On a wet February evening, I attend a cinematic event at London’s Soho Hotel. Countertenor, Jakub Jósef Orliński, fresh from his successes at the Royal Opera, is starring in a film of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater.
In the screening theatre, Orliński sits in the front row with an audience of journos, prs, record company execs behind him.
If you are thinking that all this razzamatazz is rare for classical music promotion, you’d probably be right. In the rock and pop industry, video shorts have of course been around for many years to promote artists and record companies.
But one of the positives to have come from covid and lockdowns, is the rise of the filmed opera. Thanks to film, opera houses have not only been able to keep their key singers gainfully employed, but in the public eye too. During the pandemic, opera enthusiasts were entertained with short operas online, often gratis. As the directors came up with more inventive productions, the singers became savvier in front of the camera. Most memorable was Grange Park Opera Surrey’s stab at Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave. Not only did I love Ross Ramgobin’s Owen, but also the innovative camera effects by director, Fintan O’Connor, who, inspired by the French surrealist films and photography, lifted Britten’s opera.
Back at the Soho Hotel evening, the Stabat Mater film is about to start. I am curious as to how Polish director, Sebastian Pańczyk, is going to dramatize Vivaldi’s superb religious work. The Stabat Mater, hymn to Jesus and his mother Mary, is the cornerstone of baroque repertoire for countertenors like Orliński. And here Orliński gets to perform solo in front of the camera.
The film opens onto a group of young people walking carefree through a Polish forest with Orliński among them. Their joy of being together is short-lived as, one by one, each beautiful youth is gunned down. Orliński is spared and watches the bodies being carted away by the murderer. A resistance scenario comes to mind, but we are not quite sure, as thereafter our hero wanders through different contemporary scenarios singing his grief, or his love for humanity. Along the way, he comes upon a young couple making love. The film surprises in its sexual content. Sebastian Pańezyk director clearly enjoys pushing the moral boundaries in the way film directors, Ken Russell or Roman Polanski might have done given the same brief.
Post screening, Orliński dismisses any straight interpretation of the film. Probed further by the journalist Charlotte Gardner compering this event, he explains that the ideas are not his, but that he supports the project wholeheartedly. He, the director, and producer agreed on a working title of “Journey of Empathy”.
Whatever you make of the film, the soundtrack is stunning and so are the locations filmed around Warsaw and Cracow. Orliński ‘s heart-stopping a capella number as he meets the man who butchered his friends is the most memorable scene.
“Who is this film aimed at?” asks Gardner.
Orliński and Anna Pietkin, the film’s producer, smile. The film was financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture. Clearly audience demographic was not uttermost in their minds and who can blame them.
After the film, I go to congratulate Orliński for his Stabat Mater, but also his recent performance in ROH’s Theodora.
Like the Stabat Mater film, ROH’s staged production of Handel’s oratorio has been radically reinterpreted. Feminist director Katie Mitchell uses themes of sexual exploitation and pole dancers to dramatize Theodora’s degrading treatment by her enemies. The stage direction is innovative, but without the stellar line of singers, including the warm-toned, Joyce Di Donato playing Irene, Theodora wouldn’t have captured our hearts.
I ask Orliński about the filmed evening of Theodora I attended: “Were you nervous in front of the camera on the Royal Opera Stage? (Theodora marked his debut at ROH).Orliński thinks. “No, not really.” Then adds, “But we had the mics down our backs. They were most uncomfortable in the heat!”.
I concur. Several people passed out in the audience that same evening.
Aged thirty-one, Orliński has come very far from the first days he sang his first Vivaldi Stabat Mater in church in Warsaw. During the interview with Gardner, he had talked of being “spiritual” but sadly there was no time for him to expand. There is no doubt that he has a true connection with the music he sings. You can see it in his emotional intensity on stage and on camera.
If you can catch him at Wigmore Hall on Sunday 1st May, you’ll be very lucky.
Jakub Jósef Orliński releases EP Vivaldi: Stabat mater on Warner Erato 18th March 2022 https://www.warnerclassics.com/artist/jakub-jozef-orlinski/releases
My review of Grange Park Opera Surrey’s film of Owen Wingrave https://artmuselondon.com/2020/12/10/owen-wingrave-a-family-at-war/