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<em>The Diary of One Who Disappeared</em>, Grimeborn
09 Aug 2017

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Sam Furness

Photo credit: Maximillian von London


Janáček wrote this 35-minute work during the final years of the First World War, and its over-riding theme of cross-cultural love, displaced family values and separation are emotionally symbolic of the political and historical times in which they are set. This was a period of constrained social mobility, of racial and class prejudice, of political turmoil and largely because of this the cycle is quite easy to take out of its historical roots and place in a contemporary time and setting. Janáček himself seems to have been undecided by the presentation of this work - should it be completely staged, or simply presented without any kind of dramatization. Deborah Warner’s production for the National Theatre many years ago didn’t make a convincing job of this, and it should be said that Jack Furness’s production recalls that one in many details (down to the use of video projection and simulated sex). But by placing it in a modern-day asylum centre Shadwell Opera and Jack Furness could be saying this is anywhere and everywhere - identity and indecision of themselves cross borders and nationalities, time and space, love is welded to bureaucracy to be rubber stamped at will. Where Warner had over-indulged the setting, Furness has kept it to a bare minimum without interference from the direction placing the composer’s libretto in a social petri dish.

For such a short work, it has surprising psychological depth though the desolation of Janáček’s piano writing lays much of the foundation for this too: more than half of the stated tempi for the score indicates music which is played slowly, although that is not to say there isn’t angularity or impressionistic weight to phrasing elsewhere. Much of the writing recalls Janáček’s 1905 Sonata in its rumbling bass lines, the massive chords that sound stricken with terror, the phrases that erupt elliptically and the sounds of tolling bells. The bleakness of the score is undeniable, but set against the meltingly tender phrasing of Sam Furness the contrast between hope and despair was beguiling. The mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon also sang her role powerfully, and hers is a very rich voice. She was entirely convincing.

I’ve never been absolutely convinced by Seamus Heaney’s translation of Janáček’s cycle - it never lacks poetry, and it’s rhythmically well written, but the language can be earthy sometimes, though perhaps this is because Heaney is trying a little too hard to replicate the Czech folktale narrative that inspired Janáček in the first place. Nevertheless, Sam Furness sang his part with magnificently clear diction (this was one of those rare examples when literally every word was crystal clear) and one was often spellbound by his ability to float phrases. His is a powerful, yet fully emotive voice, and the stamina was formidable. Janáček doesn’t make Heldentenor demands in this cycle but he expects his tenor to sing at sotto voce (which Furness did) and he had no difficulty whatsoever reaching his two high notes at the close of the cycle. Matthew Fletcher played the score with effortless brilliance.

This may well have a been very short evening but it was hugely impressive.

Marc Bridle

Sam Furness (tenor), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Fletcher (piano), Jack Furness (direction)

Shadwell Opera, Arcola Theatre, Studio 2, London E8; 4th August 2017.

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