Starry Celebrations at Vattnäs

SwedenSweden Sångfest (Song Festival): Singers and pianists. Vattnäs Concert Barn, Vattnäs, Dalecarlia, Sweden. 11.7. & 13.7.2013 (GF)

This, the third summer season since Anna Larsson and Göran Eliasson inaugurated their concert hall, close to Lake Orsasjön, not far from the better-known Lake Siljan, really manifested the importance and need for their activities. The whole festival lasted for a week, of which I only was able to attend three concerts on two days. Bias this year was, naturally, towards the three opera giants Wagner, Verdi and Britten, but there were a lot of other events. It opened on Sunday 7 July with an Opera Picnic, followed on Wednesday 10 July by a baroque concert with two internationally acclaimed specialists in the field, Maria Keohane and Anders J Dahlin, both with roots in the Dalecarlia region and still, in spite of their international activities, still living in the area. The next day, Thursday 11 July, was devoted to Giuseppe Verdi (see below). On Friday 12 July Benjamin Britten was celebrated with a reprise of The Rape of Lucretia, which was so successfully performed last year (review); a second performance was given on Sunday afternoon 14 July. On Saturday 13 July we were treated to the masterly baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, a pillar of strength at the Royal Stockholm Opera for many years, who had invited Maria Keohane as his partner, and in the evening the focus was on Richard Wagner. Both are reviewed below. On Sunday, besides Lucretia, there was a Broadway Concert and finally, at 9.30 PM, Opera Jam Session.

Thursday 11 July at 7 PM. “Celebrating Giuseppe Verdi”

One of the most interesting aspects of the programmes at Vattnäs is the mix of established singers and ‘Future Stars’, the combination of deep experience and open-eyed curiosity, mature voices and unpolished but fresh and sometimes bold approaches. In a programme with arias and scenes from seven of the most popular Verdi operas many aspects of his genius were brought to the fore, everything accompanied with impressive stamina and deep musicality by Henrik Måwe – a task that could bring many an experienced pianist close to nervous breakdown, but Måwe was cool as a cucumber.

I greatly appreciated that there were several extended scenes and not only isolated arias. Thus we got the long duet that concludes act I of OtelloGia nella notte and somewhat later from act II of the same opera Era la notte, which turned out to be not only Iago’s aria but the rest of the act crowned by the duet Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro. Here the drama unfolds seamlessly and there is no risk for unwanted applause, but the long second act encounter between Germont and Violetta in La traviata invites ovations in several places – even though this is also a through-composed scene. The same thing also happened in the Azucena – Manrico duet from Il trovatore, where Lars Cleveman almost managed to silence the enthusiastic audience a couple of times through his demonic appearance.

In between these scenes we also got some bon-bons, like Alfredo’s aria from La traviata, Ulrica’s prediction aria from Un ballo in maschera, Ritorna vincitor from Aida, Violetta’s big aria that ends act I of La traviata – in itself a long scene and with Tobias Westman at hand it would have been nice to include Alfredo’s off-stage phrases as well – plus arias from Ballo, La forza del destino and Credo from Otello. This latter opera has since the mid-60s been one of my favourites. True, it doesn’t have those ear-catching show-stoppers to be found in many other Verdi works but there is dramatic truth aplenty and psychological insight. Iago’s two monologues – they are not arias in the true sense of the word – are illuminating portraits of evil personified and Fredrik Zetterström’s powerful but beautiful baritone is ideally suited to this role. Lars Cleveman, who the last couple of years has been full-time Wagner singer at Bayreuth and MET among other stages, has retained his intensity and ear-shattering fortissimos but after such heavy diet there is now also a certain coarseness and wear on this once seemingly indestructible voice. Ingrid Tobiasson, now retired from the Royal Stockholm Opera, on the other hand shows no sign of wear and her Azucena was gorgeous. Charlotta Larsson, a great Aïda at Opera på Skäret some years ago, was good in notoriously difficult arias from Aïda and La forza del destino – the latter possibly the best of them together with her Desdemona in duet with Cleveman.

Of the younger generation Cathrine Setterberg was new to me and a great surprise. Her stage presence, her deep identification with Violetta’s predicament and her glorious voice grabbed me by the throat. She chose some shortcuts in the fearful coloratura in the aria but that doesn’t diminish my admiration for her. She is someone to watch for the future! Baritone Richard Laby has a dark, somewhat gravelly voice, but like all his colleagues during this concert he dug wholeheartedly into his characters – his Renato maybe a more rounded portrait than Germont. Tobias Westman, whom I heard a year ago in Vattnäs, is developing quickly – he is still a student – and his attractive tenor with a quick, vibrato like some historical tenor greats (Alessandro Bonci comes to mind) suited Alfredo and the Duke of Mantua to perfection. The latter was heard in the final official number, the quartet from Rigoletto, where, with Charlotta Larsson’s Gilda and Fredrik Zetterström’s Rigoletto somewhat in the background – they are after all peeping through the window to see what the Duke and Maddalena are doing. And their amorous ‘doings’ were really enacted with the utmost skill and great humour. Completely improvised Tobias told me afterwards. I have never seen a slimier Duke or a sexier Maddalena!

But this was not the end, only the beginning of the end. After the ovations the stage was invaded by all the singers, paper in hand, and the audience was invited to take part in the ubiquitous Prisoners’ Chorus from Nabucco and finally Libiamo from La traviata. Verdi must have smiled contentedly up in his Heaven after such a devoted celebration.

Saturday 13 July at 3 PM: Karl-Magnus Fredriksson & Maria Keohane

Enter conductor and today pianist Mattias Böhm, sits down at the Bechstein grand, concentrates and plays a single tone, short silence and then, from a distance, behind the audience, we hear soft, beautiful singing: a light, crystal clear soprano and a mellow baritone, and we recognize the tune, When I am laid in earth, Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Slowly they glide through the hall and enter the stage, Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, the host of this afternoon, and his guest Maria Keohane, he in darkish suit, she in virginal white.

‘A recital with a difference’, Karl-Magnus declares in his introduction, and so it turns out to be. A bundle of Swedish art songs (romanser) to begin with. He sings Peterson-Berger, she Stenhammar and de Frumerie. This is followed by songs from two legendary vissångare – today we should possibly call them singers/songwriters – Olle Adolphson and Evert Taube. Karl-Magnus’s tender rendition of Så skimrande var aldrig havet was masterly and Mattias Böhm contributed with elaborate piano introduction. In the folk song Allt under himmelens fäste he was joined by Maria. A change of genre again, to musical, but still in Swedish waters: Benny Andersson. Maria sang from Kristina från Duvemåla, Karl-Magnus Anthem from Chess and together they finished the first half of the concert with You and I, also from Chess.

The temperature was high from the beginning, artistically but also physically and a couple of songs into the second half the baritone and the pianist disposed of their jackets. More Swedish art songs to begin with: Stenhammar, Rangström and Alfvén – classical evergreens. After this Mattias Böhm got a short vacation while Maria sang a traditional Irish song – her father was Irish – a tragic tale movingly performed. Karl-Magnus countered with Sibelius’s Var det en dröm and then it was time for a final change of gear: Maria offered Michel Legrand’s Academy Award nominated What are you doing the rest of your life, a far cry from the baroque repertoire which is her normal genre but a luminous proof of her versatility. Then Karl-Magnus bid farewell with My way, challenging Frank Sinatra.

But the enthusiastic audience wanted more and got it in the shape of Till havs, the most glorious singing of this rather over-exposed song since Jussi Björling.

This was a cross-over programme in the best sense of the word with marvellous singing of marvellous songs – the best of its kind whatever the genre.

Saturday 13 July at 7 PM. Wagner Concert

Nordic singers have long been in the forefront in the Wagner repertoire. Names like Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Lauritz Melchior, Kerstin Thorborg, Ivar Andresen, Birgit Nilsson, Helge Brilioth, Martti Talvela are only a few names from the past and the tradition goes on with Nina Stemme, Katarina Dalayman, Irene Theorin, Anna Larsson, Lars Cleveman, Michael Weinius creating furore around the world. The last three of these could also be heard in Vattnäs concert barn, which is nothing less than sensational. Cleveman sang Verdi this time but Larsson and Weinius together with a handful of other eminent singers gave a sterling tribute to Richard Wagner on Saturday evening. Wagner without orchestra can often feel watered down but Henrik Måwe alternating with Christine Mollwik managed superbly to substitute for this. There wouldn’t have been possible to squeeze in even a chamber orchestra anyway.

In a little more than two hours we could enjoy excerpts from nine of the ten mature Wagner operas – only Siegfried was missing – and two of the Wesendonck songs in the bargain. As usual at Vattnäs some young singers mingled with established veterans. Malin Nilsson, singing Schmerzen from the Wesendonck songs and Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde sported a large vibrant soprano voice, still a bit uneven, but with Pers Anna Larsson as coach she will hopefully develop in the right direction. Anneli Lindfors has already begun an international career and after a somewhat nervous start she delivered a brilliant greeting song from Tannhäuser and in the second part an even better Elsa’s dream from Lohengrin. Before that she had also shown her dramatic capacity in the finale from Die Walküre. I’m looking forward to hearing her as Freia in Das Rheingold at Dalhalla later this summer.

Baritone Håkan Ekenäs has also been heard abroad and his lyrical song to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser promised well for the future. But the real star among these youngsters was no doubt the magnificent bass Henning von Schulman. I was impressed by him last year, when I heard him at Vattnäs and also at an opera gala at Dalhalla and here he amply demonstrated that he is a real force to be reckoned with in the bass department. Not only has he a superb voice, dark and even from top to bottom, but he is an excellent actor with very telling facial expressions. He also turned out to be a wonderful, humorous compère. His introduction to the duet from Der fliegende Holländer was really enlightening. His Was duftet doch der Flieder from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was one of the real highlights of the evening. Great things can be expected from Henning von Schulman.

His partner in the Holländer duet was Marcus Jupither, well established also internationally as a dramatic baritone. His powerful voice can be really thunderous but he also has softer nuances at his disposal and he was also an expressive Alberich in a monologue from Das Rheingold. He will make his debut as director with this opera at Dalhalla in August. From the same opera Göran Eliasson also sang Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn, a role he has specialised in and has been singing in Riga this spring and will sing at Dalhalla in August. He is a marvellous singing actor.

In two extended scenes we had the privilege to hear Michael Weinius. He started his career as baritone but it was when he upgraded to tenor some ten years ago that he blossomed. He sang Lohengrin at the Stockholm Royal Opera last season (2012) and here at Vattnäs he appeared in two further favourite roles: fist with Anneli Lindfors as Siegmund in Die Walküre, where his Winterstürme left the audience breathless, and in the second part the long scene from Parsifal where Parsifal meets Kundry, here sung by Pers Anna Larsson. This intense meeting is among the most sublime moments in Wagner’s oeuvre, maybe in all opera and I can’t dream of hearing it better sung and acted anywhere. This was Wagner singing on the highest possible level. Michael will sing the role in the new production of Parsifal in Stockholm this autumn. Premiere on October 5. Not to be missed!

As for Pers Anna she first appeared with Im Treibhaus from the Wesendonck songs and in the second part also sang Waltraute’s Erzählung from Götterdämmerung. Both vocally and visually she is the epitome of a Walküre. It is a privilege to be able to hear such artistry in little Vattnäs!

The finale was also magnificent with the quintet from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Anneli Lindfors, Pers Anna Larsson, Göran Eliasson, Michael Weinius and Marcus Jupither on top form. I believe I wasn’t the only who left the barn as borne on a heavenly cloud. I can’t imagine Richard Wagner himself smiling – as Verdi did two days earlier – but at least he must have nodded approvingly.

Göran Forsling