Arts: Theatre - Disappearance on the high Cs

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"DIARY OF One Who Vanished: Escape from the song-cycle?" So reads the heading for an article in the programme book of Royal National Theatre/English National Opera's co-production of Janacek's masterwork. The writer is the singer and re-embodiment of the composer, Ian Bostridge. And all three of them should know.

But do we really need to "escape" from the song-cycle, especially one as personal, as private, as autobiographical as Janacek's? The composer saw himself in the strange story of the industrious youth who vanished from everything he held dear - home, friends, family - for love. His diary held the secrets - his hopes, his fears, his highs, lows, regrets, joys. His poems became Janacek's songs, and their narrative, his and our emotional journey. But these are innermost feelings that almost dare not be expressed. To what extent should we be externalising them? Is their intimacy not best served by simply singing them?

Yes and no. Because Diary of One Who Vanished is part song-cycle, part opera. There is more than one character; there is a chorus (albeit of three offstage female voices). There is a sense in which Janacek's songs constitute a series of scenes, each contributing to the narrative drive. They demand a degree of "performance", and Deborah Warner, the director, plays an interesting game - much as she did with Eliot's The Waste Land. She blurs the boundaries between formal and theatrical presentation.

The stage is empty. Not in use. Black drapes are tied up, music stands stand idle. But in the centre of this uncluttered, disused space is a grand piano. All the trappings of a play and/or recital are in place, but is this the time or the place for either? Will actors really appear, will anyone bring music and sing at those music stands?

And then you notice him: the human form writhing beneath the piano. And you connect his presence to a strange projection caught almost arbitrarily on the backdrop: a young man apparently not waving but drowning, his upturned body sinking deeper and yet deeper. But suddenly the illusion is revealed for what it is: his reflection caught in the shiny lid of the piano. Enter the pianist through a door at the rear of the stage. The recital is already a theatre-piece.

And so the "diary" is played out in Seamus Heaney's faithful, unobtrusive and rhythmically alert translation (Janacek's fractured speech-rhythms are notoriously difficult to catch in any other language but Czech), day giving way to night and night to day in simple light changes and rudimentary shifts of backdrop, black to white and back again. Physically, less is usually more here, and more is invariably too busy. The best and most affecting gestures are the simplest: the blindfolds which both cover our lovers' nakedness (metaphorically speaking) and blot out their reality. Love is blind. The shock when the omnipresent figure of the Gypsy (Ruby Philogene) actually sings. The extraordinary moment towards the close when, having vanished - quite literally - the young man returns, with the music this time, and makes his heartfelt farewells to family and friends from the piano. Stunningly, the formality of the recital platform is restored at the most impassioned and liberating moment in the score. The final song, the moment of departure.

A pity, then, that Ian Bostridge - truthful and achingly fresh-voiced throughout this haunting journey (his awkwardness on stage is well-harnessed by Warner) - could not summon the wherewithall to make Janacek's two climactic high Cs really tell. The sense of release and ecstasy and heart-rending emotion conveyed in those two notes alone is quite extraordinary. But they really weren't there. It was left to the sensational pianist, Julius Drake, to tear the soul from the piece with Janacek's tumultuous coda.

Drake and Bostridge made much of the transient nature of the score, exchanging ideas like coded, half-expressed secrets, finding and nurturing those disarmingly simple but ravishing melodic kernels. But it's in the strange, distracted keyboard writing that Janacek's true nature is expressed, and Drake was wonderfully alive to every inexplicable nuance, impulsive one second, reflective the very next, antagonistic and giving at one and the same time. Blown-away leaves of music. Like the pages of the diary.

Final performance tonight at 8pm, 0171-452 3000