Sigismondo’s ahistorical historicity according to Matejko. An interview with Krystian Lada.

Tomasz Domagała: How does the story you’re adapting to the stage fit in with our times?

Krystian Lada: When I start working on an opera I don’t know, I try to understand the composition structure of the work. And I’m not talking about musical composition, but about the deep structure of a given opera as an artefact, a testimony of human history at a given time and place. What does this work tell us about the people who brought it to life and for whom it was created? Is it possible to build a bridge from this intellectual-emotional abyss to the present day? This conversation with history never ends, because it is a part of the present day, and historical processes are intrusively repeated within a given nation or community. This is fascinating because it gives us a chance to understand and learn something about our ancestors and ourselves. I am fascinated by those moments in history which, repeating themselves, grow to the rank of archetypes, because I believe that they have something prophetic about them – they can not only bring us closer to the way things were back then, or help us to understand what is happening here and now, but also to experience the future. It’s the same with staging an opera. I want the spectacle to update and generalise – archetypise itself – at the same time, to have these two dimensions because then it can also be prophetic.

TD: So, if one of Sigismondo’s heroines is Poland, will you also tell us something about us in your show?

KL: Rossini’s opera is the story of a king who is convinced that he killed his wife, condemning her to death for adultery. Though the king has more and more doubts about the latter – whether it was adultery or if he was mistaken. The queen lives in hiding, and the king doesn’t know it. As the action develops, we discover that the queen was excluded from this society by a trick that even the king doesn’t know about. We also find out that she is not a flesh and blood Pole with, but a descendant of the rulers of an “enemy nation”. The manipulated and exaggerated spectre of the ruthlessness of the Queen’s father allows politicians in Sigismondo’s state to manipulate the king’s decisions.

And since the king’s name is Sigismondo, it’s easy to associate him with one of our three Sigismunds: the Old, Augustus or Vasa. As luck would have it, each of them had a wife who wasn’t Polish. And in each of these stories, whether it be the Italian Bona Sforza, the Hungarian Barbara Zápolya, the Lithuanian Barbara Radziwiłłówna or Anne of Austria, we have the motif of Polish nobility, dissatisfied with the fact that the king’s wife is of foreign origin. Suddenly, it turns out that this is not a single anecdote, but a basso continuo – a theme that is often repeated in our history. On the one hand, we literally marry this otherness, on the other hand, this otherness sickens us; on the one hand, we are glad that we had Queen Bona, who, according to legend, brought us soup greens, on the other hand, it is known from history that she wasn’t awaited in Poland with open arms.

Thus, this solution in the form of absolute exclusion – a death sentence – was in Sigismondo a visualisation of this emotion, which was apparently present in the society of those times. Reading this libretto in Europe of 2020, I have the feeling that it really doesn’t take long to confront questions about otherness in our society. I’m thinking about European society, because I left Poland 16 years ago, so my relationship with it is also a relationship of a kind of Polonicum: observing what is happening in Poland from a distance, from the outside, from the perspective of changes taking place in Europe. This allows us to see certain regularities faster, more clearly than when we are immersed in it, on site in Poland. I think that the whole of Europe also has to answer some questions which Poles face today: the role of national histories and the autonomy of national ambitions in the context of the idea of European unity, but also the place for non-European cultures in this community. In Sigismondo, Rossini juxtaposes historical facts in an ahistorical way. And I think it will be a fascinating game for the Polish audience, which will recognise certain elements of the folklore of our native history faster than the audience of the premiere of this work at the Teatro La Fenice in 1814 in Venice.

TD: Could you elaborate on this idea of historical facts arranged in an ahistorical way?

KL: The 22-year-old Rossini composed Sigismondo to the libretto by Foppa, who was his senior. None of their previous works dealt with Polish themes. What is more, in September 1814, preparations began for the Congress of Vienna, during which the so-called “Polish question” would be one of the important issues. Poland had not been on the map of Europe since 1795. As a result of the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the lands belonging to it were divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia. So, Rossini and Foppa wrote an opera about a country that did not exist – a country that at that belonged time to Europe’s “fairy tale past”. Rossini probably knew as much about Poland as he did about Algiers from his L’italiana in Algeri which premiered a year before the staging of Sigismondo. Sigismondo was his fantasy about a country that was once one of the most powerful states in Europe. What’s more, Rossini sets the action in the 16th century – the golden age of Polish history. As a result of the Union of Lublin of 1569, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth became one of the strongest powers in Europe – geopolitically, culturally and economically. And it is in this time that Rossini set the action of his opera. In his “operatic fantasy”, he mixed several recognisable facts. The action takes place in “Gniezno, the legendary capital of Poland”, which since the 11th century no longer served this function, but to this day remains the mythical cradle of the Piasts. Therefore, Rossini juxtaposes historical facts in an ahistorical way. The fascination with Poland of the 16th century is not new in the history of the opera of that period. In 1791, Luigi Cherubini’s opera Lodoïska premiered in Paris, and five years later, Simon Mayr’s La Lodoiska debuted in Venice’s La Fenice (where Sigismondo had its premiere). Both operas were inspired by episodes from the novel by French author Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai Les amours du chevalier de Faublas, which describe the love of a Polish princess named Lodoiska and the Polish aristocrat Lovinski. In this story, Poland is a “fairy tale land” at the crossroads of cultures – a kind of barbaricum, a locus of fiery love stories – as Asia would later be for Puccini and Verdi, as the Orient was for Mozart before.

I began to wonder where I would look for such an experience of ahistorical historicity in Polish art, in Krakow. It is always important for me to discover the local context of a given work. And so, to my own surprise, I found Matejko. There will be a lot of references to his work in our performance, because while working on Sigismondo, I rediscovered him for myself in a completely new context. Matejko’s paintings are an iconographic model of Polish history for my generation. I talked about it many times with Natalia Kitamikado, the set and costume designer. If I asked you what any of these three Sigismunds looked like, there’s a 90 percent chance you would describe a face from one of Matejko’s paintings – the one that was probably hanging on the wall of your primary school classroom, or the one on the notes in your wallet. What’s interesting is that, as in the case of many images in Matejko’s historical paintings, it is probably the face of one of the painter’s Krakow acquaintances or friends. Matejko even immortalised his wife in Polish iconography, as she repeatedly lent her face to Queen Bona. Natalia and I realised that what Rossini and Foppa did was the same thing that Matejko did – on the one hand, in a tragic moment of our history, he referred to our Golden Age, and on the other hand, he created a similar ahistoricity from elements of his own fantasy and reality. I’d like to tell you an anecdote. In the painting The Prussian Homage, there is the figure of Andrzej Kościelecki, the Great Treasurer of the Crown – or as we would call him today, the Minister of Treasury – of Sigismund the Old. In the painting, he’s standing over a large plate of gold coins with the image of the king, which were scattered to the crowd gathered by the stage of this event – it was a kind of political marketing of the time, an attempt to attract the citizens of Krakow to the Market Square. And this minister has a fantastic gold cap on his head. Natalia, who has long analysed the 16th century fashion in Poland, came to me and told me, “Listen, Krystian, nothing in these paintings makes sense!” Because of course we bow to Matejko’s authority – if there is a golden cap in the painting, that means it was a historical fact. And yet, that doesn’t match 16th century costumes at all. So I spent the following months studying clothes from the 16th century and Matejko’s paintings, and it turned out that the cap on the painting was a model of the cap of the Jewish women of Krakow in Matejko’s time, which the painter liked so much that he said that someone must have one in this painting. And so, it went to the treasury minister. In fact, a lot of things in these pictures doesn’t match the historical truth. Treasurer Kościelecki himself died in 1515 – he could have only participated in the historical Prussian homage 10 years later as a ghost (wearing the cap of a 19th-century Jewish woman…). Similar stories repeat themselves in many of Matejko’s paintings – this building wasn’t standing in this place or wasn’t there at all, this person had already died or wasn’t born at the moment of a given historical event. So, this historical fantasy has its source in a kind of “artistic archaeology” – in Matejko’s case literally, because the painter was a collector of historical objects documenting life in past eras. So suddenly it turns out that what functions for whole generations as a visualisation of Polish history is basically a fantasy on this subject.

Matejko’s ambition was not to document history, but to resurrect faith in Poland and patriotic feelings during a dark period of our history. In our show, the central point of reference is Matejko and his Prussian Homage as a moment of “getting up off your knees” by persuading someone else – in this case the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order – to humble himself and fall to his knees before the Polish ruler. This is an interesting moment, because at that time, the Poles thought they were a power and nobody threatened us anymore. And this despite the fact that in the middle of Matejko’s painting, we see a glove, thrown like a challenge, and a worried Stańczyk announcing that although it seems to us that the Prussians are on their knees, we are grossly mistaken. In this painting we also have both Sigismunds – the Old One and Augustus – father and son, and the whole elite of Polish nobility (often with the faces of Matejko’s friends) and “Her Ladyship”, as Jan Matejko used to call his wife Teodora, dressed as Queen Bona.

I consider this phenomenon, this method of work of the Rossini–Foppa duo, as well as Matejko’s, consisting of an ahistorical approach to historical facts (and artefacts) or creating a legend, fiction based on historical facts, to be the quintessential phenomenon of history. History in this sense is always a narrative that is rewritten – by artists, politicians, journalists. It’s as if it wasn’t about what really happened, but about the interpretation of these events, and about who tells the story, who arranges and interprets it for us. In this way, national patterns are modelled and political decisions are justified. This is the real power – the power to interpret and re-enact history. It is a tool for social engineering and cultural revolution. This history is often whitewashed: it removes uncomfortable facts or figures, turns a blind eye to injustice in the name of the idea of great national history. And perhaps this is why it is worth remembering today that Matejko, “the most Polish of Polish painters”, is in fact the son of a Czech, and on his mother’s side, a descendant of a Polish-German family. The Golden Age of Poland, of which we can be so proud today and to which we return in times of crisis and national tragedies, is the period of its greatest multicultural blossoming, religious tolerance and coexistence of many nations forming one state organism.

TD: So, is Matejko and Rossini’s method also Krystian Lada’s method? Will the reality of Sigismondo be encrusted with our modernity?

KL: How do you translate this into the language of the theatre? How do you create a space that is a kind of collage of historical references and allusions – a staging that glorifies history by taking events into the land of fantasy and legend? My ambition is to discover and reveal the scheme behind this. I’d like the viewer to answer the question of who is who on stage. This is the case with Foppa and Rossini’s libretto – whether you read this story from the perspective of Krakow or Brussels, you can see a reflection of reality in it. We have in this opera a leader of a state who makes bad political decisions due to personal trauma. We have the tragic consequences of mixing emotions with politics. You don’t have to add anything to Rossini. It is more likely to be a matter of creating scenic images that will stimulate the imagination of the audience.

I am inspired here by poetry and painting, especially Malczewski (who was, by the way, a student in Matejko’s historical painting class). What fascinates me about him is that everything is symbolic, historical and concrete at the same time, that it is his face and self-portrait, and at the same time Hamlet, which grows to the rank of an ambiguous symbol, which can be read both in the Polish and in the wider cultural context. My ambition is to approach this kind of handling of images that are neither hermetic nor pop-cultural, but suggestive, communicating with the most intuitive emotional layers. Images that can be read like poetry – each time anew to discover successive layers of meanings and see successive references. Just like Wyspiański’s Wedding or Piwowski’s Cruise is always “about us”, here and now, but also “about us”, as a nation then and always. For me, this is the highest form of sublimity when it comes to juxtaposing poetry with history and modernity. That is what fascinates me now. So, if there is any reference to today’s reality in Poland, it’s just that.


Interview conducted for the magazine accompanying the Opera Rara Festival held in Krakow on 23.01-14.02.2020.

Krystian Lada – director and librettist. Active on international opera scene, lives in Belgium, where he worked as the director of dramaturgy at the La Monnaie National Opera. In 2017, he founded The Airport Society collective. The first winner of the Mortier Next Generation Award for exceptional talent in the field of opera.

Tomasz Domagała – theatre critic, member of the Polish section of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT), Polish Radio journalist, author of domagalasiekultura.pl blog, selector of the Divine Comedy Festival and FNT Festival in Rzeszów.

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