Symphony of Sorrowful Songs: a strong staging of a dark classic – and a sharp warning for the Arts Council

ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal
ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal

“History is watching you, Nick Serota and Darren Henley…”. Before the curtain went up on Thursday evening, departing chief executive of English National Opera, Stuart Murphy, gave a stark warning in a farewell blast to ENO’s funders in the Arts Council and the DCMS to safeguard the company for the future. One of the great ironies of the situation was that there, on the Coliseum stage, ENO was doing exactly what the Arts Council wanted them to do, in that much-contested term, “reimagining opera”: here, bringing one of the most distinctive concert works of contemporary music to the stage in a thought-provoking staging by Isabella Bywater.

The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by Polish composer Henryk Górecki, was written as his Third Symphony in 1976, its slow-moving score totally unlike the rebarbative pieces Górecki had written up to that point. I was first powerfully struck by it on the radio in New York back in 1980, in its original Polish recording; Górecki made a rare visit to London in 1989 for a remarkable weekend of his music, and out of that was born the atmospheric 1992 recording (certainly not the first, as ENO claimed, but the finest), with soprano Dawn Upshaw, which became an international hit.

With its religious impulse and bare, Holocaust-related texts, the Symphony was so much a product of the minimalist era (which also produced John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion) that I feared it might have lost its salience now. But as soon as the inexorable tread of the double basses began under the serenely secure conducting of Lidiya Yankovskaya, the music cast its spell.

From a slow-burn start where the infinitely resourceful soprano Nicole Chevalier drags herself across the floor to a waiting chair, the rise and fall of Górecki’s scrunchy, modal phrases is aptly mirrored in her scary ascent to the heights, anchored to the chair and then tumbling with grief into the grave that waited below.

A shaft of light falls across the grey-framed triangular stage (well-integrated lighting and video by Jon Driscoll and Roberto Vitalini), as the second of the three sections begins, this text the touching prayer to the mother of God from a girl imprisoned by the Gestapo in the town of Zakopane. (It was this luminous nine-minute segment that formed the basis of the symphony’s success, as it was both concise and suitable for radio play.) We are allowed to know that the girl eventually escaped and lived, so there is a tiny note of optimism.

ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal
ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal

At the beginning of the third part, the orchestra’s oscillating figures signal a disruption of the grey hanging walls by shadowy figures from war, anonymously masked (all costumes had been sourced second-hand from charity shops). They are eventually consigned under a white sheet, while in the evening’s one kitsch touch, the soprano sprouts golden wings as she ascends again.

Although slightly mistimed, this is an apt reflection of Górecki’s emotional swerve into the radiant major key at the end of the symphony. Uncertain hope triumphs, as we must trust it does for ENO.


Until May 6. Tickets: eno.org; 7845 9300