Poetry from Prison: Teodor Currentzis Conducts “Tristia”

Teodor Currentzis and musicAeterna (©Alexandra Muraviova)

Varlam Shalamov had to spend almost two decades in the Soviet Gulag. His fellow poet Ossip Mandelstam was likewise imprisoned and, like so many others, did not survive the inhuman camp system. Both described their experiences in vivid detail: their despair and loneliness, glimmers of hope and the sense of powerlessness. The French composer Philippe Hersant has set to music these texts, as well as poems by prisoners today, in his cycle Tristia. This unusual choral opera was commissioned by Teodor Currentzis, who will conducted it on 2 April at LUCERNE FESTIVAL.

Tristia began as a short vocal cycle for the “Ombres et Lumières” Festival in Clairvaux, when Philippe Hersant set to music 13 poems that inmates of the prison there had written as part of a workshop. Teodor Currentzis heard the cycle and asked Hersant to expand it into a full-length work. He suggested juxtaposing the French poems in a dialogue with texts by Soviet political prisoners. Perm, where Currentzis was active as music director of the opera house until 2019 and where Tristia was premiered four years ago, has the only museum in Russia that commemorates the atrocities of the Soviet gulag system.

Tristia thus contains not only poems by Clairvaux prisoners like Dumè (the Corsican nickname for Dominik), who sings of a small bird as an image of freedom, and Takezo, who took his nom de plume from a 17th-century samurai and who distills everyday prison life into concise haikus, but also texts by well-known poets like Ossip Mandelstam, Varlam Schalamov, and others. “I personally met with the prisoners of Clairvaux, whose poems formed the basis of the musical pieces,” Hersant explains. “I knew they were all criminal offenders, but when my initial concerns disappeared (it seems to me, no one wants to be behind bars out of choice), I realized that these meetings gave me much more than I had expected. The meetings were very informative, and they helped me to ask myself questions that had never occurred to me before.”

“The difficulty was to determine the logic of the poems’ presentation. Despite the differences, the French and the Russian sections are united. They are linked to each other on a subtle level, they are united by the common musical themes. […] This is one of the most beautiful projects in which I have had the good fortune to participate in. I am delighted that we have managed to make a single whole out of the words of the Clairvaux prisoners and the Russian prisoners, and this common voice will be heard by all sorts of people. I think that for all of these men and women poetry became the saving force, the mysterious power keeping them from extinction.”

Because he wanted to preserve the “intimate character” of the original vocal cycle in Tristia, Hersant refrained from using a large orchestra. Instead, he uses a small but distinctive instrumental ensemble to accompany the choir, which appears in a wide variety of formations, including some solo parts for the singers. The cello and bassoon are given roles, like musical actors. A harmonica, accordion, and Armenian duduk are also used. The result is a work that is as touching as it is original: a loose sequence of scenes in six “circles of hell” (Hersant pointedly alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy) confronts the loneliness and grief of the prisoners, but also shows their moments of hope, spiritual illumination, and longing for freedom. Musically, Hersant combines vastly varied influences ranging from classical to folk, from the old to the innovative.

Malte Lohmann | Editor LUCERNE FESTIVAL

Thursday, 2 April 2020
19.30 | KKL Luzern, Concert Hall

musicAeterna (Vitaly Polonsky chorus master)
Teodor Currentzis conductor
Mikhail Meylach reciter

Philippe Hersant (*1948)
Tristia. Choral opera for mixed chorus and instrumental ensemble

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