Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
I waited for a recording of this opera to come in from the Netherlands because I wanted to be sure of the plot, the libretto, and who wrote what here since the score is a bit of a mess. I am in the process of moving shortly, but thankfully it arrived after nearly four weeks and I did not miss it. This is another one of my long reviews which somehow got a little longer than I expected with the historical background (what do you expect, I have an MA in history after all!). Hopefully you all enjoy the background, oh, and the music!
The actual review starts around half way through the post. This one is 3000 words long!
HISTORIAN PHIL: Okay, so the Swedish Royal Family isn’t Swedish. At least not originally. The House of Bernadotte originates in the city of Pau, France, but during the Napoleonic Wars, the Swedish Riksdag decided to allow King Charles XIII (actually VII, that is another story) to adopt a French Field Marshall named Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, due to the King being childless, in hopes that it would please Napoleon. It was 1810. Charles XIII was incidentally the younger brother of Gustav III of Sweden (yes, THAT Gustav III). After his nephew, Gustav IV Adolf, lost Finland to Russia and was removed in a coup, the childless Charles was placed on the throne. His wife, Hedvig Elisabeth, was already 51, so there was no possibility of a new heir being born to her, and the adoption went through and so now we have the Bernadotte dynasty ruling in Sweden. Also, Gustav IV Adolf was himself the subject of a legitimacy rumor, as it was believed that his mother, Queen Sophia Magdalena, had actually been impregnated by order of Gustav III by a nobleman named Adolf Fredrik Munck, who was the lover of her chamber maid. In any case, Bernadotte took the throne in 1818 as Charles XIV John. His son became Oscar I of Sweden in 1844, who from 1832 to 1833 completed the score of this opera after the early death of its original composer, Eduard Brendler at the age of 30, before the composer was able to fulfill the commission by the Prince for the opera, which was originally set for performances in 1831 but was delayed until 1834. Brendler had failed to compose the opera in a timely manner, what he did compose was toward the end of his life, and mostly focused on the dramatic elements of the plot (I will go over this in more detail below). The features of the opera are strongly Weberian (the act two soprano aria quotes Der Freischutz) with hints of Mozart, Rossini, Beethoven, Cherubini, and even (in the music written by Oscar I) a simply leitmotif system.
Opera in Sweden:
Although Ryno would continue to be performed in Stockholm for the next four years, it quickly dropped into operatic oblivion. The reason for this was probably the lack of a domestic operatic tradition in Sweden in the 1830s. Although there were Swedish singspiels before Ryno, as far back as 1773 actually, the tendency in the country was toward Central European works, and it would not be until the 1870s that Swedish-language opera became established with the works of Ivar Hallstrom such as Den Bergtagna and Vikingarna (which you can find reviewed elsewhere on this blog). The assassination of Gustav III in the Royal Swedish Opera House in March 1792 was yet another factor (in spite of the fact that the event itself inspired so many operas, the irony!). Its reopening the following year was actually met with domestic disgust and hostility because of its connection to the assassination, and Gustav IV actually banned it from operating completely from 1806 to 1809, and even then it was unable to organize a production again until 1812. The Bernadotte Dynasty has had a much more positive relationship with opera and the modern Operan (as it is known in Swedish today) in Stockholm.
OPERA PHIL: So now, I guess, we can add opera by future head of state to the Opera World!
SETTING: Sweden, circa 1500. The backstory of the plot is a rumor that Thure Stenson (bass) was murdered by his foster-son Arnold (baritone) who who has now inherited all of his property and is about to marry his biological daughter Agnes (soprano). Ryno (tenor) is a knight who then challenged Arnold to defend his honor at a duel in Stockholm, but Arnold fled before the duel could happen. Ryno then set off to track down Arnold. ACT 1: After wedding preparation choruses and ballets, Ryno and his squire Snap (baritone) eventually finds the Stenson castle, already decorated for the wedding of Arnold and Agnes, and joins a Romani troop in order to gain access to the castle. ACT 2: Ryno is able to pull off the disguise long enough to tell Agnes her fortune before the castle bailiff Birger (baritone) has him arrested. Agnes calls off the wedding, having been convinced by Ryno that all of the villagers believe her affianced murdered her father. Ryno is sent off to the castle dungeon. Meanwhile, Snap has found a way into the castle disguised as a jester and gets Arnold drunk. ACT 3: After convincing Agnes to steal the keys to the jail, they attempt to release Ryno, but Arnold somehow manages to have them arrested, just before Thure Stenson arrives and forces Arnold to duel with Ryno to defend his honour….
There is also a spoken-role named Kristoffer who is the servant of Arnold who conspired in the attempted murder of Stenson and who confesses everything.
Since the Sterling release only includes the music, and not the spoken dialogue, much of the plot is not present on the recording. In terms of who wrote what (since it is a bit of a mess), I will indicate where necessary, but most of the first act (excluding the ballets and finale) was written by Brendler, along with the central gypsy choruses and trio in act 2 and an aria for Ryno in Act 3. The three ballets were written by Eduoard Du Puy, but were not original to the opera, rather they were taken from an 1818 ballet named Balder, and the remainder of the opera (Act 1 finale, Act 2 Aria for Agnes, both of the last two scenes of act 2, and most of act 3 were written by then Prince Oscar. The music was then orchestrated by the court conductor Johan Fredrik Berwald.
The Sterling label release (recorded in 1992 and 1993) decided to break up the recording so that the music by Brendler is dominant on the first disc and that by Prince Oscar on the second disc. Discounting the ballet sections by Du Puy, the work is around 50-50 in terms of who composed what, with Brendler contributing seven numbers (although the act one aria for Ryno is a three minute fragment by Brendler which Prince Oscar decided not to complete) and the overture, and Prince Oscar seven numbers.
RECORDING: (Two formats!) This is the same recording, but if you prefer, I have included both the track version, which may only be available for listening on YouTube the site, not here) and the opera as a single video (which will play on this site) since both have been uploaded to YouTube). The picture on the cover of the Sterling release is of the stage setting for Act 1.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Outside Stenson castle, nearing nightfall. (37.5 minutes)
0: The short overture ** starts off on the same chords as Der Freischutz but almost immediately goes into a mournful four-note tune in the flute (which goes to the trombone and strings), and then gets reshaped into a much more gentle theme in the oboe. The second half sounds more like a Rossini overture without the trademark crescendo and traces of the mournful tune popping back in, before it turns more religious at the very end. Rather well constructed and in some ways foreshadowing Wagner.
4: Vid stjernornas tindrande strålar The chorus of castle servants as they prepare the premises for the upcoming nuptials is a gentle and has an almost barcarole quality to it **.
7: Och riddaren red genom trettimila skog The old gardener Botvid (who never appears again apart from some interjections during a choral scene in act 2) sings a sad song ** about a knight who was murdered by a lake by his own servant. This causes Arnold to cry, and serves no other plot point other than to foreshadow the rumors about the death of Stenson. It has a singular, noble, tune, but there really is not enough of it.
10: Ofver dal och sund Another Weberian chorus, this one to a tune similar to that of the Tanze in the first act of Freischutz although it lasts longer and includes an expanded choral sequence *.
13: Two ballet numbers by Du Puy **, the first has a distinctly Beethovenesque sense of angst and is very satisfying. The second is not so catchy, but nevertheless good.
18: Ar du ej oss nara Bookending the ballet is yet another choral sequence **: this time a prayer at the grave of Stenson, who must be something of a cult figure since he is addressed as fader by all. After the first chorus, it turns into a duo con coro with Arthur and Agnes (with bel canto flourishes) and then yet another chorus. Although pretty, to some extent you might want the plot of this to finally start since all this preliminary work has contributed nothing but set up and we haven’t even met the title character yet. Finally, a storm starts (seen as a sign of Arthur being guilty of murder), and results in furious chorusing, which would probably make more impression if it had happened earlier, but we are into 24 minutes into this thing and nothing has happened plot-wise. At least it is rousing.
25: Ett minne af förflutna A very dramatic and dark recitative ** changes much of musical character so far.
28: Under midnatts-stunden The aria fragment for Ryno ** in which he remembers a story about a knight in love with a woman named Signild, and how this relates to life and death being connected or something. There is no obvious break in the music indicating as to when Brendler broke off.
31, 34: Aldrig bleknar riddarns stjerna/Jordens gladje Blair ej bofast The remainder of the act consists of a duet between Ryno and Snap * which improves ** as they mutually declare that happiness in life can only be found in marriage. Then Ryno goes off to join the Romani troop.
ACT 2: (36.5 minutes)
Scene 1: The Chambers of Agnes.
1: Likval jag alskar dig Agnes sings an aria about being in love **, but specifically with being in love with anyone in particular (she never mentions Arnold, even though she is about to marry him, at least in theory).
10: Vi läsa i de höga stjärnor The chorus of gypsy fortunetellers *** is very exotic and catchy.
12: Osynliga vasen som lyden Ryno plays sexy male fortuneteller for Agnes at the request of Arnold **.
15: The third ballet * is much more tense at first, before switching to a bit of flute work. It is followed by a reprise of the gypsy fortuneteller chorus.
19: O, hvilket fasans bud! Ryno makes his prediction: a warning to Agnes not to marry the murderer of her father. Arnold immediately objects to this and Agnes calls off the wedding. The ensuing trio is possibly the musical climax of the opera ***. Brendler pulls off a modification of the golden melody here (since I own a copy of the recording, I can tell you that the break up noise that occurs on this track does not occur in the original recording). Ryno is taken into custody and imprisoned.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1.
25: Hvem ar der? An odd duet for Birger and Botvid while they stand guard (with chorus). The most notably thing about it is a tune in the flutes *.
27: Akta mej! A brief duet * which has more plot importance (a musically combination of Mozart and Rossini) as Snap scares the gardener assistant Josse (who thinks he is a ghost) and gets into the castle dressed up as a jester in an attempt to get Ryno released from prison.
Scene 3: A hall in the castle.
29: Kung Richard uti tornet satt The act finale ** is in two main parts 1) Snap (as a jester) sings a song about King Richard falling in love with a woman while Arnold slowly gets drunk and falls asleep. 2) Agnes arrives and promises to help Snap rescue Ryno from prison. She steals the key off of Arnold, and the pair leave for the cells.
ACT 3: (40 minutes)
Scene 1: The prison.
2: O ljufva vallustfulla smarta! Ryno sings of his desire for Agnes and her love (to a violin solo no less!). A very dramatic aria, and probably one of the finest moments in the score ***.
8: Den engeln ar Prince Oscar switches everything to waltz time ** as Ryno and Agnes confess their love for each other (even though they have only met once before? eh, this is opera after all, that stands!)
12: Det ar forbi! Arnold arrives *** and has Snap and Agnes arrested (promising the darkest cell for Agnes!). Probably the best music written by the Prince so far, and strongly influenced by Mozart and Beethoven.
15, 17, 19: Min far!/Min far, du kom/Milda, eviga forsyn! Agnes recognizes her father, prompting three very good sections *** as she recognizes him and then the quintet which follows the brief arioso from Thure Stenson, who orders that Arnold fight Ryno, including a brief prayer to Providence.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1, but daytime.
21, 24, 28, 30, 31, 35, 37, 39: Marsch/De komma att strida/Du, som herrskar over skyar/Nu allt redo ar!/Ack, min Ryno/Himlen ljusnat/Gud, som dig aterskanker/Som de bleka bliss The march *** and a furious chorus ** as preparations are made for the duel. The finale (all 18-minutes of it) Ryno asks that he and Arnold pray before the fighting, but Arnold initially refuses (until convinced otherwise by the chorus. They eventually do pray **. The fight begins with chorus fear and fury **, Ryno is initially wounded and Arnold attempts to use this as an opportunity to stop the duel entirely, but Ryno refuses, saying it is not becoming a Swedish man to give up in the middle of a fight, although it does prompt a good ensemble before the fight continues ***. Eventually, Thure Stenson freaks Arnold out to the point that he dies from fright and Ryno is saved (although he is bleeding, as Agnes mentions continuously in the stretta finale ***, but which Ryno thinks of as a badge of honor). Thure Stenson then gives his blessing to the marriage of Ryno and Agnes and all rejoice praising G-d ***. The opera ends with a show-bizzy joyous chorus ***.
To some extent, this is Fidelio with the genders partially reversed, no gender confusion (or closeted lesbianism, nor for that matter marital love, although Ryno himself does appear to love the institution of marriage as a concept), and a lot of chivalry instead of the more personal drama of the Beethoven opera. There is a bit of the supernatural (it is never entirely clear if Thure Stenson was actually killed, and then was resurrected somehow?, or if he was set upon and survived but fled and then returned after everyone thought he was dead).
I would say that the Brendler music was superior (it certainly invokes what we would know today as a more modern sound, even if it is based on Weber) to that of Prince Oscar (which seems to be based more on French and Italian models), and in the first two acts that most certainly is the case, however, in the third act, the Prince is able to redeem himself similarly to how Thure Stenson redeems his daughter and Ryno (the character has messianic elements, at least). The plot is ironically a story of redemption (perhaps the element that causes the opera to resemble Der Freischutz most, apart from it obviously being a Singspiel in Swedish), which it does not appear to be at first but which becomes more clear by the third act. Musically, the opera appears to be obviously modeled off of the Weber opera (as I mentioned, the Brendler music is strikingly liberal in its borrowings from Freischutz and even to some extent Euryanthe), although Prince Oscar seems to have been trying hard to press the comedic elements of the work, especially in act two, and musically, this is its weakest point. Instead of demonic forces, however, the evil is purely human (Arnold) and the redemption even is human (although there are references to a G-d that is closer to Judaic strict monotheism, in spite of other references to the Cross, which appears to be the only Christian reference). Perhaps this less supernatural interpretation is more appropriate to Swedish culture, which, being Nordic, is generally less supernaturalist than German culture with its preoccupation with demonic forces.
Although the work is slight in many ways, (and the spoken dialogue is mostly missing) it does have some very good music in it (by all three composers), and the plot is at least engaging, if slightly confusing in places. The lack of vocal diversity might be off-putting (there are eight soloists, five of which are baritones (three relatively minor), along with a bass, and a lone tenor to keep the soprano company.
An alpha for the Swedish Freischutz. Others might object with that being too generous, but this is definitely worth a good listen, and it will certainly not disappoint. At worst, one may compare two distinct styles of European operatic music from the first half of the 19th century.