English National Opera Review 2023: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Isabella Bywater’s new staging of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony is artful and affecting

By Benjamin Poore
Photo: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

What a season it has been for English National Opera.

Threatened by Arts Council England with swingeing cuts and hare-brained, uncosted plans for relocation, the company has become one of the most prominent symbols for classical music’s ongoing struggle for survival in UK public culture. But the season has seen the company’s artistic and institutional resolve stiffen, rallying audiences and artists to offer nine productions that year that have frequently scaled artistic heights and staked a claim for the company’s imagination and distinctiveness in the British opera scene. 

The final show of the year is “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” a 55-minute staging of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony (1976), whose 1991 recording with the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw was a surprise breakout hit for a piece of contemporary classical music. It is designed and directed by Isabella Bywater, familiar to Coliseum audiences from her stylish Brassaï’-inspired stage picture for Jonathan Miller’s interwar “La bohème;” Nicole Chevalier made her ENO debut as the nameless soprano solo who grieves three times over, with Lidiya Yankovskaya in the pit. 

ENO has some experience in realizing concert works for the stage – Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” featured in the 2018/19 season, designed by artist Wolfgang Tillmans; next season will see a production of conceptual artist Marina Abramović’s “7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” which like Bywater’s staging of Górecki, brings video (here Roberto Vitalini) and silent actors (choreography by Dan O’Neill) to the operatic table. Indeed this staging of Górecki’s meditative symphony speaks to an ongoing preoccupation at ENO with slow-burn works that have a processional, sculptural quality – witness Phelim McDermott’s sellout stagings of Glass operas “Akhnaten” and “Satyagraha” with theater company Improbable – light on plot but heavy on absorbing spectacle. 

A Triptych

Isabella Bywater creates a triptych of scenes to match the Symphony’s three movements: the first setting a Stabat Mater-like Polish 15th century hymn; the second a prayer scrawled on the walls of Gestapo prison; the last a Silesian folk song where a mother searches for her dead son on the battlefield. The piece moves through a triumvirate of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, reflected in the three-sided wedge-like stage set; the first part sees a dead son’s body ascend into the light, leaving the soprano in darkness’ the second a terrible wait for execution or torture, and the third a desperate search that ends with radiant apotheosis. 

It is a staging of remarkable economy and beauty, described by Bywater as more like an installation than an opera. Nicole Chevalier is onstage almost throughout, and her movements finely-honed to explore different dimensions of grief and longing. There is a sustained emotional intensity that is not short on theatricality. The first 13 minutes of the work – purely instrumental – see Chevalier make her way effortfully to a chair at the front of the stage, which then ascends as she starts to sing weightlessly of loss, as she unfurls a length of a cloth which she had just swaddled like a – her – child. In a stunning coup de théâtre she then falls from the chair herself and is suspended, as if submerged in grief, at the music’s climax, keying into the waves and droplets of Vitalini’s video designs in that movement. 

The concrete bunker of the first part is revealed, as if alchemically transformed, to be made of a weave of ropes that suggest trees in the final part – from subterranean imprisonment to organic redemption, perhaps even resurrection. Chevalier dons angelic wings and flies, with numinous lighting from Jon Driscoll and the repeated A major chord that closes the score, in an evocation of Bosch’s “The Ascent to Heaven.” Other signposts include Goya’s “Disasters of War” series in the bed sheets into which the fallen soldiers of the final movement finally nestle for their eternal rest – even as we are finally admonished: “you bad people…why did you kill my son?” Images are simple and capacious, perfectly attuned to the plain poetic simplicity of the Symphony’s texts, and their vernacular humane qualities. 

Chevalier makes considerable vocal impact with a delivery that balances the lyrical quality of the writing with declamatory intensity – all the more impressive given that her first entry comes whilst suspended in mid-air (as does the coda). The rich plangency of her voice as she searched the fallen bodies in the final part for her son was a highlight; the calibration of brightness and velvety darkness in the voice keyed in well to the themes of Bywater’s staging. 

Musical Brilliance

Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted the ENO orchestra in another house debut; the score’s prevailing lyricism is unforced and sense of pulse disciplined, which gave processional shape to the installation-like character of the show. Most striking was Yankovskaya’s grasp of the architecture of the long first movement, with a simple ascending figure that begins in sepulchral basses and rises in a slow spiral towards the first soprano entry, as the enormousness of the loss the music and staging describe dawns on character and audience alike. Here this economical music was nourished with control and focus, providing a clear channel for Bywater’s emotional narrative to emerge. 

“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” is one of the most striking things ENO has done this season. It is absorbing, immediate, and cost-effective; one would hope to see several revivals, as well as exploration of staging concert works from the company in future. It encapsulates its adventurous artistic spirit, doing things that the other main London house would not; so too does it affirm ENO’s commitment to recent and brand-new music: five of its nine productions this year were from the 20th and 21st centuries, with two UK premieres – “Blue” by Jeanine Tesori and Jake Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” – and this brand-new realization of Górecki.

The company’s future is still ambiguous, with an expensive and impractical relocation still on the cards, but this last year it has a powerful case for its artistic distinctiveness and value of its contribution. 


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