Tragiskt sångdrama or “tragic song drama” in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 38 minutes.
Hopefully I have tapped into an interest for Danish-language operas here because this was a review that was very fun to write, and I would really like comments about this one. This is actually the very first Danish opera I reviewed (or for that matter heard), as I had the first two acts finished last year, not Saul and David, which I wrote last month. But here is that first opera, the work that is the most performed native opera at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. I have selected the Danes because I have so far ignored them and because who better to attack Nazis with than the people who burned down their entire navy in a single night in a successful attempt to keep their technology away from Hitler, as well as saving almost their entire Jewish population (said to be Europe’s best integrated) through nighttime voyages to neutral Sweden. This opera was selected for inclusion in the Danmarks kulturkanon along with Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade and Fourth Symphony, as well as the Sidney Opera House (built by Jørn Utzon), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 film Vredens Dag, Hans Christian Andersen’s Den villa sjöjungfrun (Disney made a film of it in 1989) and of course Legos (invented in 1949 by Ole Kirk Christiansen). So I suppose this is me providing a cultural record for the Danes, albeit in English, as I know of no other number by number review of this opera. The music is of a very conservative style, not really Wagnerian at all, (the main influences seem to be French and Weber, although I think I detect traces of Lohengrin).
The composer, Peter Arnold Heise (1830-1879) was originally intended to be a lawyer but showed such musical promise as a young man that he turned to musical training. He is best known in Denmark for his collection of folk songs as well as his own original songs (usually for soprano and piano).
The plot is also based on an historical event, the assassination of King Eric V Klipping of Denmark in 1286, although most of the details of the opera are fictional. Incidentally the “Drot” of the title is an archaic Old Danish word for “king” which in modern Danish is “konge” (pronounced: khoo-guh).
Phil’s Opera World wants to branch out. The purpose of my blog is to familiarize people with neglected operas from overlooked composers and countries. In spite of this, 74% of my reviews in the last two years have been of Italian or French operas (if I added Russian and German operas the percentage would be 89%), and I would really like to broaden the diversity of my blog. I purged almost all of the Italian and French operas I had started (around 38 different projects, excluding ones I had already completed over 45 minutes of) and restocked my list with operas not in Italian, French, or German. Although Denmark is a good start, I’d like to work with some more “exotic” countries and languages. I know there are some Azeri or Armenian operas I could do, maybe something Welsh or Irish, Korean, or Chinese. If you have any suggestions (especially anything from about 1800 until 1945), please include them in the comments section for my consideration. I have already listed both operas by Carl Nielsen, a romantic comedy by Smetana, and one opera each in Irish, Armenian, and Swedish. I have them spaced out to about one per month, although I presently have eleven lined up although I might do La muette de Portici.
SETTING: Various urban and rural locations on the Jutland peninsula, 1286. King Eric (tenor) is a notorious womanizer who gets his comeuppance when he seduces Ingeborg (soprano), the wife of his Field Marshall Stig (baritone) while he is away in Sweden (and after claiming that Stig has been killed in battle), who then conspires to have him assassinated. The King is killed by Stig in a barn which he takes shelter in during an overnight hunting trip, Stig is banished, and Ingeborg commits suicide. In the b-plot Ingeborg’s nephew Rane Jonson (tenor) conspirers with his uncle because the King seduced his own girlfriend, the charcoal girl Aase (soprano) who might not seem important at first but becomes a major player in the fourth act. The synopsis used in the review is mostly adapted from an English translation of the Swedish Wikipedia page for the opera as neither the English nor the Danish pages provide adequate information.
Yeah, I know it sounds like a Danish rehash of Bánk Bán, but it really is worth a listen.
There is a 1988 film version of the opera which is cut by about half an hour, which although it certainly gets the story of the opera across, it doesn’t make as good a case for the opera as the 2006 studio recording (upon which this review is based) which has been included in the Danmarks kulturkanon. I watched the film version act by act and checked it against the studio recording, also act by act.
LINK TO RECORDING:
AND TO THE 1988 film:
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (51 minutes)
0: The overture ** is brief, but full of drama and Beethoven-esque angst. It was originally written as the prelude for the incidental music Heise wrote for Carsten Hauch’s play Marsk Stig.
Scene 1: Aase’s cottage in the forest near Skanderborg, east-central Jutland.
4, 11: Det var sig humleranken/Du lader vente The opening scene **: 1) Aase sings her happy little folk song * as she gathers bees for honey-making. Hunting horns in the distance, she goes into a second verse before 2) being encountered by Rane Jonson (whom she believes is a soldier named Jorgen). Rane waltzes about her declaring his love. 3) King Erik himself arrives and blows Rane’s cover as “Jorgen” which infuriates both Aase (that Rane did not reveal his true identity to her before) and Rane at the King for obvious reasons. 4) The King orders Rane away and attempts his own seducation of Aase in a lovely duet *. Eventually the hunting horns return and Aase is swept off her feet by the King.
20: Op alle mand! A sparkling chorus ** of young men and women comes to awaken Aase for some sort of celebration but they discover that she isn’t there.
Scene 2: Ballroom of King Erik’s castle at Skanderborg.
23, 26: Vel modt, marsk Stig The entire ball scene starts with an extremely regal melody **. 1) Aase has already been demoted to a palace servant by Erik. 2) The arrival of Marshall Stig who is greeted by the King and who introduces his wife Ingeborg to Erik which prompts a mass ensemble *. Marshall Stig is off to Sweden and asks the King to guard his most precious possession, Ingeborg of course. As soon as he has gone, the King wastes no time trying to seduce Ingeborg.
35: Det var sig jomfru Svanelil Suddenly we get certainly the best number of the act: A sung minuet *** for Rane to which the King and Ingeborg dance as the courtiers join in.
39: Kun pa hende kongen stirrer Meanwhile, Aase realizes she has lost the King to Ingeborg in a fugal trio *.
42, 45: Stolte riddere, skjonne fruer! Rane then makes some rather crude remarks * about how the King is “taking care of” his uncle’s treasure as Erik is obviously trying to secure Ingeborg for his bed. Aase realizes the King will never return to her and destroys the gold chain he has given her and runs back to her home in the forest **. There is real despair in her farewell, much of it from the orchestra.
47: Se, hvor himlens skyer rode A shockingly chromatic duet for King Erik and Ingeborg as he goes in for the kill **. Rane continues his mocking as the courtiers are heard in the distance. Curtain.
ACT 2: (32 minutes)
Scene 1: A hall in the house of Stig.
1: Den frue sidder pa borgen After an incredibly depressing, an incredibly depressing feminine chorus and the equally sorrowful remarks of the guilt-ridden Ingeborg *. Suddenly, a trumpet fanfare announces the return of Stig.
6, 12, 15: Hvor er fru Ingeborg?/Nej Stig, ved Himlens Gud! Stig returns to what is at first a very chromatic and somewhat ornery recitative. He sees that Ingeborg is dressed entirely in black and it turns into a duet *. There are some deep chords and then something in the upper strings resembling slashing as Ingeborg slowly goes through the painful events leading to her committing adultery: she was tricked by the King into thinking that Stig had been killed in battle against the Swedes and was seduced into his bed on a promise of marriage. At first it is back and forth to nothing particularly stable at all: Stig is accompanied by angst with occasions of joviality from the orchestra, Ingeborg by continued doom. She eventually comes to a passage which resembles Senta’s ballad ever so slightly *. Once he knows everything gets incredibly depressing (mournful chords) and it doesn’t really progress anywhere until the last three minutes in which just after Stig asks her if she loves the King or not Ingeborg demands vengeance like a Valkyrie on Speed *** and scene ends with something that at last is grand.
Scene 2: At the Althing at Viborg, north-central Jutland.
18: Til tings! The Althing chorus **, incredibly energetic as the Archbishop and Count Jacob (both will become conspirators) arrive with the acclaim of the people of Viborg.
21: For tinget saetes The royal march *.
24, 29: Jeg skjotter ej om Kongens/Hvor jeg dig finder herefter The act finale ** in which Stig, who at first speaks of his military victory in Sweden, confronts the King with the accusation that he raped his wife Ingeborg. King Erik declares that although he did sleep with Ingeborg, she was completely willing and he did not rape her. Stig is disgusted and challenges him amid utter panic from the populous ***.
ACT 3: (32 minutes)
Scene 1: A hall in the royal palace, Viborg.
3: Tre gange har han lovet After much conspiratorial preluding and recitative, Rane tells Stig that they could ensnare the King into an ambush to a very good arioso *.
4: En herlig blomsterkost The Meeting of the Conspirators **: It appears as if everyone has some sort of grievance against King Erik, not just Rane and Stig but even the Archbishop! Furious chorusing from the men. Ingeborg eventually comes on and extracts an oath from all of the men that they will kill the King. So they decided to disguise themselves as monks, all except Rane, who will led the King personally into the trap on the night of St. Cecilia (November 22).
17: Staerkt det gar mod ufredstide The scene ends with a six minute duet * in which Stig and Ingeborg say goodbye, forever apparently as this is the last we see of her in the entire opera. (The film version hints at her committing suicide, although it is never directly stated at all in the opera).
Scene 2: The royal gardens, Viborg.
25, 30: Så vidt som öjet rakte Hunting horns in the distance. Almost the entirety of this nine minute scene consists of Rane trying to goad King Erik into going on a hunt with him. But King Erik isn’t interested and in fact is rather melancholy for a change, singing a chromatic ariosos about fear of the eternal punishment he will incur in death for his many sins ** as he recounts hunting small animals that were then torn to pieces. When Erik calls for Stig, Rane tells him he has left for the island of Hjelm. In one last attempt Rane tells Erik that he is afraid of the marshes and this gets the King to go on the hunt. It feels more like the end of a scene than the end of an act in the movie version but there is a two minute choral number in the recording which is quite satisfying *.
ACT 4: (43 minutes)
Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.
3: Ingeborg, min sjael After a prelude full of anticipation and mild terror, the conspirators, dressed as monks, wait for Rane by a fire. It is Stig who arrives and contemplates his wife Ingeborg forlornly *: she has committed suicide. The King and Rane do not come and eventually Stig leads the men away furiously to Finderup although this turns out to be rather foolish as just after they leave the King and Rane show up and Rane is angry that they have obviously just missed them. The King decides to follow a light leading to Aase’s home.
10: For hvert et vindpust Aase comes out of her home contemplating the autumn weather and mourning her lost love for the King **. She sees the conspirators riding off dressed as monks which she finds very suspicious (why are monks riding so furiously towards Finderup?)
15: Jeg beder for hver en vejfarende sjæl Her aria turns into a glorious prayer *** as she declares her devotion to pray for lost souls. She makes to go to the local monastery to warn the real monks about the fake ones
19: Favre sode jomfrumode Eventually the King comes to her house and leaves his sword with her for some reason (although he does attempt to seduce her *) but she flees for the monastery. Rane encounters him and they go to Finderup.
24: De red samme vej som munkene Aase returns and realizes that the King has left his sword in her home and sets out to return it to him fearing that he has gone the same way as the fake monks ***.
Scene 2: A barn in Finderup, to the direct south-west of Viborg.
30: Her kan vi overnatte, herre The scene starts with a massive and frightening bang. King Erik and Rane enter the barn where they will spend the night **. For a long time the King experiences paranoia about his dreams and believes he sees the dead Ingeborg (more frightful banging, also a rather tragic passage for Erik). Eventually he hides in a straw bed and the conspirators enter with Stig.
36: Stat op, Kong Erik! At first Rane pretends verbally to not know where the King is hiding but strikes the the straw bed where the King is hiding *. Stig then stabs Erik through the straw and the King curses him as he dies (this is a little boring). The conspirators then stab the king repeatedly although it is probable that he is already dead at this point and they all flee, Rane and Stig being the last to leave the scene, rather abruptly.
39: Ve! Dankongen i sit blod! The King’s body is discovered by villagers alerted by the bells of the local church and Aase arrives with his sword, too late ***. The opera ends with a choral requiem for the King (under Aase’s beautifully tragic soprano descant) as the barn is burnt to the ground. Curtain.
So first the not so great. I don’t find the title characters to be particularly well drawn (particularly Marshall Stig whom we do not see enough of to really establish him as the main character, his appearance in act 1 seems almost as if it didn’t happen and we suddenly meet him for real in the second act) and this is especially obvious in three rather dull duets (King Erik’s with Aase in act 1 and Stig’s with Ingeborg in acts two and three) they have with the ladies who are paradoxically rather surprisingly well conceived. The great consists of essentially everything else. The orchestration is magnificent with a mixture of French and German styles along with a distinctly Scandinavian overtone (certain passages sound decades older and others much younger than the 1878 premiere would lead us to believe), the villains (such as they are villainous) are good, Rane is a much more interesting figure than either of the title roles and he gets the best male aria in the entire piece. Aase is ultimately the prized role, for although she disappears in the second and third act after being so important to the first, she has three magnificent solo numbers in the fourth which more than make up for her absence. Ingeborg is less musically interesting but just as dramatically so as Aase, although her murderous desire for revenge and eventual (off-stage) suicide seems to imply that her actions are driven more by an adulterous passion for King Erik than she ever verbally lets on. And as for the King, he is a womanizing sex fiend in the same vein as Verdi’s Duke of Mantua (except perhaps for his ability to be haunted by guilty dreams), so much so that the glory and honour of the finale really belongs to Aase and the Danish people than to their murdered monarch (although this might actually be exactly the point!). A few moments do seem rushed, such as Erik’s almost instantaneous seduction of Ingeborg which occurs immediately after her husband entrusts her to the King which also seems somnambular at times and when Stig and Rane rush off from the bloody murder scene. Overall a great find and very obscure (except of course in Copenhagen). In spite of the three duets which I’m not too keen on, a solid alpha and a worthy national opera for the state of Denmark.
FOR MORE INFORMATION PLEASE VISIT THE DANISH ROYAL LIBRARY’s ARTICLE on this opera with links to libretti and scores.