Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared is a song cycle, but of a sort only he could have written. It is for tenor and piano, about 35 minutes long, based on verses from a newspaper styled “the writings of a self-taught man”. A young farmer’s son falls for a gypsy girl, who seduces him, and he abandons his family for a new life with her and their son. In this tale of conflict between traditional community loyalty and escape from them, the singer presents himself as the protagonist, which encourages staging. But there is also an antagonist, Zefka the Gypsy girl (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), and a brief but evocative semi-chorus of three female voices (Catriona Hewitson, Heather Ireson and Sioned Gwen Davies).

Ed Lyon in The Diary of One Who Disappeared
© Lammermuir Festival | Scottish Opera

This live performance from Glasgow’s Theatre Royal was created by Scottish Opera for the Lammermuir Festival. An ensemble from The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, led by Music Director Stuart Stratford, played a version by Miloš Štědroň Senior and Miloš Štědroň Junior for eleven instruments. The players never made a sound that Janáček might not have done, and the timbres added much, especially in the string writing. Find the right work to join this, and you have a pandemic friendly evening of touring opera. Only pianists, usually integral to this work, could complain. 

Stuart Stratford conducts members of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera
© Lammermuir Festival | Scottish Opera

Of course you have to cast the lead role, and tenor Nicky Spence who was due to sing is recovering from surgery. It is not usually easy to whistle up another leading tenor at short notice, but crowded calendars are all still suspended so Ed Lyon, no less, was our naïve ploughboy. Not that he looked much like one. In fact Lyon’s swarthy good looks suggest an early career siring Gypsy offspring the length and breadth of Moravia, more than the yokel wondering at the recent loss of his virtue. The staging too, did not present us with a bumpkin with straw in his hair, but a soberly dressed member of the middle class, seated at that symbol of a sophisticated settled culture, the work desk. The film opened with a view of the desktop that showed a copy of Lidové Noviny (The Brno newspaper where the verses appeared) and a photo of Kamila Stösslová, the married woman 37 years Janáček's junior, and inspiration of his later works. Were we seeing Janáček himself conceiving the piece? Or perhaps the ploughboy – who muses much on the inexorability of his fate – has actually returned to his roots, and is now managing the farm. Or, since he handles some manuscripts, is he the poet and these the “writings of a self-taught man”? Director Rosie Purdie and the director of film production Antonia Bain suggest all these possibilities in a compelling treatment of a richly ambiguous work, one that invited us into the drama. 

Lucy Schaufer in The Diary of One Who Disappeared
© Lammermuir Festival | Scottish Opera

The music was in superb hands. Stuart Stratford caught the passionate mood of the work, its dramatic ebb and flow, and his players were excellent. The Zefka of Lucy Schaufer stole on and sang seductively, unhampered by her blonde locks (Zefka’s raven tresses are part of her appeal to our hero). The semi-chorus was semi-lit and balanced perfectly (“almost inaudible” is Janáček’s instruction). Lyon sounded more prepared than we could reasonably expect, and assumed his role with complete identification, with persuasive vocal and facial acting. His brief glance at Zefka, their only contact, said everything. He caught the stresses and strains of the protagonist’s dilemma, as reflected in the cruelly high tessitura of the part. He even managed the final two top Cs to suggest exaltation in his new freedom.

This performance was reviewed from the Lammermuir Festival's video stream.