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:

Trzy funty lnu

Praktyka zen jest tak odległa od codziennych wyobrażeń Europejczyków, że czasem trudno nawet zdefiniować jej poszczególne elementy. Taki na przykład koan wcale nie jest „opowiastką opartą na paradoksie lub zawierającą jakieś szokujące stwierdzenie”. Koan sam w sobie jest metodą, szczególnym ćwiczeniem umysłu, paradoksem, który ma nas wyzwolić od uporczywych schematów myślowych. Jeden z najsłynniejszych sprowadza się do krótkiej i z pozoru absurdalnej wymiany zdań między uczniem a mistrzem. Uczeń pyta: „czym jest Budda?”. Mistrz odpowiada: „trzy funty lnu”. Rozwiązanie tej zagadki jest boleśnie proste: mistrz właśnie rozważał len. Skupiony na własnej pracy, nie mógł udzielić innej odpowiedzi. Jego myśl odzwierciedliła teraźniejszą rzeczywistość. Odważam len. Robię to, co właściwe. Budda jest moją czynnością.

Po co o tym piszę? Żeby przybliżyć Państwu metodę na ten straszny świat. Nasz przydługi europejski koan można sprowadzić do słów Wojciecha Młynarskiego. Róbmy swoje. „Bo dopóki nam się chce, drobiazgów parę się uchowa: kultura, sztuka, wolność słowa, dlatego róbmy swoje. Może to coś da?” Na abstrakcyjne pytanie „czym jest Budda?”, odpowiem jak zawsze. Operą. Zapomnianym głosem. Mądrym spektaklem. Teatralną katastrofą. Dzieckiem na granicy. Skrzywdzoną kobietą. Bezsensowną śmiercią. Zawiedzioną nadzieją na przyszłość.

A czasem też niespodziewanym w listopadzie światłem. Samotnym liściem na uśpionym drzewie. Kilkoma dniami spędzonymi w towarzystwie dobrych ludzi, dzięki którym znów nabrałam sił, żeby dalej Państwu pisać o tym, co trudne, brzydkie, piękne i podłe. Nie ma innej rzeczywistości. Swoją zatrzymałam w kilku zdjęciach, których tym razem nie opiszę. Za kilka dni znów pojawi się tu coś nowego. I może znów coś da. Róbmy swoje. Ważmy len. Innego świata nie będzie.

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

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Nowa harmonia

W natłoku otaczających nas zdarzeń niemal już zapomniałam o krótkim październikowym wypadzie na Węgry – na zaproszenie monachijskiej agencji Ophelias Culture, żywo zainteresowanej promocją nowej międzynarodowej inicjatywy, prowadzonej na razie we współpracy węgiersko-francusko-niemieckiej. Haydneum zarówno wzbudza podziw, jak rodzi pytania – jedno wszakże jest pewne: tak bogatej tradycji, na której można fundować nowe przedsięwzięcia, możemy Węgrom tylko pozazdrościć. Relacja dostępna bezpłatnie na stronie „Tygodnika Powszechnego”, wkrótce pojawi się u mnie także w wersji angielskiej.

Nowa harmonia

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

Z chaosu w światło

Bóg stworzył świat i uznał, że wszystko, co uczynił, było bardzo dobre. Do podobnych wniosków musiał dojść Haydn po pierwszym wykonaniu swojego Stworzenia świata, 30 kwietnia 1798 roku, przed prywatną publicznością, w nieistniejącym już pałacu zimowym książąt Schwarzenbergów przy wiedeńskim placu Neuer Markt. Na zewnątrz kłębił się tłum gapiów, dyscyplinowany przez policjantów i uzbrojonych strażników. Wewnątrz zgromadziła się śmietanka ówczesnej Europy: możni patroni, członkowie rodzin arystokratycznych, przedstawiciele świata muzycznego, wysocy rangą dworzanie i dyplomaci. Dyrygował sam kompozytor. Goście słuchali jak zaczarowani, w niemym podziwie i całkowitym skupieniu. Haydn na przemian dostawał dreszczy i oblewał się potem, jak później wyznał, kilkakrotnie bliski apopleksji z nadmiaru wrażeń. Publiczność oficjalnej premiery, która odbyła się 19 marca 1799 roku w Burgtheater, już nie zdołała powściągnąć emocji. Kiedy rozbrzmiały słowa „Und es ward Licht”, zerwała się z miejsc i uczyniła taki tumult, że wykonanie trzeba było przerwać. Zamierzony przez Haydna efekt retoryczny zadziałał tym mocniej, że kwestia padła z ust sześćdziesięcioosobowego chóru, któremu towarzyszył zespół złożony z ponad stu dwudziestu instrumentalistów.

Dzisiejszy odbiorca na ogół wie, czego się spodziewać po słynnym preludium orkiestrowym. Haydn ukazał w nim chaos i niezdarnie klujący się wszechświat, którego środek jest wszędzie, a powierzchnia nigdzie, jak u Błażeja Pascala. Początkowym unisono na dźwięku C, schodzącym pod fermatą od forte do piano, odmalował otchłań poza czasem: nieśpiewną, pozbawioną harmonii, wolną od jakiegokolwiek dysonansu. Miarą jakości współczesnych wykonań Stworzenia świata jest umiejętność skupienia uwagi słuchacza już na tym pierwszym dźwięku – muzycznym obrazie próżni, którą Haydn zacznie stopniowo zapełniać, z początku tylko ciągiem zwodniczych, prowadzących donikąd progresji harmonicznych i pojedynczych strzępów melodii.

Stuart Jackson (Uriel). Fot. Mark Allan/Barbican

Wyobrażam sobie, że publiczność Barbican Hall, gdzie Stworzenie świata – z angielskim librettem – zabrzmiało 28 września w wykonaniu Academy of Ancient Music, czekała na ów początek z niespotykaną dotąd niecierpliwością. Trudno o lepszy wybór dzieła na inaugurację sezonu zespołu pod dyrekcją nowego szefa. Trudno zarazem o utwór, który po najdłuższym lockdownie w Europie zasiałby w serca słuchaczy równie nabrzmiałe ziarno optymizmu. Można by rzec, że Laurence Cummings, który objął AAM po dziesięciu znakomitych sezonach na czele Göttingen Handel Festival, miał wszelkie atuty w garści. Jeśli tak, wykorzystał je w pełni. Od pierwszego dźwięku preludium aż po finałowy chór „Sing the Lord, ye voices all” zarażał muzyków nieposkromioną radością śpiewu i grania, nie tracąc przy tym nic z precyzji kształtowania frazy, wyczulenia na niuanse barwy oraz dbałości o eksponowanie potężnych nieraz gestów retorycznych. Dążąc do wymarzonej przez Haydna pełni brzmienia, podjął też celną i uzasadnioną historycznie decyzję, by partię continuo zrealizować nie na klawesynie, lecz na angielskim fortepianie Broadwooda z 1801 roku. Specyficzna konstrukcja tego instrumentu zapewniała stabilne strojenie, niezawodną akcję i znacznie większą nośność dźwięku – cechy docenione ongiś przez Haydna, teraz zaś umiejętnie podkreślone przez wykonawcę continuo Alastaira Rossa.

Z równym wyczuciem i smakiem Cummings skompletował obsadę solową dzieła. Ze względów dramaturgicznych (Stworzenie świata zaprezentowano w konwencji półscenicznej, z towarzyszeniem niewiele wnoszących do akcji, ale w sumie dość neutralnych projekcji Niny Dunn) zrezygnował z łączenia partii basowych i sopranowych, powierzając role archaniołów i pierwszych ludzi pięciorgu śpiewakom. W Gabriela wcieliła się Mary Bevan, śpiewaczka pewna intonacyjnie i umiejętnie grająca barwą ciemnego, może odrobinę zanadto rozwibrowanego sopranu. Znacznie większe wrażenie zrobiła na mnie jednak Rachel Redmond w partii Ewy – świetna aktorsko, o głosie promiennym, miękkim jak jedwab, którym włada z dziecięcą swobodą. Pięknie partnerował jej Ashley Riches, wzruszająco niezdarny Adam, dysponujący złocistym i dźwięcznym bas-barytonem. Stuart Jackson w tenorowej partii Uriela zaimponował nie tylko żarliwością interpretacji, ale też niepospolitą wrażliwością na tekst. A przedstawienie i tak skradł Matthew Brook (Rafael), legenda wykonawstwa historycznego, śpiewak niezawodny i obdarzony tak potężną vis comica, że do dziś chichoczę na wspomnienie frazy „In long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm”, której interpretacja powinna przejść do annałów angielskiej pantomimy.

Mary Bevan (Gabriel). Fot. Mark Allan/Barbican

Haydn mawiał, że w chwilach zwątpienia słyszy swój wewnętrzny głos, który szepce, że jego dzieła okażą się kiedyś źródłem otuchy dla strudzonych znojem życia. Sądząc z reakcji londyńskich słuchaczy, miał rację. Znów stała się światłość. Także za sprawą Cummingsa, którego niepoprawny optymizm z pewnością naznaczy kolejne przedsięwzięcia Academy of Ancient Music.

Wędrówki malutkie

Właściwie powinnam już teraz zabrać się do recenzji pewnego koncertu w londyńskiej sali Barbican, który dzięki uprzejmości tamtejszego biura prasowego mogłam obejrzeć i usłyszeć w streamingu. Uznałam jednak, że nie ma co dłużej zwlekać z przeglądem wędrówek minionych, tych prawdziwych, których w ostatnim sezonie nie nazbierało się zbyt wiele. Z powodów oczywistych, które do dziś kładą się cieniem na europejskim życiu muzycznym. Trudniej się podróżuje, trudniej układa plany na przyszłość, dochodzi też do głosu zdrowy rozsądek, który zabrania pchać się we wciąż nieopanowane ogniska pandemii. Tym większą trzeba czerpać radość z dobrego towarzystwa, pięknej pogody i wrażeń pozamuzycznych. Upiór niestrudzenie drepcze po śladach Marka Twaina. Wędruje. Śni. Odkrywa.

Berlin, wrzesień 2020. Pierwsza ucieczka na wolność po pierwszej fali zarazy, która zdaniem naiwnych optymistów miała okazać się ostatnią. Między Warszawą a stolicą Niemiec krążyłam jak wahadłowiec, po trzykroć, za każdym razem podziwiając profesjonalizm muzyków oraz wrażliwość i pokorę słuchaczy ubiegłorocznego Musikfest, karnie przestrzegających surowego reżimu sanitarnego i nagradzających wykonawców długimi, żarliwymi owacjami w sali Filharmonii wypełnionej w niespełna jednej czwartej. Wiatr hulał po widowni, w sercach paliła się wdzięczność. Nie tylko za mistrzowsko ułożony program festiwalu i znakomite interpretacje, ale też za rozmowy i spacery z długo niewidzianymi przyjaciółmi. Wyostrzonymi zmysłami chłonęliśmy każdy znak nadziei – choćby ten pęd winobluszczu, któremu mieszkańcy pewnej berlińskiej kamienicy pozwolili wpełznąć na klatkę schodową.

Bayreuth, wrzesień 2020 i sierpień 2021. Zaczęło się od wyprawy nietypowej – na pierwszy festiwal Bayreuth Baroque w Operze Margrabiów, w którego programie znalazło się także wykonanie estradowe dramma per musica Leonarda Vinciego Gismondo, Rè di Polonia, z udziałem solistów oraz {oh!} Orkiestry Historycznej pod dyrekcją Martyny Pastuszki. Rok wcześniej zwiedzałam ten teatr przy okazji wyprawy na Bayreuther Festspiele. Tym razem dane mi było rozsiąść się w barokowej loży i przez kilka godzin napawać się atmosferą i bajeczną akustyką miejsca. Losy festiwalu Wagnerowskiego w roku następnym ważyły się do ostatniej chwili. Udało się – znów w dużej mierze dzięki dyscyplinie i współodpowiedzialności wszystkich zaangażowanych w sprawę, i to po obydwu stronach słynnego krytego orkiestronu. Mimo utrudnień humor nas nie opuszczał, o czym świadczy między innymi swoboda w doprowadzaniu do porządku przemoczonych części garderoby, gdy nad Zielonym Wzgórzem przeszła raptowna ulewa. W przyszłym sezonie oba festiwale mają już ruszyć pełną parą. Trzymajmy kciuki.

Wiedeń, wrzesień 2020 i czerwiec 2021. Dwie wyprawy w to samo miejsce, do jednego z najmniejszych teatrów operowych Europy, urządzonego w dawnej sali balowej „Czeskiego Domu”, skąd w 1918 roku Janaczek zawiadywał przygotowaniami do wiedeńskiej premiery Jenufy. Dziś mieści się tam Kammeroper, od blisko dziewięciu lat zarządzana przez Theater an der Wien jako studio operowe młodych, dające też pole do popisu reżyserom, którzy muszą się wykazać nie lada umiejętnościami, rozgrywając swoje wizje na scenie wielkości podestu w prowincjonalnym kinie. Przy okazji premiery Bajazeta Vivaldiego w ujęciu Krystiana Lady skorzystałam z gościnności Instytutu Polskiego. Przed wyjazdem na Tristan Experiment w inscenizacji Günthera Groissböcka zarezerwowałam pokój w budynku opery, gdzie od czasów wojny mieści się Hotel Post: niedawno pieczołowicie odnowiony, z zachowaniem większości wystroju z czasów Janaczka, włącznie z windą, która przez kilka dni woziła mnie na trzecie piętro i z powrotem.

Monachium, lipiec 2021. Można powiedzieć – wakacje, czyli nagła i niespodziewana wycieczka za namową zaprzyjaźnionego operomana, który kupił po dwa bilety na Ptaki Braunfelsa i Rusałkę Dworzaka w Bayerische Staatsoper, wychodząc ze słusznego założenia, że nie odmówię mu towarzystwa. Dziwne uczucie wybrać się do opery ot tak, bez żadnych zobowiązań. Wprawdzie napisałam recenzję, ale przez cały pobyt w Monachium miałam poczucie, że wreszcie nic nie muszę, za to mogę przesiadywać całymi godzinami w zalanych słońcem ogródkach restauracji ze specjałami kuchni bawarskiej. Oczy też było czym nakarmić. Podczas jednego z leniwych spacerów zwiedziliśmy prawdziwą perłę architektury późnobarokowej i południowoniemieckiego rokoka: kościół św. Jana Nepomucena, wzniesiony przez słynnych braci Asamów jako prywatna kaplica z dobudowaną plebanią i domem mieszkalnym. Młodszy z braci, Egid Quirin, urządził w nim sypialnię z wewnętrznym oknem na główny ołtarz. Kto wie, może dożyję kiedyś wyjazdu z noclegiem w operze: oczywiście w pokoju z widokiem na scenę.

Paryż, wrzesień 2021. O niespecjalnie udanym przedstawieniu Fidelia w Opéra-Comique doniosłam przed tygodniem. Jeśli pominąć ten drobny szczegół, pobyt w Paryżu udał się nad podziw. Począwszy od przepysznej kolacji u Szeherezada, czyli Piotra Kamińskiego i jego nieocenionej żony Wandy, przez późnowieczorne operomanów rozmowy w kawiarni przy Rue de Richelieu i noclegi w hotelu, gdzie kiedyś mieścił się ulubiony burdel Toulouse-Lautreca, aż po sentymentalną wycieczkę do Dzielnicy Łacińskiej. Z obowiązkową wizytą w kościele św. Szczepana ze Wzgórza, a co za tym idzie – na grobach Pascala i Racine’a. Kto jeszcze nie odkrył, że za drzwiami prowadzącymi do zakrystii, w krużgankach kościelnego wirydarza, można podziwiać świeżo odrestaurowane witraże z przełomu XVI i XVII wieku, niech o tym nie zapomni przy okazji kolejnej wizyty w stolicy Francji.

Budapeszt, październik 2021. O tej wyprawie będę dopiero pisać. Na razie nie zdradzę szczegółów: podzielę się tylko z Państwem fotografią Mátyás kútja, czyli fontanny Macieja Korwina, neobarokowej grupy rzeźbiarskiej dłuta Alajosa Stróbla, nazywanej nie bez racji budapeszteńską Fontanną di Trevi. Król Maciej I był wybitnym mecenasem sztuk i nauk, a zarazem bezwzględnym politykiem, twórcą mocarstwowej potęgi Węgier, która rozpadła się jak domek z kart ledwie kilka miesięcy po jego śmierci, między innymi za sprawą niejakiego Władysława II Jagiellończyka, władcy tyleż gnuśnego, co niezbyt rozgarniętego. Pisać będę właściwie o czym innym, ale tak się tylko zadumałam nad prawdą historyczną i stereotypami. Od tych drugich coraz trudniej nam uciec w codziennym życiu. Tym bardziej zachęcam do podróży: w świat opery, w słowo pisane, w głąb siebie, byle dalej od wszechobecnego zgiełku, który coraz skuteczniej odbiera nam zdolność racjonalnego myślenia. Co złego, to my. Ale i do czynienia dobra jesteśmy zdolni. Trzeba sobie tylko przypomnieć, jak to się robi.

Wszystkie zdjęcia: Dorota Kozińska

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

Ostatni dzień skazańca

Fidelio dotarł do Paryża dopiero w maju 1829 roku, wystawiony w pierwszej sali Favarta, gdzie mieścił się wówczas Théâtre-Italien, przez niemiecką trupę Josepha Augusta Röckela, który wcielił się w rolę Florestana w roku 1806, na premierze drugiej wersji w Wiedniu. W maju 1860 roku opera trafiła na deski Théâtre Lyrique, w trzyaktowej wersji francuskiej, z akcją przeniesioną do Mediolanu w roku 1495, z Pauline Viardot w partii Izabeli Aragońskiej, która zastąpiła pierwotną postać Leonory, oraz tenorem występującym pod pseudonimem Guardi jako Gian Galeazzem Sforzą w miejsce Florestana. Naciągana intryga nie miała nic wspólnego z rzeczywistością: małżeństwo obojga było wybitnie nieudane z powodu homoseksualizmu Gian Galeazza, zmarłego skądinąd w 1494 roku. Izabela urodziła do tego czasu troje dzieci, z których zapewne tylko syn Francesco przyszedł na świat z prawego łoża. Niezależnie od świadomości historycznej XIX-wiecznych paryżan, premiera skończyła się klapą. Fidelio wzbudził mieszane uczucia i poszedł przy Boulevard du Temple zaledwie jedenaście razy. Żarliwie bronił go Berlioz, porównując Beethovenowską partyturę z niezłomnym bukiem, zieleniącym się bujnie wśród skał i ruin, zahartowanym w ogniu przeszkód, jakie musiał pokonać na drodze od kiełkującego nasiona do dumnego drzewa.

Po premierze trzeciej wersji w 1814 roku Fidelio właściwie nigdy nie zszedł ze światowego afisza. W stolicy Francji gościł jednak nieczęsto, mimo sporadycznych triumfów, między innymi w 1936 roku pod batutą Bruno Waltera w Palais Garnier. Niewykluczone, że w kraju wielkiej rewolucji wzbudzał uzasadnione podejrzenia natury ideologicznej. Fidelia trudno bowiem uznać za apoteozę wolności i godności osobistej: chyba że zmierzyć tę opowieść całkiem anachroniczną miarą. To raczej nieśmiały głos w sporze o ideę więzienia, w którym artyści upatrywali kuźnię postaw i charakterów, a pionierzy nauk społecznych – narzędzie podporządkowania jednostki wymogom sprawnego systemu. Z biegiem lat jedyna opera Beethovena obrosła jednak mnóstwem narzuconych znaczeń i z pochwały małżeńskiej lojalności urosła do rangi symbolu odzyskanej cudem swobody. Tak ją odebrano w 1955 roku na otwarciu wiedeńskiej Staatsoper, taką rolę odegrała w 1989 roku w Dreźnie, kiedy uliczne demonstracje zbiegły się w czasie z premierą wymownej inscenizacji Christine Mielitz. Tak ją odczytują wszyscy – mnie nie wyłączając – po półtora roku pandemii, która wywróciła do góry nogami nie tylko świat operowy.

Siobhan Stagg (Leonora). Fot. Stefan Brion

Francuski reżyser Cyril Teste, twórca najnowszej produkcji w paryskiej Opéra-Comique, postanowił jednak na tym nie poprzestać i odnieść się także do innych nośnych tropów. Przynajmniej tak wynika z jego przedpremierowych wypowiedzi, gdzie przedstawił Leonorę jako oświeceniową feministkę i odniósł się do panoptycznego modelu władzy, który zdaniem Michela Foucaulta wyszedł poza mury systemu opresji i przyczynił się do narodzin społeczeństwa nadzorowanego w skali całego globu. Można i tak, ale trzeba to umieć pokazać. Tymczasem inscenizacja Teste’a okazała się wtórna, także wobec wspomnianej już koncepcji Mielitz, a przy tym wątpliwa pod względem warsztatowym. Nieumiejętność poprowadzenia postaci Teste zastępuje wszechobecnymi w dzisiejszym teatrze projekcjami i podpatrzoną u Franka Castorfa manierą filmowania elementów akcji na scenie. Narrację przenosi do współczesnego więzienia o zaostrzonym rygorze, gdzie Rocco i Leonora – zamiast kopać więźniowi grób na rozkaz Pizarra, który zamierza rozprawić się osobiście z niewygodnym świadkiem – przygotowują Florestana do egzekucji przez zastrzyk z trucizny. Rozumiem, że na taki pomysł nikt wcześniej nie wpadł, nie trzeba być jednak znawcą amerykańskiego systemu penitencjarnego, by nabrać podejrzeń, że Pizarro mógł pozbyć się wroga w znacznie prostszy sposób. Teste nie rozumie wewnętrznych kodów utworu: symboliczną scenę komunii przez ofiarowanie więźniowi chleba i wina przemienia w chaotyczną szarpaninę z bidonem oraz podkradzioną z kantyny kanapką – za które Florestan podziękuje, ale nie zdąży uszczknąć kęsa ani kropli, bo Leonora w pozorowanym akcie przemocy wytrąci mu jedno i drugie sprzed ust. Akcja posuwa się naprzód niemrawo, obdarowani chwilą wolności więźniowie snują się bez celu po scenie, po czym przystępują do meczu koszykówki, który po latach odosobnienia idzie im nadspodziewanie gładko, Florestan niespecjalnie cierpi, Leonora nieszczególnie się cieszy z odzyskania męża, opera nabiera barw w ostatnich minutach finału, zanim widz zdąży się zorientować, skąd właściwie ta radość.

Brak zaangażowania na scenie szedł w parze z dziwacznym ujęciem dyrygenta Raphaëla Pichona, cenionego interpretatora muzyki barokowej, który poprowadził swój zespół Pygmalion, jakby miał na pulpicie partyturę którejś z późnych oper Lully’ego. Orkiestra grała suchym dźwiękiem, agresywnie podkreślając miary taktów, kształtując frazy na przekór intencjom kompozytora, gubiąc w zgiełku elementy o kluczowym dla narracji znaczeniu – choćby słynne trytony w partii kotłów we wstępie do II aktu. Pichon nie pomagał śpiewakom, których głosy często ginęły w trudnej akustyce Opéra-Comique, przykryte na ogół niepięknym i zaskakująco donośnym brzmieniem zespołu instrumentów dawnych.

Albert Dohmen (Rocco), Michael Spyres (Florestan) i Siobhan Stagg. Fot. Stefan Brion

Siobhan Stagg, której miękki, promienny sopran Christa Ludwig określiła mianem najpiękniejszego, z jakim miała kiedykolwiek do czynienia, rozchorowała się przed premierą i w pierwszych dwóch spektaklach wzięła na siebie tylko zadania aktorskie. Na wieczorze otwarcia zastąpiła ją śpiewająca z kanału orkiestrowego Katherine Broderick – ponoć z niezłym skutkiem. Przyjechałam na drugie przedstawienie, kiedy w roli Leonory zmieniła ją Jacquelyn Wagner, obdarzona ciemnym, a zarazem pięknie skupionym i kryształowo czystym głosem, zdradzającym potencjał do znacznie cięższych partii. Zaczęła odrobinę niepewnie – co w pełni zrozumiałe, zważywszy na niesprzyjające okoliczności – ale już w połowie I aktu uplasowała się w czołówce obsady, pod koniec słusznie nagrodzona huraganową owacją publiczności. Spośród dwojga „komicznych” kochanków bardziej przypadł mi do gustu Jaquino w osobie młodego Holendra Linarda Vrielinka, o głosie zabarwionym dobrze pasującym do tej partii leciutkim groszkiem. Świetna skądinąd Mari Eriksmoen (Marcellina) brzmiała chwilami zbyt dramatycznie. Z niskich głosów męskich zachwycił mnie przede wszystkim Christian Immler w roli Don Fernanda, dysponujący aksamitnym, niezwykle inteligentnie prowadzonym bas-barytonem. Zasłużony w partiach straussowskich i wagnerowskich Albert Dohmen (Rocco) tym razem wypadł co najwyżej poprawnie. Od obydwu wspomnianych panów wyraźnie odstawał Gabor Bretz jako Pizarro, obdarzony głosem nie dość wyrazistym i zbyt jasnym do tej partii, na dodatek wepchnięty przez reżysera w rolę żałosnego, wzbudzającego co najwyżej niechęć pajaca.

Zdaję sobie sprawę, że większość melomanów wybrała się w ten wieczór do Opéra-Comique, by w partii Florestana usłyszeć fenomenalnego Michaela Spyresa, świeżo opromienionego sukcesem płyty Baritenor dla wytwórni Erato. Jako krytyk dawno nie byłam w takiej rozterce. Uchem wyobraźni słyszę, na jakie wyżyny interpretacji mógłby wzbić się ów śpiewak pod batutą prawdziwego znawcy muzyki Beethovena. Monolog w II akcie zaczął jeszcze po swojemu: od eterycznego pianissimo, rozwijanego stopniowo do potężnego, nabrzmiałego gniewem fortissimo, po którym nastąpiła śmiertelna, dłużąca się w nieskończoność cisza. Problemy zaczęły się w końcowym odcinku poco allegro z towarzyszeniem oboju obbligato, kiedy niemiłosiernie wyrąbany przez orkiestrę akompaniament zmusił Spyresa do precyzyjnego artykułowania tekstu muzycznego i niczego ponadto. Znikł gorączkowy potok wymowy, zabrakło emocji, rozpaczliwej walki euforii z szaleństwem, jednego z najbardziej dojmujących – nie tylko w twórczości Beethovena – epizodów muzycznej udręki. Podobnie zabrakło liryzmu w tercecie „Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten”, zabrakło też ekstatycznej radości w duecie „O namenlose Freude” – za co winę ponosi nie tylko bezradny reżyser, lecz także dyrygent, który akurat w tej scenie zdecydował się usunąć kluczowe fragmenty dialogu mówionego, ze słynnym „Nichts, mein Florestan!” Leonory, które w dobrze poprowadzonym i wykonanym Fideliu potrafi wycisnąć łzy z kamienia.

Scena finałowa. Po lewej na pierwszym planie Mari Eriksmoen (Marcellina), pośrodku Michael Spyres i Siobhan Stagg. Fot. Stefan Brion

Cóż pozostaje niepoprawnej wielbicielce jedynej opery Beethovena, jak tylko powrócić do À travers chants równie ulubionego Berlioza: „Zdaję sobie sprawę, że większość znamienitych krytyków się ze mną nie zgodzi. Na szczęście nie jestem jednym z nich”.

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