A chilling and thrilling world premiere shows the qualities of Gothenburg Opera

SwedenSweden Paula af Malmborg Ward, Mytomania: Soloists of Gothenburg Opera, Gothenburg Opera Chorus, Gothenburg Opera Orchestra / Andreas Hanson (conductor). Gothenburg Opera, 8.10.2023. (NS)

Åke Zetterström (spotlit, Harald) and Gothenburg Opera Chorus © Lennart Sjöberg

Libretto by Kerstin Perski
Direction and Choreography – Clara Svärd
Set and Costume design – Marika Feinsilber
Lighting design – Anna Wemmert Clausen

Francis – Joachim Bäckström
Nelly – Kerstin Avemo
Rita – Ann-Kristin Jones
Harald – Åke Zetterström
The Mother – Matilda Paulsson

After their successful commissioning of Hans Gefors’s opera Notorious (premiered in 2015 and reviewed by Seen and Heard International here) the Gothenburg Opera’s then artistic director Stephen Langridge was keen to commission a new work, which led to a commission for librettist Kerstin Perski (who had written the excellent libretto for Notorious) and Gothenburg-based composer Paula af Malmborg Ward. They created an original story inspired by a scandalous and tragic research fraud that was shaking Sweden, but also an older case of a mythomaniac French doctor.

In Mytomania the charismatic surgeon Francis leads a Swedish team that has discovered a revolutionary new material for regenerative facial surgery and is lionized by the media and adored by desperate patients. But he is a pathological liar and manipulator, having an affair with his therapist Nelly while he and his wife Rita are attending couple therapy with her. Then one of Francis’s patients dies after being operated on using the ‘groundbreaking method’ and laboratory assistant Harald discovers that the new method has lethal flaws.

The opera is a psychological thriller with shades of Hitchcock. Kerstin Perski delves deeply into the inner motivations of the characters with monologues, and in Francis’s case a vividly imagined internal dialogue between Francis and his dead mother, whose constant high expectations are part of the background to Francis’s obsession with success. Harald (Åke Zetterström) is the most sympathetic character, a plodder in his research work who discovers a moral strength that surprises himself when he discovers that his group’s triumph is actually a disaster that threatens the lives of Francis’s patients. Zetterström movingly portrays his character’s development from contentment to horror then resolution with his expressive baritone and superb acting.

Paula af Malmborg Ward had a striking and successful idea to accompany Francis’s Mother by an onstage quartet of hammerklavier, percussion and strings, lending scenes with her a very distinctive sound. Likewise, intimate scenes between Nelly and Francis are accompanied by a similar quartet with flutes. Matilda Paulsson brilliantly personified the demons driving Francis’s lifelong lying to reach his mother’s expectations with her alto scolding but also responding warmly to Francis’s apparent success. Francis’s wife Rita (Ann-Kristin Jones) vividly expresses her frustrations in her expressive but focused mezzo-soprano, especially in the opening scene where she and Francis are in therapy with Nelly, but Rita is also a believable victim of Francis’s manipulations. She also showed a convincing determination to stand by her husband in her second act aria.

Joachim Bäckström (Francis) and Kerstin Avemo (Nelly) © Lennart Sjöberg

Nelly is a challenging part with a heroically high tessitura but it was composed specifically for Kerstin Avemo who has a soprano to match its demands and then some. Avemo was also a gripping actress, exploring Nelly’s very complicated relationship with Francis. While she seems to be built up as a heroine who (eventually) acts to stop Francis’s dangerous deceptions, Nelly is a deeply flawed character – not only profoundly unethical as a psychologist but also not averse to lying herself (she sings ‘Lies are like champagne’).

Francis is a killer tenor part with a wide range, but Joachim Bäckström is capable of spellbinding falsetto in his part’s highest notes. Bäckström has perhaps the most challenging acting of all, needing to fluidly switch between his charismatic public persona, his manipulative intimacy with Nelly or Rita, and his occasional lapses dues to his frustrations (once walking into Nelly’s flat and asking her ‘Seen many nutters today?’). He met this challenge brilliantly, both varying vocal colour and mannerisms depending on the situation. It is a joy to experience music performed by the singers it was written for when it shows off their strengths like this.

The chorus appear as in a Greek play or a Bach Passion: commenting on what is happening as the public, or as Francis’s colleagues. There are many small solo parts which add interest to these scenes and they were all well-performed, and Clara Svärd’s choreography adds to their impact. The scene with a crowd of desperate patients surrounding Francis looking to him to make their dreams come true was particularly hard-hitting, as was the depressing scene where Harald and Nelly’s attempt to blow the whistle on Francis is met by a wall of cowardice and denial. The set was mainly composed of blocks of colour, with clever set design and excellent lighting giving fluid scene changes and a sense of unreality which only increased the focus on the psychology of the characters.

Paula af Malmborg Ward’s music is dark and challenging like the story. The uncompromising score was superbly performed by Andreas Hanson and the Gothenburg Opera Orchestra. In some ways it feels like film or theatre music, reinforcing the atmosphere and the heightening drama onstage. The ending of the first act has a dramatic musical climax, but the ending of the opera feels like a question mark. Indeed, the downfall of Francis described in the synopsis is not so clear-cut onstage or in the Swedish libretto (or maybe it reflects the sad fact that stopping such a fraud takes a great toll on the whistleblowers).

Niklas Smith

Playing until 9 November. The premiere was recorded for Swedish Radio for broadcast on 14 October. Available for streaming in the SR Play app and on the Swedish Radio website for 30 days from 14 October. Tickets and more information at the Gothenburg Opera website.

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