Coco Chanel a smash hit at Vattnäs

SwedenSweden Various composers, Coco Chanel – a performance about a woman who changed the world of fashion: Soloists, Vattnäs Chamber Orchestra, Fredrik Burstedt (conductor). Vattnäs Concert Barn, Mora 6.7.2016. (premiere) (GF)

Martyna Kaiser – manuscript, costumes and direction
Bernd Janusch – set design
Jimmy Svensson – lighting design
Fredrik Burstedt, Mats Persson, Patrik Källström and Jonas Dominique – orchestral arrangements


Hanna Husáhr – Young Coco Chanel
Pers Anna Larsson – The ageing Coco Chanel
Göran Eliasson – Author of Coco Chanel’s biography and Spatz, German officer
Tobias Westman – Coco Chanel´s lover and friend Boy Chapel

Since the opening of the Concert Barn in 2011, Pers Anna Larsson and Göran Eliasson have presented three chamber operas, one of them a world premiere, and a lot of concerts spanning from baroque via song recitals to operetta and Broadway musical and anything in between. This year’s Song festival was limited to four performances of Coco Chanel and an outdoor afternoon concert with popular songs and arias. This somewhat reduced offering had to do with Larsson – Eliasson’s involvement also with the Carmen production at nearby Dalhalla, to be premiered on 13 August with Anna Larsson taking the title role.

Coco Chanel, which is also a world premiere, is not an opera but a play with already existing pieces of music woven into the drama – music mostly written during the lifetime of Gabrielle Chanel (1883 – 1971). Opening with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and followed by music by Satie, Korngold, Lili Boulanger, Britten, Ravel, Mahler, Massenet, Weill and Poulenc this gave a wide picture of the music stage during the first half of the previous century. To this was added a Pearl Fishers duet (not the famous one for tenor and baritone) and the Spring Song from Samson et Dalila from a little earlier. The music was played by a twelve-piece chamber orchestra consisting of a string quintet, four woodwind and a French horn plus percussion and Henrik Måwe at the piano. The orchestra was placed by the side of the little stage and the reverent arrangements were transparent enough to let the singers’ voices be heard to very good effect. The sets were simple and props were used to a minimum but of course a sewing-machine and a tailor’s dummy were necessary. In the second act there were some paintings on the walls, referring to Coco’s friendship with famous painters.

The frame story was the conversations between the author and the ageing Coco Chanel, interspersed with flashbacks from Coco’s youth. The author wants confirmation about the many rumours that have circulated for ages about Coco Chanel’s career and her love affairs but Coco conveys her own versions of her life, which differ a lot from the conventional history writing. And this is the main object of the story: whose version is the truth? Coco Chanel has her own truth.

It is a fascinating story, where also three walkers-on take part in the proceedings. All four singers are eminent speaking-actors as well, which in bygone days was not a matter of course with opera singers. And of course they all sang excellently. Pers Anna Larsson with an international career that takes her to all the big opera houses and concert venues is just as magic in the intimate surroundings in the Concert Barn. Dressed in black – what else? – she owned the stage through her posture, her cool appearance and through her dark contralto. Göran Eliasson only becomes better for every time I hear him, his expressive tenor in mint shape and he has charisma. Tobias Westman, who had his break-through last year in Silver Bird in Vattnäs, has developed further as an actor and his lyrical tenor has all the nuances one expects in for instance En fermant les yeux from Manon, a certain stiffness notwithstanding in his bearing. Hanna Husáhr as the young Coco has added some weight to her tone and seems to be ready for heavier roles before long. She also turned out to be a true comedienne in a riveting cabaret number – Coco Chanel briefly appeared in cabarets in her youth – where she pulled all stops with hair-raising out-of-tune singing and priceless facial expressions.

We have got used to unexpected productions at Vattnäs and this was a smash-hit from beginning to end. There were only four performances of Coco Chanel this summer and if they plan to reprise it next year I would advise all theatre and music lovers to book tickets as early as possible. It is performed in Swedish but that should be no hindrance to appreciate it.

Göran Forsling

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