SIKORA : Madame Curie
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SIKORA: Madame Curie

spacer Mikołajczyk; Skałuba, Rak, Skrla; The Choir and Orchestra of the Baltic Opera, Michniewski. Production: M. Weiss. DUX 9884, 95 minutes, subtitled.

MadameCurieDVD

Aside from Szymanowski’s Król Roger and Penderecki’s operas, the works of Polish composers are rarely heard in houses outside of their homeland. Elżbieta Sikora's Madame Curie, which had its premiere in 2011 at Baltic Opera in Gdańsk, can be seen as a double success for Polish nationalism; in addition to reclaiming Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867–1934) as a Polish heroine, Sikora has produced a Polish-language work that rivals the great contemporary operas of Western Europe and the U.S.

Setting a libretto by the poet and novelist Agata Miklaszewska, Madame Curie highlights several key events in the scientist’s career and personal life — Curie’s joint discovery of radium with her husband, Pierre (1859–1906), in 1898; her two Nobel Prizes, in 1903 and 1911; her 1921 American tour; and her death by radiation poisoning in 1935. The opera’s single, hour-and-a-half act at times feels like a whirlwind, with Miklaszewska attempting to cram in as many biographical snapshots as possible. (World War I lasts for only a few minutes, as a militaristic video montage plays above the stage.)

Yet the work is held together by the powerful presence of soprano Anna Mikołajczyk’s Curie. With disheveled hair and a frumpy, uranium-stained overcoat, Mikołajczyk portrays the scientist as exhausted by laborious research but unbending to prejudice. In the opera’s opening dream sequence, Curie’s friend and colleague, Albert Einstein, warns her of her work’s repercussions: “Women and alchemy — an explosive mixture.” The statement becomes the central theme of the opera as Curie battles fin-de-siècle bourgeois sexism. Her second Nobel Prize is overshadowed by her scandalous affair with a married man, the physicist Paul Langevin, a former student of her late husband. The gray-faced chorus, continuously gossiping and chattering about the “woman scientist,” even engages in some literal stone-throwing.

Sikora’s score is filled with anxiety — high, unyielding crescendos reach fortissimo climaxes that give way to frenzied percussion outbursts. The composer’s own electroacoustic fragments punctuate throughout, aurally depicting the unseen radiation emitted by the hot, blue-glowing radium. Considering Sikora’s Polish background, comparisons to Penderecki or late-Lutosławski are unavoidable. Yet her style is also highly reminiscent of Zimmermann and Reimann. German Expressionism seems to have been a source of inspiration as well: There is more than a hint of Erwartung as Curie clutches her dead husband (tenor Paweł Skałuba) and hallucinates a visitation from her namesake, the Virgin Mary. Mikołajczyk executes shout-like melismas with a high degree of lyricism. The role is a vocal tour-de-force, comparable to Salome or Elektra, but in Mikołajczyk’s hands, it comes across as effortless, commanding and even sensual.

Of the secondary roles, baritone Leszek Skrla’s highly convincing Einstein and baritone Tomasz Rak’s Langevin stand out. A fascinating addition is the figure of Loïe Fuller, an avant-garde dancer and lighting designer who was Curie’s close friend, portrayed by dancer Joanna Wesołowska. The director did the best he could with a tiny stage, most of which was taken up by the orchestra. But Madame Curie is deserving of a new production in a larger space — with Mikołajczyk, of course, reprising her role. spacer 

JOE CADAGIN

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