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Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Nuit des Hommes (1995/6)
Helene Gjerris (mezzo-soprano); Helge Rønning (tenor); Bodil Rørbech, Andreas Hagman (violins); Markus Falkbring (viola); Fredrik Lindstrøm (cello); Gert Sørensen (theremin, percussion, keyboard); Kaare Hansen (conductor)
rec. Max Studio, December 2003
DA CAPO 8.226011 [63:42]

Nuit des Hommes is Nørgård’s fifth opera; and it is a quite different piece of music when compared to its predecessors. To be quite frank, I only know one of them (Gilgamesh [1972] available on Da Capo DCCD 9001), although another one Siddharta (1979/83) has also been recorded since (Da Capo 8.224031-32); but I have not heard it so far. It is probably his most compressed essay in the genre. It plays for a little over one hour, and is comparatively modestly scored (two singers, string quartet, percussion and live electronics), but also calls for some video interpolations when staged. Its subject is war, and the impact of war on individuals brutally thrown into it. There are two characters endorsing a dual role, i.e. before and after; but – importantly, I think – they never really interact, in whatever guise. They rather stand side by side, and later oppose each other. "... a couple, and the drama is their shared and individual inner journey through the phases of war... The opera portrays their interaction as a kind of intensity shared in their common search for the limits of their experience. The intensity first allows them to walk together on the dangerous paths where their enthusiasm has led them. Later, it separates them into two radically transformed figures..." (Sorry for such a long quote from the excellent insert notes; but these words sum-up the whole piece fairly clearly.) In fact, the woman becomes a war correspondent, of a rather bellicose sort, whereas the "ordinary" man becomes a soldier trapped into the trenches and witnessing the inhumanity of war. "They both plummet into the Underworld with no return ticket." The subject is thus war, as reflected through various texts by Guillaume Apollinaire who was severely wounded during World War I, and who died during a flu epidemic in 1918.

The global structure of the opera is simple: two acts of fairly equal length, preceded by a preamble and a prologue, separated by an entr’acte and capped by an epilogue. The opera thus opens with a preamble made of electronic or electronically processed menacing sounds, such as wailing sirens, and a prologue subtitled L’Aurore enchantée (Enchanted Dawn) in which both singers appear as some sort of ancient Chorus, outside the action and commenting upon it. During the first scenes of Act 1, Alice and Wilhelm share a meal and enjoy good wine, which leads them to believe that they have been created as images of God and that they may thus live in utter arrogance. Things, however, progressively change as war is felt getting nearer. This happens in Act 1 Scene 6 Military music. With this, some intimations of horrors to come creep in. "If I could, I would have quickly changed/The hearts of men and everywhere there would be/Left only beautiful things." In Act 1 Scene 8 (O gates of your body), Wilhelm remembers the body of her beloved, with the feeling that it is now closed to him. The following scenes (Departure and Voyage) relentlessly lead into the opera’s turning point (Act 1 Scene 11 Mutation) in which both man and woman realise that everything has now changed "except my love". But too late, though, for the woman’s transformation is already nearly completed. Act 1 ends with the soldier’s nocturnal aria. "Night falls like smoke blown down/I am sad tonight."

The ominous, menacing electronic sounds of the entr’acte lead into the second act. Now, both characters have endorsed their new guise. Alice has become kAli (spelled as such, but the allusion is clear enough), a brutal, blood-thirsty war correspondent, whereas Wilhelm is now a soldier lost in the midst of war’s massacres. War’s all-destroying violence is clearly heard in Act 2 Scenes 1 and 3, whereas in Act 2 Scene 2 kAli sings a savage, violent, erotically charged Eloge de la guerre (Praise of War) in which she seduces soldiers "to penetrate her sex" (i.e. the blood-filled trenches). In this horrendous scene, it seems that some sort of digital delay is used to multiply kAli’s voice that thus seems to echo itself. Act 2 Scene 4 is another short, bleak and doom-laden Nocturne. Act 2 ends with a long desolate scene, in which all that is left is rain "under the liquid moon of Flanders in agony". Both singers join again as the Chorus in the Epilogue ("Enchanted Dawn II") that rounds off the piece in utter desolation. "All in tears/In the astonished sky/Almost ashamed/ Of being mother to a still-born sun."

This summary hardly reflects all the emotional and technical complexity of this gripping, utterly disturbing work. The comparative economy of means and the often direct delivery of Apollinaire’s sometimes surreal words surely enhance the violence and inhumanity of man’s often uselessly brutal instincts by making them almost banal. In many ways, Nuit des Hommes inhabits the same musical world as some of Nørgård’s recent orchestral works such as the powerfully impressive Sixth Symphony At the End of the Day (1998/9) and Terrains Vagues (2000, revised 2001), both available on Chandos CHAN 9904 that I reviewed here some time ago.

All concerned sing and play with irresistible conviction - moreover, the French diction of both singers is quite good - and I frankly do not think that this performance of one of Nørgård’s most thought-provoking works could be bettered. This is, no doubt, a major work; a tough nut to crack, certainly, but well worth the effort. In its own way, the work’s apparent timelessness acquires a terrifying relevance for our troubled times. It should not be ignored.

Hubert Culot

see also review of a live performance


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