Janacek based his “Diary of One Who Disappeared,” a dramatic song cycle, on the familiar scenario of an upstanding young man lured away by a Gypsy temptress. But in the Gotham Chamber Opera’s provocative production there was nothing innocent about Janicku, the plowman protagonist, who raged around the small stage of the Morgan Library & Museum’s intimate Gilder Lehrman Hall in a bloodstained shirt, manhandling the Gypsies and chaining them to a wall.
The wall was the main feature of a simple, atmospheric set designed for “Scenes of Gypsy Life (A Cautionary Tale Featuring Music of Janacek and Dvorak),” a double bill conceived for the Morgan Library. Wednesday night’s production began with Dvorak’s “Gypsy Songs” (Op. 55) and flowed seamlessly into Janacek’s miniature opera for tenor, mezzo-soprano and a trio of female singers.
Janacek began writing “Diary” in 1917 at 63, soon after falling in love with Kamila Stosslova, a young, married, dark-haired beauty who inspired many of his later works. The turbulent, richly chromatic music (set to poems by an established writer masquerading as a young farmer who joins the Gypsies) illuminates quickly juxtaposed extremes of emotion, with more gentle music associated with Zefka, the Gypsy. Neal Goren, the artistic director, played the colorfully dramatic piano part with orchestral breadth.
As Zefka, the rich-toned mezzo Abigail Nims was more the sweetly playful, gentle flirt than Carmen-like vamp. In the program notes, the stage director Eric Einhorn asks whether perhaps Janicku “disastrously misinterprets her simple attempts at friendship.” However, given that Zefka titillates Janicku by describing how light her skin is where the sun doesn’t shine, she’s presumably looking for more than a pen pal.
Garrett Sorenson, a young tenor with a powerful voice, navigated the difficult high tenor part with riveting intensity, his longing for Zefka clashing with his guilt over abandoning his family and home. Each of the trio of Gypsies, sung very well by Leah Edwards, Amanda Crider and Hannah Penn, performed sections of the Dvorak while a silent Mr. Sorenson chained them up. The trio remained onstage for parts of “Diary” and also sang offstage, as Janacek specified.
The shackles (which rendered the Gypsies helpless victims instead of sultry predators) perhaps signified their possible innocence. Or that even though Janicku attains love (unlike the wanderers in Schubert and Mahler song cycles), the freedom to follow one’s destiny is never without sacrifice.