Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Director Sergio Morabito talks about THAT PRODUCTION of Rusalka

The Wieler-Morabito production of Rusalka at Covent Garden has proved a lot more controversial in terms of critical response than The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO. Some critics, including my Independent colleague Ed Seckerson, have given it just one star out of five - though often there's a proviso of four for the musical performance and universal plaudits for Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The Telegraph has turned it into a salacious "oo-er, opera set in brothel gets booed" story, which is on the front page of the paper's website (still, you'd more or less expect that from the Telly). Mark Berry, over at Boulezian, is a voice of strong approval. And the Financial Times gives it five stars. I guess that means it has "divided opinion"...

My article previewing the production last week was based on a wide-ranging interview with Sergio Morabito, one of its duo of directors, and revival director Samantha Seymour. I thought it might be interesting, in the light of all this fuss, to revisit the original transcript for more detail. It's longish, and Sergio's English is quite Germanic, so get yourself a cuppa...
(Images: Royal Opera House/Clive Barda)



JD: Sergio, how and why did you decide to give Rusalka this very modern type of production, full of symbols? 

SM: Jossi Wieler, my directing partner and I, always try not to impose something, not to force something – we try to develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and the musical text. What was decisive for this experience was that we discover that we need to find a balance, to balance it very carefully and not neglect the fairytale moments, which of course are important. Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid and we try to go with it and play with it. But we decided together with the stage designer not to have a naturalistic setting, but we try to evoke this summer night’s dream kind of atmosphere, which is part of the score that you can’t just overrule. So we have a simple space which can transform and as a second layer we have the video projections which are conveying much of this fairytale atmosphere. Even in the costumes we play with it with these moments – we went back to Andersen and Rusalka really has this fish tail and tries to get rid of it and turn it into human legs. I think everything lies in a certain playfulness. 

But it’s important to realise the opera is a very dark fin-de-siecle reworking of this ancient story. This is crucial: it’s really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope. The ending is one of the most hopeless endings until now in opera, because of what she’s experiencing. This incredible development of Rusalka from a young woman, almost a girl, who tries to break out and find her own way and leave her father, risking everything in order to live this love, but then gradually becoming aware that she cannot live in this cold human world: she’s fooled by the society, humiliated by them and betrayed by the prince of course. Then the third act is very desperate. It’s not so much about an intact natural world - but one of the first lines is  that Vodnik the water goblin says "You are selling yourself," bartering – like The Bartered Bride, in Czech it's the same word – so it is also about the violation of the natural world. Then she realises that the human kind of utopia she dreamed of discovering with her prince becomes a trap more and more. We end up – it’s sort of inspired element, very strange, maybe it has some fin-de-siecle elements, but it is really a brothel, with sofas and couches...
SS: An American brothel!
SM: We end up in a very sad situation where she has no escape any more and so she decides in our production to commit suicide - which is an important element of the Rusalka story. Pushkin wrote a drama which he didn’t complete and later Dargomyszky transformed it into an opera – it’s the East European Rusalka myth, about a woman or children also who were not baptised or were expelled from Christian society, so they had no burial and they are doomed to live not living, not being dead, expelled by this Christian world. In the Pushkin she commits suicide and transforms into a rusalka - she comes back as a kind of vampire and drags him to his death. This goes perfectly not only with the music but also the text of this opera. It’s a horror ending: the prince goes mad and crazy, begging she gives him the mortal kiss, so it's not a love reconciliation, but she’s really kissing him to death. She comes back from the dead and revenges herself. She knows that she never will be granted salvation because she’s been told from the very beginning 
SS: She can save the prince but she can’t save herself. 
SM: Her last words to him when she kills him are "May God be merciful to you," but she knows that she herself is doomed to haunt this place. 
SS: In this undead state 
SM: exactly. We tried to find the right balance, and it's very sophisticated and playful, but also a sophisticated game of the authors of the text. It has much to do with this fin de siècle melancholy and sadness.

JD: When Dvorak wrote the work, around 1900, Freud's work was already current and it strikes me that the Freudian symbolism is very clear - do you think that is a deliberate element in the opera?

SS: I think that was partly the spirit of the times – the decadence of turn-of-the-century Vienna. 
SM: It’s not so far away...it started around the same time. There's a strange structure to the story with the Foreign Princess: we don’t know what the relationship with the prince is, where does she suddenly come from – this very violent, destructive female character. And of course it’s also the madness of the prince at the end, he goes crazy.
SS: He really does despair - and he’s in a pretty rocky state at the beginning! 
SM: One can assume he tried to fall in love with Rusalka: already he’s trying to liberate himself from the spell from the foreign princess, it could be an explanation. Then he realises he can't cope with the other woman – the foreign princess is a bit much for him and he tries to conform to his society and their expectations when he meets Rusalka, but her idea of love is too different. He has not the strength to fight for it, in a way. He’s so fragile – and he is very brutal to Rusalka in the second act, when he falls completely under the power of the Foreign Princess.

JD: The story seems full of echoes of Giselle and Swan Lake... 

SM: Yes, the Wilis, the women who were abandoned before the wedding...it’s exactly this tradition. That’s what we have to make concrete, this journey by Rusalka...

JD: Will you make many changes from your original production in Salzburg? (This interview was on the first day of ROH rehearsals).
SM: Two of the main parts are the same singers – Camilla Nylund was crucial because she is so charming on the one side and has so many colours she can convey vocally and with her acting. She’s able to have this playfulness, but she faces also the catastrophes of this character and the final scene is really chilling. But of course we try to react, not just to fit in the new singers. We have to find it and adapt it and it’s a great chance to work over some details. 
SS: There's an element that involves the Austrian Empire - bringing the production to England, we have to make sure the wedding party wouldn’t be construed as being German because they’re in dirndls and lederhosen. It’s not about germany, it’s about Austria. If you just picked 30 people outside the Salzburg Festspielhaus they’d look like our chorus! 
SM: Of course the Habsburgs and Czechoslovakia was part of it - the national opera was a manifestation of the Czech identity. We have on stage a little fountain with the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, but she wears a sort of halo: she's a pagan being, but she dreams of having sanctity and being granted a soul and being safe. That’s the background of the folklore motifs: these gods, goddesses, wood nymphs and sea nymphs that were demonised under Christianity. It’s not that their existence is denied, but it was thought that the devil was behind these elemental spirits, so this plays a certain role that we see these fairytale characters – in a way, they are in exile. They don’t live in the Bohemian woods, but they've had to retreat. They got pushed out to the edges of society. What we try to have is space for imagination – in the third act you might have this association that it’s a brothel because you see how people are dressed and how they act, but its just one moment of the story. We didn’t want to define it in one way, but to leave it open to different interpretations.

JD: You're mixing the references to the late Habsburg Empire with something much more 21st-century...

SM: Yes, it’s not that you can say OK, we put it in the 1960s or 1980s – we are coming from different sources, so we have a very beautiful traditional Czech wedding dress for Rusalka. It’s an invented world on stage – if you have documentary realism it wouldn’t work. 

JD: What do you make of Jezibaba? 

SM: She’s terrifying. Rusalka addresses her really as an ancient goddess - maybe Hecate, who was a benign goddess thousands of years ago, but now she’s reduced to a very miserable existence and she’s frustrated, of course, because she lost her dignity and people forgot her and think she’s just the old witch. So we see an old woman who can hardly walk - but she has some skills. It’s a mixture, so we don’t have just a classical fairytale, but this is a woman like those you can see on the streets nowadays. A bag lady. But she has a very special cat, which she addresses in the text also – it’s a very frightening, big cat, played by a dancer. 

JD: (remembering with alarm what happened in the Glyndebourne production) It doesn’t get its paw chopped off when they make the potion, does it....?

SM: No, this is a bit more playful! The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat and it’s funny this fishwoman loves this toy cat; and suddenly in the scene with the witch it transforms into a cruel monster. And this cat transforms her and gives her legs.
SS: It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and it’s quite horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her. 
SM: Everybody wants her, but she’s relentless, she really fights for her dream and does everything...and at the very end, in the third act in this brothel situation, there is the cat of Madame Jezibaba, a real one, sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is really trapped and she commits suicide. She asks "How can I come back to my former existence?". Jezibaba says "You have to stab the prince," and gives her a knife. In Dvorak she’s supposed to throw the knife into the lake and in our production, with the same words - it makes perfect sense - she says "he shall be happy, whatever happens to me" and she kills herself. 
SS: The alternative is that the world of the nymphs is also the world of the brothel so if she decided to stay there, she’d become one of the girls.

JD: What do you say to people who say "but this is a fairytale and we want a mermaid"? 

SM: But we have one! We have also the nymphs! We have a giant cat! They are right – you shouldn’t negate this abstractly, but you also shouldn’t reduce the fairy story because it’s much more than that. 
SS: I think fairytales have got a bad name – a lot of them are very psychologically dark, not harmless little stories for children. We do have fairy tale elements and the video projections to create that kind of ambience. SM: I’ve often seen beautiful films which are also playing with fairy tales, transposing them to a more contemporary world of experience. Children, when they hear fairy tales, they have concrete associations, they connect it to their real world. They don’t analyse them, but I remember how you link to certain persons or certain objects - so, you try to understand through the symbols when you don’t know the real meaning of old words. 
SS: There’s a lot of cruelty in them. I once went to a children’s performance of Cinderella where the Ugly Sisters had their feet chopped off to fit into the slippers. A friend of mine who’s a kindergarten teacher said you have to have this because children have an innate sense of right and wrong and if the bad sisters aren’t punished fittingly then they go out with this sense that it was unjust! So the cruelty is justified. That was an interesting insight.

JD: This is the first time Rusalka has been done here. Is that maybe why people have fought shy of it, because it is so dark? 

SM: It’s hard to say, but it could be one reason. 
SS: There’s a sort of renaissance of it going on – since we did our production in Salzburg there’ve been several others that have been very successful. 
SM: Also the Czech language...Especially in Germany, we have this repertory sustem and it’s not so easy to fill the houses... I think it’s partly due to the language, which also affects the musical language in an interesting way. I could imagine for some people this makes it difficult. [Morabito is currently based in Stuttgart.]

JD: You work very much in tandem with another director, Jossi Wieler – this is interesting, because in my experience some directors tend to be a tad despotic? 

SM: We’ve done opera together since 1994 and it’s a collective art work per se. You are not free – you have to respond from moment to moment to so many decisions the composer made. When you stage a play you have carte blanche to give the text a new structure and make a collage, etc, to create an exciting and interesting production. But in opera you have to contend with the grid of the score. And so that’s what we try to do: for us it’s all about the common process between the two of us and also the designer and the singers We really believe that you have to free the singers, you have to coach them in the best possible way... You are not just reacting: there are many decisions to take in advance before the rehearsal process starts. But the most beautiful thing is when the singers take over more and more responsibility. We’re not directors who expect singers to fill the form we’re defining; we try to stimulate their own fantasy. 
SS: What you often do is tell the singers what the situation is and what you want them to communicate, but not how you want them to communicate it. I think that’s a big difference. 
SM: So often you see opera where everybody is trying to make a remake of the film that was already made in their head, whereas for us the great thing is when they become freer and freer and have their own life - it's not like being marionettes. You find so much more that you couldn’t anticipate. It’s a living process – we are trying to hand over our ideas and input and then see. It gives you the possibility to step back and discover new dimensions. We have this dialogue. invent these productions and involve every collaborator. It’s fun! And when you have singers like Camilla – singers can do so much nowadays, they are so keen, they want to know, they want to play, they want to be asked. 
Often in opera, because it's so hierachical, you have a huge responsibility - and maybe it makes it easier if there are two of you, because you can afford to rely on the other and we find out together how to go on. This takes away a lot of stress, because the institution assumes you know what you want and it can be a difficult dynamic in opera theatre. 
SS: A lot of people have a similar relationship with their set designer and consult them about what they think SM: The stage designer created a space from which this world can unfold. We take the risk, even if we don’t know how it will unfold – it’s about process and it’s much more productive when you don’t know from the very beginning what you want to see. You start and you have long discussions; it’s important to have very specific fixed points and start around those. It’s so beautiful when the conductor, the singers, everyone is really working together and it’s not this power game...

JD: Audiences in some European countries, especially Germany and Austria, have come to expect productions that shock and challenge, whereas Americans tend to prefer traditional narrative stagings. Do you worry about how this production is going to go over here in the UK, which is kind of in the middle? 

SM: It’s hard to say, but of course I hope that the audience will see that no one of the singers is forced to do something awkward, but that they really play with huge intensity. So even if it’s unexpected or even disturbing in some moments, my hope is that nobody can really resist the presence of the singers and the commitment that they have. 
SS: There's nothing gratuitous about it. 

JD: If you were speaking to someone who's never seen Rusalka before, how would you persuade them to come and see it? 

SM: It’s not the answer to your question, but we try to work in a way that everyone, even someone who doesn’t know anything about the opera or the story, is able to step in and understand it. So it's not that we are simplifying – on the contrary, the more colour and detail, the more concrete it is. We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations. One hopes one can seduce even people who know the opera in another production to experience it anew. I would say it’s a very sad, modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music – not just the Song to the Moon which everyone knows but a lot of pieces everyone should know...It’s an incredibly colourful score, but permeated by this deep, deep sadness and all the folk elements – it brings together a lot of different musical styles. 

JD: It strikes me that there’s a lot of Wagner in there. 

SM: That’s true – Alberich and the Rhinemaidens and some of the sounds and styles are melded in Dvorak's own style.

JD: And here’s an opera where the heroine is mute for most of the 2nd act! 

SM: Yes, that’s funny! It's an amazing risk to take – she doesn’t sing for half an hour and then this amazing aria bursts out of her. But you’ll see how Camilla is moving this whole second act – it’s so touching. And in the first act we think we need the love duet, but it never happens, Rusalka doesn’t join in! That's quite daring.

JD: Do you like working with Yannick Nezet-Seguin?

SM: I’m very happy he is conducting. When we did this in 2008 in Salzburg, he was there conducting Romeo and Juliet, and it’s a nice coincidence we are brought together now in this opera.

JD: Is it possible to quantify why the working relationship is so strong between you and Jossi?

SM: He was already an established theatre director when then he was asked by the artistic manager of the Stuttgart Opera to direct opera. He hesitated, he loves classical music and opera, but he thought it’s not his profession – and so we came together and started to do our first production, I as dramaturg and he as director, and it developed its own dynamic. After our third production - it was Alcina by Handel, it was invited to the Edinbuirgh Festival for several performances around 2000 or 01 - we started to stage things together. I am coming more from the dramaturgical approach, but what we share is an analytical passion, so Jossi for the 'soul and being' and me for dramaturgy, text and literature. Of course we change, sometimes he is leading, sometimes I can take over and show a direction, but we can hardly say who had which idea. It comes out of the dialogue - but that’s his great quality, that he lets it be. It’s great serenity. We are now at the Stuttgart Opera and we had a wonderful La Sonnambula premiere last Sunday. It’s fantastic because normally in opera you can’t choose - you are asked whether or not you want to stage a particular opera - but now we can decide ourselves.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rusalka's song to...her toy cat?

RUSALKA, ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, COVENT GARDEN
Music: ****
Production: **

As I said, I'm all for cats at the opera. The opening night of Rusalka at Covent Garden was graced by a very schmoozy pushkin - a real one, apparently named Girlie - which lounged on the sofa next to Jezibaba in the last act and was stroked and cuddled whenever possible before trotting off mid-scene. It looked quite happy, as if basking beside a witch on a plastic couch above an orchestra of 90 or so was all in a day's work. (Solti is jealous and says he'd like the role next time, please, and would moreover add value by joining in the singing.)

Here is Covent Garden's resident Great Dane, Kasper Holten - head of opera - to introduce a dark tale that is essentially based on Hans Christian Andersen...



The cat looked a lot happier than much of the audience, which didn't appear to get on with Wieler and Morabito's zany modern production. It had its moments: the projections of water-lilies, floating blossoms, outsize carp and jellyfish - the latter's shape attractively echoed later by the shadow of the chandelier - were imaginative and added some much-needed images of nature to a work whose music is steeped in Bohemia's woods and forests, but that on this stage otherwise bore little trace of them.

Cats are everywhere, though. Rusalka - pinned down by her mermaid tail and forced to drag herself along the floor of the Nymphheim (they have sofas and lamps under the lake) - takes comfort in a toy feline, with which the wood nymphs tease her and to which she addresses her Song to the Moon. Jezibaba's cat effects her transformation into semi-human - expanded to dancer-size and mauling the fish tail as you'd expect, plus some (Girlie appears only in Act III).

Sadly, there's a serious divide between what you see and what you hear. In a work that is all heart, warmth and soul, visually there was...well, none. This got in the way. Musically, but for a few opening-night rough edges in the pit - the trumpets are sometimes too loud - it was inspiring. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, making his Covent Garden debut, was the hero of the evening, capturing all of Dvorak's wonder, intensity and sensuality: the music sprang to warm and vibrant life, each of its beauties more breathtaking than the last. The cast, headed by Camilla Nylund as a passionate Rusalka turned to ice by humankind, was mainly strong: Petra Lang is luxury casting for the Foreign Princess, and Alan Held bowled out magnetic power and disillusionment as Vodnik, though in the Prince's open-hearted, lyrical moments Bryan Hymel's tone did not quite meet the music on its own terms.

But the production's problems run deeper: the character development seems woefully one-dimensional. It's difficult to believe in the love of Rusalka and the Prince, whose efforts to be neurotic were confined to the Huntsman removing his gun from him in Act I. Vodnik is a washed-up alcoholic, Jezibaba (Agnes Zwierko) a pill-popping bag lady/brothel madame. None "came off the page", however well they sang. And really...if Rusalka has just explained that she can "neither live nor die", how come she bothers to stab herself? We know that she is not a mortal and, more to the point, so does she. And for the ending to leave one utterly unmoved - that can't be a good thing.

It's a very long evening, full of musical wonders, but it felt enervating rather than uplifting. If such a fine performance of Dvorak's marvellous score drags one down to that degree, the production has much to answer for. There were boos. Offset by cheering, natch, but the quantity of the former was somewhat noticeable.

[UPDATE, WEDNESDAY MORNING - the ensuing critical fallout over this production actually deserves a post to itself...]

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Klinghoffer rings, clings and clangs

Yesterday was the opening night of The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera.

Rings: it's strong stuff, first of all. Tom Morris's staging is magnificent, overwhelming at times in the power of its imagery, dominated by the draining and dangerous Middle Eastern sun.

The concrete panels of that wall, the so-called "separation barrier" (it is a wall - I have touched the real thing), are present throughout. They not only provide the necessary claustrophobic resonances and contexts, but also form a screen for the film projections of the limestone hills, the rolling waves, and, for the finale of act 1, layer upon layer of graffiti. Some are grumbling that the wall wasn't there at the time of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The Death of Klinghoffer may have been written 20 years ago, but the issues are as current as ever and it would have been invidious for Morris to ignore how matters have progressed, or not progressed (those condemning the opera as anti-Zionist are in denial - this business is real and it won't conveniently vanish on demand). Besides, in certain ways Klinghoffer is very much an opera of its time - more of that later - and bringing it up to date for presentation now is an artistic necessity, even more than a political one.

Dance provides a marvellous opportunity to illuminate certain characters' inner feelings that might not otherwise emerge. Hats off to choreographer Arthur Pita, who has created a dance language that corresponds to the music, full of repeated fragments, patterns that build up associations, the physical depiction of the running and rerunning of memory and conflicted thought. Four men manoeuvre a figure representing Klinghoffer - perhaps the man he used to be in his youth? - while the wonderful Alan Opie (who has by then been killed) delivers the "aria of the falling body" against the backdrop of the terrible, hot sky. Omar, the terrorist who shoots Klinghoffer, is played by a dancer (Jesse Kovarsky) and says not a word: his fear and desperation are shown through his movements. As the British shipboard dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) and her 1980s pop music remind us, it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer partners Alan Opie in performances of great dignity, honesty and vulnerability. Their plight brings home the essence of this history of macrocosm and microcosm: two innocent, normal people are caught up in something not of their making and out of their control, their lives shattered as a result. The opera, at its core, is about how ordinary people are destroyed by world events. It is always the innocent who pay the price.

Christopher Magiera is a fine and believable Captain, thinking on his feet, especially touching in the scene where Mamoud (the eloquent baritone Richard Burkhard), a dead ringer for Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, opens up overnight and tells him his own story - an incident based, like many of the opera's scenes, on the captain's memoirs, extracts of which you can read in the programme. Superb vignettes by Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman who describes locking herself in her bathroom and escaping unnoticed, all of it a first-rate take-off of Pierrot Lunaire sprechstimme; and by Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman, implicitly Omar's mother, intensity suffusing every blazing note.

It's a huge score, full of marvels, embroidered with sizzling colours and layer upon layer of musical cause and effect; the inspired and beautiful choruses and the reflective arias for the Klinghoffers are perhaps its finest moments. The ENO chorus did the former proud and the orchestra ran, so to speak, a tight ship under the expert captaincy of Baldur Bronnimann. Rarely can it have been made so clear that "minimalist" is a misleading misnomer. The music is almost Wagnerian at times, in that the real action takes place in unfolding of the orchestral fabric, the singers floating over the top.

And what clings is its atmosphere. The aura of the music captures the same atmosphere I experienced every day when I visited the West Bank two years ago. This is what you breathe in at the background of each moment, even happy and relaxed ones: the quivering of nerve endings, the claustrophobia, the looming dread at the glimpse of a panel of wall or a soldier with a gun, the uncertainty of exactly what may lie around the next bend of the road through the hills. It's all there, in the trumpets, the pizzicati, the flickering repetitive figures on keyboard, or the way a quiet chorus can build up so fast to unanticipated levels of violence.

What you experience in this opera is therefore something almost miraculously authentic. It is similar to the way Puccini captures the emotional truth of Rodolfo at the end of La Boheme when he realises Mimi is dead - those stark horns evoke in one precise stroke one's own memories of the moment a loved one died: that was it, that was how it felt, that is it exactly. This particular form of genius is reserved for only the most empathetic of operatic composers - something that no writer or visual artist can convey with such instant visceral impact.

And then... the clangs. It's the words. Not the structure - a deconstructive collage of impressions is a fine device for conveying the fractured memories of a past event and furthermore provide much-needed variety. Nor the details of the scenes, many of which are based, as we've seen, on reality. And I find it admirably "even-handed". But the details of the lines, the images, the metaphors, the words themselves, had me longing for a red pen to plaster over the surtitles. There are too many words: and they are cumbersome words, syllabic, complex, very wordy words, and often meaningless words - poetry that might (perhaps) work on the page, but that must have given Adams the mother of all headaches. When he described the other day the storminess of his working relationship with the poet Alice Goodman, I thought he was joking. Now I'm not so sure.

How do you work with a libretto like that? How do you even think it is suitable for setting? It takes three to five times as long to sing a word as to speak it, and there is no doubt that opera requires prima la musica - the words must serve musical needs. Perhaps they do, in their own way. But still, is it a good idea to throw the audience off balance, distracting you, jerking you out of the flow to wonder what exactly an antlion is when you are supposed to be caught up in the emotions of the hijacking's aftermath? I mean, we're not all David Attenborough. And it's equally startling to hear a reference to the Dome of the Rock in the Chorus of Exiled Jews, which depicts a couple implicitly thrown apart by the Second World War and reunited unexpectedly after many traumas. The man compares the woman's scars to the holy sites of Israel, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the Dome of the Rock itself is not a site holy to Judaism - it is its location, the Temple Mount, that is. This, and the antlion, are only two meagre examples. I don't remember this being such a problem in Penny Woolcock's film - but that had been heavily cut. (Here is Wikipedia to explain the antlion.)

The words, too, give the opera its slightly dated feel. Self-indulgent, pretentious poetic stuff in opera libretti was very much a feature of opera of the 1960s-80s (Klinghoffer's premiere was in 1991). Its ultimate death blow, I suspect, was Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)Good, concise, beautiful poetry is another matter: Birtwistle's The Minotaur has a libretto by David Harsent that is a work of art. Time to take another look at how Da Ponte did it.

The other thing that clanged - or rather made a very small clunk - was the protest luridly predicted by the Sunday Telegraph, which materialised as one (1) man with a placard outside the theatre - he has no doubt achieved the not-inconsiderable solo feat of being mentioned in each and every write-up.

In time, Klinghoffer should come to be regarded as what it is: a fine, thought-provoking opera, representative of its era, flawed but with many beauties, the latter including passages that show Adams at his most inspired. It will be no more scandalous, a hundred years from now, than Le nozze di Figaro - the original play of which was thought, in its day, to be condoning class conflict.

Six more performances until 9 March. Do go and see it. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

'Klinghoffer' opens tonight

...so John Adams came to London a day early and English National Opera held a Friends event at which artistic director John Berry interviewed him about his life and work. I went along to listen.

A thoroughly entertaining discussion: although he must have been extremely jet-lagged, the jokes flowed free and fast, if with serious points behind them. Audience member: "Was there any moment in your career when you felt able to say to yourself, 'Now I am a successful composer'?" Adams: "Possibly last Tuesday...but by Wednesday it was all gone."

The production, by Tom Morris - of War Horse fame (and more) - promises to be much more naturalistic than some of the other stagings over the years. Except, of course, for Penny Woolcock's screen version, which was shown on Channel 4 some years ago. It was filmed aboard a ship and the performers had to be shown how to hold and fire Kalashnikovs. "That was a bit too naturalistic for me," said John Adams. "Oh," said John Berry, "we're doing that as well."

Fascinating, also, to learn that originally Adams had planned the story of the hijacking and murder to occupy only the first half of the opera, with the second half a political black comedy featuring Margaret Thatcher and co. But when he began to compose the opening chorus, he realised that he had something altogether more serious in hand.

He was frank in describing his working relationship with Alice Goodman, the librettist, as stormy - "it made the Israeli-Palestinian situation look like a love-fest!" - and gave us a taste of the most difficult line of poetry he's ever had to set. It's in the captain's scene, when he reflects on the pleasures of being alone with the waves and time to think, though couched in somewhat different language. Listen out for it.

Interesting insights, too, into Adams's background and the attitude during his upbringing towards his hopes of becoming a composer. When he started out (he has just turned 65) it was, he thinks, almost impossible to contemplate a career writing music full-time; that situation has changed considerably over the decades. Nevertheless, he remarked, his parents never tried to push him towards a proper job like law or medicine; they wanted him to be an artist. He says that he always feels strange writing his occupation as "composer" on landing cards at airports, et al, and wonders if the immigration official will say "Composer?...just step over here a minute, sir..." - but for one occasion in the UK when the guy said to him, "Oh, I love Harmonium..."

One audience member asked him what he would have done had he not been a composer. Adams looked momentarily stumped - he eventually said that he enjoys writing, has a blog, has written a book and writes book reviews for the New York Times "because it's fun", so could have contemplated "something literary". But I think it's clear that his vocation as composer is so much part and parcel of who he is that he couldn't really imagine life without it at all.

Full production details and booking here.

I took along my CD of Klinghoffer for him to sign. And, dear reader, though I blush at such immodesty as to tell you what followed, the great composer then thanked me for the piece I wrote in the Independent the other week and said that it was the most eloquent article about Klinghoffer he had read in years. Dear reader, this does not happen every day. I guess that must be how Julius Korngold felt when Brahms got in touch (though hopefully any resemblance stops there). Here is the article again, in case you missed it.

And here is a trailer from ENO in which director Tom Morris talks about the work - followed, below, by extracts from, and reactions to, the dress rehearsal.






Friday, February 24, 2012

British Transport Police seeks violin stolen from Putney train

A member of the Aurora Orchestra was travelling with a lot of luggage on a London-Putney train from Waterloo when her violin was taken from the overhead rack. British Transport Police have released a CCTV image of a person they are seeking in connection with the incident. Here's their press release:


23 Feb 2012 12:10
CCTV released after man takes £25k violin from luggage rack – London Waterloo/Putney

Police would like to speak with this man - Whitton station 




British Transport Police (BTP) detectives are appealing for witnesses to come forward after a man took a violin from the luggage rack of the 07:45 London Waterloo to Putney service, on Wednesday, 8 February.
Investigators have also released CCTV of a man pictured carrying the violin, which was taken between 7.45am and 8am.


Detective Sergeant Pete Thrush, the officer leading the investigation, is appealing for the man to come forward as he may have key information regarding the whereabouts of the instrument:
“The victim, a 30-year-old woman from Lewisham, had boarded the service carrying a lot of other luggage so had stored her violin in the overhead rack of the train. But as she rose to leave the service a short while later at Putney station she noticed her violin was missing from the luggage racks.
“I have since viewed CCTV from on board the train and at the station which shows a man taking it from the racks before leaving the train at Whitton rail station in Hounslow, carrying the violin.
“The primary focus of our investigation is to get these very precious items returned to their rightful owner.
“The missing violin, which is thought to be worth in the region of £25,000, was stored inside a small black Gewa violin case. The violin is modern, but made to look antique, light in colour and made by Frederic Chaudiere, with wording inside it reading ‘Frederic Chaudiere Fecit Montpellieranno 2011’. It has Infeld purple strings and a gold Olive E string, and the case also contained a Tim Bakergold bow. “
DS Thrush said that after making local enquiries he is now appealing for the public’s help to return the violin to its owner:
“This was a very busy carriage, so I am certain that someone will have seen something, if you did, I am urging you to come forward and speak with police.
"Although the violin and the bow are extremely valuable, I want to stress that their sell-on value is practically nil because they are so unique. It would be very easy for an arts or antiques dealer to recognise them as stolen property, meaning they couldn’t be sold for anything near to their true value.
“The loss of this violin has more than monetary value to the victim who, as you can imagine, is traumatised to have lost it.
"I appeal to those who have these items, or anyone who has any knowledge of their whereabouts, to come forward so they can be returned to their rightful owner."
Anyone with information should contact BTP on Freefone 0800 40 50 40 quoting reference B6/LSA of 21/02/12.

Cats and mermaids take over Covent Garden

I went to have a sneak peek behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House the other week, where they were rehearsing Rusalka. The Dvorak masterpiece is new to the ROH - this will be its first-ever staging there - and the production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, first seen in Salzburg, looks to be ever so slightly startling. Here is my piece about it from today's Independent. And below the video is the full director's cut.







I’m all for cats at the opera. Toy ones, giant ones, glove puppets, real ones (well, maybe not – they’re not renowned for doing as they’re told) – a fuzzy feline will always raise a smile. But isn’t there something alarming about it when a mermaid meets one? We all know what cats do to fish. It looks as if that might happen to the unfortunate Rusalka, the eponymous heroine of Dvorák’s post-Wagnerian take on The Little Mermaid, in the opera’s first-ever production at the Royal Opera House.

Rusalka is a grand-scale epic, a seriously dark fairy tale, its ending notable for its bleak lack of redemption. A co-production with the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden’s staging is headed by the long-established directorial duo of Yossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, with Samantha Seymour as revival director. They have clearly been having some fun transforming Dvorák’s bizarrely neglected masterpiece for the age of postmodern regietheater, or ‘director’s opera’. And, filled as it is with Freudian subtexts and timeless mythical symbols, Rusalka must be an absolute peach of a job.

I meet Morabito and Seymour at the end of a long rehearsal day on the set at the ROH. Bright, surreal couches are in view: in their interpretation, the last act takes place in a type of brothel – an American-style one, Seymour assures me. A glance at photographs of other scenes reveals a lavish wedding dress for Rusalka, a dishevelled witch in pop-socks, large and threatening crosses, a lot of blood – and a giant cat, played by a dancer. In this opera the human world has much the effect on the supernatural side of Rusalka that the cat would have upon the fish tail.

“Everybody knows the Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid,” says Morabito. “We are trying to go with that and to be playful with it. We decided, together with the designer, not to have a naturalistic setting in a wood, but still to try to evoke a summer night’s dream atmosphere, which is a part of the score that you can’t just ignore.” The physical sets are complemented by film projections, which apparently include a jellyfish floating past during Rusalka’s famous ‘Song to the Moon’.

Controversy is still king in opera in Germany and Austria; regietheater holds strong sway. Typically, responses to this production’s unveiling in Salzburg in 2008 were polarised. “Wieler and Morabito tell Rusalka as a gripping narrative of magic realism with every theatrical means at their disposal...heart-rending yet oddly exhilarating,” said one UK reviewer. But a critic from the US, where tastes are generally more conservative, objected to a production he termed “ugly in mind, spirit and soul.” London audiences must make up their own minds.

It seems odd that Rusalka – based on a universally known story and written by a composer whose Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’ is the ultimate popular classic – should be new to the UK’s leading opera house. Perhaps its sinister qualities and tragic conclusion have proved daunting; or perhaps it is too derivative of Wagner (the opening, starring three nymphs and a water goblin, parallels Das Rheingold, while the final scene has something in common with Tristan und Isolde). Then there’s the awkwardness of singing in Czech. And there’s the paradox that the heroine, struck mute by the witch, sings not one note for half of the second act.

There could be another strand to its long absence from international stages. Fairy tales are dark by nature: the more alarming their imagery, on the whole, the better they address our psychological depths. Many adaptations try to neutralise this bite and replace it with cutesiness. But in Rusalka, Dvorák, writing in 1900, did exactly the opposite. Andersen’s already pain-filled The Little Mermaid is only its starting point.

His nameless Prince is a defiant, screwed-up wastrel who betrays Rusalka with ease, before going mad with grief. Rusalka herself journeys from young, infatuated girl to passionate woman suffering horribly for the sake of love; from there she becomes a supernatural sprite, denied rest or salvation for eternity, her only mission to lure men to their deaths. Jezibaba the witch is vicious and cruel in the extreme, complete with that sidekick cat, who is in the text.

“The little Rusalka we see at the beginning has a toy cat: it is funny that this fishwoman loves a toy cat,” says Morabito. “Then in the scene with the witch, it transforms into a cruel monster which transforms her and gives her legs instead of her fish tail.” Seymour adds: “It’s very ambivalent: it has sexual elements and is horrific, but at the same time Rusalka really wants this to happen to her.” But in act III, says Morabito, when the foresaken Rusalka goes back to Jezibaba in the brothel, “there is a cat sitting next to her – it is privileged to sit next to the Madame – and that is when Rusalka realises she is trapped and she commits suicide.”

In Dvorák, there is no suicide. Morabito and his team have Rusalka kill herself rather than face a degrading life; thus they transform her into an ‘undead’ vampiric figure – a concept far from out of place in the legends of eastern Europe. There is nothing gratuitous about this interpretation, Morabito insists: “We always develop the aesthetic of a production out of the interpretation of the written and musical text. Here it was a question of achieving a very careful balance.”

Ultimately, he adds, Rusalka is “a modern fairy tale with wonderful late-romantic music. It’s an incredibly colourful score, permeated by a deep sadness. Dvorák takes elements of Czech folk music and a strong influence from Wagner, then melds them together in his characteristic style.” What would he say to those who, like that American critic, just want a traditional fairy-tale, with mermaids, wood nymphs and visual enchantment? “We have them!” he insists. “We have mermaids. We have a giant cat...”

Rusalka opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 27 February. Camilla Nylund stars as the eponymous heroine and Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Box office: 020 7304 4000





Thursday, February 23, 2012

BREAKING NEWS: New chief conductor for BBC Symphony Orchestra is...

...It's Sakari Oramo. Rumblings yesterday about "a Finn" have left little surprise about this. Want to see who's about to be announced when an appointment's in the offing? Check who's been working with the orchestra recently, matches the nationality in question and got great reviews. Oramo was in town for a Sibelius cycle with the BBCSO in the autumn and the critics glowed with many-starred write-ups.

This is seriously good news for orchestra and conductor alike. Look at Oramo's track record with the CBSO: the odds were stacked against him when he took over from Rattle, yet he brought in a batonprint all his own, championing much British music - including resuscitating, almost single-handedly, the reputation of the long-lost John Foulds. He is a lovely character and a terrific musician: a Finn in tune with Britain, British music (he won the Elgar Medal in 2008) and contemporary music, all important concerns with the BBCSO. Read more about it here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hello, is that the Paradise Garden? Please could I speak to Ken Russell?

Come back, Ken Russell, and please, please have another shot at Debussy? My latest post for The Spectator Arts Blog casts an eye over the late, great filmmaker's approach to two of this year's big anniversary boys: Delius and Debussy. One worked. The other didn't, but should have. Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A good cause at Glyndebourne

If you fancy going to Glyndebourne, getting a look at their new wind turbine (aim: green electric opera?) and supporting a truly excellent cause while you're about it, now's your chance. The mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby has organised a stellar line-up for a special gala on 29 April in aid of Young Epilepsy, Britain's only national charity devoted to children and young people living with epilepsy and other neurological conditions. The evening is being hosted by the actress Joanna Lumley (right), the woman we'd probably elect president if given half a chance. Money raised will go towards the support of the charity's information service, special school, college, residential homes, medical centre and a new school mini-bus.


Among those appearing are Ian Bostridge, Jason Carr, Sarah Connolly, Danielle de Niese, Gerald Finley, Dame Felicity Lott, Diana Montague, Paul Nilon, Brindley Sherratt, Timothy West and of course Jean Rigby herself. Glyndebourne's general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski will also be on hand.




Jean Rigby said: “Our son Ollie has severe epilepsy and is a residential student at Young Epilepsy. He is now in his fifth year and is very well looked after, contented and happy: learning to cope with the challenges he faces now and in the future. I feel so indebted for all Young Epilepsy has done for him and this concert is my way of giving something back.”

Concert and booking information:
The Young Epilepsy Gala Concert will run from 3pm to 5.30pm, including an interval. Guests will be able to wander the famous Glyndebourne gardens in the interval and experience the history and majesty of Glyndebourne.  Glyndebourne’s gardens will be open to visitors from 1pm. Ticket prices start at as little as £15, with prices going up to £85. BOOK NOW online at the Glyndebourne box office at www.glyndebourne.com
 There are a limited number of exclusive Premier Seat Packages available at £175, which includes a souvenir programme, interval champagne and a post-performance reception with the cast.  Or Premier Seats with Dinner at £250 include an additional three course dinner with wine, previewing Albert Roux’s new menu for the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival season.  To book Premier tickets or for more details call Young Epilepsy on 01342 831261 or email: fundraising@youngepilepsy.org.uk 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Perryman's paintings blog

One of the great treats the other day in visiting Symphony Hall, Birmingham, was the chance to lap up the sight of some wonderful Norman Perryman musician portraits backstage. The VIP room is full of them - Cecilia Bartoli, Valery Gergiev, Jessye Norman and more: artists captured in action, with the motion of colour around them evoking the particular energies of their music-making. They also have Rostropovich (left), which is one of my favourites.

Now Norman, who is about to undertake a major new "kinetic painting" project with no less a pianist than Pierre-Laurent Aimard in such delectable locations as the Aldeburgh Festival, has started a new project all his own: he is blogging his autobiography A Life Painting Music. 

It's nearly as colourful as his pictures. You can find the latest episode here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Introducing Karol

Outside the ICC in Birmingham yesterday there snaked a massive queue. Thousands upon thousands of of eager young people had turned out to support the CBSO, Karol Szymanowski and your blogger doing her pre-concert yak....oh, hang on. Across the mall from Symphony Hall were, um, auditions for Britain's Got Talent

Ironic that inside Symphony Hall all afternoon the CBSO Youth Orchestra - 110 young people aged 14-21 - were rehearsing Berg and Bartok and Bruckner, and they really do have talent. And, being mostly teenagers, the chances are that they don't regard angstful, emotional, challenging music as difficult, but identify themselves with it something chronic. We who remember what that was like sometimes wonder if those who wish to stop youngsters from facing that type of art were ever teenagers themselves. 

Anyway, a grand turnout for the evening event too, and huge thanks to the super Symphony Hall & CBSO team for all their help. 

Below is my script, for anyone who couldn't make it, or anyone who could and wants to have another look.


INTRODUCING KAROL 

It’s a great pleasure to be back in Symphony Hall to offer an introduction to an extraordinary composer of whom most of us know too little. He was much of his time, yet he was also ahead of it - to many he seems to be coming into his own today. He was much of his country, and yet his country barely existed except in his imagination. And he was part of an entire generation of composers who were marginalised in the philosophical and musical atmosphere that ensued after the second world war – a generation that it has taken decades to rehabilitate to the deserved degree. He is, of course, Karol Szymanowski.

He is one of those composers that most of us have heard of, though it’s by no means certain we’ll ever have attended a concert containing his music, nor that we’d be aware of what he wrote, when he wrote it, or why. Of course, to say this must be tempting fate here in Birmingham, because you probably know more about Szymanowski than audiences anywhere else in the country! That’s because perhaps his most important champion has been Sir Simon Rattle, whose performances and recordings with the CBSO, in the early 1990s, were vital in putting this wonderful composer back on the map where he belongs.

I’d like to read you a little of what Simon Rattle himself said about Szymanowski, and specifically about the Stabat Mater, which we will hear tonight. Here he describes his first encounter with the music:
"I was having lunch with my friend Paul Crossley, the English pianist. Paul was a man whose advice I used unscrupulously. He said, 'I've got something special for you', then sat at the piano and played a bit of some piece. I had no idea what it was, but it got me very excited and I knew it was love at first sight. It was the last part of the Stabat Mater.”
Rattle duly put the Stabat Mater into one of his first concerts with the CBSO, but he later felt he’d made one mistake: 
“I must admit with shame that the choir sang in Latin. We knew, though, that a Polish language version would need to be prepared. And we struggled with that difficult language. Only Finnish and Hungarian are said to be more difficult, and there is not too much similarity between the Birmingham dialect and the Polish language. Only ten letters are pronounced the same in English and in Polish. So it was a character building experience on all counts. It took a year to work with the choir, but apparently the sopranos can now be understood. I suppose that if Poles tried to sing in Welsh, they would understand our problems. We reached a point where language started to impact on the sound of the music, its rhythm. For instance, the holding out of the vowels and the proper start of the consonants has lent this music a specific pulse. The choir was no longer a group of English singers feeling aloof about a strange, obscure composition. They began to penetrate the music. It was an extraordinary trip. Szymanowski's music bought the ensemble, the choir and the orchestra.”
Then Rattle adds:
“I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place when this music is concerned.”
So, for Sir Simon it was love at first sound. I think I know something of what he felt. I was about 14 when I first heard any Szymanowski, and what I heard was THIS:


[We didn't show this extraordinary little 'Cinephonie' film by Emile Vuillermoz last night, but I can't resist posting it this morning!] 

This is one of Szymanowski’s better-known pieces: one of his Mythes for violin and piano, composed in 1915, a period of his compositional life that is sometimes termed his “oriental impressionist” phase. It is entitled 'La fontaine d’Arethuse' – the fountain of Arethusa being a Greek myth about a nymph, whose virtue is saved from a pursuer by Artemis, who transforms her into a fountain. Szymanowski wrote that his aim was to capture not the narrative but the beauty of the myth – perhaps the aura of it. But it’s worth noticing that Szymanowski visited the actual fountain itself – it is on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily, a place where his travels may have had much personal significance. More of that later.

There’s exoticism in here, without a doubt: the attraction of the ancient, the mythical, the magical, as well as the sensuality of the story and its watery imagery. This percolates into the music from several directions: the harmonies being the most obvious, then the extended and unpredictable lengths of the phrases, and the sheer range of subtle colours that he draws out of these two instruments through his exploration of texture and timbre. You can feel that unique personality, with its mix of emotional and intellectual intensity, that suffuses Szymanowski’s greatest works.

Szymanowski was born in 1882, in what’s now the Ukraine and was then Russia. A lot of Polish landed gentry had settled in that region after Poland was partitioned in 1795, divided up between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The family estate was called Tymoszowka and one wonderful description of their lifestyle says: “It was an aristocratic, cultured household, where music and literature were practised with a passion which drove less artistically-inclined guests to distraction.”

Part of what forms any composer’s outlook, and hence his legacy, is how he deals with the changing world around him. As you can imagine, a lifespan from 1882 to 1937 encompassed some of the biggest upheavals in European history. And how Szymanowski dealt with them contains its own fair share of paradoxes. As he himself said, he had a “fanatic love for the idea of Poland” – note the IDEA OF, rather than Poland itself.
Indeed, Poland at this time was more an idea than a place. But its spirit lived on in its music, especially that of Chopin, which is full of national dances, such as the mazurka, the krakowiak and the polonaise. Szymanowski in his early years certainly showed hints of influence from Chopin. However, let’s just come back briefly to the question of actual language.

I think it’s true to say that every great composer is influenced to some degree by the ebb and flow of his native language. Think of Bach’s cantatas or Schubert’s songs in German, or the way the French language permeates Fauré and Debussy; imagine Tchaikovsky without his Russianness. And Bartók could never have been Bartók without being Hungarian. This strain was especially true of music written in the late 19th century, when a sense of nationalism – usually in a relatively benign form – became increasingly crucial to many composers’ concepts of their own identity. The inflections of Polish, as much as Polish folk music, as Rattle noted, helps to give Szymanowski’s works their particularly plangent, pungeant quality – listen for the flow of the stresses and crunchy consonants during tonight’s performance. And it could be that because of the language, Szymanowski would have "sounded" Polish whether he liked it or not.

Szymanowski’s attitude towards Polishness in music was anything but nationalistic in the usual sense. He went to study in Warsaw, but found the general approach provincial: he preferred to follow the latest developments in western European music, especially German music. In 1905, when he was about 32, he joined a group of young Polish composers who sought to rise above any obvious folk element and wished to take the notion of a national music onto a higher plane.

So it wasn’t national dances that were the prime influence from this idealised Poland, but more the world of aestheticism, religion or spirituality, and nature, and the interrelation of them as they crystallised in Szymanowski’s inner world. Describing his First Violin Concerto, he once said: "Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland." It’s clear that this has little to do with reality – it’s all about dreams, images, abstractions, even escapism, a train of thought that puts Szymanowski virtually in the line of the Symbolist movement, like Debussy.

Perhaps it’s ironic that much later in Szymanowski’s life he turned to extremely real Polish folk music to reinvigorate and reinvent his creativity after the traumas – political, personal and emotional – that beset him around 1918. In 1924 he became enchanted by the folk music of the Tatra mountains. He settled in Zakopane – it is now a famous resort, popular with keen hikers, and his house is now a museum. He chose the resort for its good air, because the one all too real thing that he had in common with Chopin was tuberculosis. But there was more to keep him in the mountains; he described the revelation of this indigenous Polish music as “the discovery of one’s own jewels”. The music of the Tatras is irresistibly rhythmic, intricate, filled with discord and astringency – he termed this ‘Polish barbarism’. Yet even towards the end of his life, interviewed in 1936, Szymanowski responded to a question about this by saying: “Folklore is only significant for me as a fertilising agent. My aim is the creation of a Polish style in which there is not one jot of folklore.”

His Op.50 consists of 20 superb and rather difficult mazurkas for piano. I still remember with absolute horror the time I was faced with one of them as a sight-reading test at university. The harmonic language is so rich and subtle that it is very hard to predict what the next chord should sound like if you’ve never heard it before. It’s that very richness, though, the extreme headiness of his personal language, that seems to get us hooked on him.

Here is an extract from no.2, played by Arthur Rubinstein.


Also in Zakopane, the area’s early church music began to make a profound impression on Szymanowski. This is reflected strongly in the Stabat Mater – its incantatory lines and primal types of rhythmic progression all suggest that it plucks at heartstrings that are very deep-rooted and very ancient. I’d contend that this gives Szymanowski a special place in the evolution of the music of today, and perhaps helps to account for his increasing recognition just at the moment. This Orthodox Church influence is something that he shares with more recent composers who are sometimes termed “Holy minimalist” – that label is admittedly not always a good representation of their work, and certainly Szymanowski himself is not remotely minimal. But we could consider Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, the late Henryk Gorecki, who was Polish too, and the British composer John Tavener on whom the influence of these eastern and exotic ancient sounds has been considerable. If you've enjoyed Tavener works such as The Protecting Veil - a magnificent cello concerto - the chances are that you will also get along well with the sound of Szymanowski. That brings Szymanowski closer to home than ever before.

So, what sort of person was Szymanowski and what impressions and influences spurred him on his personal journey? One musician who knew him well and championed his music was the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. One night Rubinstein, aged about 17 and spending the summer in Zakopane, was startled by what he thought was an intruder in the garden. It turned out to be a medical student named Bronislaw Gromadzki, who just wanted to listen to him practising the piano. The two became friends and Gromadzki, a keen amateur violinist, asked if he could introduce the young pianist to his school friend Karol Szymanowski, whom he described as a composer of genius. Here’s how Rubinstein described the incident in his autobiography:
“Having had quite a few disappointments with so-called geniuses, I nodded patronisingly and said “I am working now, on some very serious works, but come tomorrow and let us see some of your friend’s little pieces.”
“It is difficult to describe my amazement after playing only a few bars of a prelude. This music had been written by a master! We read feverishly all the manuscripts, becoming more and more enthusiastic and excited, as we knew we were discovering a great Polish composer! His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.”
Rubinstein wrote to Szymanowski to tell him what a great impression his music had made, and the young composer wrote back, saying he would soon be arriving in Zakopane. Rubinstein and his friends went to the station to meet him: 
“We awaited the arrival of the train with great excitement. Then there he was: a tall, slender young man. He looked older than his 21 years, dressed all in black, still in mourning for his father, wearing a bowler hat and gloves – appearing more like a diplomat than a musician. But his beautiful, large, grey-blue eyes had a sad, intelligent and most sensitive expression. He walked towards us with a slight limp, greeted his friend cordially but without effusion and accepted our warm welcome with a polite but aloof smile.”
It took Rubinstein a little while to get Szymanowski to open up, but once he did, in a more private setting, the two became fast friends.

They could scarcely have been more different. Rubinstein had a fun-loving, earthy, sensual nature which enabled him to get along with anyone and everyone. Szymanowski, by contrast, was a gay Catholic, a combination which perhaps contributed to the fact that he possessed a relatively tortured soul. He was deeply sensitive and intuitive, and had constantly the feeling of being an outsider. He didn't conform. So, for all his love of Polish culture, Polish culture and its officers did not always love him back. Later, as head of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1927 he struggled to introduce the idealistic reforms he sought, in the face of the traditional, conservative attitudes that got there first. He resigned after just five years.

He was a real Renaissance man, enormously cultured and with a profoundly enquiring mind that gave him a great appetite for travel, philosophy, writing about music, engaging with leading writers. His spheres of musical knowledge and the cocktail of influences he could draw upon was suitably broad as well – Debussy is very much there, Scriabin too, and later Stravinsky. And don’t forget Wagner. No composer of that era could forget him and Szymanowski was no exception. When Rubinstein met him he had just been to Bayreuth and heard Tristan und Isolde – a rite of passage for many composers. But his early passion for Wagner, and for Richard Strauss, was soon supplanted by the atmospheres he absorbed from travelling in Italy, Greece and North Africa, which represented a sort of liberation which is generally thought to have been sexual as well as cultural.

The First World War years at first brought him a positive form of isolation: Szymanowski had a bad knee, which meant that he was not conscripted, and he was able to spend several years on the family estate devoting himself to composition. It was then that he created some of his most enduring works, among them the Mythes, the First Violin concerto and the Third Symphony, as well as the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, the very title of which should be some indication of the degree to which the composer was in love with the orient and its sensual impressions. Then, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tymoszowka was ransacked in the family’s absence, the house was destroyed and the composer’s grand piano met a watery death in the lake.

Depressed and traumatised, Szymanowski found escapism in a different kind of creativity. He wrote a novel. A homosexual novel, for that matter. It was apparently inspired at least in part by his relationship with the librettist of his opera Krol Roger (King Roger): this was his cousin and a well-known poet, Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, who himself wrote a number of poems about the pair’s travels together. They both evinced a deep passion for Mediterranean lands and were well versed in the region’s history. The degree to which Szymanowski’s musical sensibilities were affected by his homosexuality is a topic that merits probably more discussion than we have time for, but I’d like to offer that thought for those of you who are intrigued by it to take away and investigate further.

Much of the novel’s manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1939. But the opera, which is usually considered Szymanowski’s greatest work, has lived to convey a powerful legacy. It began to take shape in 1918 and was eventually premiered in 1926, the year in which he also wrote the Stabat Mater.

Szymanowski’s quest for self-knowledge, plus his obsessions with the orient, folk music and spirituality, were very much of their time, and indeed represent a link, if an indirect one, with an important strand of philosophy that ran through much music of the 1920s and before. Gustav Holst, whose music we also hear tonight, was one of many creative artists who involved themselves with Theosophy – a movement that claimed to be a sort of pan-theological short-cut to the spiritual heart shared by most world religions, by-passing the superficial trappings of religious tradition but also extending towards spiritualism, the occult and so on. 

Were they around today, this would be regarded as rather New Age, but in the first decades of the 20th century it was an influential force embraced by such figures as the poets Rabindranath Tagore and WB Yeats, besides composers such as the flamboyant Russian Scriabin, the rather quiet and modest Holst, and John Foulds, who was born in Manchester but eventually emigrated to India. Szymanowski’s own passions do not seem to have extended to theosophy, but I suspect that those who followed it could well have argued that they shared basic roots with the spiritual journey depicted in King Roger.

The opera is set in 12th-century Sicily – not far from the Fountain of Arethusa – and concerns the conflict in the king’s soul between duty and sensuality: a shepherd initiates him into Dionysian mysteries, gradually leading him towards greater self acceptance. In the end the King is able to embrace the full richness and complexity of life, as represented by Apollo. 

The music is strongly influenced on one hand by Debussy and on the other even more by Stravinsky. Certain phrases and effects seem to have stepped straight out of The Firebird. And yet you never feel that Szymanowski is lifting things gratuitously from other composers; rather, these feel like conscious references with which he is building up his own distinctive world which can’t be divided from everything he has found on his travels, be they physical or spiritual . Here is Queen Roxanna's song:


Tuberculosis eventually killed Szymanowski at the age of 54, well before his time. But perhaps he was ahead of his time. His time may be now. And today we can appreciate his art as part of a full and varied tapestry of music from the past century that goes much deeper and much wider than perhaps was initially realised. He once wrote: “I should like our young generation of Polish musicians to understand how our present anaemic musical condition could be infused with new life by the riches hidden in the Polish ‘barbarism’ which I have at last ‘uncovered’ and made my own’. And that did happen to some degree. Witold Lutoslawski and Roman Maciejewski were two composers who did just that early in their careers; and tangentially a tribute to Szymanowski lives on in the form of the composer Andrzej Panufnik’s daughter, Roxanna, now a prominent composer herself, named after King Roger’s queen.

There has never been such a rich musical century as the 20th, with such an array of different styles and approaches and philosophies, and it is wonderful to find long-underrated or misunderstood composers, such as Szymanowski, finally finding the audience they deserve. Perhaps Szymanowski himself is the shepherd who can lead us to embrace the full richness and complexity of musical life.