Helena Munktell: I Firenze/In Florence (1889)

Comic Opera in one act. Running Time: 48 minutes.

And now something a little bit lighter, one of my shorter reviews, just over 1000 words.

This was the first opera written by a Swedish woman. First performed in 1889, it was paired on a double bill with La fille de Regiment, and received positive reviews. In 1891, it was again produced by the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and in 1892 was performed in Paris conducted by Benjamin Goddard, a former teacher of Munktell. Again, it received positive reviews, but then appears to have dropped out after that point until 2017 when the opera was revived by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and was then released by, of course, Sterling, our Swedish music label of choice. Other reviewers have referenced the delicacy of the vocal lines, Munktell having a sensitivity for the human voice.

The Composer:

Helena Munktell (1852-1919) was only eight when her father died and her family of nine siblings (she was the youngest) moved in with her mother (who was fourteen years the junior of her husband), who had lived in a separate house for the entirety of her marriage, in spite, or perhaps because, of her nine pregnancies. Her elder sister (by a year) was the painter Emma Josepha Sparre. Helena studied music under Benjamin Goddard and Vincent DIndy in Paris, and under Julius Epstein in Vienna. She became known in Sweden for choral music and songs starting in 1885, turning to symphonic music in the 1890s. She became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1915, and co-founded the Swedish Society of Composers in 1918. She is buried at the Norra begravingsplatsen in Stockholm, the same cemetery as Alfred Nobel.

SETTING: Florence, Italy, 15th century. The plot revolves around Gemma (soprano) who is a model posing for two painters who share a studio, Bardi (baritone), and Stefano (tenor), who have both been commissioned to enter a portrait competition by a Duchess di Vanozza. Bardi attempts to sabotage the painting created by Stefano, and the two artists end up fighting a duel. When the Duchess arrives she disqualifies Bardi. Questioning Stefano, she ascertains that he still loves Gemma, and it is revealed that she, the Duchess, is in fact Gemma (or that Gemma is actually the Duchess, rather).


Scene: A portrait studio in Florence, 15th century.

0: The overture ** is a jubilant piece. Although there may be a temptation to see Richard Strauss here, I think that, given the training Munktell received, that the work is strongly within French late-19th century concepts.

3: Tror ni en kvinna After Stefano tells Gemma to sit still, her aria ** has a sort of wondering quality to it, as if she is drifting off into space dreamily. Notice the brass effects, which give off an arid quality.

6: Ach, det var Rather quickly, it switches over to waltz time ** (which might sound a little like Johann Strauss Jr. Here the woodwinds and strings dominate, especially as the number switches over to a duet (which ends with an Offenbach-ish finish).

10: O ja, nu tavlan The actual first love-duet ** (Gemma-Stefano) is a little more starchy but nevertheless lovely as they both think to themselves and consider the possibility of a more intimate relationship.

16: Min fru, nu lag Bardi arrives and comments on Stefano and his painting (not much of an impression). The trio ** has a bit more tension than the usually dreamy quality of the score.

20: O, fagra barn We return to dreamy as Stefano confesses his love to Gemma and embarks on a gentle aria **. She leaves, never actually uttering a word from the moment he makes his declaration of love to her.

26: Signor! Signor! Bemba (a servant of Stefano) arrives with news of the imminent arrival of the Duchess **.

31: Som ingen hyra Bardi challenges Stefano to a duel over his portrait of Gemma in a furious trio with Bemba **. They are about to fight when pages (sopranos and altos) announce the arrival of the Duchess in a flourish.

36: Mitt herrskap The Duchess has a couple of her male friends (dandies by the sound of their Gounodesque tenorial coloratura) and a chorus of courtiers look over the studio *** in a grandiose number. The Duchess upbraids Bardi for the fight with Stefano, and convinces her two dandy friends to judge in favor of her preferred man.

42: Annu ett ord The Duchess asks Stefano if he still loves Gemma after all the arguments with Bardi. He reaffirms his love and the Duchess reveals that she is in fact, the same woman as Gemma. Bardi is a bit miffed, but the chorus sings joyously ** as Stefano accepts a proposal of marriage from the Duchess (obviously it would not work the other way around).


Munktell is able to accomplish something most male composers never do: a consistently good score from beginning to end with never a single dull note. This might partially be due to the work being an operetta (there is much spoken dialogue and even melodrama, but even that is set to a very attractive orchestral line). The vocal lines are almost gratuitous and surprisingly set lower in the vocal ranges (the soprano never sings higher than a high B-flat, but goes down to a low B). The tenor is rather shockingly set low in the range (much of the part is written in the lower octave with many low E-flats, Ds, and even a C-flat), but there are also jumps as high as high A and there are two B-flats if I am counting correctly from looking at the handwritten score). The score has a general sense of joy which is only broken twice (once for the dreamy fantasy of Gemma at the beginning of the opera, then again during the set up for the duel).

If anyone is interested in the piano-vocal score, here is a link: https://s9.imslp.org/files/imglnks/usimg/a/a6/IMSLP434344-PMLP706024-Munktell_Helena_I_Firenze_Klav_Ms.pdf/

I call it a mini-alpha. Please listen to this one, it is most enjoyable!

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