Brno Janacek Festival 2020: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared

Breslick Stars In Janacek’s Own Original Staging

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Marek Olbrzymek)

Janacek’s unorthodox song cycle, “The Diary of One who Disappeared” is a theatrical work, to the extent that it is nowadays often presented as a staged, costumed drama, sometimes with an orchestrated score.

It even allows for a variety of interpretations such as Ivo von Hove’s recent production which saw the protagonist cast as a photographer looking back over the events contained within the “diary.”

Janacek himself, in fact encouraged a theatrical approach to the work by outlining simple stage directions and props for its premiere, which took place almost 100 years ago in Brno’s Reduta Hall.

For this year’s Brno Janacek Festival the decision was taken to present the work in its original form, using the composer’s own stage directions, in its original venue.

Relevant To This Day

Janacek compiled the “diary” from a series of poems that had been printed in his local newspaper by an, at the time, unknown poet, whose name was later discovered to be Ozef Kalda.

It consists of 21 entries made by a plough boy who has fallen in love with a young gypsy girl, whom he meets every night in the woods, but who is then forced to abandon his mother, father, sister, and community as he embarks on a new life with her and their child. Each entry is set to music as a separate song, although three of them are in the form of a dialogue between the plough boy and the gypsy girl.

What appears to be a simple romantic rural tale of young love, drawing upon the folk roots of Moravia is, in fact, anything but simple.

Rather it is a portrait of the complex and conflicting emotions suffered by a young man who is not only in the process of discovering the ecstasy of love, but a love for a gypsy girl, an outsider, someone who is unacceptable. He, therefore, has to fight against his own prejudice and face up to the painful consequences of such a love, specifically to the inevitable rejection he will suffer from his mother, father, sister, and community. The text, therefore, is drawing back a veil on early 20th century rural Moravian society, exposing the deep prejudice it held towards the gypsies and their way of life, the poet littering the text with romantic, yet negative, stereotypes with its allusions to the gypsy girl’s free and wild ways, to her magical powers to entrap and seduce and even her thieving nature.

By contrast, the boy is seen as slow but wholesome, like the oxen that pull his plough. It is a text which obviously resonates with present-day sensibilities: the plough boy as hero transcending prejudice and the cultural divide for the sake of love.

As Originally Conceived

The staging for the production, in accordance with Janacek’s instructions, consisted of a raised platform upon which stands a chair, next to a lamp on a small table.

The plough boy sings sitting in the chair, rising only for the dialogue with Zefka, the gypsy girl, for songs 9, 10 and 11, thereby allowing the dramatic meeting of the pair to be realized with a greater sense of reality.

The gypsy enters inconspicuously during the previous song and exits on bar 56 during song 11. Three female voices also sing “almost inaudibly offstage” in songs nine and 10, positioned on a small balcony at the side of the hall.

At its premiere at the Reduta Hall in 1921, owing to technical difficulties, Janacek was unable to stage it exactly in the way he had prescribed, and this production, therefore, represents the first time the composer’s song-cycle has been presented as originally conceived by the composer.

The dress of the singers was slightly problematic in that the plough boy was dressed in a rustic costume comprising a waistcoat, collarless white shirt with rolled up sleeves and dark blue corduroy trousers, whilst the gypsy was in a formal black evening dress. Why not a gypsy costume or at least a rustic dress? The clash of styles irritated.

The plough boy Jan was played by the Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik. He produced a first-rate interpretation in which his ability to develop the vocal line imbued with expressive feeling captured Jan’s complex and conflicting emotions, even the tricky top notes were delivered with a passionate intensity, without compromising accuracy.

Although a forceful, nuanced performance in its own right, it also benefited from being staged as it provided the songs with a visual dimension, allowing Breslik’s physical reactions, his slumping in the chair, head in hands, or thoughtful reflections to reinforce his guilt, frustrations, and passion.

The only negative being the physical distance maintained with the gypsy girl during their dialogue, which did little more than hint at the passion which was propelling the narrative.

Mezzo-soprano Štēpánka Pučálková, singing the role of the gypsy girl, took the opportunity to show off the beauty of her voice and her fine technique. She sang with confident swagger as befitting a woman certain of her beauty and feminine charms, intent on provoking the young plough boy. What was slightly surprising, however, was that Pučálková did not make more use of her voice’s rich coloring in order to accentuate the seductive nature of the character.

The three female voices, acting as a Greek chorus, belonged to Romana Kružiková, Kristina Kubová, and Ivana Pavlu. They produced a beautifully seductive accompaniment to songs nine and ten.

The pianist having to deal with Janacek’s demanding score was Robert Pechanec, whose playing was by turn lyrical and jerky, which successfully reflected the complex, turbulent and erotic passions of the plough boy.

The evening began with a well-balanced, engaging, and pleasing program of piano music consisting of Janacek’s “In the Mists, “Allegro Barbaro” by Bartok and Stravisky’s “Piano Rag Music” performed by pianist Jan Jirasky.

This was then followed by a new work called “Prophecy” for piano and prehistoric and early Moravian folk instruments, composed and performed by Krystof Maratka. It proved to be an interesting piece that created a sound world that resonated on a deep, even unconscious level; all you need to do was to allow yourself to be taken over by the music, without using the conscious mind to act as a gatekeeper.

All in all, it proved to be very successful and, at times, surprising evening’s entertainment, with Jancek’s song cycle showcasing Breslik’s compelling interpretation as its centerpiece.



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