ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
The ENO presents Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the iconic poetic meditation on motherhood and loss. The composer’s most well-known work, it is one of the biggest selling contemporary classical pieces of all time, having sold more than a million copies since its first recording was released in 1992.
A symphony in three mournful and reflective moments, a single soprano voice paints a tryptic of motherhood; first a lament of the Virgin Mary, the second a message written on the wall of a concentration camp, and the third a mother searching for her lost son. This production is presented in its original Polish, with English subtitles.
For this performance, the Responders have been tasked with a review writing brief. They were asked to envisage that they are critics reviewing Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for The Arts Desk. When writing their reviews, they had to consider The Arts Desk’s audience, journalistic tone of voice, and style of writing.
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ENO Responders 22/23
Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3, otherwise known as ‘A Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, is a rare phenomenon: a classical ‘hit’. Composed in 1976, it was first recorded and broadcast to the Western European public in 1992, where it became an almost instant sensation. It takes three Polish texts – a 15th Century lament of Mary for Jesus, a message written on a Gestapo cell wall by a young girl telling her mother not to worry for her fate, and a Silesian folk song about a mother searching for her son killed in the Silesian uprisings – all of which evocatively centre around loss and motherhood, and sets them to mournful, slow-moving music.
While not a difficult work to listen to, Górecki’s symphony relies on slow, cumulative, quasi-minimalist movement to bring out its pathos and complexity, and it was an interesting decision for the ENO to stage this concert piece as an opera, an intrinsically theatrical form. Director Isabella Bywater took creative control of design as well as direction to try and harmonise the ‘sorrow’ of the songs with their surroundings, a choice which was nicely reflected in the production’s slick set pieces. The sharply angled set focused the audience’s attention on the slow montage of haunting projections that accompanied the music: the harvest accompanying the third movement that slowly withered and turned cold was a particular highlight. At first, the set’s relative minimalism harmonised nicely with the minimalist chordal progressions of the music. The winding sheet that slowly disappeared while the lost Son sank into the ground, for instance, was a beautiful touch, creating an aura of loss without crowding the set. The shining crack of light that appeared through the set walls when the girl in the hands of the Gestapo was grieving for her mother was another moving design choice, mirroring the faint hope spilling into prison walls while the Mother figure watched from the side, unable to come to her daughter.
However, a production cannot rely on its set design to make a success out of an opera – or, in this case, a symphony – and the production’s handling of its music did not quite hit the mark. Admittedly, Nicole Chevalier’s ENO performance debut as the single scored soprano role in Górecki’s piece was a strong one: her voice had an ethereal, silvery quality that helped create an impression of purity and vulnerability. Lidiya Yankovskaya’s direction of the orchestra was similarly fluent, bringing out the mournful tones of Górecki’s score well. However, Bywater’s production made little attempt to adapt the piece onto the operatic stage: there was little theatrical depth and no sense of narrative. In one sense, Bywater remains true to the music here – there is no narrative in the original piece, only a deep sense of sadness coming from music that is slow-moving and only cumulatively effective, with few natural high points of tension (an odd choice of classical score for a staged opera!) Her use of non-speaking actors was innovative and well-directed, and in the first half of the performance, they brought enough movement to the stage to keep the audience’s attention. By the second half, however, the production’s energy faded, and without any successful attempts to explore potential thematic depth of the music on stage, if felt as though the audience could garner a similar experience listening to the piece in a concert hall. Although Górecki’s symphony centres around sorrow, what the production sustained was more a mild melancholy. Chevalier’s performance sometimes managed to plumb the depths of a mother’s grief, creating a powerful impression of the themes of loss Górecki attempts to portray, but the simple fact that she did not spend very much time singing on stage meant that much of the performance was padded out with aimless wandering on a darkened set to slow-moving music.
Is it really a symphony? Perhaps it’s closer to a requiem, but definitely not an opera. ENO’s 22/23 season started with a bang but ends with 21 repetitions of an A major chord.
Górecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ can only be described as an anti-climax to what has been a far too eventful year for the company. CEO Stuart Murphy’s opening speech felt longer than the performance itself, but one message stood out: “History is watching you, Nick Serota and Darren Henley”. Greeted by rapturous applause, it’s clear that London is not ready to let go of the English National Opera.
Premiered in 1977, Górecki’s third symphony would grow to become his most famous work. It gained wider recognition 15 years later, when a recording released as a tribute to the victims of the Holocaust sold over a million copies worldwide. The symphony marks a transition from Górecki’s earlier serialist writing, to a sound reminiscent of Arvo Pärt and John Taverner: ‘holy minimalism’. Although the audience spilled into St Martin’s Lane much earlier than they are used to, the hour-long performance felt as if it would never end.
Perhaps the most successful part of the work is the opening string build up; seeing as it is staged in an opera house, it could easily be argued that this introduction serves as an overture. An unusual orchestral line up for the ENO pit, the sound produced is worlds away from the Wagnerian brass heard earlier in the season. From a standard string section, the composer builds a mesmerising 8-part modal canon. The lower double-bass line begins so quietly that stray coughs within the audience seem more prominent. Sending all listeners into a quasi-meditative state, it’s easy to forget to even glance at the stage for the first 12 minutes.
However, when you finally look up, sole soprano Nicole Chevalier appears suspended in the air, on her ENO debut. The captivation ends here, leaving us with 40 minutes of underwhelming music. In essentially her one-woman show, Chevalier sings each of the women in the three movements. The first movement is based on a 15th-century Polish prayer called “Sorrowful Song” which is traditionally sung by the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. As Chevalier’s voice floats above the sparse orchestration, a floating coffin provides a visual parallel.
In the second movement, Chevalier assumes the role of a daughter, asking her mother not to grieve over her death. The text is a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, mirrored by a mournful theme that travels through the orchestra. The soprano is surrounded by hooded actors, silhouettes that eventually drag her away.
Searching for her son, killed in a warzone, the final movement depicts a despairing mother among fallen soldiers. Chevalier appeared in what seemed like a pink North Face puffer, part of the ENO’s newest sustainability project: reimagined charity shop purchases. She is later adorned with huge yellow wings (I assume these weren’t from a charity shop) and floats up into the distance.
Isabella Bywater returns to the company to direct and design this production. Three stories of loss between a mother and child take place on a wedge-shaped stage, with most atmospheric changes as a result of projections (Roberto Vitalini). The execution of Bywater’s vision was more successful in some moments than others. Chevalier was not very subtle in the removal of her harness, post-flight, and the crawling soldiers under a white sheet seemed out of place. In general, staging the work wasn’t a huge success; the visuals had not been clearly enough tied to the song texts and beyond that, those songs contained so little narrative.
Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya has been described as a ‘fierce advocate’ for contemporary works, as well as for Slavic music. The ENO debutante leads the orchestra with great sensitivity and control. As ever, the instrumentalists were faultless, taking on a more central role in this staged symphony than usual.
Described by a peer as ‘minimal minimalism’, Górecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ doesn’t have quite the same impact as, say, Glass’s ‘Akhnaten’. I commend the ENO’s efforts, and their ongoing journey to protect the relevance of opera, but they could have closed the season with a bit more oomph.
ENO ends their season with Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a work never staged in full as an opera (though the Royal Ballet set the first movement in their 2022 Light of Passage). Director Isabella Bywater’s staging of the symphony is more ‘installation’ than ‘narrative’.
This is because the symphony – split into three movements – follows three different women (all sung by soprano Nicole Chevalier) across 55 minutes of mourning. First is a plea from Mary, mother of Jesus, to her son (‘share your wounds with your mother’) as she mourns his death; second, a prayer inscribed into the walls of a Gestapo prison, in which a daughter prays for her mother (‘do not weep’) and invokes the support of the Virgin Mary. Finally, Górecki sets the text of a Polish folksong in which a mother is searching for her son, murdered in the Silesian uprisings against the Weimar Republic. Her lament also ends in a prayer, touchingly evoked in the staging. Everything is sung in Polish, out of respect for the source material.
Staging a sparse narrative is a challenge for any director, but Bywater, alongside lighting designer Jon Driscoll and video designer Roberto Vitalini, honoured the simplicity of the stories, favouring atmosphere over action. The stage receded into the point of a triangle as figures in grey hoodies crept and crawled through the hanging-rope boundaries. In the first movement, the mother seems trapped in a concrete basement whilst her son’s corpse hangs – a ghastly looming presence – behind her.
Light projections melted down the sides and slipped over the floor as Nicole Chevalier dragged herself across the stage. Later, when Chevalier is suspended in a hanging chair, the projections transform into the waves of a tumbling sea: a tableau of a mother adrift in her near-insurmountable grief. Particularly poetic was the cradling of her son’s shroud into a baby form only for it to unravel as she ascended ever further from her buried child.
Nicole Chevalier’s strong vibrato soared over the thrumming orchestral score, carefully balanced by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. The second movement begins with gentle opening violins forming tentative phrases, repeated, and dipped into lower, darker notes before carefully rising into the first major moment of the piece. This returning major refrain is exceptionally powerful; the hopeful violin entry is visually mirrored in a bright chink of light splicing across the stage. Its appearance blooms bright out of the layered grey-toned double basses, and there is a delicious tangle of strings as the score slips back into the minor. These glowing climaxes and swells of emotion are all too rare in a score which relies on repetitiveness to make them happen; those keen on variation in emotion and pace may not appreciate Gorecki’s slow, sorrowful score and minimalist production.
Neither does Chevalier’s voice bring the requisite vulnerability and heart-breaking grief; her accomplished sound is almost too confident, too sharply distinguished from the orchestra. Her long notes, and haunting entries, could be more precariously suspended, just hovering over the top and blending slightly with the violins, for greater atmosphere.
The first-time staging of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs however once again proves ENO to be an institution which truly values its artform and enacts its beliefs in innovation and increased diversity. The Arts Council, members of which were present on opening night, are making a grave mistake in defunding them. As outgoing chief executive Stuart Murphy warned in his farewell speech: ‘history has its eyes on you’.
ENO has given Isabella Bywater (director/designer) the monumental creative challenge of staging Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for the first time. Unlike a traditional opera, where the libretto will provide a framework for staging, this work is without programme and therefore a blank canvus for interpreting the music. This project is not the first of its kind; the Royal Ballet used this work for Crystal Pite’s 2022 Light of Passage, focusing on the refugee crisis rather than the more abstract approach taken by Bywater here.
Górecki’s third symphony was an unexpected commercial success, with a 1991 London Sinfonietta recording reaching no. 6 on the UK mainstream charts. It is markedly different from his earlier, highly serialistic and dissonant works, taking on something akin to ‘holy minimalism’ similar to Pärt, although they weren’t in contact at the time. The piece has three movements, all songs for soprano; they are slow, reflective and sombre, ending in a major turn, a faint glimpse of daylight. Another remarkable fascination of this work is its texts, a monastic lamentation, a prayer carved into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell and an Opole folk song, each work forms a movement. The second movement‘s text is harrowing, written by an 18-year-old woman, the person in the prison cell during the Nazi occupation of Poland, facing a bleak future yet showing conviction and courage in adamantine measure.
Bywater’s staging is dark and symbolic. Although the cement mausoleum remains mostly unchanged, three very different scenes are shown, with the connecting thread being the bond between mother and child. Her vision involved the whole of the stage, horizontally and vertically. Dead bodies are suspended in mid-air and then lowered beneath the stage; the soprano’s first entry is sung from a chair floating about 15 feet off the ground, mirroring the climax of the 1st movement. As the canon that started the piece descends back into the basses, so does she to the earth.
Bywater has a vast amount of space where the soprano isn’t singing to fill, which gives her much more freedom than staging a traditional opera; she’s used this to her utmost advantage to set an eerie atmosphere. The transition between the 2nd and 3rd movements is very effective, where masked men stomp around the borders of the stage, showing us they were just strings of rope rather than solid walls. Analogous to war and peace, where comfort and security can be ripped away from us at any moment.
Nicole Chevalier, a Juliard trained American soprano, is the only voice in this production, a burden she rises to. She sings in Polish, rather than ENO’s usual English, to pay respect to the original words carved in the prison cell wall. Her voice is ideally suited to the music, crystal clear and bell-like, with beautiful darkness at the lower end of her register, which Górecki uses extensively in the 2nd movement. Five actors join Chevalier on stage (Christian Flynn, Alessandro Gruttadauria, Malik Ibheis, Own McHugh, Ryan Munroe and Ben Owora) playing dead bodies, men in foreboding black suits as well as masked soldiers and kidnappers. While all these characters are oppressive, the actors bring striking variety to their physicality and engage brilliantly with Chevalier.
Lidiya Yankovskaya and the ENO orchestra are fantastic, the strings driving most of the music while the winds, brass and percussion enter at pivotal and climactic moments the score writes for winds thinly but she drew amazing colours out of them at pivitol movments. Yankovskaya is keenly attuned to the structure of the piece and takes us with her, especially in the mountainous climb to the climax of the 1st movement, where a towering canon is built over the mesmeric first 13 minutes. The quality of the playing is superb; if you’re familiar with the 1991 recording, you won’t be disappointed here.
We find ourselves in purgatory at the start of Isabella Bywater’s staging of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. A faint light streams in from a small, concrete window. It’s just enough light to illuminate a shrouded, lifeless form, floating above an ominous abyss. Neither the promise of heaven nor the peril of Hell creates escape. Trapped in limbo for a seemingly endless 55 minutes, ENO’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs misses its moment of poignancy.
Górecki’s masterpiece just does not benefit from staging. An off-centre concrete box on stage resembled a painfully avant-garde art installation. Props appeared without purpose; a seemingly symbolic pram sat on stage for 20 minutes largely untouched. Actors clad in face-to-toe black bodysuits pulled across the stage in elongated, aching movements of performance art. It was distracting.
The music of Górecki’s symphony is a meditation on grief in three slow, repetitive, and throbbing songs, presented first as a prayer invoking Mother Mary, second as a Holocaust prisoner’s lament of encroaching death, and finally as a Polish folk song of a mother searching for any sign of her son after war. Górecki’s score starts gradually and softly, then build sto moments of moving and swirling melodies, perhaps moments recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Górecki’s name. Despite leaning into these moments of emotionally impactful orchestral release, Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted the orchestra into a methodological, almost emotionless state that rocked back and forth, but did not stir. It was monotonous.
The text is beautifully simple. True to life where grief can withhold our ability to speak, the short, powerful prayers left room for the orchestra and the soprano to rouse an emotional response from the audience. Regrettably, the distracting staging and an uneven vocal performance numbed Górecki’s writing.
Carrying the emotional weight of a piece typically performed in a concert hall by a single singer, American Soprano Nicole Chevalier proved her power in moments, but faded in others. Singing while dangling from a wooden chair lifted three-stores into the air and while crawling across the stage, the music felt secondary to the visual presentation in Bywater’s production. The orchestra did not provide much comfort, sawing at the symphony while Chevalier’s vibrato-heavy prayers echoed the tedium of a prolonged funeral. By the final scene, large amber-hued wings unfurled from Chevalier as she was lifted towards the heavens, concluding the evening with one final visual trick.
Even so, ENO’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was received warmly both on opening night and critically, a promising plot point for a storied piece. While initially rejected by audiences and critics at its 1977 premiere, Górecki’s symphony rocketed into the classical music charts 15 years later in a performance and recording that framed the work as a requiem for victims of the Holocaust.
ENO’s imagining of the Third Symphony (as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is otherwise known) eschewed its previous presentations as a shell-shocked recollection on loss and as a haunting in memoriam for the scars of the Holocaust in Poland. This new, staged production aspired to celebrate Polish heritage through one of its most recognisable exports, in a collaboration with the Republic of Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Curiously though, the production barely made reference to Poland or the Holocaust. Instead, the production emphasised the universality of motherhood and grief, without allowing either idea to develop fully.
The delayed applause from the audience on opening night prolonged the feeling of entrapment even after the curtain dropped. The musical performance, the staging, and the piece’s larger ambition effectively conjured purgatory, but failed to plumb the depths of sorrow. With Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, ENO’s season ended with a whimper.
One of opera’s greatest challenges right now seems to be that of getting younger bums on seats before the older crowd pops its clogs. This season, English National Opera has thrown a fair bit of ‘something’ at the wall to see what sticks. In The Dead City, we heard the seeds of what would become Hollywood film music; Blue had an all-black cast and was all about police brutality.
My own first trip to the opera was Glyndebourne’s 2015 production of Handel’s Saul. I wound up with a free ticket and went with my mind already made up – it was toffy and I would hate it. Naturally, I loved it, and now I love opera. However, what I didn’t learn until years later was that Saul is an oratorio, which essentially meant that it is an opera without ‘acting’. Glyndebourne added the stagecraft themselves (even though the libretto always included hypothetical stage directions to follow).
This is what ENO are basically trying to do with Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya. But unlike Saul, the libretto is lyrical rather than dramatic, and only has one singing role – it isn’t fleshed out enough to be considered a character – played by American soprano Nicole Chevalier. The official line is that director-designer Isabella Bywater’s staging is ‘presented simply – almost like an installation.’
I couldn’t agree more. It was so much like an installation that after about ten minutes I was ready to move on. The icy, almost bare, painfully postmodern stage reminded me of Samuel Beckett sets, but also of his response to a 1986 production of Endgame reimagined in a New York subway: ‘My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me.’
Thankfully, I love Górecki’s music: it is unrelenting in suffering and grief under Yankovskaya’s baton – even sublime – yet leaves plenty of room for Chevalier’s haunting voice. The half-baked movement on stage only diverts attention from the deeply devotional lyrics lifted from a late medieval prayer; an inscription from the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane; and a Polish folk song. This is why it should just be a concert. On opening night, I often found myself peering down into the pit trying to watch the musicians play. If they were more visible it would be easier to focus on the music and appreciate the orchestra’s spatial effect.
Dan O’Neil is the movement director overseeing the ensemble cast, who all wear hoodies and masks. I think it’s meant to give them an anonymous, barely there feel, but has the unintended effect of making Symphony of Sorrowful Songs look like a piece of educational theatre on gang violence devised for GCSE Drama. In one scene, we see an ensemble player on our left pushing a baby buggy back and forth, in the middle an actor glued to a smartphone, and two figures on our right who can only be described as loitering. It’s the sort of picture I imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg might narrate if you asked him what the average youth centre looks like.
Oratorios often have Biblical themes, and one reason they originally had no staging is so that they can be performed in churches. That’s part of why Saul translated so well: everything was there to make it a drama, and – crucially – the theatre is not a church. But Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a minimalist piece. Perhaps ENO would do well to remember that less is sometimes more.
This is the first operatic staging of Gorecki’s Symphony of sorrowful songs, his haunting triptych that garnered huge commercial success since its first recording in 1992. The symphony itself is beautiful and fully realised with little overriding narrative, which prompts the question of what is to be gained from a dramatic staging. The difficulty is exacerbated by the delicate nature of the libretto. The second act is taken from a prayer written on the wall of a Gestapo jail cell with a tooth; it is therefore imperative not to trivialise or sensationalise the source material. Furthermore, the performance is entirely in Polish as a way of paying respect to this source material. The fact that this production faces these challenges yet somehow creates something that is utterly beautiful and deeply moving is a credit to all involved, most noticeably the director and designer Isabella Bywater, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and soprano Nicole Chevalier.
The symphony ostensibly focuses on private grief and the staging allows this to become visible and therefore public. This decision emphasises the sense of suffering and provides extra pathos as we can only bear witness to the solitude and despair. The set is immediately impactful, its dark ribbon walls connoting notions of a church or a forest; it is this malleability that allows the piece to progress dramatically. Bywater describes the staging as ‘almost like an installation’ and it does possess an evocative power. We are introduced to a grave with a body hanging above it and a woman, her long shawl fallen deep inside the hole. The staging is successful as it compliments the score without ever overwhelming it or offering interpretations that weren’t already implicit. The awful potentiality of the body waiting above the empty grave is matched by the slow build of the strings expertly conducted by Yankovskya and this first act is ultimately a study of grief, and a profoundly moving one. As the strings build in intensity the body is lowered and the woman crawls round the stage in a state of despair before being physically raised up in a chair above the stage to sing. The libretto for this first movement is taken from a traditional Polish folk song from the Silesian uprising, the words are from a mother’s perspective and they are an acceptance of loss whilst quietly raging. This is a simple melody which rises and falls with the mother’s despair, despite its universality this is a song of private suffering representing both the unique pain of a mother’s loss of a child and the traumatic 20th century history of Poland.
It is within this history of a nation that the opera takes a narrative form. The sense of private pain is continued through the second movement, the libretto taken from the aforementioned prayer from the Nazi occupation. The first movement ends with Chevalier falling back to earth, as this movement begins she rises again, this time she is accompanied by ominous masked individuals who face away from the audience. The performance of this by Chevalier is devastating, she manages to capture the sadness and tragedy in the lyrics and in doing so presents a symbol of national defiance in the face of unimaginable trauma. This is matched by the score which provides regular bursts of warmth, giving a sense of hope amongst the pain.
The set itself allows for and encourages a powerful but subtle sense of narrative. In the second movement performers drift imperceptibly through the walls and before the third movement, the strands that make up the walls are separated as light starts to stream through into the darkness. What was once solid has become open, and this is communicated in the music. The score becomes more expansive, less minimalist with the addition of further instruments. This is also reflected in the longer libretto; a folk song in the dialect of the Opole region is an outpouring of a mother’s grief for a son lost in war. This movement ends with perhaps the only misstep of the staging, angelic wings added to the Mother as she is lofted up into the air. It is a heavy handed metaphor that is unnecessary. This points to the success of the production, which generates so much meaning and emotion through perfectly realised staging.
It is notable that this is the last in ENO’s current season and one hopes that the ENO carries forward the vision and ambition that is inherent in this production. This is an utterly beautiful hour, and a privilege to experience.
Henryk Gorecki’s third symphony (A.K.A. Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the composer own appellation) pushes minimalism to its very limits. The piece is 55 minutes long with three separate movements all of which play with a single musical idea, as if Gorecki is trying to carve it into the being of the listener. The first movement begins with the double basses playing a simple melody on their lowest notes, gradually each string instrument in turn joins in on the same melody, slightly delayed as with a canon. As soon as the piece reaches its full orchestral apex, each string drifts away piecemeal to nothingness. At the nadir, a soprano voice rings out singing the first ‘sorrowful song’. As her voice ends the strings surge in once again at the peak and fall away again to silence. This happens at such a deliberate pace that it feels deeply reflective.
This Symphony was designed as an abstract concert work with no staging. ENO have decided to stage it. Bafflingly tricky since there is no story to act out, no characters to perform and one intensely personal emotion closed in on with laser focus. Director and set designer Isabella Bywater starts on a strong footing. The curtain rises to reveal a mourning woman next to a lifeless corpse laid out on a floating slab. The woman writhes on the floor and cradles her garments as if grasping for the touch of a lost child.
At this stage video designer Roberto Vitalini’s animated lights pulse on the walls, ebb and flow across the heavily raked stage and make the simple score dance. They change in colour and texture with the music and at times approach the audio-visual experiences galleries now put on to tempt attention span-less TikTokers to the arts.
For the first 10 minutes I was transfixed, moved by the elegiac atmosphere. Then, for some unknown reason, the woman gets hoisted towards the ceiling on a chair. This shattered my immersion reminding me that no, I was not looking into the window of loss, I was sat in the Coliseum watching a singer in a harness being craned around like a pallet of bricks.
The staging vacillates like this between being moving and almost camp. The text for the second scene is a plea for the support of the virgin Mary, scratched by an 18-year-old girl into the wall of a Gestapo cell. This simple act of hope from a position of utter powerlessness under the boot of an oppressor is fundamentally heart-wrenching. The staging did not live up to its source, we see a woman slowly grabbed by two faceless attackers with a pram in the background. I would have preferred to see nothing; the pram is unused the interaction is unexplained and it takes the focus away from the music.
The backdrop of the set is made from hanging ropes, for the final scene these are ruffled and hang in disarray. This simple change beautifully creates the disordered backdrop for a battlefield. The final movement places a mother in this battlefield, wailing, hoping beyond hope that her son won’t lie among the fallen corpses strewn around the stage. This would have worked much better if we didn’t see the corpses crawl around and conspicuously pull their own shrouds over themselves. And then our old friend the winch is back to lift the disconsolate mother (now with angel wings) back to the roof, this apotheosis fits neither libretto nor score so feels out of place.
Under the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya the music sounded beautiful, tiny personal moments of reflection cast out into the world as sound. Nicole Chevalier was the voice of the three un-named sufferers. The text for each of her songs is world-shatteringly tragic and needs a sympathetic voice dripping with pathos to match, we got none of that. Chevalier is a technically excellent singer but her delivery was emotionally barren. That said, given the stage movements Chevalier was making throughout, singing as well as she did is no mean feat.
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a piece which thrives on contextual understanding of the texts on which it’s based. This production didn’t provide this context, after the first ten minutes it felt out of touch with the music and I was left stuck between a disharmonious stage and score.