Swedish Opera Given Second Chance and Proves Its Worth

21/07/2014

 Unander-Scharin, Tokfursten (The Mad Prince) Soloists, Vattnäs Operakapell. Mattias Böhm (conductor). The Concert Barn, Vattnäs, Dalecarlia, Sweden. 10.7.2014 (premiere) (GF)

Cast:
Tokfursten (The Mad Prince) Fredrik Zetterström
God Mother                            Pers Anna Larsson
Napoleon                                 Anne Wik Larssen
God Father                              Mikael Axelsson
Hurtige Hugo (Hearty Hugo) Göran Eliasson
Tjyv-Elin (Thief-Elin)             Carolina Bengtsdotter Ljung
Flickan med Spindeln             Lisa Gustafsson
(The Girl with the Spider)
Anton Rallare (Anton the Navvy)      Peter Haeggström

Production:
Directed by Ulrik Qvale
Sets and costumes by Bente Rolandsdotter
Lighting design by Jimmy Svensson

Tokfursten (The Mad Prince) is based on an authentic case some decades ago, when a 17-year-old boy was taken to a mental hospital due to schizophrenia. He spent seven years interned in the hospital and sank deeper and deeper into his disease – until a new therapist with new insights and a lot of courage managed to guide him out from his enclosure and find his way back to a normal life. He later wrote his autobiography which attracted much attention. In the mid-90s Carl Unander-Scharin, singer and composer, was commissioned to write an opera based on the book by the Vadstena Academy, where it was premiered in 1996 and was a resounding success. When it is now revived in a new production 18 years later this is something of a sensation: a modern Swedish opera that gets a second outing! Moreover three of the leading characters are played by the same singers as at Vadstena: Anna Larsson, Göran Eliasson and Carolina Bengtsdotter Ljung. All three were at the very beginning of their careers then, today they are well established with important careers and Anna Larsson is arguably the foremost contralto worldwide.

The story is touching and frightening, a deeply penetrating psychological portrait of the disordered central character and his likewise disordered environment, where we often are uncertain who are patients and who are doctors. Some scenes are grotesque, some are mildly humoristic but all the time we are horrified by the inhuman attitude from the authorities, treatment that is not aimed at healing but keeping the patient down through medication, injections, electrical shocks. The lack of compassion is tangible, whether it be the boisterous Hearty Hugo or the cynical Napoleon. Unander-Scharin’s music underlines all this, from the whining sounds in the ‘overture’, mirroring, I believe, the torn soul of The Mad Prince, via violently chaotic scenes, filled with dissonances to the redeeming beauty of the finale, when God Mother’s compassion and humanity gradually unties the Prince’s inner knots and he slowly rises and starts climbing the ladder, up towards the light, the freedom. The intricate orchestral fabric gains in clarity by being performed by one instrument per part and there are numerous opportunities for the excellent instrumentalists to show their prowess in solo passages, not least the leader Anders Jacobsson’s unaccompanied solo violin at the opening of the second act. The percussion section, single-handedly operated by David Kangasniemi, contributes greatly to the colouring of the score and making comments to the action, most obviously so when Napoleon makes diagnoses of the Prince’s mental status and an invisible secretary writes them down on a typewriter (the action takes place several decades ago before the advent of the word processor).

The vocal parts are also demanding, in particular the title role, where Fredrik Zetterström sometimes is required to leap from the deepest bass register to the top of his falsetto – which he manages with impressive security. The role at large is utterly taxing, emotionally as well as technically, and the amount of music in combination with strenuous acting necessitates almost super-human stamina. In spite of the technical demands the vocal parts are often utterly singable, cantabile, and especially in the second act the music rises to serene beauty. This is music I would like to return to and fact is that there exists a complete recording with the original cast (Caprice CAP 22 046), which should still be available. Readers who haven’t had the opportunity to see Tokfursten live are recommended to search out that recording.

The cast at Vattnäs is uniformly excellent. I have already apostrophized Fredrik Zetterström and his all-embracing creation of the title role. Anna Larsson is a noble and warm God Mother and sings with unsurpassed beauty of tone. Anne Wik Larssen, whose Marguerite in Faust in Tallinn I praised a couple of years ago, has gained stage presence and made a stunning Napoleon, singing with radiant brilliance, and Carolina Bengtsdotter Ljung’s larger-than-life Thief-Elin steals the show whenever she is in focus. Göran Eliasson’s Hearty Hugo is a marvellous character study to set beside his superb Loge in the Dalhalla Rheingold a year ago (review). Mikael Axelsson’s God Father is another role impersonation worth mentioning.

The production is rather sparse – there isn’t much room for props on the diminutive stage – but debuting director Ulrik Qvale has with small means created a tight drama with well-drawn characters.

I must praise the Vattnäs team (Göran Eliasson is managing director and his wife Anna Larsson artistic director) for their brave choice of repertoire. 2012 and 2013 it was Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, this year Tokfursten and next year there will be a world premiere: Mats Larsson Gothe is working on an opera about one of the great historical opera singers. Something to look forward to!

Göran Forsling

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