Nicky Spence’s intense Cardiff performance of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Diary of One Who Disappeared: Nicky Spence (tenor), Simon Lepper (piano), Annie George (mezzo), Charlotte Forfar (soprano), Verity Belle Atkinson (soprano), Molly Beere (soprano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 21.2.2020. (GPu)

Nicky Spence (c) Bertie Watson

Even within the canon of so strongly individual a composer as Janáček, The Diary of One Who Disappeared stands out as a particularly idiosyncratic work, bound into the composer’s personal life in an especially intimate fashion and generically transgressive in fascinating ways.

Like more than one of Janáček’s works, the ‘narrative’ of Diary of One Who Disappeared had an unusual origin. Rather as the source for the libretto of The Cunning Little Vixen can be traced back to a tale by Rudolf Tèsnohlidek, written around a series of pictures by Stanislav Lolek originally published in a Brno newspaper, so The Diary had its origins in Janáček’s reading of a set of folk-like poems which were also published in a Brno newspaper. They presented an indirect narrative of a young farmworker who abandoned his home and family for a gypsy girl with whom he had become infatuated. It is not, of course, a coincidence that both works (Vixen and Diary) were composed in the years after Janáček himself had (in 1917) first encountered Kamila Stosslova, a married woman some 40 years younger than the long-married composer; with her ‘Jewish’ beauty and dark hair it was perhaps only natural that Janáček should see in Kamila a version of the gypsy girl of the poems (poems which have since been discovered to be the work of Ozef Kalda, a Moravian poet and novelist). In the poems by Kalda, written in imitation of folk-song lyrics, the gypsy girl (called Zefka) calls the farmer who desires her ‘Jan’, making it a natural step for Janáček to identify himself with her lover. The poems, however, don’t tell the story of the relationship between Janáček and Kamila; Stosslova seems to have felt little or nothing in the way of desire for Janáček and she (unlike Zefka) was married. The relationship between Janáček and Kamila remained unconsummated across its 12 years. On the other hand, in the last of the 22 poems, ‘Jan’ declares (while blaming Fate!) that he will abandon his present life to join Zefka, who holds his son in her arms. For Janáček, his ‘gypsy girl’ had to remain a muse-like figure who tormented and inspired him equally; this relationship had to find its expression in Janáček’s art. Certainly, though,  Janáček could have employed about Kamila’s effect on him some of the words that Jan uses about Zefka – that she ‘haunts him’, that she is a lasting ‘temptation’, that she ‘teases him in his dreams’ and so on.

In recent years there have been a number of ‘staged’ performances of The Diary (e.g. at the Royal Opera House in the 2018/2019 season and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 2019), treating as a kind of miniature opera. Indeed, a staged version was presented in Llubljana as early as October 1926 (i.e. while Janáček was still alive). It is not hard to see why theatrical directors should be attracted to the piece – and Janáček himself added to the score what one might think of as basic stage directions – asking, for example, that the work be performed ‘on a half-dimmed stage’ and specifying, to take another example, that while Song 8 is being sung ‘the alto soloist should enter inconspicuously’. I haven’t seen such a staged production and I don’t feel the desire or the need to see one. The work – in its text and its music (for the voices and for the piano) – is already starkly dramatic. To my mind, the emotions and ‘events’ of The Diary have an archetypal power and truth, the universality of which might easily be lost or blurred amidst the quotidian details of sets and costumes.

While this performance made use of all the space on stage (and of the seats above and behind it, for the chorus of three) it was in no way a semi-staged performance of an opera. It was, rather, an inventively presented recital, which trusted Janáček’s music and Kalda’s words (it was sung in Czech) to do their job of communicating passion, hope and despair, without the use of props, costumes or substantial action. I suppose that the completeness with which Nicky Spence inhabited the role of the besotted Jan and the way in which he prowled around the stage as he sung it might be described as ‘operatic’ (there were only a few moments when he stood behind a music stand, and when he did his manner was more that of a man leafing through the pages of a handwritten diary than of a singer singing from a score), but I thought of it, rather, as a particularly intense version of the way that a good recitalist inhabits a persona (think of outstanding performances of, say, Die Winterreise).

Spence and Lepper have been touring The Diary of One Who Disappeared, presumably in connection with Spence’s deservedly much-admired recording of the work, accompanied by Julius Drake (Hyperion CDA68282). In Cardiff the four female voices were provided by four singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama: Annie George (mezzo) who sang the role of Zafka and three sopranos, Charlotte Forfar, Verity Belle Atkinson and Molly Beere who formed the required female chorus. All, I imagine, are postgraduate members of the College’s David Seligman Opera School and all acquitted themselves very well. Indeed, the four female singers took the stage before Spence did. The concert began with each of the four student singers, accompanied by Simon Lepper, singing a single song. Two of these were in Welsh and though I think I recognized the tunes I couldn’t identify the pieces with any certainty (despite having lived in Wales for more than 40 years my Welsh, embarrassingly, is shamefully rudimentary). The other two were arrangements of ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ and ‘Early One Morning’. This last, an old English folk song was most immediately relevant to what was to follow, given that it featured the lament of a lower-class maiden betrayed. The situation was, to put it simply, the very reverse of The Diary of One Who Disappeared. The ‘maiden’ of ‘Early One Morning’ has been seduced and abandoned, whereas Zefka’s lover/seducer abandons his family (he thinks most of his mother) to join her and their child.

Throughout Nicky Spence sang across the range of his voice (and across his character’s range of emotions) with both fluency and, above all, intensity; that was coupled with a kind of looming physical intensity which made him a hypnotically dominant stage presence. Whether singing of Zafka’s immediate impact on him, of the pains of desire, or of erotic bliss remembered, Spence was utterly convincing.

In the ‘dialogue’ songs between the gypsy girl and her lover (Songs 9-11), which are at the very heart of the work, Annie George was quietly impressive, even if unable to compel quite the kind of belief that Spence did.

Simon Lepper’s work as accompanist was of the highest quality throughout and his playing of the piano solo after Song 12 was very eloquent.

This was a moving and compelling reading of what is surely one of Janáček’s finest works, which it was a privilege to hear. Every time I hear The Diary I wish, despite my love of Janáček’s operas, that it wasn’t the composer’s only song-cycle.

Glyn Pursglove

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