There is a long and honourable tradition of what one may term biographical operas, telling the life history of a famous figure. Many of these were commissioned to commemorate an anniversary of their births, deaths, or achievements. Many paid scant regard to the actual facts about the careers of their subjects. Although they often achieved initial success few retained a place in the repertoire after the anniversary which spawned them had passed. More recent historical figures, about whose lives the audience might be expected to possess a certain degree of knowledge, have tended to produce works with a greater degree of factual verisimilitude. However, since the careers even of major historical figures are not always packed with events which play to the emotional and pictorial strengths of opera, a degree of imagination in approach always helps. The career of Christopher Columbus for example has attracted a great many operatic settings ranging from the relatively straightforward (Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo) to the more fantastic (Balada’s Christopher Columbus) to the outright bizarre (the Offenbach pasticcio Christopher Columbus). Julius Caesar, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England have also attracted many composers. Other well-documented historical figures such as Benvenuto Cellini, Rienzi and Simon Boccanegra have had to be content with single outings on the stage. So far as I am aware nobody has previous tackled the subject of Maria Curie, the Polish physicist and Nobel Prize winner - generally known by her adopted French name of Madame Marie Curie.
This opera was written in 2011 to celebrate the centenary of Curie’s receipt of her second Nobel Prize (for chemistry) and the International Year of Chemistry. The text by Agata Miklaszewska adopts a fairly free approach to her historical career. It was first performed in the UNESCO Hall in Paris on 15 November 2011. This recording appears to derive from a subsequent performance given in Gdansk ten days later since this is mentioned in the booklet. The work itself, despite its auspicious beginnings, seems to have attracted relatively little attention. The usual encyclopaedic coverage of new operas in Opera magazine was confined to a simple notice that the work had been given by the Baltic Opera without any further information about the work itself. The composer’s website contains three reviews only one of which appears to derive from a published criticism of the work. None of them has anything of substance to say about this performance. Indeed none of them observe the most blatant thing about this production; that it is effectively semi-staged, with the orchestra placed prominently behind the singers and the conductor the most obvious presence on the stage. Placement of the orchestra onstage has become almost a cliché of modern opera production, but usually the players are shielded behind a gauze or in subdued lighting. Here they are fully lit and visible throughout, and any possibility of dramatic truth is thereby totally dissipated. Hanna Szymczak is credited with the set design, but this consists entirely of a few chairs surrounding a table immediately behind the conductor. This serves at various times as a laboratory workbench, a funeral slab for the body of Pierre and a stage for Loïe Fuller’s dance which later becomes her deathbed. The chorus are largely confined to seats at the side of the stage, although Marek Weiss manages to get some dramatic interaction out of the soloists in the central acting area.
The booklet unfortunately is thoroughly uninformative about the work itself, although we are given 57 pages of biographies (in Polish, English and French) of practically everybody involved in this production. Much essential information is simply missing. There is no listing of the tracks, or description of the various scenes, so we are left totally in the dark as to what is actually happening on the stage. We are rarely clear about what point in Madame Curie’s life we are witnessing: we begin in 1911 and seem to move both backwards and forwards in time. There is nothing to tell us how much of what we see is factual and how much is fiction. We do not know what actually motivated the composer and librettist as they set about their task. We are for example shown Einstein (I think) in the opening scene describing to Curie the dire consequences that will flow from her discovery of radium. This is clearly written with the benefit of hindsight since Curie was dead long before the explosion of the atom bomb. None of the characters with the exception of Curie seem to have much of a dramatic profile. Wojtech Michniewski gets a good response from the orchestra, although one might have welcomed a warmer tone from the strings in the opening emotional conclusion of the duet between Curie and Paul Langevin.
The music itself, clearly owing much to the example of earlier Polish composers such as Penderecki and Lutosławski, does not help much either. Passages such as “Its rays are like currents in ceaseless movement” which would seem to cry out for emotional expansion are given simply as spoken dialogue. Much of the rest is delivered in the pseudo-Bergian lingua franca of many late twentieth century operas. This often sounds inelegant and seems to do little to reflect the words themselves. The opera is sung in Polish throughout, even when the historical characters would have spoken French. The singers do what they can with their see-sawing and often stratospheric vocal lines, but there is little sense of engagement with the idiom. So far as one can tell they sing the notes accurately and with strength, but there are a couple of unexpected solo lines protruding from the chorus which suggest wrong entries on the part of individual singers.
My first reaction to this issue was that the title of the work was ‘Mad Curie’, the all-important syllable ‘ame’ which concludes the first word being consigned to a darker type. The idiom of the music is alas all too often reminiscent of the ‘mad’ style of Penderecki’s Devils of Loudon though never quite as extreme in its vocal demands. Although Curie may have had an unconventional life she was never deranged in the sense that the music consistently conveys. There are electronic ‘fragments’ composed by Sikora in collaboration with Diego Losa, but what might have been a genuinely dramatic device is all too often simply subsumed into the avant-garde effects of the orchestral writing. Under the circumstances it is simply very difficult to become involved in this work.
One is grateful for the opportunity to hear an opera that it seems is unlikely to receive any further productions - there appear to have been none since this initial run - but one wishes that the presentation could have been more informative. As it is, this DVD is best regarded as an archival record of a piece that is ‘worthy’ but ultimately unrewarding. Apart from the lack of booklet information, it is well presented with both DVD and booklet enclosed in a sturdy slipcase. The subtitles generally help with understanding the text, if not its context. Although even here a greater care for detail might have been welcome. At one point Curie in a clearly Biblical allusion sings of the “bitterness of wormwood” which the over-enthusiastic user of an English dictionary translates as the “taste of absinthe” - which is certainly not Biblical at all.
Paul Corfield Godfrey