Hipsters Play Baroque-style

Is the present-day Baroque appeal a result of missing the past and the unsatisfiable curiosity of secrets hidden in it? Not necessarily, because, in accordance with the trend of historically-informed performance, Baroque theatre has been forced into modern times. It is enough to watch the French-speaking Mezzo channel to see singers who masterly perform Baroque roulades but are dressed in suits and move around contemporary furniture. It is a visual clash, but today’s directors avoid costumes, wigs and heavy make-up, even though their characters are from mythological, ancient and allegoric stories.


Opera was born in the Baroque era, over four hundred years ago, and the operatic madness lasted almost one and a half centuries. Operas were staged on European courts (also on the court of king Vladislaus IV in Warsaw). And when the first public theatre was opened in Venice in 1637, which was followed by the opening of four more theatres, opera became fashionable entertainment during the Carnival season. It was supposed to amaze and entertain. The number of operas written at that time was enormous until they seemed to lack new heroes. Audiences knew mythology and brave old chiefs, so the heroes moved from one opera to another, and opera authors – who were first of all playwrights as lyrics were of primary importance at that time – attempted to present their stories in the strangest and most amusing way.

That was what happened to Jason – Jason, not Medea, as her well-known tragic fate was not suitable for the Carnival – in the opera by Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). Already his biography can serve as good material for a fine libretto: a boy from a basilica choir with a surname after his patron, an organist, singer, husband to a wealthy widow, writer of operas, administrator of theatres, trustee of Claudio Monteverdi – was invited to a royal court in Paris but failed there and returned to Venice. Twenty-eight out of thirty-three scores of his compositions have been preserved and nobody can compare to Cavalli in terms of such complete oeuvre passed on as a heritage to future generations. He first appeared in public theatres of Venice in 1639. After premiere performances of a few other compositions (also with elements of grotesque) his Jason (Giasone, 1649) became extremely successful and conquered stages of other Italian cities.

Baroque style seems well-codified both in terms of music (theory of affects, opera form) and theatre (the role of “apparato”, i.e., stage mechanisms, actors’ role types), but these are just appearances. The style changed over the century and early Venetian opera was more of a theatre than we can imagine today. The best proof that wandering theatre groups, with emerged together with the new fashion for this kind of performances, were transformed from old commedia dell’arte groups. They made opera a commercial art in the 17th century. And at Teatro San Cassiano, which was headed by Cavalli himself, there were crowds of viewers in front of ticket booths who wanted to enjoy themselves watching Jason right after the New Year (the opera premiered on 5 January 1649), having successfully purchased their tickets. The plot presents a sort of a Baroque theatre of the absurd. After reading the detailed description of the libretto (in the invaluable compendium by Piotr Kamiński entitled Tysiąc i jedna opera [A Thousand and One Operas], Cracow: PWM, 2008), it is not surprising that the Collegium Nobilium Theatre of the Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw advertised its performance, writing it was “An eternal Carnival, never-ending fun. A hipster and a chav, a tired corporate worker and a pretentious over-sensitive guy, a would-be suicide woman and a modern femme fatale. Giasone is a story from Plac Zbawiciela, taking place on a noisy Friday night between one drink and another in the atmosphere of fleeting romance, sudden love and break-ups, brutal fights and oneiric narcotic visions (…) the opera by Francesco Cavalli written over 350 years ago turns out a very modern tale of what we are”. The stage was indeed covered with whitish cushions like the ones which can be commonly found in restaurants at Plac Zbawiciela, and guests wore fancy clothes (costumes by Irma Olszewska). Jason was dressed in a pleated skirt under a patterned blouse, Egeo (in love with Medea) had a funny ruff around his neck above a greyish jumper, Argonaut Ercole wore a red fleece and golden leggings, and Queen Isifile deftly walked in cute patent leather heels. Medea smoked a joint, one guy or another drank sometimes from a realistic bottle or fell asleep, which excluded him from the game in a natural way. Two women fought for Jason’s love: ruthless Medea (Weronika Rabek) and gentle Isifile (Magdalena Pikuła) – each equipped with twins conceived with Jason. Egeo (Paweł Kucharczyk, (a very good singer) would not give up on Medea and Oreste (Marcel Legun) would not give up on Isifile. There were supposed kills and great characteristic profiles: chubby Delfa, Medea’s servant (Anna Dubicka – she might have revealed her undiminished lust a bit too much), stuttering and limping Demo (Paweł Kowalewski) and the hilarious Argonaut Besso (Michał Kijewski, whose young bass voice very skillfully sang precise Baroque fiorituras). All student performers’ voices were very well matched to their roles, not just in terms of timbre but also their way of singing, which created their characters. Rafał Tomkiewicz (Jason, the title role) steadily rendered his alto part, presenting a round-eyed calm guy who interchangeably loved both ladies; he slept with Medea (on white cushions, obviously) and he floated to Corinth with her (in a bath slipped in and out of the backstage), but he was touched by how Isifile fainted so she was the one he held in the finale.

There were numerous episodes and maxims presented in texts, e.g.  one that for economical reasons it its best to make love while sleeping as it saves expenses and trouble. Hefty Besso threw the “drowned” Medea on the cushions and, with the grace of an elephant, he flirted with the coquettish Alinda, Isifile’s servant (Anastazia Matskievitch). Demo had his big moment when he threw away the crutches used because of limping, grabbed the fake microphone passed to him and wriggled about like a rock star, whereas instrument players from the orchestra sang background vocals (!). Cavalli’s music was very diversified, too. When Medea was angry and swearing – a drum blared, when Isifile mooned around and was pitiful – poetic sound of flutes could be heard (Marie Barbier beautifully played on different types of flutes). Dark sound of theorbo (a strange-looking lute with a long neck, characteristic of early music ensembles, played by Rafael Gimenez de la Vega) added some uneasiness. This small ensemble consisting of seven people from Haute Ècole de Musique in Geneva (among its members were also Polish students) was conducted by Dorota Cybulska-Amsler, a famous Polish harpsichordist who has worked there for years (and who was at the same musical director of the performance).


The premiere performance took place as part of the activity of the Opera Institute attached to the National Academy of Dramatic Art, which is headed by Ryszard Peryt, an accomplished lecturer at the academy (and an author of the very interesting book entitled Opera uboga [Indigent Opera], Cracow: Homo Dei, 2014). According to its key objective, all three artistic institutions of higher education from Warsaw, i.e., Academy of Fine Arts (scenography – Katarzyna Wesołowska), Fryderyk Chopin University of Music (singers/actors) and National Academy of Dramatic Art (place of performance and directing), have collaborated as part of it, plus, this time they also featured the Haute Ècole de Musique in Geneva mentioned earlier (orchestra). In the same way (since 2009), the Opera Institute has produced performances by Purcell, Monteverdi, Hasse, Händel (which means – all early or mature Baroque) – not only following the preferences of just Ryszard Peryt, but also the capacities of the Collegium Nobilium: a small stage with no orchestra pit (this time some circle in front of proscenium was organised) but with a backstage, a network of floodlights, a balcony, mixing console for text screening and display of virtual decoration, plus a ticket office and cloak room with kind personnel, which is everything a professional modern theatre might need. The mentioned productions of the Institute were at the same time diploma performances of students of the Directing Department of the National Academy of Dramatic Art (the one of Natalia Kozłowska with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 2010 was magnificent).

The preparation of Jason required enormous music-related work. Nothing by Cavalli had been staged in Poland until that time (unlike in Switzerland), so it was the first such performance in history. The extensive score needed to be shortened so it would make sense in terms of drama, music and text as its Polish translation was displayed on the screen (a good modern version – no name of translator given). The whole project was coordinated and supervised (artistically and musically) by dr Artur Stefanowicz, an outstanding countertenor and lecturer at the FCUM. He was the one to work with sixteen students from classes of eight singing professors and he made them all reach a uniform aesthetic result, so their singing became an element of their roles, which is quite rare even at professional theatres. They did not lose their stage ease or distance and they seemed to enjoy the atmosphere of this hipster fun. Stefanowicz can be frequently seen performing with Dorota Cybulska and their mutual understanding might have been the secret of their success.

Based on the information available online and some private studies, the profile of the diploma candidate, director Michał Zdunik, looks interesting: he is a Polish philologist, researcher of post-sacred theatre, author of radio dramas and staged plays (not only in Poland), as well as essays on key phenomena of the 20th century published in “Ruch Muzyczny”. All that is very far from the comedic Baroque of Jason. Zdunik assumed that his “story from Plac Zbawiciela from 350 years ago” will be a tale of “people who constantly pretend, fail to leave their roles, are lost in a very strange game. It seems joyful and fun but these are just appearances covering the terrifying loneliness and sadness”. The idea of moving the whole thing from Venice to Plac Zbawiciela turned out successful. Nevertheless, Michał Zdunik might have forgotten that opera as such means pretending and being artificial, and an opera actor never leaves his role because it includes a lot of often difficult notes to be sung. This great performance is a model example of excess of a director’s intentions as compared to the theatrical result. Nobody was overcome by the “terrifying loneliness and sadness” on stage. No-one among these young people even tried to feel it. They were filled with joy that they managed to master the difficult Baroque sound. And they had fun. Even though the premiere performance took place during Lent, they had their Carnival in it.



A musician and a Polish philologist, an actress at the Theatre on Tarczyńska Street and Poetry Theatre at the University of Warsaw (in the 1950s), a long-term music teacher at Primary School no. 15 in Warsaw, a professor at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music and a publicist of “Ruch Muzyczny”. She holds a post-doctoral degree in humanities and is an author of books on music theatre and Polish artists. She has also published articles in the magazines entitled “Teatr”, “Dialog”, New York’s “The Polish Review”, and “Pamiętnik Teatralny”. She collaborates with the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Grand Theatre – National Opera.