The poems which inspired the mysterious song cycle Diary of One Who Disappeared first appeared anonymously published in a newspaper in May 1916. They immediately caught the eye of composer Leos Janáček, who completed this song cycle by 1920. The poems, eventually attributed to Ozef Kalda, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a gipsy girl, and decides to abandon his family and village in order to follow her, and their child. Or, less romantically, it actually tells the story of a man who is consumed by a sexual passion for a gipsy girl, which she encourages him to gratify; when pregnancy inevitably results, he is horrified, and actively considers putting her aside before finally realising he has created a responsibility which he now needs to fulfil, and leaves the shelter of his family on the basis that he feels so socially blighted by his association with her that to marry her, and bring her into his community, would be unthinkable, so departure – or disappearance – is the only option.
The way he repeatedly castigates his supposed “love”, thanks to her race, makes it hard to believe there’s any true love in this sordid story: though the poetry (here sung in a very fine English translation by Seamus Heaney) is coated with sensuality, obsessing constantly about the girl’s physical beauty, and the extent of his desire for her, there’s no sense of any deeper or more profound personal connection. Janáček’s score is disorientatingly beautiful, and Shadwell Opera produce a gorgeous musical account, with a passionate piano accompaniment from Matthew Fletcher, and fine singing from our two principals (tenor Sam Furness and mezzo Angharad Lyddon) and chorus.
Director Jack Furness’ asylum-centre setting plays with our preconceptions from the start: although those girls seeking asylum from their former countries (all listed, with photos, on a large whiteboard) may be said to have already “disappeared” from their families and friends at home, it is Sam Furness’ character, an employee in the asylum centre, who is due to disappear. The gipsy Zefka (played with poise and charm by honey-voiced mezzo Angharad Lyddon) is one of his clients, creating a modern taboo against their subsequent love, but inadvertently throwing his patent hatred of gipsies into ever more confusing relief: we wonder how he ever got this job. Sam Furness, his strong tenor often feeling too large for this small space, sings with dewy-eyed intensity into a camera over his laptop screen, which projects his “video diary entries” onto the whiteboard behind; we wonder who else is watching, as his confessions steadily amount to professional suicide.
In fact, Jack Furness’s directoral concept, though visually arresting (diary projections are occasionally interspersed with shots of wild woods, or the gipsy girl’s eyes), creates more barriers than narrative aids for the audience: a sexist, racist story of objectification doesn’t survive well in a modern context (and for a modern audience) which, in real terms, wouldn’t tolerate any of those positions. The impressionistic majesty of the score makes this song cycle, indubitably, a piece worth hearing; but its unappetising core would be better hidden than highlighted, not least because it no longer makes human sense to us.
Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 5 August