Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Różycki - Eros and Psyche (Warsaw, 2017)

Ludomir Różycki - Eros and Psyche

Polish National Opera, 2017 

Grzegorz Nowak, Barbara Wysocka, Joanna Freszel, Wanda Franek, Anna Bernacka, Aleksandra Orłowska-Jabłońska, Mikołaj Zalasiński, Tadeusz Szlenkier, Wojtek Gierlach, Adam Kruszewski, Grzegorz Szostak, Mateusz Zajdel 

OperaVision - April 2018 

The Polish composer Ludomir Różycki is not a well-known name, but certainly comes from a musical background and early twentieth century associations that I personally find interesting. Różycki studied under Humperdinck in Berlin and was schooled in the style of Wagner and Strauss and went on to form the Young Poland association of composers with connections to the Russian Group of Five movement formed by Russian composers including Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, with the aim of establishing a new national music identity for Poland. Inevitably, to judge by Eros and Psyche - which we are fortunate to be able to see performed thanks to OperaVision - those late-romantic influences show in the classic mythological subject of Jerzy Żuławski's libretto and the epic musical treatment applied to it. 

Żuławski's adaptation of the Cupid & Psyche myth certainly presents all the opportunities for an expanded and rich musical treatment. The ancient basis of the story is an epic tale of forbidden love that transcends time and overcomes great obstacles. It's a price Psyche has to pay for falling in love and looking on the face of an immortal god, Cupid or Eros, who has been secretly visiting her. Cupid's orders were to use his dart to make Psyche fall in love with a monstrous creature for presuming her beauty to be an equal of Venus, but these darts have been known to go astray and both she and Eros fall under a spell of this forbidden love and are punished for it, condemned to wander the earth (and the underworld) eternally. 

In Żuławski's version of the story, that wandering takes Psyche to a number of famous historical ages, from the Golden Age of Arcadia, to imperial Rome, to early Christianity in a monastery in Spain, through the French revolution and into the present day. It's a treatment and a structure that provides a number of serious obstacles to Psyche, who is visited by Eros in different guises in each of these situations, and it provides Różycki with a variety of colours to work with, as well as the opportunity to push the romantic tone of the music into epic levels. The tone is inevitably Straussian, with mythological correspondences with Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae and of course, Ariadne auf Naxos

And it would appear to be from Ariadne auf Naxos that director Barbara Wysocka takes her inspiration for the staging of this 2017 production of Eros and Psyche at the Teatr Wielki, 100 years after its premiere in Wroclaw. Różycki and Żuławski's version of the story is a relatively straightforward telling of myth that has none of the framing and self-referential dramatic and operatic narrative complexities of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's treatment of Ariadne auf Naxos. Wysocka however chooses to frames this opera's story of Psyche's wanderings through time as that of an actress working on a number of period film productions. It's a reasonable way to make the mythological story modern and contemporary, but it has to be said that it doesn't appear to bring anything unexpected out of the work and may indeed even confuse matters somewhat. 

What it does highlight is that the music is indeed beautifully composed and scored for each dramatic situation like a movie soundtrack. The first appearance of Eros on the set, emerging out of the darkness to meet Psyche waiting in anticipation, is lushly and scored with a romantic surge. Each of the mini movies are given titles (Rome, Under the Cross, With Blood etc.) the titles and Falconetti Joan of Arc-like close-ups of Psyche accompanied by sweeping musical introductions. Conducted by Grzegorz Nowak, the music is a treat for anyone who likes their late and post-romantic indulgent Strauss or Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrations, and it's wonderful to hear another Polish composer other than Szymanowski working in this register. 

Lived through the movies, this undoubtedly helps maintain the larger-than-life character of the mythological romance between Eros and Psyche that is otherwise abandoned in the production, and it retains all the colour of the periods and locations. It's perhaps a bit too busy with extras and camera crews cluttering the stage as well, adding a layer of remove that the opera doesn't really need, and it may even detract from the character of the work as well. Psyche's journey and her encounter with Eros in various guises in different eras (with Blaks the farmhand who has been condemned alongside her for disturbing the meeting between the illicit lovers also present) raises questions of decadent living (Rome), sin (The Cross) and compassion (Paris) are also considered perhaps as necessary stages in her journey to redemption. 

On the other hand if 'Psyche' gains awareness of such matters through the movies she plays the lead role in, then that element isn't entirely lost in the 2017 production. Nor is it lost in how it is covered in the direction or the musical and singing performances. Joanna Freszel is very much centre stage as Psyche and the role is not without its challenges (if not quite at the Richard Strauss level of demands), and she gives an engaging and note-perfect performance throughout, her voice having a lovely character and timbre. The high tenor role of Eros is almost Mozartian by comparison and tests the tenor's ability to hold it steady but Tadeusz Szlenkier certainly brings a lyrical sweetness to the role. There are good supporting performances from the remainder of the cast, particularly from Anna Bernacka as Hagne (et al) and from Mikołaj Zalasiński as Blaks. 

Links: Polish National Opera, OperaVision