Broken-winged Silver Bird – But it Flies on the Wings of Music

SwedenSweden Mats Larsson Gothe Silver Bird. Soloists, O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra and Marmen Quartet, Fredrik Burstedt (conductor). Vattnäs Concert Barn, Dalecarlia. 10.7.2015. World Premiere (GF)

Tobias Westman – Young Jussi
Göran Eliasson – Adult Jussi
Anna Larsson – Visitor
Annika Sandberg – Linnea
Elisabeth Meyer – Anna-Lisa
Stefan Dahlberg – David Björling
Lars Arvidson – John Forsell
Carolina Bengtsdotter, Lisa Gustafsson, Nils Gustén, Ulrik Qvale – Ensemble
Ivar Burstedt – Olle Björling
August Eliasson – Jussi Björling
Viktor Karjalainen – Gösta Björling

Mårten Forslund – stage director
Karin Sundvall – Sets and Costumes
Jimmy Svensson – Lighting design


It begins as it ends, Silver Bird, the opera about Jussi Björling, which was premiered in the Concert Barn in Vattnäs, Dalecarlia, Sweden, on 10 July. In other words, the ageing Jussi Björling is lying on his deathbed, looking back on his life, a not wholly unusual dramaturgical devise in literature, theatre and also opera. A fairly latter-day parallel is Leonardo Balada’s La Muerte de Colón (Death of Columbus) from 1992-1993. In a series of retrospective tableaux we follow Jussi from the endless touring of his childhood together with his father and his brothers, up to the unavoidable end. The opera has been announced as a declaration of love, a declaration where the originators do not fight shy of exposing the darker sides of Jussi’s life. Those sides, or rather that side, is his alcoholism, which runs as a black thread throughout the story. This is hardly astonishing, since Greta Sundberg’s libretto is based on Yrsa Stenius´ book Tills vingen brister (The Heart of Jussi Björling, 2nd edition 2011), the prime object of which is to explain, through the eyes of an amateur psychologist, the reasons why Jussi occasionally took to drinking. I don’t raise objections to the desire to give a nuanced picture of the world-famous and beloved tenor and not only depict a saga of success, but I deeply deplore that the result of this ambition has put the singer, the artist in the shade of the bottle.

What became of him, the divinely gifted singer who enchanted a whole world during a 30-year-long adult career with 2000 cheered performances and constantly had the most discriminating critics searching for new superlatives? Some scanty phrases that escape the lips of his wife, Anna-Lisa during a phone call: prestigious venues like Metropolitan … Albert Hall … La Scala … A declaration of love to a great artist? No, a scurrilous portrait of a drivelling boozer! It feels so humiliating and it is such a shame, since there are so good other ingredients.

Karin Sundvall’s set design, for instance, is fastidious and neutral to function neatly when one scene seamlessly succeeds another. In the second act there is at the back of the stage a vast painting of a tempestuous sea – the visual parallel to the stormy gushes of emotion that take place between the main characters, musically also to the quotations from the popular song Till havs (At Sea), woven into the orchestral fabric. Direction is discreet, bordering on non-committal – on the other hand it is free from post-modernistic egocentricities. There is also an element of functionalistic minimalism in the restructuring the stage. The Concert Barn has no stage machinery and thus, for instance, moving the bed, which is an important part of the prop, has to be executed with muscular strength. The four figures in white, who have been allotted comprimario roles like press photographers and hospital staff step in also here. This creates an intimate to the proceedings on stage, separated from the world outside.

The gallery of characters comprise key-figures in Jussi’s life: his brothers (and Jussi) movingly portrayed in their national costumes; David, the father, dynamic and authoritarian, arguably a too two-dimensional portrait but convincingly created by the experienced Stefan Dahlberg. Another charismatic veteran, Lars Arvidson, who knows how to dominate the stage, is the opera manager, pedagogue and mentor John Forsell, with superior elegance in the most entertaining scene in the opera. The cabaret-like form and a certain likeness to the original gives associations to Karl-Gerhard, legendary Swedish variety artist for many years. Young soprano Annika Sandberg, still a student at Falun Music Conservatory, creates an innocent portrait of Jussi’s teenage love Linnea, but ignites in the utterly apocryphal confrontation with Anna-Lisa in the dressing-room after a Tosca premiere. From a dramaturgic point of view this scene is excellent, irrespective of how divorced from reality it may be. Elisabeth Meyer has come a bit further in her career and her Anna-Lisa is convincingly depicted as a rather dominant woman. Vocally she also shows that her international successes are no coincidence. A character actor of note is Göran Eliasson. The controversial picture of the ageing Jussi he enacts with deep insight and conveys a deplorably pitiable human wreck. The visitor – this mystic creature who can be interpreted as Jussi’s own conscience, invisible to everyone, but also, towards the end the vision of the mother that Jussi lost too early – is in Anna Larsson’s stately figure almost an angel appearing so to speak in a haze. From where I sat at the premiere it was at times difficult to apprehend the text.

The one who dominates his own opera is however the young Jussi in the shape of Tobias Westman. This young tenor has developed by leaps and bounds during the four years I’ve been able to follow him. It stands to reason that no singer can array the role of Jussi – except himself. But Tobias is arguable the closest it is possible to get today. He has a beautiful, flexible voice, is nuanced and has a brilliant upper register. He also acts with small means, like Jussi, and is even a bit look-alike. If someone is to be pointed out as a winner in this controversial opera it is Tobias.

But he has an equal fellow-player, and one without whose participation there wouldn’t have been an opera at all, and that’s Mats Larsson Gothe. He is running smoothly at the moment. Last season he reaped laurels with the opera Blanche and Marie at Norrlandsoperan. As a manifest proof of that he received after the premiere of Silver Bird Svenska Dagbladet’s Opera Prize, the most prestigious award in Sweden. While not having heard that opera yet – it will be televised later this year – I can very well imagine the quality, since he has also endowed Silver Bird with a congenial musical framework. His music is beautiful, seductive in the tender scenes, touching. It glitters and lends a silver aura to much of the score, but it can also be powerful and dramatic and strikingly often he paints the dark sides of the proceedings in muffled brass sonorities. Flexibly he adjusts the expression to the changes of the drama: the orchestra whispers, roars, dances, smiles and cries. In a kaleidoscopic fabric quotations and sounds from Jussi’s repertoire – even a glimpse from the Erik Odde-period to the despair of John Forsell. The wing of the Silver Bird may be broken – but it flies thanks to the music.

Göran Forsling

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