Opera in four acts (from a play in five acts, I will explain).
Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
This one has a bizarre story behind it, in terms of production, and how the 2019 CD release ended up happening. So strap in, I have another one of my 1000 word intros for all of you before we get to the music itself.
Olander, a customs officer by occupation, is remembered, if at all, for his one and only opera, Blenda. His style is a unique (if some what anachronistic for the 1870s) blending of Mozart, Haydn, Weber, Meyerbeer and early Verdi (even traces of Bellini have been noted in the vocal lines). Olander detested Wagner, and went out of his way to avoid using leitmotifs in the score, although the strong connection between the music and the drama of a woman leading other women in military combat can not but betray some mild Wagnerian influence). Mixed with this is a decidedly Scandinavian idiom. The story is taken from late-16th century Swedish folklore of a woman who led a group of women in fending off a Danish invasion while their men folk are away fighting in Norway (parallels have been made to Joan of Arc, including Blenda making references to being given a mission by the Virgin Mary). This woman is Blenda herself, the only female soloist character in the opera (there are eight male roles, 3 tenor, 3 baritone, 2 bass).
The original story apparently was created when female inheritance rights were being denied by the Swedish tax commission around 1691. What is even more confusing is that the original play the opera is based on, and the original libretto, are actually both in five acts. Olander himself made massive changes to the libretto of act three, and then dropped the original fourth act completely (for reasons I will go over in the “Setting” section below). The opera was performed 17 times to a sold-out house at the Royal Swedish Opera between 1876 and 1879, and Olander was given a prize by King Oscar II (5000 krona) for ‘Best Swedish Opera on a Nordic Subject”. It has since fallen into total obscurity. This has been attributed both to its similarities to Meyerbeerian Grand Opera (which was falling out of fashion by the mid- to late-1870s) and Olander slavishly imitating the great composers of two generations earlier (particularly Weber) while ignoring the growing trend of Wagnerism and modernity. One might even find the work to be classical in overall tone.
Sterling Records, the premiere Swedish classical music label, endured its longest production time of any of its recordings while getting this opera transferred to digital media. The original orchestration had been lost, so the opera had to be re-orchestrated, act by act, and then recorded. The third act was recorded in 1997, the first in 1999, and the second and fourth acts in 2000. Sterling did not release the finished product until 2019, partially due to discrepancies in the libretto used in the reconstructed score and the official libretto copy which had initially been received by Sterling. The libretto included in the CD set were made to align with the recording, rather than the originally printed libretto from 1876, which itself had been modified as Olander wrote the score. This does nothing to the plot, but it is testament to how difficult it was to make the opera available to the general public.
HISTORIAN PHIL: An historical fact that needs to be addressed for the plot to make sense is that, at one point in history, Sweden and Denmark shared a land border. The southernmost part of what is today Sweden (known as Scania or Skåneland) was, from the 9th century until 1658, part of the Kingdom of Denmark and its population was ethnically Danish, spoke Danish, and were subjects of the Danish Crown. After the Treaty of Roskilde, from 1683, the Swedish government demanded (in violation of the Treaty) that Swedish customs and law be enforced in the newly acquired province. For the church and the educational system, and all government affairs everything had to be conducted in Swedish, and Swedish culture was enforced on the ethnically Danish population. Denmark attempted to militarily retake the province multiple times, finally giving up in 1710, by which time the population of Scania had dropped from 180,000 to 132,800. Scanian males were drafted into the Swedish army and sent off to the East Baltic region, while ethnic-Swedish farmers were encouraged to marry Scanian women in order to assimilate them. From that point on, the Swedish government and educational system suppressed the fact that the region was originally Danish and it has only been in recent decades that the earlier history has been taught in the region. I bring this up because it might seem as if the Danish invasion in the opera is some sort of sea invasion by way of the Øresund, but in fact the Danish and Swedish populations at the time were actually much more physically close to one another than they are today.
SETTING: Ostrogotland and Småland, Sweden, 13th century.
ACT 1) Cardinal Albanesis (bass) attempts to broker peace between the willing King Sverker of Sweden (baritone) and the Danish chief Nils Dotta (high baritone). When Blenda (soprano) arrives with her warrior maidens to back up Harald (tenor) her fiancé, all, even the Cardinal sides with the Swedes against the Danes (this reversal of position has been interpreted as a metaphor for Catholic duplicity and the establishment of Protestantism in Sweden). All, that is, except for Johan (tenor) the son of King Sverker, who objects to having the Swedes led militarily by a woman, and whose abduction of a married Danish noblewoman is the cause of the conflict in the first place.
ACT 2) King Sven of Denmark (baritone) is spellbound by Blenda after she is taken captive by Nils (who has fallen in love with her). The cottage in which the Danes have made encampment is then invaded by Swedes, who rescue Blenda.
ACT 3) In a forest, Blenda later encounters Nils, who confesses his love for her. Although she declares her faithfulness to Harald, the arrival of Prince Johan results in Blenda overriding the prince (who had sought to kill Nils) and Nils is merely taken prisoner by the Swedes on the orders of Blenda. Johan attempts to rape Blenda, but is stopped by the ghosts of the fallen girls Blenda had led in battle, who condemn the Prince.
The cut fourth act (which consists of pages 42-50 in the libretto) consists of three scenes (that is musical scenes, it is a single tableau set on the coast of Ostgotland). In the first (and longest) Prince Johan reveals that his father is dead (this will be contradicted by the end of the act, but that is literally what he states: “Min fader är död”) and he plans to take power. In scene two, Harald arrives and he and Johan get into an argument about Blenda (who does not appear in this act at all) resulting in Harald eventually killing Johan to the acclaim of the Swedes (which is probably why Olander decided to drop the act completely and did not set it to music, since it would have required a stage presentation of regicide, and Harald remains a relatively unblemished character without this detail). In scene three, a herald arrives with news that in fact, King Sverker is alive, and has decided to make his younger son Karl his heir. It is also announced that the Danish king has successfully sued to have Nils Dotta released from Swedish custody.
ACT 4, Scene 1) Everyone is praying because they think Blenda is dead and the Swedes believe that they will fall to the Danes. As Harald prays in a church, Blenda is suddenly heard and rouses the Swedes to hope. She refuses to led the army in battle, claiming both that Prince Johan must side with them, and that she does not wish to fight Nils Dotta. Harald reveals that Prince Johan has been stoned to death by the Swedes (remember, the original fourth act has been cut) and that Nils Dotta is now the Danish military commander. These two plot inconsistencies are explained in the cut fourth act, since, at the end of act three, Nils is in Swedish custody.
Scene 2) Blenda then leads the Swedes in battle. Harald and Nils end up in a fight to the death to avoid either of them being captured by the other, which nevertheless results in Blenda being killed, struck by her own fiancé as she attempts to stop the two men. At first the Swedes believe that Nils attacked her, seeking revenge, but Harald explains what happens before King Sverker arrives. With her dying breath, Blenda declares that her death will bring about the end of war between the Nordic peoples. Harald and Nils break their swords and embrace, and King Sverker declares that a rune stone will be raised to honor Blenda and her legacy.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Before the Abbey at Linkoping, the capital of Ostgotland. (44 minutes).
0: The brief prelude * consists of two parts: the first is a fidgety bit in the trombones and lower strings, followed by a flourish from the upper strings and then a return to the original theme (a bit more agitated) until we come upon a religious chorus and Cardinal Albanesis extracting loyalty oaths. The Swedes agree to the first oaths (about loyalty to the Church and Tithing) but they refuse to lay down their arms. The Swedish King Sverker swear off war, but the people are not convinced as the Danish commander Nils Dotta will only end the conflict if his terms are met, otherwise Sverker might be dethroned by the Danes.
8: Jag vill mitt rike visligt King Sverker embarks on a gentle and noble aria ** advocating pacifism with a noble melody. However, the Swedes are convinced that the Danes will invade them if their weapons are turned in to the Church. Johan, the son of the Swedish King, mocks the Cardinal (who continues to advocate for pacifism, even surrender, of the Swedes to the will of the Danes). Nils references that it is ironic that the Swedes are refusing peace when it was their side that caused the conflict in the first place. As the Cardinal and monks pray, Harald (another Swedish leader) gets up to leave and insults the Church by accusing them of being agents of the Danes and King Sverker of being their laky (this occurs to a series of quotation from Euryanthe). Even Johan condemns Harald, who nevertheless continues in his anti-Danish ranting (not entirely unjustified) and is protected by the Swedish crowd when the King and Prince Johan threat to have him executed to appease the Danes.
20: Då handlen I konung An often repeated phrase accompanies Harald here * as he confronts his own leadership (and the Danes) and rouses the Swedes (including a group of peasants who have just burst into the Church. Eventually, Sverker gives in to his demands to be heard out and Harald warns him that the Danish king is already planning to invade Sweden.
24: Modigt har kvinnan rest Harald announces the arrival of Blenda ** in a much more gentle aria. As she comes in with her warrior maidens, everyone is spellbound by her: the King immediately asks what she requests, and Nils is immediately attracted to her.
27: Från Värend vi flickor komma The chorus of warrior maidens * is mostly gentle with only a brief bit of angst in the middle.
29: Under heta tårefloder Blenda’s entrance aria ** (completely with shimmering strings and coloratura flourishes) as she describes how she prayed to the Virgin Mary for help in rescuing Sweden and was ordered (by the Virgin) to lead a band of warrior girls to defeat the Danes. All of the Swedes, and the Cardinal, side with Blenda and her religious/nationalist cause. Even Nils admits to believing that she is guided by Heaven. Everyone except Prince Johan, who is a misogynist and believes that it is idiocy for a woman to lead the Swedes to victory. Blenda, for her part, upbraids Johan as a fool and publicly accuses him of being the one who caused the conflict by stealing the wife of a Danish nobleman (something which none of the men have brought up directly).
39: Gå härold! Blenda dispatches Nils to tell the Danish king that the Swedes will not be so easily won in a triumphal aria which is probably the most rousing so far ***. Nils goes, swearing that he will one day posses her.
43: Nu är jag rustad The act ends * with the Cardinal giving the blessing of the Church to Blenda and she believing herself to now be ready to fight, either for victory or to the death. The act fades out.
ACT 2: The interior of a Swedish cottage. (27 minutes)
1: Bräddfulla bägaren glädtigt Two choruses ** by the Danish soldiers (one a drinking chorus, the other a war song of hope that the Swedes will be destroyed) bookend a conversation about drinking between King Sven Grate of Denmark and a knight named Karl. Nils and the King start a conversation about the justification for the war in which Sven Grate questions Nils’ loyalty to him.
10: En hvar berede sig till seger Eventually, the King orders the other soldiers out of the cottage, but they do not leave without singing yet another very good choral number **.
15: Mänsklighet dock forst King Sven knows that Nils has become mellow because of Blenda, but Nils reacts by saying that the King must put human lives ahead of revenge and the spread of Christianity *. The King knows there is something behind all of this that Nils is keeping secret from him.
17: Jag henne såg Nils reveals that he has found Blenda, the King is annoyed, but it prompts for a lyrical aria **. The King makes to go, but Nils stops him, and reveals that he has captured Blenda. At this point, I should probably mention that, in fact, Nils (a baritone) is singing a high G-sharp! The King does not believe him, but Nils opens a closet door and reveals Blenda in full armor carrying a sword in her hand.
21: Här Blenda shelf nu färdig står A beautiful trio ensues *** as Blenda makes an impressive entrance, spellbinding the Danish king and Nils confesses his love for her.
24: Upp till strid! The concertate act finale *** (finally!) as the Danish soldiers come back in confusion, a band of Swedes led by Harald invades the cottage and frees Blenda (the Danes think she is a witch). As the Danes and Swedes fight on stage the closing symphony is a combination of Mozart and Rossini that has to be heard to be believed.
ACT 3: A Glade in the Forest. (28 minutes)
3, 6: Hemmets strid du gifver gifta/Jag hor fortvilflans rop The entr’acte uses angsty material from earlier in the opera and is followed by a long monologue for Blenda which includes one melody which will sound very familiar **. She prays, she despairs **, and she curses the wicked Prince Johan. She falls asleep.
12: Det odet ar After some Weberian horn work, Nils is left alone and embarks on a lush aria ** in which he fantasizes about Harald dying in battle so he (Nils) could marry Blenda and take her back to Denmark with him. Blenda ends up talking in her sleep and Nils discovers her and realizes that she is sleeping. He awakens her by kissing her forehead.
20: Kom, an ar tid! At first Blenda thinks she has been found by Harald, but no, it is the enemy Nils Dotta! Nils confesses his love for her and attempts to help her escape in a duet which could have been written by Rossini **.
22: Kan dig min fara bry? The act finale is a striking number ***: 1) Prince Johan comes upon the pair and orders that they both be arrested. Blenda uses her position to have herself released and Nils taken into custody, unharmed. 2)Although she is successful at having Nils dispatched to the Swedish camp, she can not save herself from the madness of Prince Johan who immediately (and even in front of soldiers) attempts to rape her as she prays in agony to G-d. 3) Suddenly, the voices of the fallen maidens is heard and Johan releases Blenda. The Maidens reveal that they have come to remind Johan that it is because of him (his kidnapping of the Danish noblewoman) that they are now dead.
ACT 4: (37 minutes)
Scene 1: Outside a village church in Småland.
1: I morgonens timma Blenda sings a couplet to nature as she blows her hunting horn of warning **. A chorus is heard in the church praying for Swedish victory, the war turning for the Danes since Blenda suddenly disappeared after her father’s farm was burnt. Blenda decides to hide, she does not want to continue the war.
8: Här är min tempelsa! Harald arrives with Swedish soldiers and embarks on a prayer ** (this is basically his Fidelia moment)
12: Mig färskona-jag er beder! The lovers are reunited in a duet which could have been written by Donizetti **. In recitative Harald reveals that Prince Johan was stoned to death by villagers and that Nils has been ransomed and now leads the Danish army against the Swedes. Harald rouses the Swedes with news of the return of Blenda.
19: Du som det bästa från The people rush out of the church in an a cappella chorus **. Choral jubilation continues as Blenda takes up the sword once again to the end of the scene.
Scene 2: The battlefield.
27: The battle ** is composed of two parts 1) an orchestral symphony and 2) a recitative in which Harald and Nils confront each other and Blenda throws herself between the two men, falling under Harald’s sword. The Swedes at first believe that Nils did it, but Harald quickly confesses. The other Danes have fled, the battle won by the Swedes. King Sverker arrives, praising Blenda, but also remarking on the tragedy of the sudden defeat for the maiden within the victory she has achieved.
31: Skönare död jag aldrig kunde finna! The finale *** is in three blocks 1) Blenda says goodbye, declaring that in her death she could find no greater happiness than ending war for the Northmen, and joins the hands of Harald and Nils in friendship as she breaths her last. 2) King Sverker declares that he will erect a monument to tell of Blenda and honor her deeds for Sweden. 3) The chorus praises Blenda, declaring that her memory will never be forgotten. Curtain.
Blenda is a unique experience. Here is an opera written in the 1870s which sounds as if it was written around 1820! There are two things that do not help the opera: 1) the loss of the original orchestration and with it the lack of percussion instruments, which would make the opera a bit more musically exciting than its strictly strings/woodwinds/brass reorchestration here. 2) the first act drags and is by far the weakest of all four acts (while being the longest), particularly in the first half up until Blenda makes her entrance, up to which the music is mostly rather dull and even static. I actually delayed reviewing this opera and purchasing a copy because of how boring the beginning is. At its best, it has an unenergetic, sleepy, and at worst anemic, quality. The best numbers before Blenda’s first utterances are the peace aria for King Sverker and Harald’s announcement of her arrival. However, as the first act moves forward it does improve, and the remaining three acts are of a significantly higher musical quality, are more upbeat musically, and have better tempo and rhythm, giving the impression that Olander may have written the first act earlier, or, being a first-timer, became more confident composing the later acts. It would have been interesting to hear more operas by Olander, but this is his only work in the genre. The story is rather compelling, even with the cut fourth act, the episodic nature of the plot (the middle two acts could be dropped without harming the narrative apart from establishing Nils’ feelings for Blenda), and the similarities to Joan of Arc, (although, I find this story, the ahistorical Swedish one, more interesting than that of the martyred Maid of Orleans). Prince Johan is a good villain, if he is used sparingly. Harald makes for a good tenor ingenue role and has relatively little stage time although is plot important, and Nils should be noted for the high tessitura of the baritone role, bordering easily into the tenor range. Essentially, this is Swedish bel canto with Weberian (and occasionally Mozartian) orchestral effects. Like I said, a unique experience. So, if you can get through the boring first half hour, Blenda will reward you with victory. A-.