Sweden Hans Gefors, Notorious: GöteborgOperans Orkester & Kör, Patrik Ringborg (Conductor), GöteborgsOperan, Gothenburg, 19.09.2015 (ASB)
Hans Gefors, Notorious – based on the film by Alfred Hitchcock (1946)
Libretto: Kerstin Perski
Director: Keith Warner
Stage design/costumes: David Fielding
Light: John Bishop
Choreography: Michael Barry
Video design: Dick Straker
Conductor: Patrik Ringborg
Alicia Hauser – Nina Stemme
Devlin – John Lundgren
Alex Sebastian – Michael Winius
Madame Sebastian – Katarina Karnéus
Prescott – Jón Ketilsson
Alicias father – Anders Lorentzson
Emil Hupka – Jonas Oloffaon
Professor Rossner – Ingemar Anderson
Eric Mathis – Mattias Ermedahl
Dr Andersson – Mats Persson
Dr Knerr – Mats Almgren
The world premiere of Hans Gefors’ opera “Notorious” was a coup for the Gothenburg Opera House. In 2009 Sweden’s most important opera composer was commissioned to write a new work of music theatre, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, featuring Hollywood legends Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Gefors convinced Sweden’s opera superstar Nina Stemme to be on board and was thus able to compose the leading part tailor-made to Stemme’s remarkable voice. In addition to that it was also possible to engage renowned opera director Keith Warner for this project early on. No wonder, then, that in the run-up to the first performance the Gothenburg Opera spoke of ‘the most important premiere of the year’.
The step from film to opera is still a rarely encountered undertaking since this has its pitfalls, not least because different means of artistic expression and genre conventions need to be translated from on medium to another. That the translation of a Hitchcock thriller into an opera has been successful in the instance of ‘Notorious’, is to a large degree thanks to experienced librettist Kerstin Perski. Detaching herself from the film script she has created her own dialogues and supplemented them with effective monologues. This provided an ideal template for Gefors, whose musical style is modern, but principally very accessible for the audience: large melodic arches and lines for the singers together with big orchestral sound, chamber music parts, and lots of rhythmic music, including samba sounds. As a result, the opera in many instances comes closer to the inner motivation of the characters than the film does.
This is especially true for the main character Alicia, a German-born daughter whose father is convicted as an American Nazi spy in the USA in early 1945. The title ‘notorious’ refers to her way of life which is paved with countless affairs and vast amounts of alcohol. In the film, Alicia is sphinx-like and cool, an impression that is reinforced by Ingrid Bergman’s seductively enigmatic charisma on screen. The Alicia in the opera is different: straight from the very beginning of the opera Nina Stemme uses her extraordinary vocal command in order to portrait as churning and powerful a heroine as Stemme has done in many of her dramatic roles before: angrily and in defiance she sings against the full orchestra to break away from her traitor-father.
Also the actual conflict in the film and the opera comes clearly into focus here: Alicia’s despair about the fact that the dapper US agent Devlin does not seem to reciprocate the love that she feels for him. Devlin, insecure about himself and unable to trust Alicia’s love because of her ‘notoriety’, instead smuggles her into a group of immigrated Nazi conspirators, who intend to build the bomb to still win the war. He even goes as far as to let Alicia marry Alex Sebastian, one of the conspirators, so that her cover is not broken.
It is a pure joy to hear Nina Stemme in this role, which demands from her to use the entire repertoire of her skills and vocal range: from tender phrases to large outbursts. John Lundgren as Devlin is a wonderful partner with his soothing baritone, displaying more shades of his inner life than Cary Grant as his cinematic counterpart.
The other two main roles are also well casted. Gefors and Perski have managed to turn Alex Sebastian into an almost-tragic hero, and his mother into the actual arch villain of the work – something that is not found in Hitchcock in the same way. Alex loves Alicia sincerely and truthfully, but has to pay for the decision to marry her with his life – at the command of his mother. It is difficult not to feel sympathy with Michael Weinius as Alex, when listening to his bright, youthfully warm tenor voice. Equally impressive is the hatred with which Katarina Karnéus as the malicious Madame Sebastian blurts out insults against Alicia in daring coloraturas, as if suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. The singers are supported well by the Göteborgoperans Orchestra and its conductor Patrik Ringborg who lead his musicians through the exciting and very diverse score of Gefors with aplomb.
But unfortunately not all ideas of the work seamlessly flow together into an overall concept. At various points a choir, denoted as “dark figures”, appears on stage commenting on what is happening with hisses and clusters, without adding much else. Also Keith Warner’s direction does not really inspire and is rather close to the film. The stage setting is sparse and kept in monochrome, as are the costumes. They are, like the hairstyles and some of the sets, direct copies from the film. Almost every scene is illustrated with sequences or stills from the movie, and gives the impression as if the movie has somewhat clumsily been reenacted on stage.
After a while this feels a bit monotonous and is not been helped by the fact that Hitchcock himself is present almost throughout: either as a silent role or an oversized image that is drawn across the stage. Whether this is intended as a reference to Hitch’s cameo appearances in his own films or his infamous control fetish – it simply is too much.
Interestingly the end of the opera remains – unlike that of the movie – open: there is no happy end, and Alicia and Devlin’s love conflict remains unresolved. It also remains an open question whether “Notorious” will prevail on the operatic stage; a more committed direction may help and the work has certainly deserved it.
This may not have been the ‘the most important premiere of the year’, but ‘Notorious’ has a lot of great things to offer: it is a well-composed new opera that is largely accessible musically, full of drama and based on a modern story. Gefors’ work may therefore be able to attract audiences that would not normally go to the opera, and that is no small achievement.