I broke the news to Agnieszka, the administrator of our English program, as we were leaving the Opera House the other night: “I’m afraid won’t be able to come in the summertime anymore.”
“Oh . . .” She looked disappointed. “No?”
“From now on, I’m coming only in opera season.”
This fourth trip to Wroclaw is my first not in summer, and it’s a little like stepping into an alternative universe. The teachers who have come here for the New School practicum know the city as mostly sunny, often quite hot and fairly deserted. It’s especially quiet in the evenings, when there’s rarely much to do (not that most of us have the energy after a three-hour class five days a week) but sit at a café and have dinner, which is hardly cause for complaint. In the fall, the air is crisp and cools down several weeks before New York; students cluster in our hallways and on the streets; and theater is back in season. None could possibly offer a better mix of Old World charm and up-to-the-minute staging than the Wroclaw Opera.
My October visit happens to coincide with a two-week Festival of Contemporary Opera. It’s been an opera-heavy trip: before arriving in Wroclaw, I had already seen a dark “Pelleas et Melisande” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and the Stuttgart Opera’s ultracontemporary “Luisa Miller.” And that doesn’t even count the day I curled up in bed with a cold to watch a 1966 production, in black-and-white, of “The Bartered Bride” from the National Theater in Prague on ZDF Theaterkanal, Germany’ all-theater TV channel. (Stop for a moment and think about that: a dedicated theater channel. Nice to be in a country with its priorities in order. Had I been able to stay in again the next afternoon, you’d be reading a blog item contrasting the Stuttgart Ballet’s very traditional and romantic “Romeo and Juliet” with a production of the play on the theater channel, populated by authentically annoying teenagers with braces on their teeth and pigtails in their hair. But I was due at “Luisa Miller.”) When I arrived in Erfurt for a couple of days’ sightseeing, I thought I might have to run straight out again when I saw my probable favorite, “Eugene Onegin,” advertised for that very night – until the hotel clerk pointed out that it was in Weimar, a train ride away.
Thanks to Ula, who works in the English program’s office and also takes my course, I arrived in Wroclaw booked for five nights at the Opera House. Its Neoclassical exterior, built in 1841, houses a small jewel box of a theater, dripping with meticulously restored ornamentation. It seats only 500 or so on a shallow parterre and four horseshoe balconies just two or three rows deep. Sightlines are not always the best; the aisle seat on the second-balcony curve that I’ll have three times cuts off a large swath of the stage. But it’s a great place to be seen.
The first of my tickets was for “Paradise Lost,” Krzysztof Penderecki’s treatment of Milton via the libretto by Christopher Fry. Since it was sung in German with Polish surtitles, I couldn’t follow it word for word despite the synopsis in the extensive program book, which includes several essays in both Polish and English. But anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with Christianity would have no trouble with the plot. The production had two commanding presences in Satan (Piotr Nowacki) and Milton (Maciej Tomaszewski); an ethereal gray-robed choir split between the loges; and a troupe of dancers — good ones — to portray the nonsinging Adam and Eve (there is a singing couple as well) and Satan’s minions. The production design was spare of props but did wonders with projections, and the theater apparently has enough fly space and hydraulics – stage level rise and fall like the three levels at Radio City – to induce envy in at least one friend of mine who directs.
Saturday’s offering was to be Karol Szymanowksi’s “King Roger,” but soon after I arrived it became clear that something was up. Theatergoers were pausing at the door to read an 8-by-10 notice, and when I went to buy a program, I was given one for Giacomo Orefice’s “Chopin,” for which I had a ticket the next day. “Jutro?” I asked – “Tomorrow?” The program-seller made a sign with one hand, to indicate “switched.” An announcement from the stage was no help – the one word I caught was “witamy,” or welcome – but after the show I found an English-speaking representative of the company. He explained that there had been a problem with one of the artists, so “King Roger” had to be postponed, and I could exchange my ticket the next day. As it turned out, “King Roger” is not scheduled until December, when I will be back in Met territory, but I managed to trade for an even more obscure Polish opera, and one far more evocative of Poland: Stanislaw Moniuszko’s “Haunted Manor,” on Oct. 26. (Roger is King of Sicily.)
Back in New York, when I announced my plans for opera season in Poland, the actor Miller Lide — an aficionado of both opera and Chopin — told me “Chopin” the opera was such a rarity that I must see it, whatever it took. The opera, which dramatizes four scenes from Chopin’s life as he lies near death, struck me as more a curiosity than an opera per se; Orefice did not so much compose it as construct it from Chopin’s own music. Since his instrument was the piano, it was at least interesting to hear the familiar melodies (many of which I carry around on my iTunes) orchestrated and sung, in Italian. “Chopin” is apparently not such a rarity over here: part of the composer’s bicentennial festival, it had four performances last season in Wroclaw, plus the two last weekend and several more to come. The dying Chopin was not Chopin as we know him, at least from the Delacroix portrait; the tenor Iwan Kit looked far too robust to be dying of consumption, not to mention his close-cropped graying hair. The young man identified as the Pianist, playing sometimes onstage, sometimes from the pit, was more like it. The George Sand figure , short-haired and timelessly dressed in a black tailcoat, tight black pants and strings of pearls, in a sea of ladies in pastel period gowns, was both a credible seductress and a vocal powerhouse. (It was not entirely clear who all the singers were, since this program listed two or three possibilities for most roles, and mine did not have the evening’s class list.)
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” based on Poe’s story, is classic Philip Glass, which means its underlying orchestration of repeated short phrases will, after 90 minutes, leave your pulse racing as if it were “The Tell-Tale Heart” instead. This co-production with the National Opera in Warsaw is set sometimes after the 1950s; Roderick Usher is a creepy photographer, his sister Madeline his subject, and giant blow-ups of his photos play a large part in the production design, as do articles of clothing. The house does not, alas, collapse at the end. But the opera was beautifully sung in English, though by whom is anyone’s guess, since there was no program at all that evening, nor any cast list posted.
Despite the occasional glitches, what impresses me about opera in Wroclaw is how professionally it’s done on what must surely be a modest budget, no matter the subsidies it may receive. I cannot think of an American city its size (700,000) that could support a full season of opera, even if it did have an opera house (and it might not even have a functioning theater). But Europeans still take classical music seriously, and it shows in the sound of these musicians and the past week’s respectable-to-full houses.
It’s curious that, whatever the language of the opera, my eyes are automatically drawn to the surtitles, even though I know they’ll do me no good at all. (Annie Dorfman, a Wroclaw colleague last year, joined me for “Pelleas” in Berlin. We both went in cold—she deliberately to test her comprehension, I because I had forgotten to study. We shouldn’t have.) The titles do, however, dredge up a word of Polish here and there from my memory. It was unclear in “Usher” how a word that started with kwiat- was related to kwiat, or flower; from context, I’d think it had more to do with quiet. But then, my Polish is still a work in progess.
I still have Strauss’s “Frau ohne Schatten” and “The Haunted Manor” to come, and maybe “Elektra” this weekend in Warsaw. As I write, I’m listening to a Brahms string quartet streamed on WQXR.org. It occurred to me last week that in theory I could have listened to QXR’s Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. But by the time it began, I was already in a seat on the parterre, waiting for the curtain to rise on “Chopin. “