Opera reviews usually carry no spoiler warnings. On the contrary, they usually begin with an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting blow-by-blow account of every contrived detail. So let this be no exception. Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki could be just another nineteenth century classical rewrite, just another femme fatale tear-jerker, but it is much more than that.
Psyche dreams of being swept off her feet by love. We feel that these Arcadian maidens occupying a green room to make up for a performance are almost imprisoned so that they might beautify themselves. Psyche is enamoured of, perhaps obsessed with a man, who has taken to visit her nightly. She reveals to a friend she has been seeing someone. Eros reappears and offers eternal love, but only on his terms. Somehow he has managed to conceal his identity, if not his intentions, until Blaks, the caretaker, inadvertently casts light on Eros’s face and then all hell is let loose. Eros condemns Psyche to suffer an eternal life of constant wandering and disappointment, a life in which Blaks will regularly reappear to deny her any fulfilment. It’s a judgment delivered by Perseus, who announces exile and eternal wandering as he hands over a passport and tickets for both Psyche and Blaks. As Psyche embarks upon her fate, we realise we must not blame the messenger.
Her first subsequent port of call is a party – perhaps a drunken orgy – in ancient Rome, a Rome that is of course not ancient for her. A couple of Greeks at the gathering lament what Romans have done to their culture, a culture inherited from their own people, including Psyche. She appears, but she is obviously out of place, of a different culture and time, and she is mocked by everyone, especially by the women, who ridicule her appearance. They label her mad and Blaks, who here is a Prefect, apparently in charge, delivers condemnation.
We move on to Spain during the Inquisition. Psyche embraces Christ crucified on the cross. There is sexuality in her obsession with the figure. She enters a convent, but still yearns for a life outside the convent. The other nuns do not trust her. She tells of her need for the sun and fresh air, but she is warned not to have ambition. She must do as she is told, because asking questions is sinful, here. There is to be a visit by the abbot, a man who recently condemned a nun to be burned at the stake. Psyche is thus warned. Her attitudes are described to the abbot, who condemns her. Blaks, of course, is the abbot, who wields power more easily than he exhibits faith. Eros appears, we think to save her, but all he offers is a facile song.
Our heroine’s next port of call is revolutionary France. She works while men drink. We learn that it was Psyche who led the storming of the Bastille in the name of freedom. She rejects an offer of marriage because she would rather serve the people. She wants to lead the commune into battle. She is too radical to be a revolutionary. She insists on principle and finds herself on the wrong side of politics. Guess who might be the pragmatic leader who condemns her beliefs.
A final scene is in a bar or nightclub, where psyche dances to entertain the drinkers, who are all men. Blaks, here called the Baron, is the owner of the club and the principal 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 laments her role, but the baron says it’s all her own fault. She laughs at offers of love, saying she wants to be independent. But, having achieved her liberation she finds she can’t cope with it.
Eros appears, perhaps to save the day. Psyche is still infatuated, but now also exhausted. Eros reveals he has an alter ego by the name of Thanatos, the personification of death, and thus Psyche learns she is doomed. Her response is to torch what remains of her life, a life that has now rejected her. Eros-Thanatos has the last word, however, by presenting Psyche with a sports car which has already crashed. He invites her to sit at the wheel and then paints her with her own blood to show the end has finally arrived.
Eros and Psyche was premiered in 1917 and Rozycki’s style is not unlike that of Symanowski, but there is also Richard Strauss in there, alongside not a little Debussy. Many of the short phrases are also reminiscent of Janacek, though usually without the bite. Given the opera’s date, we would expect Psyche, though still femme fatale, to be at least a little forward looking. She is certainly not a Violetta or Mimi, in that she is no mere victim of bad luck, disease or circumstance. She is closer to a Butterfly, but she does not accept her fate meekly and without protest. In classical terms, we may have here a Salome or Elektra, but these were anti-heroines who probably deserved what they got. Tosca got mixed up in politics that went wrong. One has the feeling that Psyche would have relished the opportunity, but it never arose.
Three other theatrically destroyed women of the era come to mind, Judith, Katya and Elena. Judith’s plight in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle parallels Psyche’s here. Judith can only know Bluebeard by probing the psychological spaces of his mind. He resents this, but allows her to continue, knowing that once she knows him, he will have taken possession of her. Similarly, Psyche is punished because she gets to know Eros, thereby reducing his control over her, a control he must reassert by condemning her. The Bartok-Balasz character, however, is more modern than Psyche, despite the existence of castles and visions. It is only when Judith understands the mental make-up of Bluebeard that he has to punish her, because only then that she becomes 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 nineteenth century by virtue of originally having been a creation of Ostrovsky, but her achievement of a finality of death does ask some modern questions. Ostrovsky’s nineteenth century provincial dramas general do away with their heroines, but it is the societies rather than the individuals that are seen at fault. When oppression and hypocrisy are cultural and structural, it is hard 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 the doing of justice and not to shed tears for a woman who brought her fate on herself. The music, in fact, ends with neither tragedy nor 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 at claims to have done so, in many eras, has inhabited many roles and has had a string different lives. Her original fate, however, like Psyche’s, was imposed on her by a man, in Elena’s case her father. Like Psyche, Elena has become cynical about men’s motives and dismissive of their capabilities. Crucially, however, when Elena is offered the opportunity to take back control of her eternal existence, she rejects it, preferring death to repeating the same old things. Psyche was never offered control and its attainment was never in her grasp. But Psyche thinks she achieved a liberation from oppression at the end, though she was unable to cope with it. This makes her a more modern figure.
So, for a modern audience, Psyche cannot be merely a classical beauty who crosses a god. And in the production by Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, she isn’t. Each of the scenarios is transformed into a film set. Scene one is a giant green room, populated by women who clearly want to be stars. Whether Eros operated a casting couch is unclear, but the probability is high. From scene one’s green room, Psyche is cast her role in each of the other four scenes, each of which is destined to be part of a feature film in which she stars. When Blaks repeatedly frustrates her activities and condemns her, the two of them become near stereotypes for femme fatale and callous male power. If we ask if it has to be this way, we have to answer that it was a male god in the first instance that insisted it should be so.
By the end, Psyche has had enough and she torches the world that has exploited her. It ought to be a final act of self-destructive defiance but the god and men even then reassert their control. A car crash is organised and she is painted with blood. The car itself part of the trappings of the stardom she has sought, and thus Psyche potentially becomes a tabloid press headline, probably moralising about a life of debauchery or excess. Psyche thus becomes a modern victim. She is a Marilyn Monroe ruined by fame, or perhaps a Jayne Mansfield, epitome of womanhood exploited for male voyeurs.
Thanks to the internet and Opera Vision we can all view this production from Warsaw and thereby draw our own conclusions. Streamed via a smart TV or perhaps better in the case of Opera Vision via a laptop and cable, the opera even comes with subtitles for anyone who might not catch all of the original Polish. Joanna Freszel as Psyche gives a stunning performance, being vocally up the task as well as combining the confidence, ambition and assertion of a modern woman alongside the naivete and vulnerability of anyone who might fall in love. Mikolaj Zalasinski as Blaks is brilliant at using his power whilst never really appearing to be worthy of its extent, which is exactly what the character of Psyche must be thinking. He also makes the role anti-intellectual, thus stressing the contrast between the use of power and any knowledge of its consequences.
The great power of the opera, besides its visually stunning use of multimedia, is its ability to reinterpret itself. Here Warsaw opera blends action, words and music with a little film, perhaps the very film being made on stage as we watch. It is a fable that becomes real, and convincingly so. It is thought-provoking and ironic at the same time and a brilliant example of the creative vision of its production team, especially director Barbara Wysocka. And the music, by the way, is stunningly colourful.
Opera tends to be dominated by a repetition of a rather narrow repertoire. Audiences often seem more interested in asserting their social class via their theatre attendance rather than understanding the challenges of making sense of a work, especially if that sense is at all modern. Audiences tend to like what they know rather than know what they like. But, when it works – and this production of Polish National Opera certainly does – opera blends theatre and music with visual art in a way no other experience can achieve. As a genre, it is populated by a large number of long-forgotten and hardly performed works, almost all of which can be reinterpreted by committed performers to speak to our own age, mirror it and also challenge it. Rozycki’s Eros and Psyche is a superb example of the possibilities, especially as realised in this Warsaw production. Via Opera Vision it is available to everyone. Try not to miss it and then see what you think