Denmark Bo Holten, Livlægens besøg (The Visit of the Royal Physician): Bo Holten (conductor), The Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen, 2.12.2011 (NS)
The Royal Danish Orchestra and Chorus
Dancers from the Pantomime Theatre
Director: Peter Oskarson
Set and costumes: Peter Holm
Lighting: Per Sundi
Performance dramaturgy: Jan Mark
Movement director: Kajsa Giertz
Johann Friedrich Struensee: Johan Reuter
King Christian VII: Gert Henning-Jensen
Queen Caroline Mathilde: Elisabeth Jansson
Ove Høegh-Guldberg: Sten Byriel
Dowager Queen Juliane Marie: Anne Margrethe Dahl
Schack Carl Rantzau: Lars Waage
Støvlet-Cathrine: Djina Mai-Mai
Enevold Brandt: Bengt-Ola Morgny
King Frederik V: Mogens Gert Hansen
Tambourinaire: Poul Høxbro
An executioner: Per-Anders Hedlund
Louise von Plessen: Ulla Kudsk Jensen
A bishop: Hans Lawaetz
Three priests: Torben Demstrup, Stefan Cushion, Per-Anders Hedlund
Bernstorff: Simon Schelling
The President of the Council: Magnus Gislason
Courtier: Johan Hallsten
A lady-in-waiting: Trunte Aaboe
A judge: Stefan Cushion
Reverdil: Per Lundsgaar
Princess Louise Augusta: Clara la Cour Bødtcher-Jensen
Per Olov Enquist’s novel The Visit of the Royal Physician was an international hit, nowhere more so than in Denmark where it was the best-selling novel in 2000 and 2001. Danes have a natural interest in the story, as it covers an intriguing period in their history when a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, held the highest power in the kingdom and tried to reform a conservative and grossly unjust society according to the principles of the Enlightenment. But it is also a tale of great human interest: the mad king Christian VII is reduced to a pawn in other people’s power struggles but is a genuinely sympathetic character; the affair between his Queen and Struensee is also a remarkable and tragic love story.
Bo Holten’s operatic adaptation of the novel brings to mind Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III. Both are superb in portraying the mad kings as sympathetic characters and their “mad” courts as they struggle to deal with the breakdown of the usual power structure. Both are great works of drama. But Mr Holten’s opera is a much darker tale. In Mr Bennett’s play, the Prince of Wales and Fox are scheming villains but have the honour to admit defeat in the end. In contrast, the villains of the opera stop at nothing and achieve their cruel and bloody revenge.
The libretto, written by Mr Enquist and Eva Sommestad Holten, is of literary quality and displays Mr Enquist’s beautiful turn of phrase in spades. (Though the opera is sung in Danish, the surtitles are in English.) Bo Holten writes in the programme that he composed the vocal parts with the aim of allowing the audience to follow the text, and he has certainly succeeded in writing very singable music for the soloists. Though there is occasional dialogue, the opera is almost entirely sung – and sung beautifully. Mr Holten’s inspired music is very much at the service of the story; it flows with it and heightens the audiences’ emotions. His conducting brought this out very well.
The set, like the music, is understated but beautiful. The stage is largely uncluttered, helping to make scene changes seamless. The costumes of the main characters are sumptuous and historically accurate, but the dancers (who mainly act as soldiers) wear sinister black masks inspired by Pulcinella in the commedia dell’arte. Peter Oskarson’s direction was fluid and musical, always perfectly judged.
The tenor Gert Henning-Jensen was perfectly cast for the role of Christian VII. He captured the awkwardness of the King brilliantly, as a teenager who thinks he is playing a part in a play rather than living a life. Equally, the playfulness and energy that sometimes appear are very affecting. Mr Henning-Jensen’s light and musical tenor is ideal for this role, easily switching character from naïve to vulnerable.
Johan Reuter (Struensee) has a rich baritone and his singing could be very moving, for example in his main solo in the first act and in his final confrontation with Guldberg in Act 2. His acting was a little stiff in the early part of the opera but developed well, becoming especially expressive as his character began to lose control of the situation.
Elisabeth Jansson’s Caroline Mathilde was a treat, though she was held back somewhat by a cold. Her expressive mezzo was probably quieter than normal because of this, but her singing was nevertheless emotionally powerful. Her character’s transformation from a shy and modest English princess to a reckless lover with a capacity for decisive action was vividly portrayed. Ms Jansson was excellent through the whole opera, but if there was an acting highlight it was when she has the courage and presence of mind to face down and pacify rebellious sailors at a time when Struensee has given up hope. Sadly, her intervention only delays the dénouement, and by the end of the opera Struensee is executed, Caroline Mathilde is exiled and her daughter is torn from her arms.
The two villains of the story were also very well cast. Anne Margrethe Dahl’s Dowager Queen (Christian’s stepmother) raged powerfully against Struensee’s Enlightenment ideas and was a commanding stage presence. Sten Byriel was a sinister Guldberg, a character driven partly by his religious aversion to freethinkers like Struensee, who succeeds in toppling the physician and the Queen by casting away all scruples.
The supporting cast was generally strong, with Bengt-Ola Morgny standing out as a foppish and haughty Enevold Brandt. The Royal Danish Chorus was on excellent form and was particularly powerful at the end of Act 1 when Struensee unwisely shows Christian the cruelty of Danish life: a young serf is being tortured for running away from his estate and the crowd turns on Struensee and the King (who is incognito).
It is a great pleasure to experience a contemporary opera that marries drama and music so perfectly. The citizens of Copenhagen know they are on to a good thing – the opera house was nearly full and the applause enthusiastic – but this is only the second run of The Visit of the Royal Physician anywhere since its world premiere at the Royal Danish Opera in 2009, despite very favourable reviews in the Danish and Swedish press. (The DVD of the opera was praised in the English-language musical press.) I hope that more opera companies will take on this powerful, moving, and yet accessible work.