Marco Tutino - The Embers
Szeged National Theatre, 2014
Sándor Gyüdi, Attila Toronykóy, Tamás Altorjay, Jean-Philippe Biojout, Szilveszter Szélpál, Tivadar Kiss, Krisztina Kónya, Boglárka Laczák
Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 9 October 2014
Based on a novel by Sándor Márai, Embers deals with the passing of time, with youthful ideals and old-age regrets, with friendship and love and how it too can change over time and under the cold gaze of reflection. The time span of the work also presents an allegorical level of the change that occurred in the world around the turn of the 20th century. Marco Tutino's one-act opera effectively treats the question of youthful friendship and idealism embittered by the passing of time within its musical composition, while the production of the work's world premiere at the 2014 Armel Opera Festival, highlights the supernatural element that expresses the allegorical side of the work.
The drama in the opera is divided between the present of 1940 and a significant moment in 1899. In the present, and old man Henrik lives a solitary and embittered existence in a room of faded paintings. He has advised his servant Nini that he is expecting a visit from an old friend Konrad, but the prospect of the visit is not one that brings him any happiness. It stirs up old memories of a time when Henrik was in love with Kristina. All his life Henrik has had suspicions stemming from events one day in July 1899, the day of the hunt. Kristina's presence in Konrad's room and a suspicion that Konrad actually took aim at him during the hunt, have led him to believe that they had an affair. Many years later, having walked out on both of them, Henrik still replays the events in his mind, unable to find any answers. He hopes that Konrad's visit after 40 years will put matters to rest.
Dealing with the passing of time, questions of regret for the past, of falling in love with the wrong person, of a love triangle situation resulting in jealousy and the shattering of illusions, Embers recalls both Eugene Onegin and Pélleas et Mélisande, and Marco Tutino's score even employs the same musical language. It's a modern score however and there are no direct or indirect quotes of Tchaikovsky or Debussy, but it uses contrasting styles to highlight the differences between the periods. On the one side there is the joy and youthful idealism of the three young people before the Great War and on the other is the bitter experience that has marked Henrik in the present just as another world war commences.
There's a personal element then to the sense of disillusionment with love and friendship, but it's tied then into a reflection on the differences between a more carefree time in the Austro-Hungarian empire of the late 19th century and the reality of the 20th century post-war world. It's as if the actions of Konrad, prepared to take a shot at his best friend, are a betrayal of the old rules of decency, duty and behaviour that has led to or in a way foreshadowed the barbarism unleashed in the Great War. In Henrik's mind, at least, and that's the world that the composer attempts to explore in Embers. Tutino is aware of how these historical events changed the musical landscape of the 20th century, and it's the reflection of that in the score that marks it out from Tchaikovsky and Debussy's musical treatments of such subject matter.
That contrast is also reflected in Attila Toronykóy's direction of the world premiere of the work for the Szeged National Theatre at the Armel Opera Festival. If there are any suggestions of Eugene Onegin and Pélleas et Mélisande, it perhaps as much to do with how the two distinct periods of the work are treated, the past played out in 19th century period with younger versions of the main characters, while the present is a much more shadowy and unsettling abstract world of dark undercurrents where morals have been subverted. This takes an abstraction of being practically photo-negative, the older Henrik wearing a white suit with dark grey shirt, his face blanched white, the glass of wine he holds coloured blue. Portraits on the wall are also negatives, as is the significant scene - one fixed in Henrik's mind - of one man pointing a gun at another on the day of the hunt.
The timelines are however not entirely distinct and the past does bleed into the present. Rather than the ghosts being those of the past, the production design places emphasis on it being the older Henrik and Konrad who are the ghosts. Shadows of themselves, you might say, broken by the past, but the final lines of the libretto give this a more literal (or perhaps ethereal) reading. Perhaps both Konrad and Henrik have died in the war and are restless spirits that are still looking for answers. Inevitably, definitive answers are hard to come by.
The Armel Opera Festival is also a singing competition, and both the competition singers for this performance - Tamás Altorjay singing the bass role of the older Henrik and Jean-Philippe Biojout singing the bass-baritone role of the older Konrad - richly expressed the dark melancholic undercurrents of the libretto. Despite the focus being on the older and younger versions of the men, the importance of the woman in the middle is not neglected, and Krisztina Kónya gave an outstanding performance as Kristina. The younger men were sung by Szilveszter Szélpál and Tivadar Kiss, with Boglárka Laczák giving a fine performance also in the role of Nini.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival