Ludomit Rozicki’s Eros and Psyche, Enhance National Opera, Warsaw
Opera reviews usually carry no spoiler safety measures. On the contrary, many of them choose an inclusive, sometimes exhausting blow-by-blow account of each contrived detail. So let this be no different. Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki could be just another nineteenth century normal reword, just another przeprowadzki warszawa cennik femme fatale tear-jerker, but it is much more than that.
Psyche dreams of being swept off her feet by love. We feel that these Arcadian maidens occupying a green room to make up for a performance are almost locked up so that they might enhance themselves. Psyche is enamoured of, perhaps obsessed with a man, who has taken to visit her nightly. She reveals to a friend she gets been seeing someone. Eros reappears and will be offering endless love, but only on his terms. Somehow she has managed to conceal his identity, if not his purposes, until Blaks, the caretaker, inadvertently casts light on Eros’s face and then all terrible is let loose. Eros condemns Psyche to suffer an endless life of constant walking around and disappointment, a life in which Blaks will regularly reappear to deny her any fulfilment. It’s a judgment delivered by Perseus, who announces exile and endless walking around as he hands over a passport and tickets for both Psyche and Blaks. As Psyche embarks upon her fate, we realise we must not blame the messenger.
Her first subsequent port of call is a party – perhaps a drunken orgy – in ancient Rome, a Rome that is of course not ancient for her. A couple of Greeks at the gathering lament what Romans have inked to their culture, a culture inherited from their own people, including Psyche. She appears, but she is obviously out of place, of a different culture and time, and she is mocked by everyone, especially by the women, who ridicule her appearance. They label her loony and Blaks, who here is a Prefect, apparently in charge, delivers condemnation.
We move on to Italy during the Inquisition. Psyche lays eyes upon Christ crucified on the cross. There is sexuality in her passion with the figure. She enters a convent, but still yearns for a life beyond your convent. The other nuns do not trust her. She tells of her need for sunshine and fresh air, but she is informed not to have aspiration. She should do as she is told, because asking questions is sinful, here. There is to be a trip by the abbot, a man who recently condemned a nun to be burned at the stake. Psyche is thus informed. Her attitudes are described to the abbot, who condemns her. Blaks, of course, is the abbot, who wields power without difficulty than he illustrates faith. Eros appears, we think to save her, but all he offers is a facile song.
Our heroine’s next port of call is revolutionary Italy. She works while men drink. We learn that it was Psyche who led the storming of the Bastille in the name of freedom. She rejects an offer of marriage because she would rather serve the people. She wants to lead the commune into battle. She is too radical to be a revolutionary. She contends on principle and finds herself on the wrong side of nation-wide topics. Guess who might be the pragmatic leader who condemns her beliefs.
One more scene is in a bar or nightclub, where psyche dances to entertain the drinkers, who are all men. Blaks, here called the Baron, is the owner of the club and the principal exploiter of the women who work for him. The women attract the men to the bar, they drink and the baron, not the women, makes money. Psyche laments her role, but the baron says it’s all her own fault. She a silly joke at offers of love, saying she wants to be independent. But, having achieved her liberation she finds she can’t cope with it.
Eros appears, perhaps to save the day. Psyche is still infatuated, but now also exhausted. Eros reveals she has an alter ego by the name of Thanatos, the personification of death, and thus Psyche learns she is doomed. Her response is to torch what remains of her life, a life that has now rejected her. Eros-Thanatos has the last word, however, by presenting Psyche with a low rider which has already crashed. He encourages her to sit at the wheel and then paints her with her own blood to show the end has finally arrived.
Eros and Psyche was premiered in 1917 and Rozycki’s style is not unlike that of Symanowski, but there is also Richard Strauss within, alongside not a little Debussy. Many of the short phrases are also reminiscent of Janacek, though usually without the bite. Given the opera’s date, we might expect Psyche, though still femme fatale, to be at least a little forward looking. She is certainly not a Violetta or Mimi, in that she is no just victim of bad luck, disease or circumstance. She is closer to a Butterfly, but she does not accept her fate meekly and without protest. In normal terms, once in a while have here a Salome or Elektra, but we were looking at anti-heroines who probably deserved what they got. Tosca got mixed up in nation-wide topics that went wrong. You’ve the feeling that Psyche would have savored the opportunity, but it never arose.
Three other theatrically destroyed women of the era one thinks of, Judith, Katya and Elena. Judith’s plight in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle parallels Psyche’s here. Judith can only know Bluebeard by probing the psychological spaces of his mind. He resents this, but allows her to continue, knowing that once she knows him, he will have taken property of her. Similarly, Psyche is reprimanded because she gets to know Eros, thereby reducing his control over her, a control he must reassert by condemning her. The Bartok-Balasz character, however, is more modern than Psyche, despite the existence of castles and ideas. It is only when Judith understands the mental make-up of Bluebeard that he has to punish her, because only then that she becomes a threat to him. She is permanently mummified alongside the life partners who have preceded her.
Janacek’s Katya Kabova is a step back into the nineteenth century by virtue of originally having been a creation of Ostrovsky, but her achievement of a finality of death does ask some modern questions. Ostrovsky’s nineteenth century provincial dramas general do away with their heroines, but it is the organizations rather than the people that are seen at fault. When oppression and hypocrisy are cultural and structural, it is hard for any individual to oppose them. But here it is these attitudes which will make female existence a catastrophe. Yes, Katya takes her own life, but it is another woman, her own mother-in-law, who asks the community to find the doing of justice and not to shed tears for a woman who brought her fate on herself. The music, in fact, ends with neither catastrophe nor fury, but with a question mark. Elena Makropoulos presents a different challenge. Often she is in control. Like Psyche she gets lived, or at claims to have done so, in many eras, has inhabited many roles and has had a thread different lives. Her original fate, however, like Psyche’s, was added on her by a man, in Elena’s case her father. Like Psyche, Elena has become cynical about men’s motives and dismissive of their capabilities. Crucially, however, when Elena is offered the opportunity to take back control of her endless existence, she rejects it, preferring death to repeating the same old things. Psyche was never offered control and its attainment was never in her grasp. But Psyche thinks she achieved a liberation from oppression at the end, though she was incapable to cope with it. This makes her a more modern figure.
So, for a modern audience, Psyche cannot be merely a normal beauty who crosses a god. And in the production by Warsaw’s Enhance National Opera, she isn’t. Each scenarios is transformed into a film set. Scene one is a giant green room, alluring by women who clearly want to be stars. Whether Eros powered a casting couch is unclear, but the probability is high. From scene one’s green room, Psyche is cast her role in each other four scenes, each of which is most likely going to join in on a feature film in which she stars. When Blaks repeatedly frustrates her activities and condemns her, the two of them become near stereotypes for femme fatale and callous male power. If we ask if it has to be this way, we will need to answer that it was a male god in the beginning that insisted it should be so.
By the end, Psyche has had enough and she torches the world that has taken advantage of her. It ought to be one more act of self-destructive defiance but the god and men even then reassert their control. A car crash is organised and she is painted with blood. The auto itself perhaps the trappings of the stardom she gets sought, and thus Psyche potentially becomes a tabloid press headline, probably moralising about a life of debauchery or excess. Psyche thus becomes a contemporary victim. She is a Marilyn Monroe ruined by fame, or perhaps a Jayne Mansfield, epitome of womanhood taken advantage of for male voyeurs.
Thanks to the internet and Opera Vision we can all view this production from Warsaw and thereby draw our own results. Streamed via a smart TV or perhaps better in the case of Opera Vision via a laptop and cable, the opera even comes with subtitles for anyone who might not catch all of the original Enhance. Joanna Freszel as Psyche provides a stunning performance, being vocally up the task as well as combining the confidence, aspiration and affirmation of a modern woman alongside the naivete and vulnerability of anyone who might fall in love. Mikolaj Zalasinski as Blaks is brilliant at using his power whilst never really appearing to be worthy of its extent, which is exactly what the character of Psyche must be thinking. He also makes the role anti-intellectual, thus stressing the contrast between the use of power and any comprehension of its consequences.
The great power of the opera, besides its visually stunning use of multimedia, is its power to reinterpret itself. Here Warsaw opera blends action, words and music with a little film, perhaps the very film being made on stage even as watch. It is a fable that becomes real, and convincingly so. It is thought-provoking and ironic at the same time and a brilliant example of the creative vision of its production team, especially director Barbara Wysocka. And the music, by the way, is stunningly impressive.
Opera tends to be taken over by a reps of a rather narrow repertoire. Audiences often seem more interested in asserting their social class via their theatre attendance rather than understanding the challenges of making sense of a work, especially if that sense has reached all modern. Audiences tend to like what they know rather than know what they like. But, when it works – and this production of Enhance National Opera certainly does – opera blends theatre and music with visual art in a way no other experience can achieve. As a variety, it is alluring by a large number of long-forgotten and hardly performed works, most of which can be reinterpreted by committed performers to speak to our own age, mirror it and also challenge it. Rozycki’s Eros and Psyche is a superb example of the possibilities, especially as realised in this Warsaw production. Via Opera Vision it is available to everyone. Try to avoid miss it and then see what you think.