Many diverse and qualitatively varied opera performances were heard at the festival Janáček Brno 2018. Every now and then a production appears that divides Brno audiences into two irreconcilable camps, one overjoyed by the innovativeness, many non-musical references and bold direction, while the others lament the illogical symbolism, departures from the libretto, seeing it even as a slap in the face of the composer. The song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared from the Belgian ensemble Muziektheater Transparant as directed by Ivo van Hove and with compositional annotations by Annelies Van Parys is controversial in the true sense of the word. The scenographer Jan Versweyveld, the costume designer An D’Huys and the dramaturge Krystian Lada also took part in this new stage form. The solo roles were taken by Ed Lyon, Marie Hamard and Hugo Koolschijn, accompanied on the piano by Lada Valešová and the choral academy De Munt/La Monnaie also took part in the production. The Diary of One Who Disappeared was performed yesterday in the hall of the Mahen Theatre.
Poems about the wild love of the Janik and the gypsy Zefka published by an unknown author in 1916 in the Lidový noviny newspaper enchanted Janáček and a year later he began to work on a song cycle which was also partially inspired by Janáček’s meeting with the attractive Kamila Stösslová, the composer’s femme fatale and prototype for many of his further works. Janáček completed the cycle at the end of 1920 and the first private performance of the work took place on 18 April 1921 in Brno’s Reduta Theatre. While it was originally written as a song cycle for the concert hall, it also found its way onto the theatre stage. The latest development in this area is the stage version by Muziektheater Transparant.
This production placed Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared into the environment of a modern apartment. Here not only the tale of Janik’s relationship with the young gypsy girl takes place, but also the added layer, expanding the libretto. This portrayal is not only of painful love and separation but also about dreaming, memories and human burnout. In the directorial vision of Ivo van Hove, aside from the figures of Zefka and Janik, there is also the added role combining the figures of the aged Janik and the composer Leoš Janáček. And this might be a bit much for some listeners. The actor reads out Janáček’s letters and also partly acts as a commentator on the events on stage – this makes everything seem even more unreal, even more ‘meta’. The figure of the actor remembers the unfulfilled love for the young gypsy and then recites letters written to Janáček’s secret love Kamila Stösslová. Essentially this is an interesting idea and a fresh directorial approach, but the result is strangely alien and cold. What did however work were the added musical passages by the composer Annelies Van Parys, who not only opted for alternative means of musical expression but also a completely different language for the lyrics. The composer thus elegantly avoided potential criticism that she might have received had she tried to supplement Janáček’s work with stylistically similar music. Despite a number of characteristic glissandi and sudden melodic leaps the music of Annelies Van Parys went quite well with that of Janáček. The many good ideas and the uncertain direction of the performance however influenced the overall tone to some extent negatively. An example is the successful but directorially poorly justified stage, based on the maximum realism. Even the kitchen equipment was fully functional, with Marie Hamard in the role of Zefka on the edge of the production making coffee which she then offered to the arriving actor. This realism was in conflict with the much more lyrical directorial conception and otherwise with the character of Janáček’s music overall. By itself, however, it is impressive and builds largely on work with light - some of the performances were lit only by lamps, while elsewhere the stage was lit by spotlights from all sides and elsewhere lit only by a photographic red lamp. Still, it was such a strange and unusual take on realism and dreaminess in opera direction that many viewers found it totally unacceptable.
The acting and singing represent the most important part of each stage performance. Here particularly worthy of praise was especially Ed Lyon in the role of Janik, his expressively full voice from moved between raw rage and the most gentle lyricism completely without changing the character of the singing. Aside from two extreme high notes at the end of this “opera” his performance was intonation-wise stable and in terms of language more or less comprehensible. The mezzosoprano Marie Hamard can boast of a fairly dark and of a dark and earthy tone, ideal in this role. However her Czech was far less comprehensible than that of Ed Lyon, but then neither of them can be compared with the flawless Czech which visitors to the Mahen Theatre could hear a few days before in The Makropulos Affair as performed by the Flemish Opera. The actor and reciter Hugo Koolschijn managed his role as a commentator without difficulty, but was present mainly as an observer and had no more significant action on stage.
Muziektheater Transparant grasped Janáček’s work in a distinctive manner, which certainly provoked a lively discussion among music lovers in Brno. It is essential to view this new production with an open mind and not to be afraid of musical and directorial experiments. In this way even in this, in parts controversial, “opera” much can be found that is of quality and successful. In the same way it is OK to be disappointed with the static and astringent conception, which is hardly evocative of sensual gypsy love.
Director: Ivo van Hove
Dramaturgy: Krystian Lada
Costumes: An D'huys
Stage: Jan Versweyveld
Mezzosoprano: Marie Hamard
Tenor: Ed Lyon
actor: Hugo Koolschijn
Piano: Lada Valešová
Choir: Members of the choral academy De Munt/La Monnai