Anne FrankGrigory Frid - The Diary of Anne Frank

Opera Theatre Company, 2011 | Andrew Synnott, Annilese Miskimmon, Ingrid Craigie, Ani Maldijan | Waterfront Studio, Belfast - 20th October 2011

As the recent rediscovery of Weinberg’s The Passenger has shown at its long delayed premiere at Bregenz in 2010 and in the transfer of that highly acclaimed production to the English National Opera, in the hands of a good composer stories around the Holocaust can be dealt with in opera not only in a sensitive manner, but in a way that manages to get to the heart of a subject that is difficult to express through a more conventional dramatic format. As the title and consequently the source of Grigory Frid’s opera work suggests however, a rather different and more intimate approach is required for such an important and well-known work as The Diary of Anne Frank.

Composed in 1972 as a one-act mono-opera (to be sung by one person), there is thankfully no attempt by the Russian composer, now 96 years old, to extend the scope of the diary by dramatising scenes and introducing any of the family or peripheral characters that Anne Frank writes about. While this maintains an integrity and an intimacy to the nature of the diary-format, it provides other considerable challenges for the composer. Not only does Frid have to compress Anne’s thoughts and remarkable observations down into a work that is under an hour long while retaining the essence and importance of what she writes about, but the sheer enormity of expressing those thoughts and emotions through music, through a chamber orchestra of nine musicians moreover, must also surely have been a daunting prospect.

It’s to the credit of Grigory Frid – and also to the performers of the Opera Theatre Company’s 2010 production of The Diary of Anne Frank revived here for the 2011 Belfast Arts Festival – that the qualities of Anne Frank’s writing and its impact is perfectly accompanied by the music in a manner that is wholly appropriate. There’s a difficult balance to maintain however in accompanying the libretto (taken directly from Anne’s diary and not rewritten) with theatre music that matches the tone and the tempo of the writing, but which is also expressive in its own right without over-emphasising the words and without imposing any false sentimentality, which would be so easy to do. The piano led-score with the chamber orchestration however is surprisingly varied and inventive, slightly avant-garde in places, jazzy in others, plaintive and reflective when necessary, yet always seeming to be perfectly pitched towards the content, the emotions and the underlying implications about the Holocaust that aren’t directly expressed in the libretto.

It’s difficult also to approach a staging of such a work with only one singer, but the production design by Nicky Shaw and the simple but remarkably effective lighting design by Tina MacHugh were equally as impressive here, the staging as imaginative and inventive and as complementary to the opera work as anything I’ve seen on a grander scale. With only a single piece of background, the stage was nevertheless transformed by its opening up, like a book or diary flipped open by the singer herself, the “pages” containing windows and relief designs that evoked the enclosed world of Anne Frank. Other props were drawn from under floorboards, again giving the impression of hiding and secrecy, of being pop-ups from a book, as well as being imagery drawn from Anne’s own personal world. The simple profile outline of a child, reflected in light and shadow during Anne’s dream of her friend Liess, perhaps the best example of enormous effectiveness through such simple means.

That applies to the score, it applies to the staging, but it also applies to the singing. A perfectly pitched performance from Ani Maldijan took into consideration the nature of the subject of the libretto as well the fact that it is being delivered by a young girl and she sang it simply, heart-felt yet unadorned, allowing the strength of the words – drawn directly from Anne Frank’s writing – to speak for themselves without any inappropriate or unnecessary over-emphatic mannerisms. A beautiful and powerful little work, the Opera Theatre Company’s impressive staging and performance of The Diary of Anne Frank was not only considerate of the nature of the work and its source, but like Frid’s composition itself, it helps keep the meaning of Anne Frank’s diary relevant and alive, reaching out to more and more people. Long may it continue to run.