I have been privileged to be present at the Baltic Opera House in Gdańsk many times over the past decade and it was therefore a pleasure to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the building – albeit at a distance – with this fascinating mixed programme of opera and dance. Although these works were being presented for the first time on this stage, it was not their first time together since they were performed in Warsaw back in 1962, in a programme prepared by the distinguished Polish conductor, Henryk Czyż. The span of 59 years between performances was linked by Maestro Czyż being the teacher of the Baltic Opera’s music director, Jose Maria Florencio and in recognition of this, the orchestra was elevated to centre stage throughout the programme.

Ewelina Adamczyk (The Chosen One) in The Rite of Spring
© K Mystkowski | Baltic Opera in Gdansk

My prior visits to Gdańsk had all been to see the Baltic Dance Theater, then resident at the Opera House, largely performing the work of its director, Izadora Weiss. This included the premiere of her thoroughly modern interpretation of The Rite of Spring, back in 2011. Baltic Dance Theater is no more (Weiss now directs the Bialy Dance Theater) and for this programme, the guest choreographer was Ewa Wycichowska.

Wycichowska was director of Polish Dance Theater for almost 30 years, during which time she created The Rite of Spring in 1993 but she has so substantially revisited that work that this was essentially a world premiere, as indicated by her augmentation of one of the most famous titles in all of dance with Art Survival as a subtitle. Her adaptation had to envelope a large orchestra in its centre with the dance theatre performance confined to front and rear.

The spring ritual is given a topical update by Wycichowska’s introduction of guests in white suits, of varying ages and physiques, each with a number printed onto their back that seemed to approximate the latest software version (1.0, 2.0 etc). They arrive as if newcomers to a country fair and appear to take over, performing a series of athletic challenges. Many of these “guests” were former members of the Baltic Dance Theatre, including Radoslaw Palutkiewicz, Beata Giza, Bartlomiej Więckowski and Filip Michalak, the latter still performing formidably in a strong solo with capoeira high kicks. Eventually, these guests are assimilated with the local girls, whose apparent vulnerability masks the collective strength of a sect and it appears to be the guests (who come to wear masks with multiple faces) who need protection.

Wojciech Warszawski (The “Coordinator”) in The Rite of Spring
© K Mystkowski | Baltic Opera in Gdansk

The ritual is marshalled by the Shaman figure of the “Coordinator” (Wojciech Warszawski) who together with “Guest 7.0” (Michalak), using a long staff, picks out the Chosen One (Ewelina Adamczyk). In the dramatic sacrificial finale, Adamczyk is manipulated by the group in flowing sequences of repetitive movements. Wycichowska’s choreography shows a bold and impressive command of moving a large group with dancers twisting, turning and swirling in closely synchronised patterns as if a murmuration of starlings in flight. Her post-apocalyptic vision has a final and unexpected twist.

Katarzyna Wietrzny (Lia) and Marcin Bronikowski (Siméon)
© K Mystkowski | Baltic Opera in Gdansk

Young soprano, Katarzyna Wietrzny delivered engaging performances as both Judith’s Handmaiden and a dramatic Lia, the mother in Debussy’s L'Enfant prodigue, demonstrating great depth, clarity and control in her aria of lament over the prolonged loss of her prodigal son, Azaël. Wycichowska’s choreography introduced a flashback in dance, showing the mother and child (Izabela Sokołowska-Boulton and Maja Boulton) in happier times. The operatic excellence was completed by the Bulgarian tenor, Ivalylo Mihaylov as Azaël and Polish baritone, Marcin Bronikowski as the father, Siméon. The superb musical performance was spoiled visually by costumes that seemed to have been chosen at random from a rummage box: pink was the parents’ colour-of-choice with Siméon wearing what appeared to be a thick velour dressing gown and Lia, a shabby chic rag skirt matched with a tight, shiny bodice. Unaccountably, Mihaylov wore a baggy white shirt (with black ribbon tie), long black shorts, trainers and socks. No wonder he came home. It was not a good look.

Anna Bernacka (Judith) and Katarzyna Wietrzny (servant)
© K Mystkowski | Baltic Opera in Gdansk

I was unfamiliar with Arthur Honegger’s 1925 opera Judith – in which the heroine single-handedly saves her city by seducing and decapitating the Assyrian leader, Holofernes – and it is a work that will require perseverance. Anna Bernacka performed the mezzo soprano lead role of Judith, appearing as a giant by a clever design detail of standing on a platform concealed by a long skirt. As with Wietrzny, Bronikowski also appeared in both operas and there was excellent support from the tenor, Witalj Widra. The large opera chorus was prominent vocally but, dressed in black against a black stage and situated behind the large orchestra, they were not easily seen. Elzbieta Czajkowska-Klos (another fondly-remembered lead dancer with Baltic Dance Theatre) and Oliwia Roniarska provided Wycichowska’s danced divertissement.

This performance was reviewed from the Baltic Opera in Gdansk live video stream