Warsaw's Easter Festival is 20 Years Old



This spring, Warsaw’s Beethoven Easter Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary. The festival is organized by Ludwig van Beethoven Association, founded in Krakow in 2003 by Elzbieta Penderecki, the wife of world famous Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only Easter festival that is organized on behalf of a composer. None of the festivals, such as Salzburg, Lucerne and Baden Baden that are organized in this important period in the aspect of religion in Europe are dedicated to any composer. But don’t take my words as in Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, only Beethoven’s works are performed. Though there is this fact that Beethoven is one of the leading composers who are “favoured” in Warsaw’s Easter festival. In each festival that was organized during the last 20 years, Beethoven’s works have had their privileged place in the festival’s programs.

One of the unique features of Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival is that every year, there is a lesser known opera in its program. These operas are in concertante format, in other words they are staged without setting or costumes, and they are performed with the collaboration of Yale School of Music every year. This year, at the evening of 18th March, we listened to two one-act English operas from the quota of “lesser known works of opera history”, in Filharmonia Narodowa’s big hall – which is number one concert hall of Warsaw. These two operas were Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, and Gustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head. In the same evening, on the same stage, it was an interesting experience to listen to the two hardly staged operas in our day, which are completely contrast to each other.

Vaughan Williams composed his Riders to the Sea in the years of 1925-1932 based on the libretto he derived from 1903 theatre play of John Millington Synge, and after its premier in 1937 in London, the opera was forgotten until it was recorded in 1971. Vaughan Williams didn’t change Synge’s libretto that puts Irish people in its centre and blends superstitions with Christianity, he only did some little cuts. Having its most scores written as dramatic recitative and a music that the experts can make an analogy with Gregorian melodies, Riders of the Sea is a “claustrophobic” opera, which tells about the tragic story of a mother, who lost her husband and sons to the sea. Representing the opera’s main motif, the sea, the wave machine makes its presence felt throughout the opera. It seems like the composer built the small orchestra as a chamber music ensemble consisted of soloists. Processing the theme of humanity’s uphill battle with nature, especially often in his last period of works, Vaughan Williams processes a text in a submissive tone in this work, going to a different way than his 7th Symphony, Sinfonia antartica, in which he puts emphasis on humankind’s endurance.

Riders to the Sea is an opera in which female voices are predominant. Except the role of Bartley who is going after his brother when he doesn’t return from the sea, all the roles are taken by female singers. The roles of Anne Maurya and her daughters Cathleen and Nora make their mark in this 45 minutes long, one act opera. While in Bartley’s role, baritone Gary Griffiths made an impression with his smooth singing, in Cathleen’s role, soprano Nicole Percifield performed very impressively with her rich timbre voice and ability of dramatic expression. In the role of the other sister Nora, mezzosoprano Evanna Chiew gave a performance that her voice was drown by the orchestra mostly, probably because she has a voice with a relatively lower volume. As for the role of the main character, the mother Maurya, whom we can say the whole opera is turning around, mezzosoprano Kathleen Reveille has a thick tone in her deep voice, however, her vibratos are on a disturbing level. It is also not possible to say she can satisfy her audience in the aspect of adding enough nuance to her singing. Still doing a master’s degree in Yale School of Music, Reveille will find a way to use her beautiful voice more effectively for sure, after having more stage experience.

Polish conductor Lukasz Borowicz whom we are familiar with his conducting the İstanbul State Symphony Orchestra every season in the recent years, displayed a strong performance, emphasizing the drama of Riders to the Sea that touches the audience deeply. Borowicz conducted Warsaw’s famous chamber opera ensemble’s orchestra. Being loved and respected as a conductor in his own country, Borowicz accompanied a more crowded singing cast in the second one-act opera of the night, Gustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head. As I mentioned at the beginning of my article, it was actually an interesting contrast that choosing two operas which have very differing types from each other for the same night. While the first opera was mostly consisted of female voices, the second opera was mostly consisted of male voices.

Gustav Holst is mostly known worldwide for his magnificent orchestra suite The Planets, which he composed between the years of 1914-1916 and he is involved in the family of composers of “being famous with his only one composition”, like the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni who wrote Cavalleria Rusticana opera. Holst was also known for his failures more than his successes, he was worn down many times and labelled as “talentless”, based on his productivity in the opera field. Despite of these, Holst didn’t give up and created interesting operas like Sita and Savitri which he composed, basing them especially on Hindu resources. After the Planets suite, everything Holst wrote was criticised harshly, but even after his comic opera The Perfect Fool ended up all the same, he didn’t give up and wrote an opera – an interlude for some people – named At the Boar’s Head. Holst took an interesting defence in order to rebuff the future reactions to his work in advance and said: “If the critics will suggest that I am incapable of writing a libretto one more time, let them know that this libretto is not mine but Shakespeare’s!” Indeed, the composer used the character Falstaff’s scenes from IV. Henry alongside with immortal English playwright’s two sonnets for At the Boar’s Head. Opera has the same name as the tavern in Shakespeare’s play.  

The story of how Holst started to write this work is very interesting. According to his daughter Imogen Holst, her father started to work on it coincidentally while he was recovering from an illness he had in 1924. He was skimming through Cecil Sharp’s folk dances collection and suddenly he realized that one of the folk melodies was very compatible with the lines in IV. Henry he read recently. After this ‘discovery’, he made a game out of it and started to find which melodies can be compatible with the lines in the play. The bad weather and his boredom made him to engage more and more in this game and became more serious, leading him to turn this game into a one-act opera. Holst wrote very few original melodies for this work. Nearly the whole opera is based on Cecil Sharp’s collection from the beginning of 20th century, John Playford’s work named The English Master from 17th century, and 40 melodies from William Chappell’s collection that was dated in 19th century. What Holst did was, adding 3 fragments to the draft that seemed like a rag bag at first sight, and turning it into a complete, well groomed work with his touches in the levels of harmony and instruments.

Photos: Bruno Fidrych

At the Boar’s Head made its premiere in 1925, and got more respectful reactions compared to his previous works. Imogen Holst wrote that ‘the critics tried to use a polite language’ and she also used a careful tone while evaluating her father’s work with the words of ‘a very interesting experience’. From his work he presented and the reactions he got, we can say that Holst came out smelling of roses from this very hard effort he made, in the aspect of achieving a compatibility between the texts and the melodies in the pipeline. The experts who analysed the work emphasize that distinguishing which melodies belong to Holst and which melodies belong to the other sources is a hard job and this is the most important proof of the skilfulness of the composer.

The subject of Holst’s opera takes place in a tavern, during a whole day, and it relies on plenty of dialogues between the characters. English bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu of Samoa origin and American tenor Eric Barry of Spanish origin joined the singers of Yale School of Music who performed in Vaughan Williams’s opera. While Lemalu impressed his audience with his high volume voice and skill of singing the bass notes with an impressive tone, Barry portrayed the Prince character with his small but very sweet tenor voice that seems as a contrast to his big, bulky body at first. Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival not only stages the lesser known operas’ concertante performances every year but also releases the recordings of these works. The recordings of this year’s two one-act operas will join the recordings that carry the label of Poland’s foremost recording label DUX, in the upcoming months.

Serhan Bali, Warsaw



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