Martha Jungwirth, Ohne Titel, 1998
Aquarell auf handgeschöpftem Papier, 35 x 24,5 cm
Foto: © Dorotheum Wien
© Martha Jungwirth/Bildrecht, Wien 2023

‘The world will be saved by beauty.’

What mystery does this man bear? What intimate knowledge of the world gives him access to the truth of those he meets? The secrets that each of us harbour, the secrets that none of us dare expose, this man, this prince, this ‘idiot’ knows them all. His aura attracts as much as it frightens. We seek his gaze as much as we fear his presence. An encounter with him leaves a lasting mark. The ‘idiot’ possesses a destabilizing power that society – with its brutality, its vulgarity, its compromises, its dark passions – cannot countenance. The ‘idiot’ represents the inversion of common values. One value, more than any other, stands out: compassion. When faced with he who shows compassion for me, for you, for us, our defences crumble. Compassion exposes the soul. It disarms.

We live in a world where, since 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been working to crush the people and culture of Ukraine, in a world where, since 7 October 2023, the monstrous violence of Islamists followed by the retaliation by the Israeli state have caused pain the likes of which we have not seen for decades. Hatred is spreading, humanity is being scorned. Buried beneath the din of war, the voice of compassion is not being heard. So when a real person or, as in this case, a fictional character sets tenderness and pity against the abysses of the human soul – by his words or attitudes, by the truth he speaks, free of all calculation and all lies – we are frightened by the scandal of a love that knows no bounds. Prince Myshkin is the name of this scandalous caress of light. A caress that transcends all moral judgement. Unconditional love is a vertigo for which we are never prepared.

In the mid-1980s, the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg turned Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s gripping novel The Idiot (1869) into his seventh and last opera, his other great work for the stage alongside Die Passagierin. Although Weinberg’s The Idiot long went unrecognized, its importance in the history of opera in the second half of the 20th century is now indisputable. It is to the conductor Thomas Sanderling, who was a close friend of the composer, that we owe the first performance of the work in its entirety, a performance that took place in Mannheim in 2013, 17 years after the composer’s death. Like the violinist Gidon Kremer, Sanderling has tirelessly sought in recent years to bring Weinberg’s works – whose beauty is now fully appreciated – to as wide an audience as possible.

Dmitry Shostakovich played a considerable role in Weinberg’s life. He supported the young Polish-Jewish composer, who had fled Warsaw to escape the German army – first reaching Minsk, before fleeing to Tashkent and finally settling in Moscow in 1943 – and defended Weinberg’s works to his last breath in the face of Soviet authorities who tried to downplay the importance of his music. It was to Shostakovich’s memory that Weinberg dedicated The Idiot.

The new Salzburg production of the opera is conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who for many years has also been passionate about this extraordinary composer. Following Henze’s The Bassarids, Strauss’s Elektra and Verdi’s Macbeth, the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski returns to the Festival to offer his vision of Weinberg’s little-known masterpiece.

Dostoyevsky’s work is a source of ambivalence for virtually all Polish artists and intellectuals. Although Warlikowski is well aware of the novel’s exceptional depth, he is equally aware of Dostoyevsky’s attitude towards Russian-occupied Poland in the years when he was writing The Idiot: his unconditional faith in the greatness of the Russian people and his firm belief that only the Russian Empire could save Europe from degeneration. Dostoyevsky’s idea of Russia resonates uncannily with our times. It is, however, through Weinberg’s personal vision, through the richness, tension and clever construction of this opera, that Warlikowski comes close to the crepuscular and violent Rogozhin, the passionate and unhappy beauty Nastasya Filippovna, the sacrificed young lover Aglaya, and of course the unfathomable mystery that is Prince Myshkin.

Christian Longchamp
Translation from the French: Patrick Lennon

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12. June 2024
A word with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
12. December 2023
The Idiot | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Krzysztof Warlikowski
12. December 2023
The Idiot | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
21. January 2024
The Idiot – Programme presentation Markus Hinterhäuser
A word with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
The Idiot | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Krzysztof Warlikowski
The Idiot | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
The Idiot – Programme presentation Markus Hinterhäuser

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