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Reviews

06 Jun 2019

Ivo van Hove's The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Linbury Theatre

In 1917 Leoš Janáček travelled to Luhačovice, a spa town in the Zlín Region of Moravia, and it was here that he met for the first time Kamila Stösslová, the young married woman, almost 40 years his junior, who was to be his muse for the remaining years of his life.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Wim van der Grijn, Ed Lyon and Marie Hamard

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

 

Though hard at work on his opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, which was first performed in 1920, when he returned to Brno Janáček immediately started sketching the first ten songs of what was to become a 22-song cycle for tenor, mezzo-soprano and piano, The Diary of One Who Disappeared. It set poems by Ozef Kalda that had been published in the Brno newspaper, Lidové noviny, on 14th and 21st May 1916, titled ‘From the pen of a self-made man’. The poems told the tale of a young Czech boy, Janíček, from ‘a good family’, who is seduced by ‘a dark Gypsy’, Zefka, and lured into the ‘free’ life of the traveller.

That Stösslová was the inspiration for The Diary is in no doubt: the composer wrote to her from Brno, on 10th August 1917: ‘Will you believe that I’ve not yet got out of the house? In the morning I potter around in the garden; regularly in the afternoon a few motifs occur to me for those beautiful little poems about that Gypsy love. Perhaps a nice little musical romance will come out of it - and a tiny bit of the Luhačovice mood would be in it.’ A year later, on 2nd September 1918, his mood was less optimistic: ‘It’s too bad my Gypsy girl can’t be called something like Kamilka. That’s why I also don’t want to go on with the piece. I can’t explain why you don’t write to me … I have nothing more than memories - when then, so I live in them.’

Janáček continued work on The Diary during the following two years, completing it in 1920. It was first heard at a private performance that year, and then premiered at the Reduta Theatre in Brno on 18 th April 1921. There is undoubtedly an ‘operatic’ dimension about the cycle, not least because, after the first eight songs in which the tenor recalls when he saw Zefka, songs nine to eleven act out that first meeting, as the composer turns indirect speech into direct interaction. Zefka enters at the end of song eight, and an offstage female chorus (like that which represents the soul of the Volga in Káťa Kabanová) sings the narrative of a seduction Janáček deliberately avoids portraying ‘on stage’.

In song nine, Zefka sings: “Welcome Janíček, welcome here in the wood. What happy coincidence brings you this way? What are you standing here like that for? So pale; so still; Why, are you perhaps afraid of me?” To which the young man replies, “I really have no cause to be afraid of anyone. I came here only to cut an axle-pin”, whereupon Zefka invites him to put aside his duties and to listen to her gypsy song. The remaining songs chart the aftermath of the seduction.

Van Hove ROH.jpg Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

Not surprisingly, there have been various dramatizations of The Diary - including Shadwell Opera’s Grimeborn production in 2017. Janáček himself is reported to have said that he wanted the cycle to be performed in ghostly half-lighting. That said, the drama is present in every note of the music. The Diary does not depend for its power on overt context, gesture or symbol. That over-prescription might in fact destroy the almost visceral intensity of the work was something that I felt very strongly during this staging of Ivo van Hove’s ‘interventionist’ staging at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre. Superimposing an autobiographical narrative on the tale told in poetry, and commissioning additional music and songs from the Belgian composer Annelies Van Parys which ‘allow us to see some of the story form Zefka’s perspective’, van Hove almost doubles the work’s length while significantly diluting its expressive immediacy.

Van Hove worked with two of his regular collaborators for this 2017 production for the Belgian company Muziektheater Transparant: set and lighting designer, Jan Versweyveld, and costume designer An d’Huys. Versweyveld’s set seems to shift us forward from the latter years of the First World War to the 1960s, and from nature to ‘civilisation’: specifically, to a photographic lab-cum-studio flat, comprising kitchen, dark room, office and bedroom, the patterned lighting effects intended, I assume, to evoke the landscape of the original woodland tryst. The confined space can, however, accommodate a grand piano. Janíček (tenor Ed Lyon) is now a photographer; rather than reliving his memories through music, he projects his remembered encounter - the gypsy’s name, an image of the Romany girl - onto the lab-apartment’s walls, assisted by an elderly man (Wim van der Grijn) who, we learn, is the composer himself.

Photographs Jan Versweyveld.jpg Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

At the start, all is silent. A woman in red (Marie Hamard) enters and is instructed by a recorded male voice to make a cup of tea, sit at the piano and tap out a scale, some snatches of melody. It feels clunky and awkward. Pianist Lada Valesova then takes her place at the keyboard; her playing is the linchpin of the performance, every gesture redolent with a clear vision of musical meaning and empathy for the composer’s emotive language. What a pity the piano lid remains closed throughout, though this does not prevent Valesova from conjuring emotional fire and frailty with equal insight and impact.

Lyon’s singing is fervent and precise, though there’s a lack of Slavic colour and passion, for all the rolling around on the carpet in which he and Hamard indulge. But, Lyon also conjures a telling sincerity and vulnerability which is countered by Hamard’s vocal strength. Van Parys’ music merges into Janáček’s songs with surprising persuasiveness, though I can’t help but feel that Janáček’s decision to allow the gypsy’s voice to be heard only in the central encounter strengthens the yearning and desire communicated by Janíček.

Kefka and Janicek.jpgMarie Hamard and Ed Lyon. Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

There’s nothing amiss with the ‘quality’ of the individual performances. But, the whole is strangely cold and clinical. One thing that is sadly missing is the exoticism of the ‘gypsy’; a red ‘business dress’ and hooped earrings don’t really compensate. Writing to Stösslova from Hukvaldy in July 1924, the composer declared, ‘And Kát’a, you know, that was you beside me. And that black Gypsy girl in my Diary of One Who Disappeared - that was especially you even more.’ Later, in April 1927, a year before his death Janáček wrote, ‘Wherever I am, I think to myself: you can’t want anything else in life if you’ve got this dear, cheerful, black little ‘Gypsy girl’ of yours’.

At the time of The Diary’s composition, there was considerable prejudice against the gypsy population in Moravia, and the cycle’s original text had included political comments about the need for a gypsy homeland (and indirect plea, perhaps, for a Czech homeland). Janáček scholar Michael Beckerman’s observations are instructive: ‘For centuries the Gypsies, hated and reviled, nonetheless furnished material for myriad erotic fantasies, becoming the dark tabula rasa on which all the base and sensual fantasies of white society were projected.’ In 1918 the new country of Czechoslovakia was formed, guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens - including 20,000 gypsies: ‘far from being a harsh, disturbing or sinister presence, the Gypsies at this time functioned as what we might call “orientalism from within”, an exotic symbol of freedom, passion and improvisation.’ Van Hove almost completely ignores, or destroys, this - surely fundamental - dimension of the work.

At the close of van Hove’s realisation, the seated figure of Wim van der Grijn reads and then burns his letters to Stösslova, dropping the flaming pages into a waste-paper bin. His unfulfilled dreams now ashes, he climbs into the small bed, presumably ready for death. But, The Diary ends in defiance and hope, not despair. Originally the vocal climax came in song 14, the height of Janíček’s desolation and hopelessness, “Oh what have I lost!” But, Janáček’s revisions shifted the emotional peak to the final song, which rises to a top C: “All that is left is for me to say goodbye forever.” And, with a farewell to his father, mother and little sister, “the apple of my eye”, Janíček departs: “Zefka is waiting for me with our son in her arms!”

Van Hove’s staging is refined where it could be raw; elegant where it could be elemental. He denies us intimacy, immediacy - an intensity, recalling the string quartets, which draws us into the stories the composer tells, whether fictional or autobiographical. And, he denies us the hope and consolation that Janáček’s final song exudes.

Claire Seymour

The Diary of One Who Disappeared : Leoš Janáček and Annelies Van Parys

Tenor - Ed Lyon, Zefka - Marie Hamard, Actor - Wim van der Grijn; Director - Ivo van Hove, Set/lighting designer - Jan Versweyveld, Costume designer - An d’Huys, Dramaturg - Krystian Lada.

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; Wednesday 5th June 2019.

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