The World's Best Tenor
Piotr Beczała won the highest recognition. We have not had such a great singer since the times of Jan Reszke, whose triumphs date back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Jan Kiepura. Beczała's career has developed gradually, but 2009 turned him into a star. "He is the best lyric tenor in the world", says Peter Gelb, director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, about the Polish singer. This opinion is not surprising, seeing as during the season's most important performance - Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor broadcast world-wide from the New York theatre in February 2009 - Piotr Beczała outshone Anna Netrebko, who was supposed to have been the highlight of the evening.
Beczała also met the Russian prima donna in summer, at the festival in Baden-Baden where they performed in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Again, both critics and audiences took a greater liking to Piotr Beczała. Actually, he receives enthusiastic reviews wherever he sings. This was the case in New York when he triumphed in February as Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Onegin and as the Prince in Verdi's Rigoletto, then in May in Berlin, where he appeared in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, and a few weeks later at Vienna's Staatsoper, where he sang the title role in Faust. He repeated this role with great success in the autumn in Chicago during his debut at the Lyric Opera.
In the February New York broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor, the Netrebko-Beczała duo were partnered by baritone Mariusz Kwiecień. He returned to the Metropolitan on New Year's Eve to debut in the new and major part of the toreador Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen. He feels so much at home at this theatre that he recently bought a home in New York, but many other theatres invite him over as well. In June 2009 he was King Roger in Paris, in the autumn he appeared at the Teatro Real in Madrid as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, and portrayed another Mozartian hero, Don Giovanni, at Munich's Staatsoper.
Aleksandra Kurzak is 32, which makes her seven years younger than Mariusz Kwiecień, but she too enjoys a strong position at the Metropolitan, confirmed this year by the part of Gilda in Rigoletto. However, she sings much more often in Europe; audiences at the Theater an der Wien enjoyed her October performances in Rossini's Tancredi, after which she travelled to the Staatsoper in Munich and then the Helsinki Opera. She does not forget about Hamburg, either, where her international career began, nor about London's Covent Garden where she is greatly popular.
Wandering King Roger
Polish directors are following in the footsteps of our singers. Grzegorz Jarzyna had a successful foreign opera debut in January 2009 when he staged The Gambler by Prokofiev in Lyon. His behaviour was unusual for today's stage producers: he did not show off himself. Everything that his production said came from Prokofiev's music. It was the music that was the most important - filled with restless rhythms, sudden tensions, spectacular solutions. Listening very carefully to this music, Jarzyna created almost an opera thriller about people consumed with a desire to gamble.
Prokofiev was inspired to write The Gambler by Dostoevsky's novel. He condensed the strands of the plot but remained faithful to the literary original. Grzegorz Jarzyna designed a contemporary production, also drawn from the spirit of Dostoevsky's novel. The German health resort where the Russian writer met people from all over Europe at the roulette table, to the Polish director became a symbol of our reality. He showed us that, just like Dostoevsky's characters, we sit down to the game with borrowed money in our pockets. We hope that with its help, we can finally become rich.
A completely different kind of theatre is created by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who has collaborated with the Paris Opera since 2006. In June he staged Szymanowski's King Roger at the Opera Bastille, but focused on themes which are present in all his productions. Warlikowski keeps portraying a world moving towards disintegration, self-destruction even, where the lives of the protagonists carry the stigma of death. This is also present in his King Roger. He discarded the mysterious climate of Mediaeval Sicily and the conflict between austere Christianity and sensual antiquity, instead invoking films describing the mood of the 1960s, this time finding inspiration in Teorema. Like the mysterious traveller from Pasolini's film, the Shepherd stepped into Roger and Roxana's home to destroy its bourgeois order. Warlikowski turned him into an ageing hippy or leader of a religious cult whose vision of the world was so attractive that Roger succumbed to it.
Krzysztof Warlikowski is a director who knows how to create stunning stage images, but he confused his French audience by complicating the multiple-thread ideas of Szymanowski's opera, a work still little known though enjoying some interest around the world. It is appreciated more for the value of its music, and this was also revealed in the Paris premiere brilliantly conducted by Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono, with Mariusz Kwiecień (Roger), Olga Pasiecznik (Roxana), and American tenor Eric Cutler (Shepherd).
Theatres were unwilling to produce King Roger for many years, unable to find the key to its staging. However, this can be a visually attractive opera, as proved by one of Europe's most renowned directors, Britain's David Pountney, who staged King Roger in the summer at the festival in Bregenz and in November at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. He designed a lucid, visually beautiful show, suspended between modernity and the distant past. It is worth adding that all these productions of King Roger, including another premiere, in Bonn this time, in May, were accompanied by a multimedia exhibition about the opera and its creator prepared by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Another export director of ours, Mariusz Treliński, again accepted an invitation from Valery Gergiev, conductor and director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. In April he prepared the premiere of two seldom staged one-act operas: Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Rachmaninov's Aleko. He found a shared theme in them, showing women in a world governed by men. This third St. Petersburg production by Treliński - after Madame Butterfly and King Roger - also turned out to be the most important, because in July it travelled from the Mariinsky Theatre to the Baden-Baden festival, where it became the sensation of the summer opera season in Europe.
A Time of International Co-productions
Mariusz Treliński's international plans also included the December premiere of Puccini's Madame Butterfly in Valencia, but he was busier with his work at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, of which he had been appointed artistic director in autumn 2008. He brought his two earlier foreign productions to the Warsaw stage in recent months: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice from Bratislava, and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov from Vilnius. The latter show in particular was a major event. Though its treatment of the Russian historical fresco caused some controversy, with Treliński presenting a show about contemporary power struggles and the relations between politics and the omnipresent media, the participation of outstanding foreign artists - singers Nikolai Putilin and Anatoly Kocherga and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson - is proof that the Polish National Opera is starting to be involved in international co-productions.
Poland's other theatres also want to be noticed in Europe. The Wrocław Opera's May premiere of Richard Strauss's The Woman Without a Shadow, never staged in Poland before, brought in a sizable foreign audience. The director was one of the doyens of German theatre, Hans-Peter Lehmann. The high musical standard of the performance, which was conducted by Ewa Michnik, was noted with appreciation - Strauss's almost symphonic score is extraordinarily difficult.
The Wrocław Opera also produced Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns, with a guest performance by famous Italian tenor Antonello Palombi as the biblical Samson. This premiere was a joint project with the opera houses of Bologna and Liége and the festival in Santander, Spain. The production directed by Michał Znaniecki will rotate among these cities in the coming seasons.
Michał Znaniecki, who was appointed director of the Teatr Wielki in Poznań in July, began his term in office with another large international project, involving the opera houses of Bilbao and Tel Aviv. Producing Verdi's Ernani for these three theatres, he has designed a show in which spectacular stage imagery serves the Italian opera master's music very well.
The Baltic Opera in Gdańsk gained new energy with Marek Weiss as its new manager. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his directing career, in April he staged Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. He found a cohesive way to merge Russia from two eras - the old times described in Pushkin's poem, on which the libretto is based, and contemporary Russia living a lavish lifestyle, rich, but emotionally empty and callous. In October he put together an international cast for the premiere of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos with which the Gdańsk company travelled to Szeged for a festival organized by Mezzo TV, the French music station. The show was broadcast to 39 countries.
The July attraction of the Gdańsk-Sopot-Gdynia tri-city was a concert performance of Das Rheingold - the first part of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen tetralogy. The orchestra, comprising the best Polish musicians, performed under the baton of British conductor Jan Latham Koenig, and leading singers among the 14 soloists included Jeff Martin from the United States, Niklas Björling Rygert from Sweden, Kristinn Sigmundsson, a bass from Iceland, and of course Tomasz Konieczny, who performs in Germany on a permanent basis, as Alberich. The concert version of Das Rheingold was all the more important in that it promises a return to the tradition of the famous Wagner festivals held at Sopot's Forest Opera in the 1920s and 1930s.
We do not have such spectacular stars among musicians as we do in the world of opera, but it is worth noting the developing careers of two pianists currently being promoted by record companies. Virgin Classics / EMI have released the eighth album by Piotr Anderszewski (b. 1969) and his first live recording - from a recital at New York's Carnegie Hall. He has proved with this virtuoso CD that he feels comfortable in a variety of styles and can play with imagination and panache, reading the notes insightfully.
Live at Carnegie Hall includes some Bach, whose music Anderszewski is particularly fond of. It also features Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wien interpreted with romantic flair, the atmospheric cycle In the Mists by Janaček, and Beethoven's Sonata Op. 110. Since a good recital must have an encore, after a loud round of applause Anderszewski played three Hungarian folk songs by Bartók. A Parisian by residence, in June he prepared a festival called "Anderszewski and Friends" in Łódź. After an excellent recital of his own, he offered the stage of the Łódź Philharmonic to pianists from different countries whose interpretations he found fascinating.
In autumn Deutsche Grammophon released a record with Chopin's piano concertos performed by Rafał Blechacz. The triumphant winner of the last Chopin Competition had the opportunity to play with one of the world's best orchestras, the Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, but under Jerzy Semkow's baton their manner of playing was too stately. Rafał Blechacz with his very natural style thus remains the true hero of the album. He freely leads the narration, and there is no falseness in what he has to say.
Conductor Antoni Wit, together with the ensembles of the National Philharmonic, is a tireless propagator of Polish music. Under his long-term contract, the NAXOS label is releasing successive series of orchestra works by Polish composers. 2009 saw the release of Krzysztof Penderecki's Utrenja as well as two albums with Karol Szymanowski's symphonies and Harnasie, which made it onto the prestigious "Editor's Choice" list of the British monthly "BBC Music Magazine". Antoni Wit also started work on a new project for NAXOS, this time involving the output of Mieczysław Karłowicz.
Contrary to what Deutsche Grammophon announced earlier, a new Krystian Zimerman album, planned after his Polish tour in February, was not released. The pianist visited Poland after 10 years to play chamber works by Grażyna Bacewicz with four Polish musicians. 2009 was the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 40th anniversary of her death. Her oeuvre spanned the peak of the neoclassical period and the avant-garde explosion, while she herself drew from both these trends to create her own original music which has victoriously withstood the test of time. Her Quintet No. 2 from 1965, which Zimerman performed with violinists Kaja Danczowska and Agata Szymczewska, violist Ryszard Groblewski, and cellist Rafał Kwiatkowski, still has a freshness about it, sparkling with ideas and variable tempos. Krystian Zimerman gave the world more of a surprise with his controversial statement during performances in the United States, when he criticized U.S. international policy from the stage. A discussion swept across the media in many countries as to whether an artist had the right to offer such harsh political opinions, addressed to people brought together by a desire to admire his art. The anticipated record became less important, but fortunately other artists worked on promoting Grażyna Bacewicz, too. Polish violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, who has performed mainly in the United States for many years, recorded three of the composer's concertos for Britain's Chandos label. The soloist was accompanied by the Polish Radio Orchestra conducted by Łukasz Borowicz.
Doyens Better than Youngsters
2009 was a year of many anniversaries. We joined the world-wide commemoration of the Handel Year and the Mendelssohn Year with numerous concerts, but we had our own heroes as well. January marked the 100th anniversary of the tragic death of Mieczysław Karłowicz, who was killed in an avalanche in the Tatra Mountains. We celebrated the birthdays of contemporary composers - 70-year-old Zygmunt Krauze, and Bogusław Schaeffer who is ten years older. This versatile artist - writer, playwright, critic, and composer - is a pioneer of electronic music in Poland. Schaeffer's achievements in this field were the focus of one evening at the Warsaw Autumn festival, and it turned out that his ideas place him well above many much younger artists.
In fact in recent months, doyens appeared much more interesting than the new generation of composers. The world premiere of Paweł Szymański's symphony at the Warsaw Autumn festival went unnoticed. The only work one remembers from the programme of the Musica Electronica Nova festival in Wrocław is Lidia Zielińska's atmospheric composition Nobody is Perfect. The number one figure of new music is still - for the nth year in a row - 38-year-old Cezary Duchnowski from Wrocław, an artist with a huge imagination. His favourite tool as a composer is the computer; using its possibilities, he is able to immerse listeners in a fascinating world of sounds prepared from traditional instruments. He proved it with his opera Ogród Marty / Martha's Garden produced at the Warsaw Autumn festival. His concert music also has many theatrical qualities, as seen in Głosy miasta / Voices of the City, a piece commissioned by the Wratislavia Cantans festival.
In 2009, 76-year-old Krzysztof Penderecki's level of activity was amazing. Though he did not add any new pieces to his extensive oeuvre, it is definitely worth noting the film version of his Seven Gates of Jerusalem with animation by Tomasz Bagiński, which premiered at the MIDEM market in Cannes in January. In the autumn the film won an Emmy nomination.
Though not individually, youth did triumph collectively. An orchestra that is growing into an ensemble of serious stature is Sinfonia Iuventus, formed less than two years ago to enable the best graduates of Poland's music academies to gain artistic experience. It took just over a year of work with leading conductors - to mention Jerzy Semkow and Gabriel Chmura - for the group to require no lenient treatment at all. Furthermore, Sinfonia Iuventus even has its own festival, the Jerzy Waldorff Summer Festival, in Radziejowice near Warsaw. For this event, the orchestra prepared six concerts, each with a different programme - from Haydn and Mozart, through Mendelssohn, Grieg and Karłowicz, to Bernstein and Gershwin.
The musical panorama of 2009 needs supplementing with at least a cursory review of events of Poland's music life. We are not as yet a country which all the world's stars place on the routes of their artistic tours, but we did play host to the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conductors appearing in Poland included Valery Gergiev and Charles Dutoit, and we had performances by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Radu Lupu, Ivo Pogorelić and Midori, singers Maria Guleghina, Placido Domingo, and Ian Bostridge, to name just some. More important than concert fireworks, though, is the development of festivals. Apart from events which have long enjoyed a strong position, like Wratislavia Cantans (the stars in 2009 included countertenor Andreas Scholl, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists with John Eliot Gardiner, and the Gabrieli Consort & Players with Wratislavia's director, Paul McCreesh), new ones are emerging. When the Beethoven Easter Festival moved from Kraków to the Polish capital, Kraków came up with the Misteria Paschalia event for Easter Week, attended by the best early music ensembles of Europe. To this festival, Kraków has now added a year-round cycle called Opera Rara presenting Baroque works. There is also Sacrum Profanum in September; the 2009 edition focused on contemporary British music - both classical and electronic, even from the borderland of classical, jazz, and techno.
The fifth Chopin and his Europe festival, held in August in Warsaw, was also a success, its highest artistic standard guaranteed by pianists - primarily Martha Argerich and Andreas Steier. France's famous Orchestre des Champs-Elysées with Philippe Herrewghe performed at the festival for the first time. Frans Brüggen's international Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century also played, not for the first time. These attractions are nothing compared to Chopin and his Europe in 2010, which will continue throughout August and will feature a thousand artists. After all, this is the Chopin Year, and the 200th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin's birth will dominate music life not only in Poland.
Author: Jacek Marczyński, December 2009