In 1917, during his annual trip to the Moravian resort town of Luhačovice, the 63-year-old Leoš Janáček met the much younger Kamila Stösslová. He quickly fell in love, developing a quasi-obsession with the mother-of-two that would last until the end of his life, generating an explosion of creativity. The little-known cycle of 22 songs entitled The Diary of One Who Disappeared was an immediate consequence of that fateful rencontre. It details the story of a village boy who becomes infatuated with a Romany girl named Zefka and decides to elope with her. The direct source of inspiration was a series of anonymous verses published in 1916 in the daily Lidové noviny, but, from the beginning, there was little doubt that it also expressed Janáček’s longing for Kamila. In a later letter to her (there are more than 700) he wrote: "And the black gypsy girl in my Diary of One Who Disappeared – that was you. That's why there's so much emotional fire in the work. So much fire that if we both caught on, we'd be turned to ashes."

The ubiquitous theatre and opera director Ivo van Hove took Janáček’s opus as the starting point for one of his Gesamtkunstwerke adding new musical moments, spoken fragments from the composer’s letters and arresting visual snippets while placing everything in a new context. His production for the Belgian company Muziektheater Transparant involved his two constant collaborators (Jan Versweyveld sets and lighting, An d’Huys costumes) and travelled to multiple European venues before paying a brief visit to New York as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Winter/Spring Festival.

On top of the expected superimposition of the composer and his muse over the songs’ pair of characters, van Hove added a third dimension by placing the action in a cluttered 1960s apartment complete with darkroom, evoking Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-up. The young boy, Janiček, is now a photographer. He wears the same shirt and slacks as another character representing the elderly composer, making the link between them. The photographer’s model wears a reddish dress and the sort of large hoop earrings that Zefka might have worn. At some point, the two male characters develop a large photograph of Zefka that is projected on the wall. Later, another image of the bare-breasted Romany girl appears imprinted on the composer’s shirt. Maybe the most striking element of the mise-en-scène is the way Van Hove and Versweyveld handle the image of the wooded landscape where the idyll between Janiček and Zefka takes place. The perforated back wall (which hides the three singers who act as a kind of Greek chorus commenting occasionally on the action) becomes somehow translucent and the entire stage takes on a golden glow.

Van Hove and his Dramaturg Krystian Lada bookend Janáček’s Diary with sequences inspired by the composer’s letters to Kamila. The opening – which asks the female character first to warm a teapot and then sit down at the piano and play a brief melody with one finger while a recorded voice provides instructions – felt rather awkward. The closing sequence, with actor Wim van der Grijn discarding ashes (referring perhaps to the Janáček quote above) and then reading and burning letters (as Janáček presumably did with most of Kamila’s, at her request) was more relevant.

Pianist Lada Valešová was the anchor of the performance. She brought forward Janáček’s adventurous harmonies, his unsurpassed ability to express with economy of means abrupt changes in states of mind. She underlined the sense of sexual longing in Intermezzo erotico. In Dark Alder-grove or The Magpie is Flying, she emphasised the composer’s deep feeling for the marvels of nature, thus foreshadowing the music of The Cunning Little Vixen. Tenor Andrew Dickinson was able to express well Janiček’s doubts and guilt, his yearning for a new start. Mezzo-soprano Marie Hamard was just as convincing as Zefka, especially in the additional graceful songs composed by Annelies Van Parys and set to Romany verses. These were evidently composed in a different idiom from Janáček’s but fitted surprisingly well within the overall construction.

One of the great stage directors of the 21st century, Ivo van Hove has always attempted to go beyond standard approaches in his creations. Nevertheless, the fragile art of Lieder can be easily overwhelmed by an excess of suggestions and imagery. Like William Kentridge’s Winterreise, several years ago, this endeavor was only a partial success.