Janáček’s ‘Diary’ Staged As Collage Pieced From Life

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Janáček song cycle staged: Wim van der Grijin, from left, Andrew Dickinson and Marie Hamard in ‘Diary of One Who Disappeared’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Production photos: Richard Termine)
By Xenia Hanusiak

BROOKLYN – In the early 20th century Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso coined the term “collage” to denote a technique based on the assemblage of different elements or fragments glued together to create a new work. Braque’s experiments introduced wallpaper to his oil paintings, and Picasso superimposed oilcloths.  At around the same time, Czech composer Leoš Janáček completed his song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared for tenor, mezzo-soprano, and three female voices, with piano. Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s staging of  Janáček’s song cycle, in a production by the Flemish company Muziektheater Transparant,  is also a collage. It is a composition of multiple facets and textures that, like its visual arts counterparts, come together to form a new work.

Director Ivo van Hove (Jan Versweyveld)

Diary (seen on April 4 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) is based on a series of diary verses called “From a Pen of the Self-taught Writer” that Janáček discovered in his local newspaper. The narrative documents the story of a village boy who falls in love with a Gypsy girl called Zefka. The letters resonated with the composer’s own diary of his unrequited love for a married woman 40 years his junior, Kamila Stösslová.

The song cycle is rarely heard, due in part to its faraway, elusive quality. Rooted in the modes of Moravian folk music, the score is emblematic of Janáček’s unique style. It stands alone in the canon.

Van Hove’s musical assemblage is a compilation of Diary with the addition of new compositions based on Romany folk songs by Annelies Van Parys, whose electronically enhanced music inserts well into Janáček’s harmonic language. Influenced by the tolling of bells, the phasing quality of Van Pary’s vocal contributions seamlessly dovetail with Janáček’s chapters, containing enough disruptive colorization and rhythmic interest to tell the audience that the setting is the present day. Van Hove also introduces excerpts from some of the 700 letters that Janáček wrote to Stösslová over his lifetime.

‘Diary’ soloists were Andrew Dickinson and Marie Hamard.

The 22 songs of Janáček’s cycle are fragmentary and speech-like in setting and rarely paced above an andante. Van Hove mirrors the composer. His production is metronomic. Set in a home photography studio, the work begins with the tick-tock routine of daily life. In silence, a young woman (mezzo-soprano Marie Hamard) prepares coffee in the textured light of early morning. A recorded voice instructs her to play the seven notes of the scale on a piano. She responds diligently in the same rhythm of making her coffee. She appears emotionless. Van Hove orchestrates the moment with an eye that searches for beauty in the mundane.

The mood prefaces the tone for van Hove’s collage in which life begins to take shape as a series of grainy portraits morphing into a photo montage. The male protagonist is a photographer, sung by tenor Andrew Dickinson. Actor Wim van der Grijn portrayed an older man who reads extracts from Janáček’s diaries. The female trio (Raphaële Green, Annelies Van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens) was offstage, and pianist Lada Valešová played onstage.

In Diary, time is fluid and the chronologies of life events are juxtaposed. Van Hove does not delineate the narrative with an arc of dramatic shifts but realizes the love story as a series of crumbling layers of questions, tensions, and experiences glued together. The messages of unrequited love, loss, and remorse are records. We watch the scenes as a series of photographic images in a gallery. Designer Jan Versweyveld’s lighting and setting capitalize on the pixelated quality of photographs.

Leoš Janáček, 1854-1928 (Moravian Museum)

Van Hove is served well by the cast. Dickinson and Hamard render the songs with the tempered tone of the production, honoring the director’s vision and his search for the speech-like qualities of Janáček’s score.

At times BAM’s cavernous Howard Gilman Opera House overwhelmed the chamber nature of the work and our connectivity to it. The unamplified vocal performances were dampened by the low-ceilinged box set, restricting the natural reverberation we are accustomed to in a large theater. We are not primed for the découpage approach nor the production’s metronomic time capsule, but we quickly sense that van Hove’s aim is deliberately distancing, introspective,  un-operatic – and perhaps deliberately muted.

There is a tension between our expectations of this work that hovers somewhere across the range of opera, music theater, and theater and what van Hove, dramaturg Krystian Lada, and the design team deliver.

Their Diary of One Who Disappeared is a harmonious unfolding and layering of Janáček’s themes offered in episodic understatements, a narrative of unrequited love framed in theatrical realism.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy. www.xeniahanusiak.com.