Bridges instead of walls – presenting the programme of the Opera Rara 2020 festival

At the Opera Rara 2020 Festival, we will once again hear works from outside the repertoire, played very rarely. We have a number of very different performances ahead of us: the bel canto Sigismondo by Gioacchino Rossini, the romantic Vanda by Antonín Dvořák, the Baroque Il ballo delle Ingrate by Claudio Monteverdi – complemented by new compositions by Teoniki Rożynek, a performance of Enoch Arden, based on a poem by Alfred Tennyson, and two contemporary operas – Weiße Rose by Udo Zimmermann and Unknown, I Live With You, a joint work of playwright Krystian Lada and composer Katarzyna Głowicka. The festival will run from 23 January to 14 February 2020.

These works come from different epochs and represent different styles, but are connected by a common thought. They make us wonder why we are so eager to build walls around us, what are the consequences of this, and what to do to build bridges instead of them. Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, in an interview given during the Conrad Festival in 2018, spoke about the Palaeolithic settlements built without any fortifications: “Can you imagine that once upon a time people didn’t build walls because there was no need?” In this vision of the distant past, we look at our present, in which the walls – the real and the mental – seem to be growing in number.

What does the opera have to do with it? If we treat it as a fortress separated from the world, in which only the art of beautiful singing is cultivated, probably not much. However, this is a false vision, because opera has always been able to react quickly and sharply – listen to social moods, comment on reality, insult kings, inspire revolts, lead to fury or tame dictators. There is no reason why it shouldn’t tell us about the world here and now. It can do this in two ways – by referring directly to current events or by reflecting them in the mirror of the past.

Hence, this year’s program includes as many as three “historical” operas. “Historical” in the broad sense, because one of them presents a completely fictional history, the second legendary and the third based on facts, but what they all have in common is that they talk about conflicts and the devastating effects of divisions. The first case is Sigismondo” by Rossini, set in the court of the Polish king. However, the work does not portrait one of our rulers of this name, but a fictitious Piast monarch in a country plagued by conflict with Hungary. The 1814 work will be shown in Poland for the first time. Vanda by Dvořák, which presents an episode from the legendary history of Poland, is also poorly known in our country. I don’t think there is a person in our country who doesn’t know the legend of Wanda, who didn’t want to marry a German – and that is what the librettists chose as a starting point. It is an opera about a religious conflict. Queen Wanda is a faithful follower of the Slavic gods and does not agree to accept the proposal of the German duke – and Christianity along with it. War is inevitable. There will also be a work about authentic events and still alive in the collective memory – Weiße Rose. Udo Zimmermann approached the musical elaboration of the history of the German anti-Nazi resistance group White Rose three times. In 1967, he wrote an opera to a libretto by Ingo Zimmermann; he developed another version of the opera the following year. The planned production at the Hamburg Opera in 1986 was to include further adaptations, but instead he decided to write a new work on the same subject, this time to the libretto by Wolfgang Willaschk. The result was a completely different work, devoid of plot and focused on the inner experiences of the two protagonists: the Scholl siblings just before their execution in a Nazi prison.

Unknown, I Live with You is a direct commentary on our present. The opera-installation was inspired by the poems of Afghan women poets – their personal statements, undistorted by their husbands, fathers, brothers and biased media. The authors took part in a project designed to encourage women to express themselves through words and tell their own stories. Most of them took part in the project in secret.

There are other divisions that the Il ballo delle Ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful Women) tells us about. This perverse courtly morality play by Monteverdi considers the border between life and death, between people and gods, as well as between men and women. From today’s perspective, it makes us think about whether we, living in the modern times, are not disturbed by the visions of the gender relations presented in the work. The performance at the Opera Rara Festival will break another wall: the one that divides the worlds of contemporary and early music. The bridge between 17th-century Italy and Poland in the 21st century will be built by the composer of the young generation, Teoniki Rożynek.

Alfred Tennyson is a poet rarely read in our country, and who is not as famous as his older Romantic colleagues, such as Shelley, Keats or Coleridge. Meanwhile, in the British Isles, his “Enoch Arden” is considered to be the most classic poem of the Victorian era. Thanks to the festival, we will have the opportunity to discover this story anew – in a performance combining the music of Richard Strauss with the performance of professional and amateur actors. In his poetic novel, the British writer described the story as the reverse of The Odyssey: the fisherman Enoch returns home from a ten-year wandering journey and discovers that his wife, convinced that her husband has been dead for a long time, married another man. The whole project will be directed by Mira Mańka, a student of the Faculty of Drama Directing at the AST National Academy of Theatre Arts in Krakow, and Dominika Peszko will sit at the piano.

The Opera Rara Festival will run from 23 January to 14 February 2020 in Krakow. Tickets and passes for the festival will be available for sale from 30 October 2019 at InfoKraków points and on the Eventim.pl website.

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