Too Darn Hot

As a rule, audiences do not arrive at a song recital to find the singer peering moodily at them from under the piano. And yet, there was tenor Ian Bostridge, sulking beneath a Steinway grand at the John Jay College Theater not long ago and preparing to sing Leos Janácek’s searing Diary of One Who Vanished. Talk about an in-your-face shake-up of conventional concert-hall protocol. This was the latest installment in Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series, and Janácek’s 40-minute song cycle describing the seduction of a farm boy by a gypsy lass got the full treatment: staging by British director Deborah Warner; sets, lighting, and video design by Jean Kalman and Tom Pye; costumes by John Bright; and a new English translation from the original Czech by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Actually, none of this is unprecedented – attempts to stage the Diary began soon after its premiere in 1921. After all, the poems describe the heated events in detail as a tenor, mezzo, and three offstage women’s voices interact to create what is essentially a tiny three-act drama: Janik’s first sight of Zefka and his growing obsession with her; their meeting and passionate lovemaking; and the young man’s fateful decision to leave his family and accept a gypsy’s life with Zefka and their newborn child (“To find my life, I lose it,” in Heaney’s moving translation). Janácek even indicates entrances, exits, and lighting cues in his score, while the expressive ferocity and sheer erotic power of the music make these two young people seem very real.

Despite these theatrical elements, I’m bound to say that this particular “new vision” of Janácek’s great score did not work for me. For all their drama and physicality, these songs are for the most part introspective, tracing a young man’s painful interior journey no less than Schubert’s classic song cycles. To see it unfold in this mixed-up context – Bostridge in shirt-sleeves and suspenders, his eyes often bandaged (love is blind?); Ruby Philogene slinking about in blue jeans, both diving back under the piano for some enthusiastic coupling; lighting that suggests the changing seasons; pianist Julius Drake playing in stockinged feet – only stresses the obvious and insults the imagination. Perhaps a fully staged production would work better than this self-conscious blend of concert-hall and opera-house conventions, which created a precious, even artificial atmosphere – surely the wrong way to represent Janácek’s uncompromising reality.

I was also disappointed by Bostridge, a singer I have greatly admired in the past. Here his English-schoolboy looks and fragile stage presence hardly put one in mind of a rough peasant lad, while his singing, although typically refined and expressive, lacked robustness – the two killer high Cs at the end were just barely there. Philogene, on the other hand, sang Zefka’s lines exquisitely, and Drake made the piano part sound positively incandescent. For my money, this inspired accompanist is now the best in the business.

I think it’s also fair to say that a 40-minute piece, even one this powerful, is rather skimpy for a full evening’s program, and I felt shortchanged. A perfect companion piece would have been Six Songs From the Arabian, Hans Werner Henze’s new song cycle, written especially for Bostridge. The tenor has already made a recording for EMI Classics, and it is a tour de force; seldom does a major composer write music these days that explores, challenges, and flatters every facet of an important singer’s voice and artistry. Anyone who felt let down by Bostridge in Janácek’s Diary should hear him sing this and be reassured.

Diary of One Who Vanished
The song cycle by Janácek, staged by Deborah Warner for Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series. With Ian Bostridge and Ruby Philogene.

Too Darn Hot