by Steven Pisano
The Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) is perhaps best known in this country for his operas Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen, though he wrote seven other operas, as well as orchestral, chamber and vocal music. One of Janáček's most striking works is Diary of One Who Disappeared (1919), which arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week in a production by the Belgian group Musiektheater Transparant, directed by Ivo van Hove.
Van Hove has seemed to be everywhere in recent years. While his principal work has been with International Theater Amsterdam, the largest theater in the Netherlands, he regularly has directed plays both in the UK and New York, winning both the Olivier and Tony Award for directing (for 2015's A View From the Bridge.) Often cited for his minimalist style, he works frequently with his longtime life partner, Jan Versweyveld, who created both the stage and lighting design for this run at BAM.
Diary of One Who Disappeared is a 22-part song cycle written for piano and voices. It was inspired by a series of anonymous poems that appeared early in the twentieth century in a Brno newspaper. The poems told of an all-consuming love that a boy felt for a Gypsy girl, and Janáček soon found a parallel in his own life. In 1917, in his early 60s, Janáček met Kamila Stosslova, a married woman with children who was almost 40 years his junior. Although she was not romantically interested in him, and their interactions with each other were intermittent, Stosslova became Janáček's muse for the prolific last decade of his life. Some 700-plus letters from Janáček to Stosslova survive, in which he repeatedly tells her she was the inspiration for many of the characters in his works. In one letter he wrote: "If the thread that binds me to you were to break, it would also break the thread of my life."
That same life-or-death passion is at the heart of Diary's music. But, it was never intended as a stage work, and as such, there is little dramatic action. Van Hove exacerbates the issue by having the performers move very slowly on stage, so at times the production felt completely drawn out. In order to turn Diary into a full-evening work, van Hove recruited Belgian composer Annelies Van Parys to write additional music that extends the performance to 75 minutes.
Fortunately, even as stage action was nonexistent, the performances by Andrew Dickinson (tenor), Wim van der Grijn (nonsinging actor), Marie Hamard (mezzo-soprano), and an off-stage choir of women's voices comprised of Raphaele Green, Annelies Van Gramberen, and Naomi Beeldens were universally superb. Musical accompaniment was compellingly played on stage by pianist Lada Valesova.
Janáček's music simmers throughout, never arching toward a crescendo, just burning steady and hot from beginning to end. This production uses the construct of having the obsessed lover work as a photographer, and at various times we see him developing pictures in a home darkroom or projecting film on the wall, but otherwise this motif adds little to the basic story. If you have ever loved someone from afar, or loved someone and lost them, you know the ache that can haunt you years later, and Janacek obviously wrote from that same feeling.
At the end of the show, van der Grijn, representing the unrequited lover, sits resigned in a chair and one-by-one sets fire to the old letters he has received, just as is said to have done with the letters received from his beloved Kamila, none of which still exist. In the end, Janáček seems to say, the fire of love ends up in ashes.
More photos can be found here.