Times of change at Opera Bałtyka in Gdánsk. The company today is defined by the radical vision of its artistic director, Marek Weiss, who has introduced many modern operas to the repertoire here, as well as radical stagings of the classics. But this season will be his last, and Penderecki’s The Black Mask his farewell. Both the choice of work and the style of presentation show Weiss to be as radical as ever, but it is hardly an optimistic ending for such a successful partnership. Whatever the reasons for his departure, it seems that Weiss still has much to say.

Radosław Palutkiewicz (Johnson) © K. Mystkowski, KFP
Radosław Palutkiewicz (Johnson)
© K. Mystkowski, KFP

Penderecki’s opera is based on a 1926 play by Gerhart Hauptmann and premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1986 (like the play, the libretto is in German). It’s only 90 minutes long, but the story is terse, complex, and wholly resistant to paraphrase. Even so, here goes:

The setting is Silesia in the late 17th century, soon after the end of the Thirty Years War. A nobleman Silvanus Schuller (Sylwester Kostecki) is throwing a banquet to celebrate the birthday of his wife, Benigna (Katarzyna Hołysz). In her earlier life, Benigna lived in Amsterdam, where she fell in with Johnson, a freed slave, who was first her lover, then her pimp, then the murderer of her first husband. Johnson has now followed her to Silesia, and is blackmailing her about the secrets of her past. Meanwhile, the many guests at the celebration, mostly local merchants and dignitaries, all have their own secrets to hide and mutual antagonisms. At the start of the opera, these are all thinly veiled, but as Benigna’s secrets come out into the open, so too do all the other tensions. Midway through the opera, Arabella (Karolina Sołomin) is revealed to be the daughter of Benigna and Johnson – providing the drama’s first climactic point. Then Johnson himself appears, wearing the eponymous mask (the role is taken by a dancer, Radosław Palutkiewicz), and murders one of the servants, Jedidja Potter (Ryszard Minkiewicz), the only witness to the murder of Benigna’s first husband. Soon after, it becomes clear that the community is ravaged with plague, leading each strand of the story toward death.

The music is just as complex, and Penderecki ambitiously attempts to portray every aspect of the tale, often with many disparate ideas played out simultaneously in the score to reflect the multiple layers of narrative. An important dimension of the story is the diverse backgrounds and religious views of the assembled guests, and these are reflected in the music through quotations and stylistic allusions. So the town’s organist, Hadank (Aleksander Kunach), several times breaks out into Bach chorales, with resplendent orchestral accompaniment, while the Jewish merchant, Löwel Perl (Robert Gierlach) who brings the first hint of scandal from Amsterdam, sings in Jewish modes.

Katarzyna Hołysz (Benigna) and Sylwester Kostecki (Silvanus Schuller) © K. Mystkowski, KFP
Katarzyna Hołysz (Benigna) and Sylwester Kostecki (Silvanus Schuller)
© K. Mystkowski, KFP

For all this subtlety, though, the main musical impression is of sheer scale. The orchestra is huge, with a particularly prominent percussion section. There is also a large offstage chorus and two offstage bands, one of Renaissance instruments and one of brass and percussion. Marek Weiss’ greatest innovation in this staging is to create a sense of claustrophobia in the banquet hall setting by imposing the music’s huge scale through the stage layout. The action takes place on the covered pit, the set just the long banqueting table, with props and costumes in period style. But behind this, and raised up about two metres, is the orchestra, on steeply raked staging and lit low for dramatic effect. The offstage bands are in a corridor immediately to the audience’s right, and the chorus begins the opera behind (or underneath) the orchestra, but then – in a stunning feat of logistics – passes unseen through the auditorium to the upper tier, where they sing from above for most of the opera. The venue itself is small, and these spatial effects have a powerful impact.

Placing the action in front of the orchestra calls for another conductor, the third including the one for the offstage bands, leading to inevitable – but never serious – synchronisation problems. The main conductor, Szymon Morus, leads a dynamic, and suitably oppressive, reading of the complex score. Opera Bałtyka has assembled an impressive cast, no mean feat given the number of prominent and musically complex roles. Katarzyna Hołysz is particularly impressive as the strong-willed, but continually compromised, Begigna. Her music is mostly loud, and often high, and she has the power and presence to make the role convincing. Sylwester Kostecki is less impressive as her husband, Silvanus Schuller, a mature voice for a mature role, but lacking in consistency and projection. Among the smaller roles, bass Piotr Nowacki as the lascivious Count Ebbo and Ryszard Minkiewicz as the servant Jedida Potter both impressed. There is dark, maniacal humour in both of these roles, which the two singers capture well.

Although the opera is short, the experience is one of macabre intensity, and Penderecki subtly grades the weight and pacing of the music to build to an overwhelming conclusion. Here, it turns out that Marek Weiss has one last surprise, making for a radical departure from the original libretto. In the very last moments of the opera, the chorus rushes on and acts out an ISIS execution video, all kneeling, now in modern dress, and each with a scimitar held to their throat by black-clad men standing behind. Weiss has a point to make here, one of universal responsibility, and particularly the fact that Johnson’s former enslavement implicates all in his later actions. But this closing gesture feels exploitative, an irresponsible appropriation of such imagery. Perhaps if these ideas were integrated more into the earlier action, or if the reconciliatory closing music supported the sheer extremity of this closing image, it would have made its point better.

Radosław Palutkiewicz (Johnson) and Ryszard Minkiewicz (Jedidja Potter) © K. Mystkowski, KFP
Radosław Palutkiewicz (Johnson) and Ryszard Minkiewicz (Jedidja Potter)
© K. Mystkowski, KFP

But with or without this finale, the opera has clear resonances for today. In a farewell statement in the programme, Weiss explains that his decision to leave the company, and possibly opera altogether, on this note was prompted by how he sees the unfolding collapse of the European ideal. “I have lost hope that Europe will manage to overcome tribal feuds and pride of its former colonizers.” Certainly, the idea that social and political unity is at the mercy of thinly veiled prejudices chimes with the petty xenophobia surfacing through the Brexit debate, much of it directed toward the Poles and their neighbours. But Hauptmann, Penderecki and Weiss offer no easy answers, only a grim parable of how the consequences affect us all.

Opera Bałtyka plan a DVD release of this production, and I’d recommend it to the adventurous. Onscreen, you may lose some of the claustrophobia that makes this such an intense experience, but the simple staging and the vivid visual drama should lend themselves to the format. Most importantly though, a DVD will offer the chance for repeated viewings, absolutely essential for this concentrated and multilayered work. Weiss describes The Black Mask as “the most difficult opera masterpiece I have ever faced”. Having seen it once, I’m fully convinced of its difficulty. But a masterpiece? Very possibly, but I’ll need to see it a few more times yet to make up my mind.