The Diary of One Who Disappeared Review: Beautiful, Creepy and Darkly Staged by Ivo van Hove

There’s beauty in the suffering that comes from longing. That message comes through clearly in “Diary of One Who Disappeared.” Everything else is elliptical in the production of this hundred-year-old song cycle that has been expanded and staged by Ivo van Hove. Its three-day run at BAM ends tonight.

Now, there IS a story here – several stories, actually….layers of stories, both fascinating and creepy.
First there were a series of anonymous poems published in
1916 in a Czech newspaper, entitled “From a Pen of the Self-taught Writer,”
which told the story of a farm boy who fell in love with a Romany girl (a “black Gypsy woman”) named Zefka and left his village to follow her.

Then the Czech composer Leoš Janáček
used those poems as the basis for a song cycle, which he finished in 1920. The composition for piano and five singers is
in 22 parts, and usually takes about 40 minutes to perform.
Janáček was fueled by his own infatuation with a married mother 37 years his junior to whom he wrote 700 love letters over a period of 11 years. (She wrote 49 polite letters back.) He told this woman, Kamila Stösslová, that he modeled his Zefka on her.
Van Hove, working with Flemish opera company Muziektheater Transparant, has incorporated the story of Janáček’s obsession into the cycle, adding actor Wim van der Grijn to recite some lines from Janáček’s letters. The director also expanded the role of Zefka, hiring composer Annelies Van Parys to write songs for Zefka so it wasn’t all from the male perspective; the lyrics mezzo soprano Marie Hamard as Zefka sings (along with the off-stage chorus Raphaële Green, Annelies Van Gramberen and Naomi Beeldens) are inspired by female Romany poetry. Van Hove turned the farm boy into a photographer (tenor Andrew Dickinson), and made van der Grijn play the photographer as an old man looking back at (and sometimes communicating with) his younger self.
I pieced all this together by reading dramaturg Krystian Lada’s essay in the program and some interviews with van Hove. I also talked to a member of the company after the performance. I did not figure it all out simply by watching the show. That would have taken a theatergoer far smarter and more attentive than I – or somebody who’s Czech and/or knows the song cycle already. (And even those who know the songs won’t necessarily understand the meaning behind some of van Hove’s various additions.) The poetic lyrics (in Czech with English surtitles) didn’t offer many clues. Even the spoken dialogue didn’t help much.

If the story is unclear, there is undeniable beauty in the music of ”The Diary of One Who Disappeared,” and van Hove offers his trademark theatrical moments of eerie allure throughout the now hour-long piece. At the beginning, after a long period of complete silence,a voiceover commands a woman (Lada Valesova) to go to the piano and pluck out keys as he calls out note by note, as if he’s giving her a piano lesson. Then he calls out the notes rapidly (“a g f f e e”), and she plays…wonderfully. She is the pianist accompanying the singers. At the end, the old man reads from letters and his last will; these are addressed to the character Zefka but seem to be excerpts from what the composer wrote to Kamila Stösslová. (He tells her he imagines her as “A mother who is bending over her child – our child./A mother who is feeding this child with her blood./Then, and only then, I could call you mine. “)
After he reads each page, he sets it on fire. Earlier the old man seemed to be running his hands over a naked woman’s breasts, but this was an illusion caused by a projection of the woman onto his shirt.
As I said, beautiful and creepy.
The production photographs below suggest that the show offers a continuous series of stimulating visuals. This is a tad misleading. Yes, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld gets our attention at times, bathing the photographer’s apartment suddenly all in red, to suggest a photographer’s darkroom, or in the dappled sunlight of a forest. And yes, Hamard’s sudden appearance in that red dress is striking, and her encounters with Dickinson occasionally arresting. But the truth is that for much of the time, the set is lit only by a small  table lamp and a fluorescent office light, such faint illumination that it’s hard to make out anything but outlines. It’s not just metaphorically that van Hove’s production of “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” keeps us in the dark.

Click on any photograph by Richard Termine to see it enlarged.

“Diary of One Who Disappeared”
Muziektheater Transparant
By Leoš Janáček
Directed by Ivo van Hove

Dramaturgy by Krystian LadaSet and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld. Music composed by Leoš Janáček / Annelies Van Parys. Costume design by An D’HuysCo-produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Klarafestival, De Munt/La Monnaie, Kaaitheater, Les Théâtr
Wim van der Grijn, Actor; Andrew Dickinson, Tenor; Marie Hamard, Mezzo soprano; Lada Valešová, Piano and Choir: Trio Raphaële Green, Annelies Van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply