A Fruitfully Open-Ended Staging of The Diary of One who Disappeared

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, The Diary of One who Disappeared: Muziektheater Transparant / Lada Valešová (piano, music director). Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 6.6.2019. (MB)

Wim van der Grijn, Ed Lyon and Marie Hamard (c) Jan Versweyveld

Director – Ivo van Hove
Set designs – Jan Versweyveld
Costumes – An d’Huys
Dramaturgy – Krystian Lada

Ed Lyon (tenor)
Marie Hamard (mezzo-soprano)
Wim van der Grijn (actor)
Annelies van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens, Raphaële Green (semi-chorus)

It is more than a decade since I saw Muziektheater Transparant’s theatre piece, Wolpe!, at the Edinburgh Festival. Stefan Wolpe had hitherto been little more than a name to me; that ‘staged concert’ immediately made him, his music, and his politics much more than that. I see I went so far as to call it an ‘inspiring event’.

Janáček is unlikely to require such an introduction, at least, should such a thing exist, for a core audience, though one can hardly call him and his music over-exposed. His song-cycle, The Diary of One who Disappeared, should be far better known, or at least more frequently performed, than it is. Language is doubtless an issue: if song performances in translation are not unknown, they are decidedly uncommon, and Janáček loses so much in sound and speech rhythm when translated that we should probably be grateful. Not that there was any cause to regret the use of Czech here, at least to my untutored ears. Ed Lyon’s command of the language seemed excellent, as did that of his collaborators in song, Marie Hamard and offstage, female semi-chorus, Annelies van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens, and Raphaële Green. Lyon, Hamard, and pianist and music director, Lada Valešová certainly proved vividly communicative throughout, Lyon’s anguished, well-nigh televisually detailed stage presence chilling and human indeed. (What a joy, as ever, it was to be in a smaller theatre where such detail could register and be appreciated.)

There is, of course, nothing remotely new about staging the cycle; the practice dates back to 1926, only five years after the Brno premiere, in Laibach/Ljubljana. What matters is how it is done. But this is not straightforwardly a staging of the cycle, although it stands considerably closer to that than some such theatre pieces, seeking less to tell another story than to tell a story that incorporates and, at a remove, contextualises and interprets the work. Ivo van Hove’s production presents a man, played by Wim van der Grijn, remembering his past: what might have been and what was. Or does it? For it starts neither with him, nor with Janáček’s male protagonist, but with a woman (Hamard), soon seated at a piano. She does what she is told via a recording, until she does not, until she takes on life of her own, her role at the piano quickly taken by Valešová. The man takes his lead in the drama, at least partly – such is society, ours and Janáček’s – and is joined by another, who seems to be his younger self. But the lines are not precise: deliberately, I think. Whilst the obvious interpretation is – well, obvious – it is not mandatory. There are alternatives, or at least aspects one might fill in differently. And so, whilst that affair, presumably long past, comes once again to life in his memory and leads the older man to rueful regret or worse, the woman in a sense takes charge again, just as her musical part and that of her semi-chorus are augmented by additional songs composed by Annelies Van Parys (whom some English opera goers will recall from her skilful chamber reduction of Pelléas et Mélisande, performed by English Touring Opera in 2015).

There is no question of the significance of Kamila Stösslová for the cycle and its female character, Zefka, or indeed, for Janáček as creator, vice versa: ‘I do not have words to express my longing for you, to be close to you,’ he wrote. ‘Wherever I am I think to myself: you cannot want anything else in life, if you have this dear, cheerful, black little “gypsy girl”.’ Janáček knew, he continued, ‘that my compositions will be more passionate, more ravishing: you will sit on every little note in them. I shall caress them: every little note will be your dark eye.’ The troubling exoticism of the idea of the ‘dark … little gypsy girl’ is, to an extent, jettisoned or at least addressed, with an element of reclamation. (Or should we consider it cultural appropriation? These things are never straightforward, nor should they be – and it is hardly for me to say.) Zefka, insofar as it is she, sings songs, which move between idioms more and considerably less related to Janáček’s, which look upon her former, gadjo (non-Roma) lover from her, Roma standpoint. Having had her say, though, she cedes the stage to the older man, who reads from the composer’s celebrated letters to Stösslová, burning them as he would – as he did. Is it so straightforward as the man being revealed as Janáček? I do not think so, though someone could reasonably take that line. Memory is a complex thing: how it haunts us, what it includes, excludes, edits. So too is theatre, at least as a similarly active experience. There is clearly, though, something of the composer in the man we see on stage, embittered, and perhaps facing some degree of justice for his actions, albeit in a setting contemporary or at least closer to us. We too must decide what it is we have seen and heard, relate it as we will or must.

It is a far more interesting, far more finished, piece of work than Richard Jones’s recent, lacklustre Katya Kabanova for the main stage (Jones’s production, that is, rather than the excellent musical performances it attracted). At the same time, it remains, like much contemporary theatre in general, and much contemporary operatic theatre in particular, fruitfully open-ended. I continue to think about it; I suspect that, should you see it, you will too.

Mark Berry

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