Leoš Janáček’s song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared deserves to be heard more often. Inspired by his great love for an unattainable woman, the composer took a then-anonymous sequence of poems recounting a sad love affair and set them to some of the sweetest music he ever wrote – melodic, modernist, passionate, always interesting. With two characters (a tenor and a mezzo-soprano) and a three-voice choir, it’s more dimensional than typical song cycles by the likes of Schubert, which are normally performed as pure concert experiences.
That risk-taking director Ivo van Hove should have thought to stage this work isn’t surprising. His production, with additional music (by Annelies Van Parys) and a larger role for the soprano, just paid a brief visit to BAM. The singing was beautiful; tenor Andrew Dickinson and mezzo Marie Hamard brought out the subtleties as well as the conspicuous drama in the music, with sensitive accompaniment by pianist Lada Valešová.
The offstage singers folded their voices into the score with lovely balance and clarity. At the same time, their invisible presence resonates with the modern experience, giving a backwards-anachronistic illusion of electronic effects and the melding of live and recorded sound.
The production itself, though, is a slog. Normally Janáček’s cycle of 22 songs takes 40-odd minutes to perform. Van Hove expands that, but only to just over an hour. Yet the conceptually convoluted staging wheezes glumly by. Set in modern times in a photography studio, it makes generous use of symbolism that’s simultaneously obvious and vague – photos being developed in a darkroom, images shown on an old-fashioned overhead projector. But the main trouble comes from the artificially slow and self-consciously arty blocking, which shouts depth without exploring it.
A few sequences stand out, especially a relatively long aria sung a capella by Hamard as Zefka, the poems’ Gypsy woman. Within the production’s constricted conceptual confines, Hamard brought a cool dignity to the role. Dickinson, with the lion’s share of the vocal burden, managed to convey an ardent lover, in tones that varied from bright to sleek to warm.
As operatic theater this Diary of One Who Disappeared falls short. As an opportunity to hear a great song cycle performed by singers with strength and finesse, I’ll take it.