THE simmering, seething row about anti-semitism in the Labour party and the recent Novichok poisonings in Salisbury added to the intensity of PUSH, Howard Moody’s opera based on the true story of a Belgian Jew, Simon Gronowski, whose mother pushed him off a train to Auschwitz and thus saved his life.
Anti-Jewish feelings and Cold War-style assassination attempts are nasty reminders of the darkness that lurks beneath the surface – PUSH, despite its sombre setting, is a fiercely passionate celebration of life.
It is a story of courage amid utter confusion and fear, of survival against the odds, of the triumph of the human spirit and the hopefulness of forgiveness. The fact that Mr Gronowski, now in his mid-80s, was in the audience added to the emotional impact of the performances.
When he spoke at the end it was with that spirit of hope and love, of loss – for his mother and sister who died in Auschwitz, his father who died of a broken heart, and all who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps – but also with a gratitude that was humbling. His verdict on his life is “Ma vie n’est que miracles” – My life is only miracles.
The work was performed by Salisbury Festival Chorus, La Folia ensemble and three outstanding soloists, in the beautiful setting of St Thomas Church, under the famous Doom painting, with sunlight pouring through the great west window.
Howard Moody, Salisbury’s own musical polymath – composer, conductor, choral director, harpsichordist, pianist, organist – met Simon Gronowski at the Brussels theatre, La Monnaie, in 2014, after a performance of Howard’s opera, Sindbad – A Journey through Living Flames. The old man told his story, saying “Ma vie n’est que miracles.”
Howard recalls: “I promised him that I would write my next opera about his story.” PUSH had its premiere in 2016, at the Battle Festival, marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The composer’s researches and influences included not only Simon’s story, but the Norman conqueror’s savage reign of terror against the Anglo Saxons, but also the experiences of asylum seekers at the “jungle” camp at Calais and Syrian refugees.
While it tells an individual story, PUSH is also an epic of the human experience. Director Simon Iorio says: “This production seeks to explore the repeated, all too familiar mistakes of mankind … Through Simon’s eyes we gradually see him coming to terms with the past, allowing him to move towards a place of forgiveness.”
The production was incredibly involving – wherever you were sitting in the crowded church, the chorus of frightened people, herded together, beaten and shouted at by brutal guards, moved around, drawing you into the action, the fear and the emotion. There were very few dry eyes.
The music, beautifully orchestrated and well played by the ensemble, was by turns haunting, harsh, driven, even claustrophobic. Every word of the choruses and the soloists could be clearly heard, and the complete commitment of every performer, from the youngest child to the oldest chorus member, was compelling.
It was not only the committed singing and acting, the movement was consistently excellent. The isolation of Simon, the “lucky one” – as a fortune-teller had told his mother – surrounded by the milling mass of frightened people, the children who have no idea what awaits them, the ordinary people of Brussesls who are collaborators.
Rising stars baritone James Newby as Simon and Tereza Gevorgyan as his sister drew us into their harrowing experiences, while bass Matthew Still as the leader of the guards was terrifying, but also pathetic. You want to hate him, but you feel his pain. A hard act to pull off, achieved by a terrific performance, powerful words and profoundly moving music.
PUSH was part of LiftOff!, a weekend of mainly free music, comedy, street theatre and fun, to celebrate Wiltshire Creative, the new pan-arts organisation which incorporates Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury Arts Centre and Salisbury International Arts Festival.
Pictured: Salisbury Festival Chorus rehearsing for PUSH; photograph by Adrian Harris