Baltic Opera 2020 – 21 Review: Olga
Jorges Antunes’ Opera Proves Its Worth In a Rare PerformanceBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Baltic Opera)
Olga Benário Prestes is a name largely unknown in the West, yet in Brazil and former East Germany she was a revolutionary heroine, to the extent that she has become the subject of numerous plays, books, and films. Between 1987 and 1997 the Brazilian composer Jorges Antunes added to the catalog an opera based on her life, entitled “Olga.”
Olga Benário was born in 1908 into a high society, Munich family of Jewish heritage. By 1942 she was dead, gassed in the Bernberg Euthanasia Centre, another victim of the Nazi’s genocidal race policies. Her short life was to be colorful and adventurous, albeit ultimately a tragic one. At 15 she joined the Communist Party and embarked on a life committed to “anti-fascist activities”, which was to take her to Russia, where she was trained as a Comintern operative, and then on to UK and France.
Eventually, she was to find herself in Brazil, married to Luís Carlos Prestes, the leader of Brazil’s Communist Party. Following a failed coup to overthrow the Brazilian right-wing authoritarian Estado Novo, she was captured and deported back to Germany, where in prison she gave birth to her daughter before being gassed alongside hundreds of other women, aged just 34.
Over 10 Years to Complete
It is therefore of little surprise given the operatic dimension of her life that it should have attracted the attention of Antunes, who together with his librettist Gerson Vale, decided to create an opera. It was work that was to take over 10 years to complete, and then another nine years before it received its premiere at São Paulo’s Teatro Municipal in 2006.
The work, which lasts approximately 2 hours 30 minutes across three acts comprising seven scenes, centers on significant events in her life, beginning with her armed intervention to free her lover and fellow communist, Otto Braun, from Berlin’s Moabit prison in 1928, and ending in 1942 with her murder in the Bernberg camp. Other scenes include her time spent in Moscow working as a Comintern operative, and her first meeting with Prestes; their sea journey to Brazil in which they are disguised as rich Portuguese couple and actually do fall in love; her life in Brazil, and her arrest and internment in a Brazilian prison.
Antunes and Vale’s portrayal of Olga, however, is not one-dimensional. She is not a single-minded, hard-bitten revolutionary, no matter how much she protests the fact: at one point she states that marriage is an obstacle in the struggle for a better world, and will therefore never marry. But in fact, she does marry; like Tristan and Isolde she finds love onboard a ship, and in the final scene when confronted with her own death Olga reads a letter she has written to her husband and daughter from prison in which she sings of the longings she still has for a life which is about to be cut short; it is not the revolution that takes prime position, but her love for her family.
Olga is presented as a character with depth and contradictions. She is a revolutionary, but her belief in a better world is not enough to sustain her, it is her love for Prestes and her child which transforms her and provides her with a foundation for existence. If this sounds like a Wagnerian vision of love, then it is no accident: Antunes quotes heavily from ‘Tristan und Isolde’ during the Act two sea voyage to Brazil.
Antunes’ score is an eclectic mix of tonal and atonal music using a wide range of orchestral instruments, with frequent use of electronic sounds. He draws upon a number of musical styles, including his own Brazilian heritage, with his use of African drums and the inclusion of rhythms of the carnival. Melodies tend to be carried by the singers with the orchestra performing a supporting role. Yet it all fits together well to provide an atmospheric sound world full of orchestral color and interesting textures which successfully reflect and supports the drama. The extended quotation from “Tristan und Isolde” was particularly well constructed. Rather than a simple quotation, Antunes introduces the theme which he uses intermittently throughout the scene, at times modifying it by thickening the harmonies before allowing submersion back into his own sound-world. The scene is brought to a satisfying conclusion as Wagner’s music dissipates and tails off into an extended passage of disjointed electronic sounds.
13 Years Later
Thirteen years after its world premiere, Baltic Opera presented the European premiere in Gdansk in 2019. As part of their 2020/21 season, they presented a further two performances, which despite COVID restrictions, took place before small live audiences, as well as being streamed online. They were conducted by José Maria Florêncio and directed by Romuald Wicza-Pokojski.
During the 20th century, Poland suffered more than most countries from the ravages of totalitarianism, both at the hands of right-wing fascist Germany and left-wing communist USSR. Wicza-Pokojski’s reaction is to present totalitarianism, whatever its hue, as an evil, and Olga Benário Prestes’ commitment to a totalitarian ideology as a tragedy in itself.
In his program notes he asks the questions, why does someone sacrifice themselves for an idea? Why does evil triumph? Why do people look for a better tomorrow? He does not offer us any answers, rather he uses Olga‘s life to raise the questions. We watch as Olga develops from an unquestioning, committed ideologue to becoming a deeply loving and caring human being, as she is transformed by love in Act two, and is affirmed during the prison scene in Act three as she stands silent as the other prisoners sing ‘The Internationale,’ the anthem of the revolution. Wicza-Pokojoski does not sidestep the brutality of fascism or of communism, rather they act as the context against which Olga’s transformation takes place. Nazi henchmen are clearly portrayed, but so is the inhumanity inherent in the communist regime. In the first act, we are given an insight into the inhuman bureaucratic structure of the USSR which is set up to oppress the workers and society; rows of emotionally dead typists bang away at the keys, stopping and restarting work in response to the sound of a siren. At no point does Wicza-Pokojski take the opportunity to glorify the State and its fight against fascism.
The set and costume designer Hanna Szymczak created a simple effective set consisting of a rotating stage which was easily transformed to meet the needs of each scene. Above the stage hung a mirror which reflected a distorted and refracted image to the audience. The lighting designed by Piotr Miszkiewicz was uniformly dark, which worked well in many of the scenes by highlighting the dark atmosphere that hung over the events. Unfortunately, the lighting did not significantly alter for scenes that could have been given a brighter, more colorful gloss, such as the carnival at Ipanema or the sea journey to Brazil. Miszkiewicz idea was clear, but the overall lack of contrast made the drama one-paced so that the audience’s emotions were rarely allowed to brighten.
It was also notable that certain scenes were far more successful than others. The Act three prison scene acted out behind bars that fell across the stage, was convincing, as was the last scene in which Olga, facing death alone in front of the audience, gave voice to her final thoughts, in what was an emotionally charged moment. The high point, however, was the scene set on board a ship.
Despite the gloom, it was very well crafted. While Olga seduces Prestes, two ballet dancers representing Tristan and Isolde, dressed in medieval costumes, produced a beautifully evocative dance choreographed by Izabela Sokołowska-Boulton, in which they drink the love potion from the goblet. Wicza-Pokojski did, however, struggle with the dramatically weaker scenes, in which he failed to inject sufficient interest. In particular, the scene with the three Brazilian revolutionaries in the opening act was a fairly dull experience.
Bringing It To Life
The cast was fairly large, consisting of three major roles and numerous singing and non-singing smaller roles, as well as a chorus, with Portuguese used for singing and Polish for what was a substantial amount of spoken dialogue.
In the title role was soprano Katarzyna Wietrzny, who produced an engaging and beautifully sung performance. Following a fast-moving opening scene, her first notable individual contribution comes towards the end of Act one with a sweet lyrical aria in which she was able to show off the clarity and beauty of her voice. It was her final aria, however, that really allowed her to display her vocal skills. Lasting 13 minutes it requires expressive depth and excellent control. For large parts, the dark foreboding orchestral accompaniment creeps slowly along, whilst the singer carries the melody, in which any mistakes will be cruelly exposed. In fact, it is such a significant part of the opera, that her interpretation will be subject to intense scrutiny, she is about to be gassed and these will be her final thoughts. Wietrzny proved herself up to the task, producing a superb rendition that brilliantly caught the depth of her emotions.
It was a performance built on solid foundations: her phrasing was intelligently crafted, her smooth passaggio enabled her to move beautifully between registers, the voice displayed consistency and versatility, and exhibited a pleasing tonal quality. Less successful was her acting. At times it was good, but there was a tendency for her to slip into the background, which tended to undermine the strength of her character. Whether this was down to Wietrzny, the director or even to the film director who produced the live stream, and who ultimately decides how the staging is presented to the viewer, it is not possible to say.
Luís Carlos Prestes was played by tenor Jacek Laszczkowski. For a hard-nosed revolutionary, capable of organizing a coup he seemed unnaturally timid when it came to matters of the heart. During his seduction by Olga in Act two his acting was strained and awkward and undermined any sense of sexual tension between the couple. Fortunately, the scene suffered no significant damage thanks to the excellence of the two dancers whose emotional connection was clearly wrought. Vocally, Laszczkowski was on more solid ground. He has an attractive middle register and can spin out attractively crafted lines, which successfully capture the emotional state of the character, although his upper register was less attractive when put under pressure.
Baritone Mariusz Godlewski in the part of Filinto Müller, a former friend of Prestes turned government agent intent on tracking anti-government operatives, put in an excellent performance. He possesses a well-supported voice with an attractive timbre. We first meet him in Act two, scene two, when he arrives looking for Prestes. Looking very much like a cold calculating enforcer, he immediately opens with a menacing aria, which reveals the threat and violence at the heart of the character. In what was a detailed and intelligent reading, Godlewski used the dark expressive colors and resonant quality of his voice to cloak the words with a vicious determination, as his threats pour forth. It was a performance he was to build upon in Act three in which he further fleshed out Filinto’s cruel and vicious nature.
Of the minor characters, who all produced solid performances, mezzo-soprano Julia Jarmoszewicz stood out in the role of Elise Ewert. Her imprisonment and suffering at the hands of her torturers was convincingly portrayed, both vocally and physically in graphic detail.
The chorus has an active role throughout the opera, and the Chór Opery Bałtyckiej w Gdańsku produced an energetic and well-sung performance. Their singing of ‘The Internationale’ in the prison scene was passionate and uplifting, which made Olga’s refusal to join in with the singing all the more definitive.
The Orkiestra Opery Bałtyckiej w Gdańsku under the musical direction of Florêncio’s produced an evocative and sensitive reading which brought the deeply emotional aspects of the score alive and combined successfully with Wicza-Pokojski’s interpretation to create an excellent piece of musical theatre.
Overall, Baltic Opera’s production of “Olga” can be considered a triumph for bold programming. Antunes’ opera is not well-known and has struggled to get performances, and it would have been easy to play safe and simply have scheduled something more mainstream, such as ‘Rigoletto’ or ‘La Traviata.’ But they did not, they took a chance and it proved to be an inspired one. “Olga” is a musically accessible work, despite its eclectic mix of styles and adventurous instrumentation. It is also a fast-moving story which captures the imagination through the life of a courageous woman; a woman dedicated to an ideology predicated on tyranny, who is transformed by love. Moreover, “Olga” is a work that has immediate relevance to the world in which we live today, a world in which people are far too quick to sign up to political doctrines which openly advocate division and violence, at the expense of love for our fellow human beings