Superb Swedish Singers in Brand New Concert Hall

SwedenSweden  Anders Zorn Concert: soloists including Anna Larsson (contralto), Mattias Böhm (piano), Vattnäs Concert Barn, Dalecarlia, Sweden, 19.5.2012. (GF)

In the heart of Sweden, in the Province of Dalecarlia in the Lake Siljan region – one of the most beautiful areas in all of Scandinavia – there is a small village named Vattnäs, close to the water. Strictly speaking it isn’t Lake Siljan, but Orsasjön, which is linked with Lake Siljan. Here a brand new concert hall – or Concert Barn as it is called due to the rural setting – was erected last spring (2011). It was inaugurated in July with a handful of concerts. I saw a Tribute to Jussi Björling with no less than nine tenors – well, eight tenors and one counter-tenor to be more exact – and in a concluding Nessun dorma all nine sang together. The Concert Barn, a red wooden building seating 300 listeners, has wonderful acoustics and during the winter further construction work has been done with more to come.

The barn was privately built by world famous contralto Anna Larsson, who has roots in this little village, and her tenor husband Göran Eliasson, who is also an Artist Manager. 2012 will be the first full length summer festival with several concerts, and their first opera production, six performances of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia with Anna Larsson in the title role, thus paying homage to Kathleen Ferrier, the first Lucretia. The premiere will be on July 13th and Anna Larsson is also directing in tandem with mezzo soprano Ingrid Tobiasson.

However, activities began in May with a co-production with the Anders Zorn Museum in nearby Mora. Anders Zorn (1860 – 1920) was a painter, aquarellist, etcher and became one of the most successful Swedish artists of all times. In his heyday he was in vogue worldwide, not least as a portrait painter in the US. ‘A Musical Journey in Anders Zorn’s Footsteps’ was the subtitle of the evening, the guide was Johan Cederlund, head of the museum, assisted by music journalist Sofia Nyblom. Their presentation was interspersed with music illustrations, closely and sometimes not so closely related to times, places and events in Anders Zorn’s life.

After a folk music opening with cow-horn and old songs from the local area we were treated to some Swedish art songs by Rangström and Stenhammar, later also Hugo Alfvén, who was a great admirer of the folk music of the area and for many years lived in the Lake Siljan region. Some Spanish and French songs and arias reminded us that Zorn spent time in those countries. A section of operatic arias were reminiscences of his American periods and the then recently opened Metropolitan Opera, but then for the last 25 years of his life he returned and settled permanently in his birthplace Mora and music of his contemporaries rounded off the evening.

The repertoire was well chosen and the singing on a superbly high level. Göran Eliasson has retained the lyrical qualities in his tenor voice while gaining volume and he sang the aria E la solita storia from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana with Italianate glow. He is also an intelligent and nuanced interpreter of art songs. Marcus Jupither’s voluminous baritone seems to have no limits at fortissimo and maybe the concert barn was a size too small for him but his explosive Granada was a real tour de force. In Carl Sjöberg’s well-known Tonerna, on the other hand, he scaled down and gave a soft, warm and restrained reading with a falsetto pianissimo at the end. Mezzo soprano Ingrid Tobiasson, for many years a mainstay at the Stockholm Opera, has also preserved her voice admirably and I was deeply impressed by her exquisite Ma première lettre by Cécile Chaminade and, maybe even more, by her emotionally charged Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson et Dalila. I can’t imagine a Samson who could resist such art of seduction.

Young soprano Hanna Husáhr, whose Maria Magdalena in the Wermland Opera production of Bach’s St John Passion was an unequalled success a few weeks ago, continued to enchant here in the barn too. The two Alfvén songs, inward and soft with a glitter in the voice comparable to fresh spring water, a lovely Flower Duet with Anna Larsson from Lakmé, simple and natural, but the highlight was no doubt the Gavotte from Manon. Brilliant coloratura, beautiful cantilena and a stage presence that will bring her ovations in the opera houses. She even ventured on an improvised promenade through the audience and up on the balcony, where she sang parts of the aria before returning to the stage in time for the applause.

Stage presence is also the hallmark of Anna Larsson – besides having one of the most superb contralto voices to be heard anywhere at present. In the Seguidilla and the Habanera from Carmen she owned the stage, in both senses of the word. No big gestures, no histrionics, just total control of every little gesture, every movement – and her ability to conquer listeners with her eyes, nailing them to the back of their seat until the last tone has dies away. This is art.

A superb concert in every respect. Mattias Böhm accompanied all the songs and arias in exemplary fashion. He will also be the conductor during the Lucretia performances in July.

Goran Forsling