Opera Poland

Review by Polly Hope

JUTRO Tadeusz Baird
KOLONIA KARNA . Joanna Bruzdowicz .

OPERA WROCLAWSKA. Wroclaw Poland. Winter 2008

Poland is still a grey country but its enthusiasm for new culture knows no bounds. People are poor, and just not quite hungry, but they go in droves to any kind of new work, music, visual art, poetry. Such fervent enthusiasm for the new is a lesson to us all in the last affluent west.

JUTRO, meaning Tomorrow, is not new, it is in fact forty years old. A one-act opera of such desolation it is almost impossible to watch. A blind man in a wheel chair, a distraught and locked up daughter, a mad father and a randy boy, howl their hearts out for an hour beside a lake. Rape and death brings the piece to an end. I suppose if you like an hour of endless howl you might enjoy the work. I found it old fashioned and relentless and really have little to say about this work. The singers were excellent as was the acting. Polish acting is very special, all other opera singers should take note and go to Poland and learn.

But the second half of the evening is magnificent. After the interval the audience is led back stage where instead of the red plush and gold of the real auditorium we sit in rows of raked plastic chairs. The orchestra is in a trench at out feet.

KOLONIA KARNA is an adaptation of Kafka's torture tale, The Penal Colony. Very pertinent still today. The set is a huge cage with the infernal Torture machine inside. This looks like a giant plate warmer but rusty. Definitely a nasty object.

The Commandant enters, together with some guards and prisoners in Guantanomo orange dungarees. The Traveller arrives in a spotless white suit. Torture commences. It is all quite horrible and real, right until the end when The Commandant releases the guy in the torture machine and climbs in himself.

Joanna Bruzdowicz has written a masterpiece. She wrote the libretto herself. The music is partially electronic, sometimes12 note but always with a relentless rhythm, a life pulse full of anxiety under the other instruments. The work was first performed in 1972 in Warsaw where politically it got into a lot of trouble. The piece runs for a mere 45 minutes, but that is about all the horror any audience could stomach. Some of the audience leave as captives are brutalized, pissed on, beaten and photographed with a glamorous female guard in high heels and a mini skirt sitting astride them.

The acting and singing are totally brilliant. Boy, can these singing Poles act! There are only two singing parts in the work and of the two the Commandant has by far the largest part. Lukasz Rosiak, a very young singer, is mind blowing. He turns the part of the Commandant into as complicated a personality as Hamlet; we have sympathy for the brute. And he sings like an angel with every word perfectly clear. Just wish I could understand Polish! This young man is surely soon going to knock the socks off everyone in the international opera world.

The director of the piece, Marek Weiss-Grzensinski has pulled what could have just been a Nasty Tale, to the very edge of despair and carefully stops it falling over the cliff into mere brutality. He is the director of the newly restored Gdansk Opera House. If his work there is like what he has done in Wroclaw Gdansk is a lucky town.

A real breathe of fresh air to find in the midst of blowing snow, icy rivers such an amazing alive and thoughtful work. I even went to see it twice.

But, and for me this is a big question, is it really ethical to use torture for entertainment? I know the Romans did but I like to think we have moved on a it. I am shouted down when I suggest this with cries of 'educational,' and 'nothing must be hidden,' or 'the public deserves to know', etc. We do know, brutality is on television and in the press daily. But to go to a grand opera house to watch torture? Umm, I think I have some doubts.

Polly Hope. February 2008