers Vienne and Loire. A ceremonious funeral took place on 11 November 397 in Tours.

The day is celebrated as the Fest of Martin the Bishop. Strangely enough, it was on 11 November that the armistice between the Entente and the German Empire was signed in a railway carriage near Compiègne, France, ending the black night of the First World War. Even more strangely, in the early months of the conflict the London parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields was entrusted to the pacifist Dick Sheppard, who ran it like Saint Martin incarnate. Sheppard, too, had served in the army, but radically changed his views under the impact of his harrowing experiences during the Second Boer War. Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War, he volunteered, having become an Anglican pastor, to serve in a French field hospital, where he defended German soldiers from lynching by an angry mob several times. In 1915 he transformed his church into a centre providing help to all who needed it and called it the Church of the Ever Open Door. Every day he fed the homeless and put them up for the night there, cutting off any protests with one sentence: “You can’t expect to hear the truth on an empty stomach”. In 1924 he led the first ever religious service to be broadcast on the radio from St Martin-in-the-Fields. He would later boasts about letters from the faithful thanking him for the possibility of singing hymns in the company of their drinking mates in a nearby pub.

Perhaps it is the genius loci. Some years ago archaeologists discovered a burial ground beneath the church and a number of artefacts suggesting that a centre of Christian worship may have existed here already in Martin of Tours’ times – most probably built on the site of a sacred grove and demolished pagan altars. The first church of Saint Martin was built here in the thirteenth century – it was indeed located “in the fields”, outside the walls of London. Whether the monks of Westminster Abbey, who were in charge of the church, were guided by the teachings of the former legionary “who bought himself a place in heaven for a cloak”  – is hard to say. We know that in 1542 Henry VIII had a new church built on the site: to nurse and bury the victims of a mysterious plague called English sweating sickness as far away from the Royal Palace of Whitehall as possible. As an additional precaution, he had a pillory erected in front of it – as a warning for the less sick – fearing the collapse of the parish healthcare system. The brick structure of the church proved so fragile that as early as in 1710 the Parliament decided to build a new edifice, allocating for the purpose a substantial sum of 22,000 pounds.

The design of the church was entrusted to the Scottish architect James Gibbs, a discreet Catholic who skilfully smuggled into his buildings elements of the “classicising” Carlo Fontana-style Baroque, while remaining an ardent follower of the Vitruvian triad of utility, durability and beauty. As the available space was limited, his original idea of constructing an edifice with a circular floor plan was rejected. Gibbs then decided to go the whole hog with the design and came up with a solution that embodied the idea of the “undivided Church”: a building without any religious symbols on the outside, with a Corinthian portico, a Baroque spire rising from the roof and a bright interior lit by windows with no stained glass. The construction works were completed in 1726. Initially, the building generated controversy, but soon became a model of Anglican church architecture, imitated countless of times throughout the Empire.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, engraving by H.W. Bond after a drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd, 1827

In addition to the charitable work that the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields started with the local poor as early as in the eighteenth century, hiring adults to work in flax spinning and wool carding, and providing children with basic education in reading, writing and bookkeeping, the vicars of the church also made sure that services would have worthy musical settings. They hired the finest organists, beginning with John Weldon, a pupil of Henry Purcell and composer of incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, staged in 1712 at the Drury Lane Theatre. In the twentieth century – thanks in part to the collaboration with the BBC started by Sheppard – the church was also transformed into a thriving concert hall. In 1959 it became the home of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra founded on the initiative of the violinist Neville Marriner, which played a key role in the British revival of historical performance of Baroque and Classical music. The Café in the Crypt has for years been welcoming jazz musicians. Less well-off music lovers can enjoy free afternoon concerts. In addition, the parish organises music education events, family events and the famous Concerts by Candlelight. Two months ago St Martin-in-the-Fields became the base of all of John Eliot Gardiner’s three ensembles: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The programme of the first evening at their new home featured Hector Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ.

Among this richness performances of Polish music have been sporadic and rather accidental. That is why Paweł Łukaszewski’s initiative to organise – in collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute – a festival of Polish sacred music, Joy and Devotion, at St Martin-in-the-Fields in November deserves special appreciation. Łukaszewski is an outstanding exponent of a strand of contemporary music appreciated much more in the United Kingdom than in Poland, where some critics remain sceptical about his oeuvre. Łukaszewski’s compositions fit perfectly with the British sensitivity to the sacred: perfectly constructed in terms of form, expertly exploring the possibilities and limitations of the human voice, they can appeal to the local audiences, from childhood accustomed as they are to choral music – the least expensive and most natural instrument of communal experience. The terms “anti-modernism” and “renewed tonality” do not bring to mind anything inappropriate to the Brits. The same categories of simplicity, subtle play with the past and purity of expression can be used to describe John Tavener’s oeuvre, the value of which no one questions in Poland. Maybe we are not detached enough, maybe we find “foreign” spirituality more palatable than our own, or maybe it takes truly phenomenal performers for music to speak to us fully.

Łukaszewski made sure such performers were in place and promises to attract them for the future editions of the new festival. As a composer he took a step back this time, adding just a few of his short pieces to the programme presented by the London Tenebrae Choir led by Nigel Short, a former member of the King’s Singers. The event also featured a concert by Echo, an ensemble active for four years and conducted by Sarah Latto, while the opening night featured the organist Rupert Jeffcoat and one of the UK’s most promising vocal ensembles, The Gesualdo Six – known to Polish music lovers as well – founded in 2014 by a young singer, conductor and composer, Owain Park. In addition to the oldest works of Polish vocal music, the programme of the entire event also included jewels of Polish Renaissance and Baroque, works by contemporary classics as well as pieces by representatives of the younger generation of composers, including Paweł Łukaszewski’s students.


The Gesualdo Six at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Photo: Marcin Urban

I went London to attend the inauguration – and to savour the incredible cohesion of the six quite distinct voices that make up The Gesualdo Six. Their singing is like a wise conversation, emphasising every rhetorical gesture, every rough and smooth texture, every mystery contained in the musical form. It finally revealed to me the phenomenon of Krzysztof Borek, the alleged maestro di cappella of the Cracow Rorantists. I hope that the living and the dead authors of the other compositions will forgive me: I only remember the Missa Mater Matris, a reworking of Josquin des Prés’ Missa Mater Patris – seemingly not far from the original, yet softer, more tender, full of strangely familiar harmonies. Perhaps this is what I had been missing in the few Polish performances of Borek’s works: a masterful familiarity with the style of the original and at the same time a fresh look at the work of a completely unknown composer. The ability to look into a score with the same attentiveness and emotion with which Martin – not yet a saint – once looked into the eyes of a frozen pauper on the road to Ambianum.

The Gesualdo Six shared with Borek everything they had. And they were none the worse for the experience. It is wonderful to be taught such a lesson in the church of Saint Martin in the Fields.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article available at:

A New Harmony

Gregor Joseph Werner failed in health quite early – ­ his body began to give up on him just after he turned sixty. This may have been caused by overwork, for Wener performed his duties as the Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court very conscientiously. He was hired by the regent Maria Octavia – rumour has it that this happened at the instigation of her seventeen-year-old son Pál Antal – who, seven years after the premature death of her husband József, decided to rebuild the musical stature of the family.

In 1728 Werner was welcomed as a herald of a new era for the House of Esterházy. A teacher of the young prince and a prolific composer – author of more than twenty oratorios and forty masses as well as symphonies, trio sonatas and a collection of “new and very curious” orchestral suites for the twelve months of the year – Werner raised the Eisenstadt Kapelle to European heights. Faithful to the late Baroque style almost as much as to his princely patrons, never for a moment did Werner suspect that anyone would undermine his position at the Esterházy court. And then that man arrived. A youngster who was not yet thirty, two generations Werner’s junior, endowed with extraordinary personal charm and even greater talent.

His name was Joseph Haydn and he arrived in Eisenstadt thanks to the patronage of his previous employer, the Bohemian Count Karl Josef Morzin, who had been forced to disband his orchestra in Dolní Lukavice for financial reasons. Prince Pál II Antal, nearly fifty and suffering from numerous ailments, decided that it was high time to follow in his mother’s footsteps and once again open a new era in the history of the Esterházy family. Out of respect for Werner, he kept him – at least formally – in his position and in 1761 appointed Haydn vice Kapellmeister of the court. He granted both men an annual salary of four hundred gulden, but gave Haydn considerably more responsibilities. From then on Werner was to compose only religious music. The old master was unable to swallow the insult. The conflict escalated a few months later, when Pál Antal died without an heir and the title was inherited by his younger and even more musical brother Miklós József Esterházy, who immediately raised Haydn’s salary to six hundred gulden a year.

Esterháza palace in Fertőd. Photo: Zsolt Batár

Desperate, in October 1765 Werner decided to take action against his rival. He wrote a letter to His Royal Highness, politely informing him that Haydn was unable to control the musicians, was flinging money around, was not taking proper care of the instruments entrusted to him, was committing financial abuses and was an inveterate liar. There may have been something in these accusations, because the prince reprimanded his protégé, ordering him to keep the archives in order, be more active as a composer and concentrate on trios for viola, cello and baryton (the aristocrat’s favourite instrument, similar to the viol). Less than six months later Werner died. In 1766 Haydn became the court Kapellmeister, a new residence – the Esterháza, a palace described, without any exaggeration, as the Hungarian Versailles – was ceremoniously blessed in the town of Fertőd and the prince increased Haydn’s salary to eight hundred gulden a year.

It is better not to draw too rash conclusions from this story. Haydn was not only a great composer, but also an expert on human nature, a natural-born diplomat and, deep down, a righteous and good-natured man. He used the almost thirty years he worked in the service of the Esterházy princes to the advantage of both sides, strengthening the position of the aristocratic Kapelle and his own status as one of the most outstanding artists of the period. He did his job and at the same time gave in to the whims of the prince, whose love of the baryton was later replaced with a passion for opera and puppet theatre. The Kapellmeister did not hide his admiration for his frustrated predecessor Werner, arranging six introductions and fugues from his oratorios for a string quartet in 1804.

Haydn left the Esterházy court in 1790, after the death of Miklós, whose successor, Antal I, disbanded the orchestra, but granted the composer a life salary of one thousand gulden. When Johann Peter Salomon invited Haydn to England and offered him a contract to compose twelve symphonies, Haydn was a free man, bathed in enough glory to spend the last years of his life in Vienna, which he had used to hate so much.

It is also better not to succumb to the magic of the formula which emerged after the fall of the Bar Confederation and not to compare the Esterházy patronage to any of the initiatives of Polish magnates.

As an old adage would have it, Pole and Hungarian brothers be, but certainly not when it comes to artistic patronage, also because – perhaps above all – of different historical circumstances. When the founder of the family, Miklós Esterházy de Galántha, was building his position, he was doing so in a country torn between the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania and lands seized by the Turks. He converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, married twice into wealthy aristocratic Hungarian families, and in 1625 sided with Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs rewarded the Esterházy family’s contribution to the fight against the Ottoman invasion by elevating Miklós and his son Pál to the rank of palatine of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Esterházys remained loyal to the German dynasty during the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and the Hungarian Spring of the Peoples. Their actions – unlike those of many Polish magnates – were not undone by the indelible stigma of high treason. The identity of modern Hungarians was forged in the course of a somewhat anti-romantic struggle for freedom: a struggle in which the imagined welfare of the community was often put before the tangible welfare of the individual.

György Vashegyi. Photo: Pilvax

This was mentioned by the late Péter Esterházy, a descendant of one of the branches of the family and author of the novel Harmonia Caelestis, in which he intricately wove together a half-imagined history of his ancestors with a half-imagined history of Hungary. He subsequently had to add a supplement to the novel, having learned about his father Mátyás’ long collaboration with the Hungarian security services. It is worth returning to Esterházy’s book, if only in an unsuccessful attempt to understand the paradoxes that govern Hungary. I thought about it constantly during a recent visit to Budapest – as part of a trip organised for journalists by the Munich-based PR agency Ophelias Culture – to attend the first festival organised by the Haydneum, an institute recently established by the Hungarian government.

The objective of the Haydneum is to promote not Hungarian early music, but the oeuvres of composers associated with Hungary – above all, with the Esterházy court – in the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods. The generously funded activities of the institute are to include publishing, research as well as organisation of concerts, training courses and masterclasses – in international cooperation with distinguished specialists and representatives of the historical performance movement. The brains behind the venture is the conductor, harpsichordist and teacher György Vashegyi, founder of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, and for the past four years president of the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, or Hungarian Academy of Arts. The artistic director of the Haydneum is Benoît Dratwicki, a cellist, bassoonist and musicologist, expert on eighteenth-century French opera, artistic director of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles and co-founder of Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de Musique Romantique Française in Venice.

Performers at this year’s festival included – in addition to Vashegyi’s ensembles – Les Talents Lyriques conducted by Christoph Rousset, Capella Savaria conducted by Zsolt Kalló and the Freiburger Barockorchester. I was able to make it only to the first two days of the event, which – like the whole venture – I initially approached with reserve similar to that shown by Gregor Joseph Werner to the newly appointed vice Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court. The European art circles have for years been debating Article 10 of the new Hungarian constitution of 2011, which includes a worrying provision concerning the scholarly and artistic freedom of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. According to its opponents, cultural institutions in Hungary have fallen prey to the government, becoming a tool of a new narrative managed by corrupt oligarchs, a narrative that is closed to the world, anti-liberal and anti-modernist. According to its supporters, the Hungarian state’s current cultural strategy prevents thoughtless squandering of funds on projects of slight artistic value but with a powerful propagandistic message – not to mention the fact that it effectively protects the autonomy of art against the designs of all kinds of politicos and unrealistic ideologues.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as in the case of the young Haydn, who did not always deliver the princely commissions as promised and sometimes abused his patron’s trust, but who managed his staff efficiently and undoubtedly knew what the composer’s craft was all about.

The co-founders and organisers of the Haydneum certainly know what the work of the newly established institution is all about: something that cannot always be said of those behind similar projects elsewhere in Europe. I had many opportunities to see evidence of their extensive knowledge combined with genuine passion: when reading the excellent programme book; during curatorial visits to the National Széchényi Library, the Museum of the History of Music and the Hungarian State Archives; and, above all, during unofficial discussions about the interpretation of works by Haydn, Werner and other artists associated with the court, about the acoustics, technical and architectural solutions of the opera theatre at Esterháza, about the need to find a compromise between a faithful reconstruction of the Fertőd palace and the needs of contemporary audiences. When talking to my Hungarian peers, I discovered that we had surprisingly similar memories of our first experiences with early music.

Christoph Rousset. Photo: Pilvax

However, something stopped them in their tracks or perhaps pushed us too far ahead. During the first concert at Müpa Budapest – featuring works by Joseph and Michael Haydn, and Johann Georg Albrechsberger – I had the impression that the performance aesthetics of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra were deeply rooted in the tradition of the pioneers of historical singing and playing. That their interpretations were very clever, but not experienced, that they lacked the spontaneity or even casualness of the Italians, the French and the more courageous among the Brits.

The following day we encountered a completely different world in the recently opened concert hall in a former Carmelite monastery. In Gregor Joseph Werner’s oratorio Job Les Talents Lyriques, led by Rousset, inspired the Hungarian choristers as well, making music freely yet precisely, with a perfect feeling for the composer’s late Baroque. I have the impression that with time these two worlds – listening friendly to each other for the moment – will start intermingling. Like in the Kapelle of the Esterházy princes, which attracted the best musicians from all over Europe for so many years.

After returning home I found myself right in the middle of the Polish storm, which almost blew my nightcap off my head, as it once happened to Haydn after a short visit to Vienna. I still don’t know what to think about the Hungarians’ cultural policy, but I do envy them the Haydneum idea.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Link to the source:

From Chaos to Light

God created the world and concluded that every thing he had made was very good. Similar conclusions must have been drawn by Haydn after the first performance of his Creation, on 30 April 1798, before a private audience at the now non-existent winter palace of the Schwarzenberg princes in Vienna’s Neuer Markt. Outside policemen and armed guards disciplined a teeming crowd of onlookers. Inside was gathered Europe’s the crème de la crème of the period: wealthy patrons, members of aristocratic families, representatives of the music world, high-ranking courtiers and diplomats. The composer himself conducted. The enthralled guests listened in mute admiration and total concentration. Haydn shuddered and sweated alternately; as he later confessed, several times he came close to apoplexy from the whole excess of sensations. At the official premiere, which took place on 19 March 1799 at the Burgtheater, the audience was not able to control its emotions. Hearing the line “Und es ward Licht”, people jumped from their seats and made such a din that the performance had to be stopped. The rhetorical effect intended by Haydn was all the stronger given that the line was sung by a sixty-strong chorus supported by an ensemble of over one hundred and twenty instrumentalists.

Today’s listeners usually know what to expect after the famous orchestral prelude. Haydn depicts in it chaos and the clumsily forming universe with its centre everywhere and surface nowhere, as Blaise Pascal would have it. Using the initial unison on the note C, descending under a fermata from forte to piano, the composer paints an abyss beyond time: unmelodious, devoid of harmony, free from any dissonance. A measure of the quality of contemporary performances of The Creation lies in the ability to focus the listeners’ attention already on that first sound – a musical image of a vacuum which Haydn gradually begins to fill, at first only with a sequence of deceptive harmonic progressions and isolated shreds of melody leading nowhere.

Laurence Cummings and Matthew Brook (Raphael). Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican

I imagine that the audience at the Barbican Hall, where The Creation was performed – with the English libretto – by the Academy of Ancient Music on 28 September, awaited that beginning with unprecedented impatience. It would be hard to find a better work to inaugurate the ensemble’s first season under the direction of its new boss. At the same time it would be hard to find a piece that would plant an equally ripe seed of optimism in the hearts of listeners after the longest lockdown in Europe. It could be said that Laurence Cummings, who took over the AAM after ten excellent seasons in charge of the Göttingen Handel Festival, held all the aces. If so, he had used them to the full. From the first note of the prelude to the final chorus “Sing the Lord, ye voices all” he infected the musicians with his unbridled joy of singing and playing, losing none of phrasing precision or colour sensitivity, and making sure to highlight the often powerful rhetorical gestures. Striving for the fullness of sound desired by Haydn, Cummings also made the right and historically justified decision to perform the continuo part not on a harpsichord, but on an 1801 English Broadwood piano. The unique design of the instrument ensured stable tuning, reliable action and much greater power of the sound – qualities once appreciated by Haydn and now skilfully emphasised by Alastair Ross, who performed the continuo.

Cummings was just as sensitive and tasteful when selecting his cast of soloists. For dramaturgical reasons (The Creation was presented in a semi-staged version featuring Nina Dunn’s projections that contributed little to the plot but were altogether quite neutral) he decided not to combine bass and soprano parts, entrusting the roles of the archangels and the first humans to five singers. Gabriel was sung by Mary Bevan, a singer with secure intonation, skilfully playing with the timbre of her dark soprano, which has slightly too much vibrato perhaps. However, I was much more impressed by the Eve of Rachel Redmond – an excellent actress with a radiant voice soft as silk, a voice she wields with childlike ease. She was beautifully partnered by Ashley Riches, as a movingly ungainly Adam, a singer with a golden and ringing bass-baritone. Stuart Jackson in the tenor role of Uriel impressed not only with the passion of his interpretation, but also with an extraordinary sensitivity to the text. Yet the show was stolen by Matthew Brook (Raphael), a legend of historical performance and an ever reliable singer with such a powerful comic talent that I still giggle at the memory of the phrase “In long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm”, the interpretation of which should go down in the annals of English pantomime.

Rachel Redmond (Eve) and Ashley Riches (Adam). Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican

Haydn used to say that in moments of doubt he heard his inner voice whispering that his works would one day prove a source of comfort to those weary of life’s labours. Judging by the reaction of the listeners in London, he was right. There was light again. Also thanks to Cummings, whose incurable optimism will certainly mark the Academy of Ancient Music’s future ventures.

Tranlsated by: Anna Kijak

The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Fidelio did not reach Paris until May 1829, when it was staged in the first Salle Favart, the home of Théâtre-Italien at the time, by the German troupe of Joseph August Röckel, who had sung Florestan during the premiere of the second version in Vienna, in 1806. In May 1860 the opera found its way into Théâtre Lyrique, in a three-act French version, with action transferred to 1495 Milan, Pauline Viardot portraying Isabella of Aragon, who had replaced the original character of Leonora, and a tenor appearing under the pseudonym Guardi and singing Gian Galeazzo Sforza, who had replaced Florestan. The contrived plot had nothing to do with reality: the marriage was very unsuccessful because of the homosexuality of Gian Galeazzo, who in any case died in 1494. By that time Isabella had given birth to three children, among whom most likely only the son Francesco was legitimate. Irrespective of the historical awareness of nineteenth-century Parisians, the premiere was a flop.  Fidelio aroused mixed feelings and ran at the Boulevard du Temple house for just eleven performances. It was passionately defended by Berlioz, who compared Beethoven’s score to an sturdy beech tree luxuriantly green among rocks and ruins, hardened by the obstacles it had to overcome on its way from a germinating seed to a proud tree.

After the premiere of the third version, Fidelio basically never left the international repertoire. However, it was rarely seen in the French capital, despite sporadic triumphs like, for example, in 1936, when Bruno Walter conducted it at the Palais Garnier. It may have aroused justified suspicions of ideological nature in the land of the Great Revolution. Fidelio can hardly be regarded as an apotheosis of freedom and personal dignity, unless the story is to be measured by a wholly anachronistic yardstick. Rather, it is a self-conscious voice in the dispute over the idea of prison, in which artists saw a breeding ground for attitudes and characters, and pioneers of social sciences – a tool to subordinate the individual to the requirements of an efficient system. With time, however, Beethoven’s only opera acquired a number of meanings and was elevated from a praise of marital loyalty to the rank of a symbol of miraculously recovered freedom. This is how it was received in 1955 at the reopening of Vienna’s Staatsoper, and this is the role it played in 1989 in Dresden, when street demonstrations coincided with the premiere of Christine Mielitz’s meaningful production. This is how it is interpreted by everyone – myself included – after a year and a half of a pandemic that has turned not only the opera world upside down.

Linard Vrielink (Jaquino). Photo: Stefan Brion

However, the French director Cyril Teste, entrusted with the latest production at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, decided not to stop there and to draw on other catchy tropes as well. At least this is what emerges from his pre-premiere interviews, during which he presented Leonora as an Enlightenment-era feminist and referred to the panoptic model of power which, according to Michel Foucault, went beyond the walls of an oppressive system and contributed to the birth of a globally supervised society. This is one way of interpreting the piece, but you have to be able to show it. Teste’s staging turned out to be derivative, also in relation to Mielitz’s concept, and questionable from the point of view of directorial craft as well. Teste replaces his inability to direct characters with projections, ubiquitous in today’s theatre, and Frank Castorf-style habit of filming elements of the action on stage. He moves the narrative to a contemporary maximum security prison, where Rocco and Leonore – instead of digging the prisoner’s grave when ordered to do so by Pizarro, who intends to deal personally with the inconvenient witness – prepare Florestan for execution by a lethal injection. I understand that no one had come up with such an idea before, but one does not have to be an expert on the American penitentiary system to realize that Pizarro could have got rid of his enemy in a much simpler way. Teste does not understand the inner codes of the piece: he transforms the symbolic scene of communion – in the form of an offering of bread and wine to the prisoner – into a chaotic fiddling with a water bottle and a sandwich stolen from the canteen. Florestan thanks for them, but does not manage to take a bite or a drop, because Leonore, in an apparent act of violence, knocks both out of his mouth. The plot moves forward at a snail’s pace, the prisoners, having been granted a moment of freedom, wander aimlessly around the stage, then start a basketball game – which goes surprisingly smoothly for them despite years of solitary confinement – Florestan does not suffer much, Leonore is not particularly happy to have her husband back, and the opera comes to life in the last minutes of the finale, before the audience has time to realise why there is such joy.

The lack of engagement on stage went hand in hand with a bizarre approach by the conductor Raphaël Pichon, a highly valued interpreter of Baroque music, who led his Pygmalion ensemble as if he had the score of one of Lully’s late operas on his stand. The orchestra played with a dry sound, aggressively emphasising bar measures, shaping phrases against the composer’s intentions, and in the resulting din losing elements of key importance to the narrative, elements like as the famous timpani tritones in the introduction to Act II. Pichon did not help the singers, whose voices were often lost in the difficult acoustics of the Opéra-Comique, covered by the generally unbeautiful and surprisingly loud sound of the early instrument ensemble.

Michael Spyres (Florestan). Photo: Stefan Brion

Siobhan Stagg, whose soft, radiant soprano was described by Christa Ludwig as the most beautiful she had ever heard, had fallen ill before the premiere and in the first two performances limited herself to acting duties only. During the opening night she was replaced with Katherine Broderick singing from the orchestra pit – apparently rather successfully. I saw the second performance, when Leonore was sung by Jacquelyn Wagner, a singer with a dark and, at the same time, beautifully focused and crystal clear voice with a potential to tackle much heavier roles.  She started a little tentatively – which is entirely understandable given the unfavourable circumstances – but by the middle of Act I she had already established herself as a leading cast member and was rightly rewarded with thunderous applause by the audience towards the end. Of the two “comic” lovers, I was more impressed by Jaquino portrayed by the young Dutchman Linard Vrielink, whose voice has a touch of rapid vibrato, well suited to the part. Mari Eriksmoen, who was otherwise excellent, sounded too dramatic at times as Marzelline. Among the lower male voices I was particularly moved by Don Fernando of Christian Immler, an intelligent singer with a velvety, technically-assured bass-baritone. Albert Dohmen (Rocco), a distinguished Straussian and Wagnerian singer, was no more than satisfactory this time. Both gentlemen were clearly superior to Gabor Bretz (Pizarro), a singer whose voice was not distinctive enough and too bright for the part and whose character was turned by the director into a pathetic, detestable clown.

I realise that most music lovers came to the Opéra-Comique that evening to hear Florestan being sung by the phenomenal Michael Spyres, fresh from the success of his Baritenor recording for Erato. I had not been in such a quandary as a critic for a long time. In my mind I can hear what interpretative heights this singer could reach under the baton of a true expert on Beethoven’s music. Spyres began the Act II monologue in his usual fashion: from an ethereal pianissimo, gradually rising to a powerful, angry fortissimo followed by an endless deadly silence. The problems started in the final poco allegro section with an obligato oboe, when the accompaniment, banged away horribly by the orchestra, forced Spyres to articulate the musical text precisely and do nothing more than that. Gone was the feverish torrent of expression, gone was the emotion, the desperate struggle between euphoria and madness in one of the most intense – not only in Beethoven’s oeuvre – episodes of musical anguish. Similarly, there was no lyricism in the trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten” and no ecstatic joy in the duet “O namenlose Freude” – for which the fault lay not only with the helpless director, but also with the conductor, who decided to remove from this scene key passages of spoken dialogue, including Leonore’s famous “Nichts, mein Florestan!”, which in a well-directed and performed Fidelio can make a stone cry.

Linard Vrielink, Mari Eriksmoen (Marzelline) and Siobhan Stagg (Leonore). Photo: Stefan Brion

What else can an incorrigible admirer of Beethoven’s only opera do but return to À travers chants by the equally beloved Berlioz: “I do realize that most distinguished critics will not agree with me. Fortunately, I am not one of them”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

An Intimate Tragedy

“Mentsch tracht, got lacht” – man thinks, God laughs – is an old Yiddish proverb cited not only by rabbis, Tevye the Dairyman and  Woody Allen. I had a bit of a laugh as well, when in 2019, after the premiere of Das Rheingold, we made bold musical and social plans for the following seasons at Longborough. However, I did not expect that a higher power would play such a cruel joke on us. One year later the world stopped dead in its tracks. In 2021 the premiere of Die Walküre hung in the balance until the very last moment. Much to the delight of the organisers and fans of Anthony Negus’ conducting the delayed venture did take place in the end, though in a form that was completely different from the one originally envisaged: with fewer than thirty instrumentalists, the quintet reduced to a quarter of its size and wearing masks on stage, while the remaining musicians were deep in the orchestra pit, with no Wagner tubas, with one harp instead of the usual six and only a four-strong woodwind group. The director Amy Lane had to reduce her concept to devising acting tasks for the soloists, who were forced to observe social distancing rules, weave their way between the quintet’s stands and move on several platforms put in place in lieu of sets.

All this in front of a tiny audience, which for obvious reasons did not include almost any guest from outside the UK, like myself. Fortunately, the fourth among the seven June performances of Die Walküre was recorded in its entirety and, for the first time in the LFO’s history, uploaded to YouTube. Anyone interested in the production can see it: the recording, published on 26 August, will remain in open access for six months (

It took me a long time to decide to travel virtually to Longborough. This was not only because of the grief over the temporary loss of my Wagnerian paradise. Longborough is not a place for lovers of powerful orchestral sounds or of singing the quality of which is measured in decibels. Music lovers for whom Wagner’s genius lies solely in the music and not in the dramatic potential of the stories he tells will find no happiness here. The surprising strength of the Longborough performances also lies in the intimacy of the theatrical experience, in the close contact between the audience and the stage. I was seriously worried that in the case of Die Walküre – perhaps Wagner’s most “human” opera – I might be missing this particular element.

Peter Wedd (Siegmund). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

Die Walküre is intensely tragic. It is in this part of the Ring that Wotan loses his sense of divine agency, hurts his beloved daughter, sacrifices the life of his own son – and begins to realise that the mutilation of the sacred ash tree has triggered an avalanche that no one, not even he, can stop. It is in Die Walküre that we see a harrowing image of a loveless marriage: the relationship between Sieglinde and Hunding, two unloving and unloved individuals. It is in the interval between Acts One and Two that the briefest and the most poignant romance in history unfolds in the spectators’ tender imagination, a romance for which the long-lost siblings will pay the highest price. In the second act Siegmund is killed by Hunding, while Sieglinde disappears half way through Act Three, carrying in her womb the fruit of the only moment of closeness in the siblings’ lives. We learn about her death in childbirth only in Siegfried.

What is needed in order to present a convincing interpretation of Die Walküre is an artist who trusts the story and has boundless compassion for all its protagonists. I was in no doubt that Wagner’s masterpiece would find an ideal interpreter in Anthony Negus. Nevertheless, I was afraid that the conductor would not be able to achieve his intended effect with such drastically reduced forces. My fears proved unfounded. Negus took on a version of the score orchestrated by Francis Griffin, for years a specialist in such “reductions”, for which there has always been a huge demand in the United Kingdom, a land of countryside opera houses and ambitious chamber projects. Half a year before the outbreak of the pandemic I had heard a version of Act One of Die Walküre arranged for a similar line-up and played by the Scottish ensemble the Mahler Players. In comparison with Matthew King and Peter Longworth’s approach Griffin’s version is more lucid, more focused on the details of the complex texture, more effective in reconstructing the diluted chords by means that are often surprising. Negus treats the piece extremely introspectively, drawing on, among others, the tradition of performances conducted by Reginald Goodall, who always made sure that motifs and the harmonic links between them would be highlighted, resisting the temptation to shape the narrative by stressing spectacular melodic sequences. This approach is evident already in the famous storm scene from the prologue: the musical tempest sweeps through Negus’ interpretation in a settled tempo, without violent dynamic contrasts, and with dread being enhanced by an unyielding tremolo in the violins and violas, and a wandering melodic line in the cellos and the double basses. The entire performance is marked by an awareness of the truth – neglected by most conductors – of the Ring scores, in which the orchestra not so much accompanies the singers, but merges with them into a uniform tool of expression. This can be heard in Siegliende’s serious tale, sublime like some story by Ibsen (“Der Männer Sippe sass hier im Saal”), in Siegmund’s heartbreakingly lyrical monologue, in the middle section of Wotan’s farewell “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”, where for the first time in my living memory none of the musicians went beyond mezzo forte, with the dynamics going down to an ethereal pianissimo in some fragments.

Paul Carey-Jones (Wotan) and Madeleine Shaw (Fricka). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

To match such a well-thought-out concept, Negus selected singers on whom he could rely completely. I must admit that of the entire cast I was impressed the most probably by the Sieglinde of the Canadian Sarah Marie Kramer, a singer endowed with a youthful, almost girlish dramatic soprano with a golden tone and impeccable intonation. Much greater expressive potential and truly phenomenal acting were shown by Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde), whose warm and rich voice, however, already betrays signs of fatigue, manifested in an excessively wide vibrato, among others. I had praised Madeleine Shaw’s Fricka in the LFO’s Das Rheingold – this time her rounded soprano sounded even more resonant and scathing, not a bad thing in the scene of marital quarrel with Wotan. The tragic figure of the father of the gods was portrayed by Paul Carey-Jones, a baritone rather than bass-baritone, an extremely musical singer with a small, but exceptionally soft and nobly coloured voice.  It is a pity that he ran out of steam in the finale of Act Three, where several excellent interpretation ideas could have done with better breath support. The incomparable Brindley Sherratt was in a class of his own, with his pitch-black, ominous-sounding bass perfect for the role of Hunding. Over the last few seasons Siegmund has become a calling card of Peter Wedd, whose brass sounding and increasingly dark tenor dazzles with its agility, lyricism and incredible ease of phrasing. If Wedd did not sound entirely convincing at times, it was only in those fragments in which Negus forced him to abandon routine and approach the character of the tragic Wölsung differently.

I keep coming back to this recording and I cannot stop marvelling that such a daring venture could be undertaken in such unfavourable conditions and with such success at that. And yet I feel sorry. For the singers, who were bursting with energy after the pandemic year and you could hear that they were simply suffocating in the even more confined space of the LFO stage. For the director, who was unable to control their chaotic and sometimes exaggerated acting. For the musicians, who played for four hours with maximum concentration and a sense of individual responsibility for every missed note. Above all, for the conductor, who probably dreamt about a different Walküre.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Sarah Marie Kramer (Sieglinde). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

Let’s not think too much or some deity will laugh at us again. But we can dream, can’t we. And in spite of everything we can, even if only surreptitiously, glance at Negus’ and his singers’ plans. Let’s hope the plans will materialise. And let’s hope I will not have to judge the effects of the artists’ work remotely again.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Bayreuth 20.21

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

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

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

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

Tannhäuser. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

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

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

Die Walküre. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

Sei Siegfried. Photo: Jay Scheib

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Rusalka From Mondsee and Die Vögel From Nowhere

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

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

Rusalka in Munich. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

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

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

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

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

Die Vögel. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

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

Caroline Wettergreen (Nachtigall). Photo: Wilfried Hösl

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

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

Translated by: Anna Kijak