Janáček adapted The Diary of One Who Disappeared from a series of romantic poems published in a Czech newspaper that recounted the intense feelings of a young boy for a socially unattainable gypsy girl, Zefka. The wistful beauty of this intimate song cycle accrues through the concentrated focus of its 22 brief, concatenated musical numbers; chop them up with stage business, interpose new music and drop them into an alien context, as the new staging by Flemish opera company Muziektheater Transparant chooses to do, and their perfume dissipates in an instant.

Ed Lyon (Janáček) and Marie Hamard (Zefka) © Jan Versweyveld
Ed Lyon (Janáček) and Marie Hamard (Zefka)
© Jan Versweyveld

If you didn’t know beforehand who’d directed it, one glimpse of the sterile modern apartment with its modish furnishings would be enough to provoke a cry of Ivo van Hove – and indeed it is he. His reinvention of the tenor/narrator as a photographer who’s enamoured with the image of a young woman adds so little to the haunting narrative that one wonders why he felt the need to meddle with it. At 65 minutes this show is double the length of the composer’s original but has considerably less than half the impact.

The padding (let’s call it by its name) includes a silent prelude of coffee-making by the evening’s mezzo soprano, Marie Hamard, some irrelevant piano tinkering dictated by a disembodied voice and a spoken ending in which the narrator’s older self (Wim van der Grijn in a non-singing role) physically burns his memories while quoting references not to the fictional Zefka but to Kamila Stösslová, the overpowering though unrequited love of Janáček’s own late life and the inspiration for some of his most enduring works. It’s all very well to blur truth into art, but since the composer had already done that pretty nakedly, this tacked-on coda merely gilds the lily.

Ed Lyon (Janáček) and Marie Hamard (Zefka) © Jan Versweyveld
Ed Lyon (Janáček) and Marie Hamard (Zefka)
© Jan Versweyveld

Belgian composer Annelies Van Parys has supplied several patches of interesting if uncomfortably integrated new music designed to bolster the presence of this love object within the drama and make her the theatrical equal of Ed Lyon’s forcefully sung narrator. It means that in place of Janáček’s restrained use of his distant mezzo as an aching memory, she is with us throughout, corporeally familiar and sharing the same space as her lover. Zefka is destroyed by proximity.

Hamard sings her part well, Lyon acts with power and persuades us that this man and his hermetic world actually exist, and the offstage voices of Annelies van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens and Raphaële Green blend beautifully to add some sorely needed atmosphere to van Hove’s blanched drama. Best of all is the self-effacing pianism of Lada Valešová, a constant yet discreet onstage presence seated deep within designer Jan Versweyveld’s ultra-cluttered cinemascope set.

**111