Opera Rara 2017-18 Review – The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Michael Nyman’s Opera About Madness Makes a Lot of Sense in Krakow

By Jonathan Sutherland

Since 2009 Opera Rara has been bringing obscure operatic works to the resplendent royal city of Kraków in Poland. Even though this year’s Opera Rara Festival included works by Charpentier, Gluck, Purcell and John Blow (the latter performed by John Butt and the superb Dunedin Concert) it is not just baroque bijoux which are presented to the receptive and appreciative Polish audiences. Remarkably, the range of music in the three week Festival spanned four centuries. One of this year’s highlights was a performance of Michael Nyman’s curiously titled chamber opera “The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” based on a case study by English neurologist Oliver Sacks. (Please note “hat” and not the more likely “cat”).

Although born in Stratford outside London which should not be confused with Shakespeare’s much grander “upon-Avon” site, Nyman’s parents were both Polish, making the Kraków connection even more relevant. During his studies at the Royal Academy of Music, Nyman specialized in baroque music and was an accomplished harpsichordist which makes his references to Purcell in the film score to “ The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” more understandable. Other well-known film music includes “The Piano” and “Gattaca” which explore more of Nyman’s Glass-ish translucent approach to music. The 74-year-old composer is actually extremely prolific in varied genres and has written a number string quartets, operas, songs and instrumental works.

The Ghost of Schumann

The plot of “The Hat” concerns a famous singer and teacher (Dr. P) who due to a degenerative disability of visual agnosia (mental blindness) can no longer recognize normal objects or perform daily functions. He can identify colors, lines, and shapes but cannot make sense of what he sees. People, places, and objects become a turbid neurological blur.

To overcome this tragic condition, Sacks encourages Dr P to construct his activities through musical stimuli, which becomes a kind of Pavlovian response by partitura. As Sacks cogently explains to his patient “You have centered your whole life around music, and now you use music to organize your life. My only prescription is more music!”

Robert Schumann also suffered from serious mental disorders, specifically suicidal depression, and the fragments of his music used by Nyman are particularly adroit. Sacks persuades Dr. P (also referred to as “Klaus” by his wife) to sing something from the “Dichterliebe” to establish if he is as musically impaired as he is visually incapacitated. The result is a revelation – perfect recall. Not without irony, Dr. P sings “Ich Grolle Nicht” which appropriately means “I don’t begrudge”. There are several other Schumann songs providing the musical clues which enable Dr. P to carry out his daily life. “Der Nussbaum” predicates dressing, “Rätsel” means bath-time and the dinner bell comes from “Lied eines Schmeides”.

The opera itself is certainly no buffo burlesque, but handles a difficult subject with dignity and sensitivity. It is not entirely without lighter moments, even if most of them are altramentous. In a back-handed compliment, librettist Christopher Rawlence has Dr. P remark that Manhattan traffic noises are “more Cage than Schumann.”

The True Backbone

Whilst the three vocal roles in “The Hat” are of undeniable dramatic interest and frequently contain counter-sprechstimmer and plainchant, the backbone of the opera comes from the orchestration, which in its original form was written for only seven musicians. Nyman’s self-described “minimalist” style of composition is deceptively difficult and its musical transparency can lead to pitfalls for the unwary.

Jurek Dybał led the Sinfonietta Cracovia string ensemble plus harp and piano with marked deference to the singers and admirable attention to the dynamic, rhythmic and intermittent lyrical nuances of the score. The jaunty cello and pizzicato accompaniment to the opening of Part two belied the seriousness of Dr. P’s mode of getting dressed and the repeated sempre marcato tutti string quavers during the verbal chess game were bursting with dramatic expectation. There was impressive playing from the violas and Elżbieta Baklarz did a fine job with the tricky harp part. Nyman claimed that he included Schumann’s “Ich Grolle Nicht” in the midst of his minimalist orchestration because of its unbroken quaver piano accompaniment which mirrors his own penchant for seemingly endless semi-quavers, often in intervals of major thirds and fourths.

The Doctor

The role of Doctor S (for Sacks) who discovers the singer’s debilitating condition, was sung by American tenor Stanley Jackson with a clear, light forward-placed timbre and credible compassion for his patient. There is quasi-plainchant writing in many sections which Jackson delivered with the best diction of the three singers. It is Dr. S who first makes the eponymous statement “He’d mistaken his wife for a hat” supported by a particularly poignant espressivo marcato solo violin obbligato.  During “Ich Grolle Nicht,” Jackson joined the low baritone score at “Und sah die Schlang” and opened up a pristine top A natural on “Herzen.” The unison “He still has a perfect ear! His memory’s unimpaired” with the soprano was mezzo-voce singing at its finest and there was delicate word coloring in the “Displaced Europeans, uprooted” passage. The opera ends with Sacks paraphrasing in spoken dialogue a line from TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets:” “When the music stopped, so did he” which Jackson delivered with benign acquiescence and ineffable gentleness.

The Wife

In the “First examination” scene, Dr. P is accompanied by his wife, unsurprisingly called “Mrs P.”  In some ways, she is more unbalanced than her husband and is certainly in a state of massive denial. She publically attributes Dr. P’s behavioral abnormalities such as asking directions from a parking meter, shaking hands with a music stand or failing to recognize his students as “just being silly” or “a practical joke” and insists that he is “perfectly normal.” Her own dubious diagnosis is that it is only a matter of diabetes and high blood-pressure. When Sacks identifies degenerative indications in Dr. P’s abstract paintings, his intractable spouse puts it down to “artistic development.” This is a role somewhere between Pauline in Strauss’ “Intermezzo” and Leonore in “Fidelio” except in this case the husband’s prison is his tangled mind. Celebrated American soprano Marisol Montalvo was dramatically committed and vocally impressive. For all Nyman’s Glass-ian minimalism, there was Menotti-like lyricism in “The Glove” section and Montalvo relished some stellar above the stave declamatory notes such as the più cantabile high A naturals on “His whole life is music” and forte A flat on “Oh God, it’s his mother!” There was Turandot contempt as she spat out the fortissimo “You’re an ignorant, arrogant man” to Sacks after his contrary diagnosis of Dr. P’s artwork, and a hysterical Elektra top B natural on “Philistine.” The sustained minim chromatics which opened “The Prognosis” scene were heartfelt and displayed excellent breath control. This is a soprano who scored a triumph in Calixto Bieito’s controversial production of “Lulu” in Basel and Montalvo’s acting skills are undeniable. The only negative was that she didn’t play the piano during “Ich grolle nicht”.  Then again, Marta Argerich is not the greatest “Aida.”

The Patient

The principal role of Dr. P was sung by acclaimed Polish Wagnerian bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, which was truly a case of luxurious casting. Certainly the opportunity to hear this marvelous artist not only in a minimalist composition, but also sing “Ich grolle nicht” in the same performance was a real treat. A trained actor, Konieczny brought considerable thespian skills to the part and there were many passages which were intensely moving without being remotely maudlin. Konieczny’s fluster at confusing Bette Davis with Neil Armstrong was both funny and wistful and failing to recognise a picture of his mother deeply touching. His grandioso exultation at finally correctly identifying the glove was no less illustrious than Wotan extolling Valhalla in “Das Rheingold.” “What’s wrong? What is it I should do” was sung with warm word-coloring and affecting pathos.  His final dying ‘mm” phrases reaching a top F-sharp were memorable for immaculate legato and enviable evenness of tone. Konieczny’s  characterization was certainly not all sturm und drang, however, and there were almost Chaplin-esque moments playing with the solid objects. His little quick-step dancing with Mrs. P could have come straight from a Viennese beisl after too much Heuriger Wein. 

Vocally Konieczny was predictably outstanding, with the minor reservation that the voice was often too strong for the small venue, especially as it was miked. The second problem was that for all the musical excellence, Konieczny’s English diction was wanting. In the faster passages, it bordered on unintelligible although the stuttering in the card identification scene was convincing and wordless “mm” semiquaver pedal during the debate about Mr. P’s paintings scene very effective. Perhaps next time maestro Dybał should engage an English coach  – even the American born Mrs. P would have benefitted as her diction was not exactly the best one might expect.

The simple staging by Elisabeth Schiller-Hitzmann’s of vertical and horizontal struts and lengths of fabric mirroring the fracture of Dr. P’s mind was effective but slightly distracting. Thadeusz Tischbein’s video projections were more successful, particularly those of the Manhattan sky-line in the 1960’s and a distorted image of the interior of the Wiener Staatsoper which reflected Dr. P’s blurred recollections.

Like many multi-purpose venues, the acoustics of the theatre hall of the ICE Kraków Conference Centre were far from ideal. Given the vocal calibre and projection skills of the three singers, amplification was a questionable enhancement.

“The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ was an inspired piece of programming by Opera Rara and augurs well for future Festivals.


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