Creepy Bartok and Swinging Bernstein in Stockholm

SwedenSweden  Bartok, Bernstein: Soloists, orchestra of the Stockholm Royal Opera. Gregor Bühl (conductor). Stockholm Royal Opera. 4.2.2012 (Premiere) (GF)

Bartok : Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti

Direction, sets and costumes: Mathias Clason
Lighting design: Niklas Fischer
Choreography: Carl Olof Berg

Prologue: Birgit Carlstén (pre-recorded)
Bluebeard: Terje Stensvold
Judit: Paulina Pfeiffer

Sam: Ola Eliasson
Dinah: Susann Végh
Child (mute role): César Kylberg
Vocal Trio: Beatrice Orler, Klas Hedlund, Gunnar Lundberg
Dancers: Sophie Augot, Carl Inger, Carl Olof Berg, Nils Närman Svensson

Bartok’s only opera is problematic insofar as it is too short for a full evening and thus has to be coupled with another work of similar length. Last time Stockholm mounted Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, more than twenty years ago, it was juxtaposed with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, a contrasting couple no doubt but justified since the two works were composed roughly simultaneously. In the new production Bernstein’s one act opera Trouble in Tahiti was chosen as another husband-wife relation. The difference is that Bluebeard and Judit are at the beginning of their relation while Sam and Dinah have lived together for some time and their marriage has gone stale.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle Photos © Marcus Gårdner

Mathias Clason underlines the connection by playing both operas with the same basic sets: a large room with seven doors but apart from that the differences are great. Bluebeard, this frightening knight with roots in the dark Middle Ages, becomes even more frightening when his castle, showed on a screen in the beginning, seems to be a replica of Anthony Perkins’s house in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The story is also transported roughly to that period. The music in itself creates a creepy feeling and this is enhanced through evocative lighting. It is indeed a very beautiful production, but the horror is still omnipresent.

I have to admit that I have very vague memories of the previous production but I remember very clearly an even earlier performance of the work, a concert version in the Stockholm Concert Hall conducted by Antal Dorati and with his compatriots Eva Marton, at that time in riveting voice, and Kolos Kovats, rather recessed. There still was a decided tinge of authenticity about that performance, sung in the original Hungarian. At the Royal Opera it was sung in Swedish translation, which worked well – provided one understands Swedish. The Royal Opera still has surtitles only in Swedish, whereas all the other Nordic and Baltic National operas provide the texts in English as well as in the vernacular. Helsinki even has three languages: Finnish, Swedish and English!

Terje Stenswold, who was a marvellously strong and expressive Wotan in the Stockholm Ring some five years ago, excelled also as a dark, menacing Bluebeard. Paulina Pfeiffer, who sang Mimi at the Royal Opera last spring, was a touching, many-faceted Judit, singing with both warmth and steel in her voice. International readers may have seen and heard her on the telecast from the Nobel festivities in Stockholm last November. Together the two singing-actors and the mute dancers, impersonating Bluebeard’s former wives, made a vivid and horrifying drama of this bleak but captivating masterpiece.

Trouble in Tahiti Photos © Marcus Gårdner

After the interval the subdued atmosphere of the castle of horror was replaced by the bright Technicolor of the middle-class American dream couple in Trouble in Tahiti. Musically Bartok and Bernstein are worlds apart. The jazzy rhythms of the 1944 On the Town and West Indian atmosphere of West Side Story, which was still some years in the making,  blend with more operatic arias and the whole score is a concoct of everything that was Music USA half a century ago. There is even a glittering vocal trio popping in and out of the proceedings. Showbiz as usual! If that last remark may seem condescending I must immediately respond that this is the kind of professional mix that I definitely can’t resist – if it is professionally done. And it was professionally done – on all hands. For an opera orchestra this kind of music may not be second nature, but the Royal Orchestra played with such rhythmic abandon and hard-hitting intensity that even Count Basie’s Atomic Band might have felt envious. The vocal trio didn’t exactly challenge Lambert-Hendricks-Ross, more like Mills Brothers with a deputy soprano, but coached by Anders Jalkéus of The Real Group fame, they performed with elegance and charm that would make its mark on one of the night club shows in the Capital. Stirring choreography and loads of pinpoint humour and irony – and we shouldn’t overlook the serious elements: everyday family problems that are swept under the carpet and everybody plays his/her roles. Ola Eliasson and Susann Végh are well established members of the Royal Opera’s ensemble; here they got opportunities to shine in repertoire that is anything but run-of-the-mill – and they did it with bravura.

In a newspaper interview Birgitta Svendén, head of the Stockholm Opera, expressed a wish to broaden the repertoire and encompass also musicals. Bernstein labelled Trouble in Tahiti ‘opera’ but musically it often comes very close to ‘musical’ and when played, acted and sung so convincingly and with music and libretto that have substance I see no wrong in that. The Phantom of the Opera is a dream production for Birgitta and she has even tried to talk Benny Andersson into composing something for the Royal Opera. That would be something! This present production shows that the resources for a successful result are already in the house.

Let’s hope for Benny. While he is contemplating a suitably tasty dish for the old Royal Opera, why not grab the opportunity to savour Bela and Bernstein? You won’t regret it.


Göran Forsling