Spectacular Grand Gala at Dalhalla

SwedenSweden. Opera Gala at Dalhalla: Soloists, Dalhalla Festival Orchestra, Dalasinfoniettan Chorus, Patrik Ringborg (conductor). 11.8.2012 (GF)

It was a rather mild evening but grey clouds were hanging above the former limestone quarry, as has been the usual sight this wetter than normal summer. There were some drops of rain on my windscreen while driving up to the arena but someone up there above the clouds was obvious partial to opera and not a single drop fell during the 3h 45m long gala. The object for the concert was both a manifestation and a celebration: a manifestation of ‘the Swedish Opera Wonder’ as one of the compères expressed it, referring to the high reputation Swedish singers have today internationally; a celebration to mark the restart of opera at Dalhalla after a period of mostly light entertainment in the arena. It was originally intended for opera by the discoverer and founder of the arena, Margareta Dellefors, who was present at the gala and was hailed by the audience.

Dalhalla wasn’t sold out this evening but with an audience of around 1,600 people there was still festival feeling. A newly formed Festival Orchestra, composed of 76 musicians from Dalasinfoniettan, the Royal Opera Orchestra, the Orchestra of Folkoperan and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra, backed up the proceedings and after the interval the Dalasinfoniettan Chorus joined. Somewhat unexpectedly the first music to be heard was Jussi Björling’s hit-song Till Havs (At Sea) – not from the stage but from Dalhalla’s rowing-boat appearing from behind (the stage is on three sides surrounded by water) and lazily slumped backwards in the stern lay tenor Göran Eliasson, the new artistic director of Dalhalla Opera, singing at full throttle, while the new President of The Friends of Dalhalla, Camilla Collett had to row the vessel all by herself. After enthusiastic and humorous words of welcome the artists arrived in flashy open big American cars and entered the stage, one by one, in more or less circus style. Opera is often very serious but presentation of it need not be stone-faced and all through he evening there were many opportunities to laugh, not least when counter-tenor and stand-up comedian Magnus Karlberg made a couple of appearances, in mock-dispute with the conductor of the evening, Patrik Ringborg. When it was encore-time he came back and sang a rousing version of Orlofsky’s Ich lade gern die Gäste ein from Die Fledermaus.

The first act of the concert was wholly devoted to Wagner. A compact version of Der Ring des Nibelungen was played several times in he 1990s and for next summer Göran Eliasson has plans for a full-scale Wagner production. Royal Court Singer Hillevi Martinpelto greeted opera’s return to Dalhalla in Elisabeth’s aria Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser. She has had a long and successful international career and through intelligent choice of repertoire her voice is still in fine fettle. Her colleague from the Royal Opera in Stockholm, also a Royal Court Singer since 2004, baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson offered a marvellously beautiful and nuanced song to the Evening Star from the same opera. ‘The world’s most beautiful baritone voice’ as compère Michael Weinius put it – and I am willing to agree. Weinius, a very good Lohengrin in the new Stockholm production a few months ago, showed his Wagner credentials as a sensitive Parsifal opposite a third Royal Court Singer, contralto Anna Larsson’s superb Kundry in a long scene from the second act of the Bayreuth master’s last ‘opera’ – Wagner preferred to call it ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel’. The scene included both Kundry’s Ich sah das Kind and Parsifal’s Amfortas, die Wunde and is one of the most gripping moments in all Wagner. The act concluded with two excerpts from Die Walküre. The jubilant Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond from the first act was sung by Daniel Frank, a replacement for Lars Cleveman who had to withdraw in the last minute. Frank, whom I hadn’t heard before, turned out to be a fully-fledged lirico spinto with beautiful, youthful voice, power and brilliance, something like the young Siegfried Jerusalem. A real find! Wotan’s farewell was a natural finale, sung by the imposing and big-voiced Marcus Jupither, who also scaled down wonderfully for Des Auges leuchtende Paar.

When the audience returned after the interval, darkness was beginning to settle upon the arena. But it wasn’t exactly Twilight of the Gods, since Wagner had to give in in favour of a string of pearls of gems that probably was easier to digest for many. Three excerpts from Carmen opened the second half of the gala. The toreador song was sung by young Anton Ljungqvist who was a lyrical Escamillo, with beautiful tone and strong stage presence. Like Daniel Frank and several others of those who appeared in the second act, he belongs to the new generation of singers, ready to take over after those who have served as pillars of strength for many years. One of these, mezzo soprano Ingrid Tobiasson, the fourth Royal Court Singer of the evening, offered the habanera, sung from a window high above the stage. Ms Tobiasson has retained her great voice long after her formal retirement and, always a fine actress, she is as expressive as ever. Daniel Frank delivered the flower song with marvellous half-voice and a superb concluding diminuendo.

A real highlight was Maria Keohane, specializing in baroque repertoire, singing Dopo notte from Handel’s Ariodante. Her fresh, warm voice is like spring water: natural, effortless and technically impeccable; no wonder she was rewarded with the longest applause of the evening. Good basses seem to be in short supply today, but in Henning von Schulman we have a coming man. Still studying at OperaAkdemiet in Copenhagen he is already a sought-after soloist and his warmly sung In diesen heil’gen Hallen from Die Zauberflöte pointed forward to even greater things. Kerstin Avemo was a sensational Lucia di Lammermoor at Folkoperan in Stockholm some years ago and was also highly praised for her Lulu in Gothenburg. At Dalhalla she was a frail and vulnerable Gilda in Caro nome and the quartet from Rigoletto. In that latter ensemble another young tenor, Daniel Johansson, made his mark as a virile Duke of Mantua.

The Dalasinfonittan Chorus had already been heard in two of the Carmen numbers and Caro nome. Now it was time for their own feature number, the obligatory Va, pensiero chorus from Nabucco. In Verona and other outdoor arenas they often employ choruses of one hundred, sometimes even more singers – here they were little more than thirty but still rang out impressively. And note: they are amateurs! Daniel Johansson returned for another obligatory number, Che gelida manina from La bohème, followed, as in the opera house, by Si, mi chiamano Mimi, with Anne Wik Larsen, young, fresh voices both. The young generation amply demonstrated during this gala that they are ready to take over.

Any obligatory number still unsung? In the prevailing darkness now that it was well past 11 PM, I thought I could read Nessun dorma on the programme leaflet.

In all the big opera houses they are lucky to have one good Calaf, but Dalhalla wouldn’t be Dalhalla if they were satisfied with that. Five tenors lined up in front of the orchestra, the playing of which was a real delight all through the evening, and the ladies of the chorus deputised for the children’s chorus Puccini prescribed. Applause, cheering of course, flowers en masse – and then time for fireworks. No, not yet. A couple of encores first, Fledermaus as mentioned before, and Lippen schweigen from The Merry Widow with Karl-Magnus Fredriksson and Hillevi Martinpelto. A generous programme indeed! And then, one by one, several of the soloists stripped and jumped into the water. The water was no doubt cold but cheers and applause were warm. And then: spectacular fireworks against the black August sky, foreboding the light that will shine upon Dalhalla Opera next summer.

Göran Forsling