Eros and Psyche by Ludomit Rozicki, Polish National Opera, Warsaw

Opera reviews do not usually carry spoiler warnings. Rather, they usually begin with a comprehensive, sometimes grueling, step-by-step account of every artificial detail. So this is no exception. Ludomir Rozicki’s Eros and Psyche might just be another classic 19th century rewrite, just another tear-breaking fatal woman, but it’s so much more than that.

Psyche dreams of being carried away by love. We feel that these arcadian maidens who occupy a green room to make up for a performance are almost caught to beautify themselves. Psyche is in love, perhaps obsessed with a man, who has had to visit her every night. She reveals to a friend that she has been dating someone. Eros reappears and offers everlasting love, but only on his terms. He has somehow managed to hide his identity, if not his intentions, until Blaks, the caretaker, inadvertently sheds light on Eros’s face and then all hell breaks loose. Eros condemns Psyche to an eternal life of constant wandering and disappointment, a life in which Blaks will regularly reappear to deny her any fulfillment. It is a judgment issued by Perseus, who announces exile and eternal wandering while delivering a passport and tickets for Psyche and Blaks. When Psyche embarks on his destination, we realize that the messenger is not to blame.

Her first subsequent port of call is a party, perhaps a drunken orgy, in ancient Rome, a Rome that, of course, is not ancient for her. A couple of Greeks in the gathering lament what the Romans have done to their culture, a culture inherited from their own people, including Psyche. She appears, but is obviously out of place, from a different culture and time, and is made fun of by everyone, especially women, who ridicule her appearance. They label her as crazy and Blaks, who is a prefect here, apparently in charge, launches a sentence.

We went to Spain during the Inquisition. Psyche embraces Christ crucified on the cross. There is sexuality in his obsession with the figure. He enters a convent, but still yearns for a life outside the convent. The other nuns don’t trust her. She talks about her need for sunshine and fresh air, but is warned not to have ambition. She must do what she is told, because asking questions is a sin, here. There will be a visit from the abbot, a man who recently sentenced a nun to be burned at the stake. Psyche is seen like this. Her attitudes are described to the abbot, who condemns her. Blaks, of course, is the abbot, who wields power more easily than faith. Eros appears, we think to save her, but all he offers is an easy song.

Our heroine’s next port of call is revolutionary France. She works while the men drink. We learn that it was Psyche who led the storming of the Bastille in the name of freedom. He rejects a marriage offer because he prefers to serve people. He wants to lead the commune into battle. It is too radical to be revolutionary. You insist on principle and you find yourself on the wrong side of politics. Guess who could be the pragmatic leader who condemns their beliefs.

A final scene is in a bar or disco, where the psyche dances to entertain the drinkers, who are all men. Blaks, here called the Baron, is the owner of the club and the main exploiter of the women who work for him. The women attract the men to the bar, they drink and the baron, not the women, makes money. Psyche regrets her role, but the Baron says it’s her fault. He laughs at offers of love and says he wants to be independent. But, having achieved his release, he discovers that he cannot cope with it.

Eros appears, perhaps to save the day. Psyche is still infatuated, but now he’s also exhausted. Eros reveals that he has an alter ego by the name of Thanatos, the personification of death, and so Psyche learns that she is doomed. Her response is to set fire to what remains of her life, a life that has now rejected her. However, Eros-Thanatos has the last word by introducing Psyche to a sports car that has already crashed. He invites her to get behind the wheel and then paints her with his own blood to show that the end has finally come.

Eros and Psyche was released in 1917 and Rozycki’s style is no different than Symanowski, but there is also Richard Strauss, along with not a little Debussy. Many of the short sentences are also reminiscent of Janacek, although usually without the bite. Given the date of the opera, we would expect Psyche, while still a femme fatale, to be at least a little progressive. She is certainly not a Violetta or Mimi, in the sense that she is not a mother victim of bad luck, illness or circumstance. He is closer to a butterfly, but he does not accept his fate meekly and without protest. In classical terms, we may have a Salome or Elektra here, but these were antiheroines who probably deserved what they got. Tosca got into politics that went wrong. One has the feeling that Psyche would have enjoyed the opportunity, but it never came up.

Three other theatrically destroyed women of the time come to mind, Judith, Katya and Elena. Judith’s plight at Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle parallels Psyche’s here. Judith can only meet Bluebeard by probing the psychological spaces of his mind. He resents this, but allows her to continue, knowing that once she meets him, he will have taken her over. Similarly, Psyche is punished because she gets to know Eros, thereby reducing his control over her, a control that he must reaffirm by condemning her. Bartok-Balasz’s character, however, is more modern than Psyche, despite the existence of castles and visions. Only when Judith understands Bluebeard’s mindset does she have to punish her, because only then does she become a threat to him. She is eternally mummified alongside the wives who have preceded her.

Janacek’s Katya Kabova is a step back into the 19th century by virtue of being originally Ostrovsky’s creation, but her achievement of the finality of death raises some modern questions. Ostrovsky’s 19th-century provincial dramas eliminate their heroines, but it is societies, rather than individuals, that are held to be guilty. When oppression and hypocrisy are cultural and structural, it is difficult for any individual to oppose them. But here it is these attitudes that make female existence a tragedy. Yes, Katya takes her own life, but it is another woman, her own mother-in-law, who asks the community to witness how justice is done and not shed tears for a woman who took her fate to herself. The music, in fact, ends neither with tragedy nor with anger, but with a question mark. Elena Makropoulos presents a different challenge. In many ways, she is in control. Like Psyche, she has lived, or claims to have lived, in many eras, has held many roles and has had a chain of different lives. However, his original destiny, like that of Psyche, was imposed on him by a man, in the case of Elena, his father. Like Psyche, Elena has become cynical about men’s motives and disdains their abilities. However, when Elena is offered the opportunity to regain control of her eternal existence, she rejects it and prefers death to repeating the same old things. Psyche was never offered control and her achievement was never within her grasp. But Psyche believes that she managed to free herself from the oppression in the end, although she could not cope with it. This makes her a more modern figure.

So for a modern audience, Psyche can’t just be a classic beauty crossing a god. And in the production of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, it is not. Each of the stages is transformed into a film set. Scene one is a giant green room, populated by women who clearly want to be stars. It is not clear if Eros operated a casting couch, but the probability is high. From the green room of scene one, Psyche plays her role in each of the other four scenes, each of which is destined to be part of a feature film that she stars in. When Blaks repeatedly frustrates her activities and condemns her, the two become almost stereotypes for femme fatale and callous male power. If we ask whether it has to be this way, we have to answer that it was a male god in the first instance who insisted that it should be this way.

In the end, Psyche has had enough and sets fire to the world that has exploited her. It should be a final act of self-destructive defiance, but god and men reassert their control. A car accident is organized and she is painted in blood. The car itself is part of the trappings of stardom he has sought, and thus Psyche potentially becomes a tabloid headline, probably moralizing about a life of debauchery or excess. The psyche thus becomes a modern victim. She is a Marilyn Monroe ruined by fame, or perhaps a Jayne Mansfield, epitome of femininity exploited by male voyeurs.

Thanks to the Internet and Opera Vision, we can all see this Warsaw production and thus draw our own conclusions. Streamed through a smart TV or perhaps better in the case of Opera Vision through a laptop and cable, the opera even comes with subtitles for anyone who can’t catch all of the original Polish. Joanna Freszel as Psyche delivers an impressive performance, being vocal on task and combining the confidence, ambition, and assertiveness of a modern woman along with the naivety and vulnerability of anyone who might fall in love. Mikolaj Zalasinski as Blaks is brilliant at using his power without ever seeming to be worthy of his grasp, which is exactly what the character of Psyche must be thinking. It also makes the role anti-intellectual, thus underlining the contrast between the use of power and any knowledge of its consequences.

The great power of opera, in addition to its visually impressive use of multimedia, is its ability to reinterpret itself. Here the Warsaw Opera combines action, words and music with a short film, perhaps the same film that is being made on stage as we watch it. It is a fable that becomes real and compelling. He is suggestive and ironic at the same time and a shining example of the creative vision of his production team, especially director Barbara Wysocka. And the music, by the way, is incredibly colorful.

Opera tends to be dominated by the repetition of a fairly narrow repertoire. Audiences often seem more interested in affirming their social class through their theater attendance rather than understanding the challenges of making sense of a play, especially if that sense is entirely modern. The public tends to like what they know rather than what they like. But, when it works, and this Polish National Opera production certainly does, opera combines theater and music with visual art in a way that no other experience can achieve. As a genre, it is populated by a large number of forgotten and barely performed works, almost all of which can be reinterpreted by committed performers to speak about, reflect on, and challenge it as well. Rozycki’s Eros and Psyche is a magnificent example of possibilities, especially as they are manifested in this Warsaw production. Through Opera Vision it is available to everyone. Try not to miss it and then see what you think

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