Jan·?ek: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

Jan·?ek wrote this 35-minute work during the final years of the First World
War, and its over-riding theme of cross-cultural love, displaced family
values and separation are emotionally symbolic of the political and
historical times in which they are set. This was a period of constrained
social mobility, of racial and class prejudice, of political turmoil and
largely because of this the cycle is quite easy to take out of its
historical roots and place in a contemporary time and setting. Jan·?ek
himself seems to have been undecided by the presentation of this work –
should it be completely staged, or simply presented without any kind of
dramatization. Deborah Warner’s production for the National Theatre many
years ago didn’t make a convincing job of this, and it should be said that
Jack Furness’s production recalls that one in many details (down to the use
of video projection and simulated sex). But by placing it in a modern-day
asylum centre Shadwell Opera and Jack Furness could be saying this is
anywhere and everywhere – identity and indecision of themselves cross
borders and nationalities, time and space, love is welded to bureaucracy to
be rubber stamped at will. Where Warner had over-indulged the setting,
Furness has kept it to a bare minimum without interference from the
direction placing the composer’s libretto in a social petri dish.

For such a short work, it has surprising psychological depth though the
desolation of Jan·?ek’s piano writing lays much of the foundation for this
too: more than half of the stated tempi for the score indicates music which
is played slowly, although that is not to say there isn’t angularity or
impressionistic weight to phrasing elsewhere. Much of the writing recalls
Jan·?ek’s 1905 Sonata in its rumbling bass lines, the massive chords that
sound stricken with terror, the phrases that erupt elliptically and the
sounds of tolling bells. The bleakness of the score is undeniable, but set
against the meltingly tender phrasing of Sam Furness the contrast between
hope and despair was beguiling. The mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon also sang
her role powerfully, and hers is a very rich voice. She was entirely

I’ve never been absolutely convinced by Seamus Heaney’s translation of
Jan·?ek’s cycle – it never lacks poetry, and it’s rhythmically well
written, but the language can be earthy sometimes, though perhaps this is
because Heaney is trying a little too hard to replicate the Czech folktale
narrative that inspired Jan·?ek in the first place. Nevertheless, Sam
Furness sang his part with magnificently clear diction (this was one of
those rare examples when literally every word was crystal clear) and one
was often spellbound by his ability to float phrases. His is a powerful,
yet fully emotive voice, and the stamina was formidable. Jan·?ek doesn’t
make Heldentenor demands in this cycle but he expects his tenor to sing at sotto voce (which Furness did) and he had no difficulty whatsoever
reaching his two high notes at the close of the cycle. Matthew Fletcher
played the score with effortless brilliance.

This may well have a been very short evening but it was hugely impressive.

Marc Bridle

Sam Furness (tenor), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Fletcher
(piano), Jack Furness (direction)

Shadwell Opera, Arcola Theatre, Studio 2, London E8; 4th August

image_description=The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn
product_title=The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Sam Furness

Photo credit: Maximillian von London