Göran Forsling’s Opera Update from Helsinki and Stockholm

Recent Opera in Helinski and Stockholm Reviewed by Göran Forsling

Strauss, Elektra: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 2.9.2016 (Premiere). (GF)

Director – Patrice Chéreau
Sets – Richard Peduzzi
Costumes – Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting   – Gilles Bottacchi, according to the original lighting design by Dominique Bruguière
Stage director – Vincent Huguet

Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Elisabet Strid
Aegisth – Mika Pohjonen
Orest – Tommi Hakala
Orest´s tutor – Esa Ruutunen
Klytämnestra’s confidante – Jenni Lättilä
A young servant – Dan Karlström
An old servant  – Jyrki Korhonen
Five maids – Bonita Hyman, Sari Nordqvist, Anu Ontronen, Pauliina Linnosaari & Kirsi Tiihonen

Patrice Chéreau’s last opera production was Elektra at Aix-en-Provence, premiered in July 2013. It was a tremendous success, and then moved on to the Metropolitan in New York, La Scala, Milano, Staatsoper Berlin and Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona before reaching the Finnish National Opera in September 2016. Chéreau passed away in October 2013, but this production, his testament to the world of opera, is certainly something to cherish and it is a glorious triumph for the Finnish National Opera to be able to take over this magnificent production. Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted the Aix performances and those at the Met, is at the helm in Helsinki as well and, just as in Aix, Berlin and Barcelona, Evelyn Herlitzius and Waltraud Meier sing the central roles of Elektra and Klytämnestra. These two are deeply inside their roles and contribute to one of the most intense and deeply engaging performances of Elektra I have ever seen. Herlitzius is downright fantastic, the finest Elektra I have experienced – and I am not forgetting the magnificent Katarina Dalayman in Stockholm some years ago. Herlitzius is so frenetic, so all-embracing in the role and, originally a dancer, she performs some of the most fascinating and enrapturing dance sequences I have seen in an opera performance. But most of all she is a magnificent singer, covering all the various aspects of Elektra’s state of mind. It is an inhuman role, Elektra is almost constantly in focus on stage and required to sing voice-cracking, high-lying sequences. Herlitzius succeeds gloriously, combining this with tremendously engaging acting. I know that Nina Stemme sang the role at the Met and with the FNO company in Stockholm, as well as at the Baltic festival just a few days later for a concert performance of Elektra, but I would now find it hard to believe that any other singer could surpass Evelyn Herlitzius . She is simply outstanding!

Waltraud Meier, today 60, is still in magnificent shape, and Elisabet Strid, whom I have heard in Helsinki before, in Il tabarro and in the Riga production of Rienzi, is a Chrysothemis of exceptional greatness. These three ladies together are literally an Elektra dreamteam.

And the supporting cast is certainly in the same league. Tommi Hakala, a bit rustier now than in his heyday, is a strong Orest and in the minor parts there are many prominent singing actors, including Bonita Hyman as the first maid, who was in the Aix production as well as at the Met, and the renowned Wagner soprano Kirsi Tiihonen as the fifth maid.

The lavish praise that has been heaped upon this production in previous incarnations is well deserved and the Helsinki version is a glorious triumph in every respect. Regrettably, there are only five performances scheduled and three of these were already sold out at the time of the premiere, which was the first ever production of Elektra in Helsinki. Yet another feather in the cap of the Finnish National Opera.

Wagner,  Der fliegende HolländerSoloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / John Fiore (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 18.11.2016 (premiere). (GF)

Director – Kasper Holten
Sets – Philipp Fürhofer
Costumes – Anja Vang Kragh
Lighting design – Jesper Kongshaug
Video planning – Luke Halls
Choreography – Signe Fabricius

The Dutchman – Johan Reuter
Senta – Camilla Nylund
Daland – Gregory Frank
Erik – Christian Juslin
Mary – Sari Nordqvist
Steersman – Tuomas Katajala

Less than two months before this I saw Der fliegende Holländer in a new production in Tallinn, Estonia, a mere 80 kilometres south of Helsinki. Following a brief preamble, my review began thus: “If the librettist and composer Richard Wagner had been present at the premiere of this latest production he would only hesitantly have recognized this as his work. Well, the music is intact, the sung text, as far as I could hear, has not been altered but everything else has.” This description fits as a glove with respect to the new Holländer in Helsinki as well. In the Tallinn production, the Dutchman is an oil magnate who falls in love with Senta, an aspiring artist. A brothel has a central function, as well as an art gallery, the scene of some heavy partying. In Helsinki Daland is a shipping magnate and art collector, while the Dutchman is a celebrated painter who opens an exhibition every seven years. His vocation is made clear from the start of the opera: During the overture he works frenetically at his easel, drinking heavily. A person unsatisfied with his life. And Kasper Holten’s concept is that the Dutchman is Wagner, a man who “spent his whole life travelling and never really found a place to settle down.” “I want to know what the Dutchman has to say to us in particular” says Holten. But is there a need to rewrite the story? I mean, it is still Wagner’s old text and his thoughts and feelings are well depicted as they are. Transporting this mythical tale to the present day does not automatically bring timeless feelings in sharper relief. It does give the director opportunities to insert contemporary attributes – selfies, real-time video – but haven’t we seen this before, time and again? Jonathan Miller’s legendary ENO Rigoletto was ground-breaking, but that was almost 35 years ago. So, what is left? A masquerade in a clever setting. I admit that the spinning scene is ingenious, with pottery wheels instead of spinning wheels, but by and large I found this production unnecessary – and rather uninteresting.

The audience at large obviously didn’t – there were ovations for the production team. So even though you may be as conservative as I am, chances are that you will like it. In that case: congratulations. What you will like, irrespective of your attitude to the production, is the quality of the singing and convincing acting from the central characters. Johan Reuter as the eponymous hero – although ultimately he is more of an anti-hero – creates a many-faceted and utterly believable character, possibly the best I have ever seen. And he sings with deep intensity and sheer beauty of tone. Camilla Nylund is on the same level of excellence, as the Senta of one’s dream. Her reading of the role is on a par with her Marietta in Die tote Stadt six years ago – directed, it should be mentioned, by Kasper Holten.

Gregory Frank’s Daland lacks the pitch black bottom notes that Ain Anger excelled in at the Estonian National Opera, but he too is well inside his character. Christian Juslin sports gleaming heroic tones worthy of a Siegmund and makes Erik – here an investment banker! – an uncommonly wooden character. One understands Senta’s indifference toward him. Sari Nordqvist and Tuomas Katajala complete the cast, the latter with the most beautiful steersman song imaginable.

Giordano, Fedora: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm / Tobias Ringborg (conductor). Royal Swedish Opera, 10.12.2016 (Premiere). (GF)

Director – Christof Loy
Dramaturge – Thomas Jonigk
Set design, costume design and masque design – Herbert Murauer
Lighting design – Olaf Winter
Video design – Velourfilm AB/Hobi Jarne, Emil Gotthardt

Fedora Romazov – Asmik Grigorian
Loris Ipanov – Andrea Carè
De Siriex – Ola Eliasson
Olga Sukarev – Sofie Asplund
Gretch – Kristian Flor
Dimitri – Johanna Rudström
Desiré – Niklas Björling Rygert
Rouvel – Jon Nilsson
Cirillo – John Erik Eleby
Borov – Jens Persson
Lorek – Håkan Ekenäs
Nicola – Andreas Lundmark
Sergio – Mikael Fagerholm
Michele – Henrik Hugo
Boleslao Lazinski – Martin Virin
A boy – Arvid Roos
A policeman – Max Backholm
Doctor Müller – Jacob Hellichius
Ivan – Anton L Samuelsson
Basilio – Elias Palin
Vladimiro – John Wassberg

Victorien Sardou (1831 – 1908) was one of the most prolific French playwrights during the latter half of the 19th century. Several of his plays were written for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Two of the most famous were Fedora (1882) and La Tosca (1887). Both were later made into successful operas, by Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini, respectively. Giordano’s Fedora was written in 1898 and premiered on 17 November the same year at Teatro Lirico in Milan with the composer conducting. Gemma Bellincioni sang the title role with the young Enrico Caruso as Loris. Giordano had seen the play with Bernhardt in 1885 and then approached Sardou for permission to make an opera out of it, but the author refused and it was not until Giordano had his breakthrough with Andrea Chénier in 1896 that Sardou yielded. Much later Giordano wrote another opera based on a Sardou play, Madame Sans-Gêne, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1915 under Arturo Toscanini and with Geraldine Farrar and Giovanni Martinelli in the leading roles. It has been occasionally revived and four live recordings exist. On two of them Mirella Freni sings the title role. Fedora has fared better, even though it has never been part of the standard repertoire. During the period 2014 – 2018 there were four productions, according to Operabase, and there a number of complete recordings, including one of 1969 with Magda Olivero and Mario Del Monaco, as well as one of 1985 featuring Eva Marton and José Carreras. On DVD there are two productions from the 1990s with Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo in the leading roles.

This production was the Nordic premiere of the opera, and Christof Loy and Herbert Murauer have created a stage picture with a front stage, where most of the action takes place, and behind that, a little higher up, a big frame, within which real-time video sequences are projected. Either these are close-ups of Fedora’s facial expressions or scenes that take place off stage, in adjacent rooms. In the third act, the wall is removed and there is a connection between the front stage and the room within the frame. Real-time videos have become popular in recent years, and like other fashionable devices should be used discriminatingly. In this production they are not over-used, and this the effect is illuminating.

As can be seen from the cast-list, there is a crowd of characters, most of them minor, and without a libretto it is not easy to know who is who. That is something recurring in other Giordano operas as well. Both Andrea Chénier and Madame Sans-Gêne are crowded.

The plot is a criminal story of murder, revenge, deceit and finally a dramatic denouement. Within the drama there is also a love story. It is not really hair-raising – you suspect what is going to happen, possibly as early as at the end of act one – but it is fascinating even so and the compactness of the story – with no interval the performance time is just over 1½ hours – never allows your mind to wander. There are also some entertaining scenes – plays within the play – and some music that tries to catch the local colour of the various settings: De Siriex sings a parody of ‘La donna russa’, Olga imitates the French style and in the last act, set in Switzerland, the young boy who ambles across the stage strewing flowers sings a supposedly Swiss peasant song, beautifully executed by Arvid Roos.

‘La donna russa’ is sometimes heard out of context, at least on records, but it is Loris’s ‘Amor ti vieta’ in the second act that everyone knows. It has been performed and recorded by all the great tenors, ever since Caruso recorded it in 1902 with the composer at the piano. Here Andrea Carè sang the short aria with impassioned glow. But don’t think that this is the only music in the opera that is worthwhile. Of course there are passages of fairly anonymous, recitative music, but much more that is deeply emotional and intensely dramatic. Most of these highlights are to be found in Fedora’s solos, which are many and long. In fact this is a dream role for an expressive lirico-spinto soprano and in Asmik Grigorian we have exactly that. Besides being the possessor of one of the most beautiful soprano voices anywhere today she is also an excellent actor. She was a sensationally good Butterfly in Stockholm two years ago but her Fedora surpasses that by far.

Ola Eliasson was a dynamic De Siriex and Sofie Asplund’s Olga stole the stage, both vocally and scenically, every time she popped up. The rest of the cast had little opportunity to draw attention to themselves, but as an ensemble they were superb.

The Royal Orchestra played the music as to the manner born, which is an achievement, when few if any of them had played this music before. Tobias Ringborg’s enthusiasm no doubt rubbed off on his musicians.

A forgotten masterpiece, Fedora is well worth reviving, especially in such a committed production. I hope it won’t take another 118 years before it returns to the Royal Swedish Opera, but do grab the opportunity while it is here. You won’t regret it!

Göran Forsling

1 thought on “Göran Forsling’s Opera Update from Helsinki and Stockholm”

  1. I am sorry you did not mention the work of John Fiore, an inexplicably over-looked and under-rated conductor who turned in many outstanding, often great, performances from the Metroplitan Opera in the 1990s. I treasure all of the off-air broadcast tapes from those days.


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