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Ivar HALLSTRÖM (1826-1901)
Duke Magnus and the Mermaid (Hertig Magnus)

Romantic Opera in 3 Acts (1867)
With book by Frans Hedberg (1828-1908)
Critical Edition: Anders Wiklund
Duke Magnus - Lars Johansson, baritone
Sten Åkeson, constable - Johan Rydh, baritone
Brynolf, his son - Mattias Ermedahl, tenor
Peder, an old fisherman Staffan Alveteg, bass
Ingrid, his wife - Eva Marklund, mezzo-soprano
Anna, their daughter - Ingela Bohlin, soprano
Lisa, a fisherman's daughter - Emelie Sigelius, soprano
Ulf, cook to the Duke - Jonas Olofsson, tenor
A monk - Marco Stella, baritone
A fisherman - Robin Svanvik, baritone
Courtiers, pages and servants; Fishermen and peasants, their wives and children - Vadstena Academy Choir
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
Rec. Louis De Geer Concert Hall, Noorköping, Sweden. 7-11 August 2000
MARCO POLO 8.225214-15 [44.22+69.00]



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To come across any work of Hallström outside Sweden is a rarity and for one of his operas to be recorded complete will be welcomed by researchers of the romantic opera tradition. Only one entry exists in the Gramophone catalogue, one aria from Den Bergtangna (Bride of the Mountain King) (recorded on BIS-CD-1053). We owe this recording to the existence of a yearly festival at Vadstena Castle, Sweden's earliest opera house, where the International Vadstena Academy performs rediscovered gems of early opera. Since this very castle was the setting for Hallström's opera and a Duke Magnus really did visit the place makes this 2000 performance somewhat special.

Neither Ivar Hallström's background nor career is given in the notes, and I guess that he came from a comfortably well-off family and probably learnt his art at a German conservatoire. His music has more than a passing resemblance to the music of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. Orchestration is at times light-weight in texture with a marked absence of counter-melodies and decoration. Arias are often found to be dark, in a minor key and hymn-like.

As an opera composer, one particular characteristic is the introduction of folk-song melodies within his music. He was striving towards a national musical 'tone' by incorporating themes of a national character. He also tended to match his music to a singer's stage character rather than the operatic mood of a situation and this makes an assessment of this work interesting.

While his Bride of the Mountain King was widely played throughout Sweden, Duke Magnus and the Mermaid was less fortunate. It was written from knowledge gained by the writing of two cantatas (1860/1865).

It was staged in January 1867 but for economic reasons was mounted with only eleven days rehearsal, and with scenery and costumes borrowed from other productions. This shortcoming was to some extent off-set by good soloists and so the first night was claimed as a reasonable success. However when on the third night the opera was to have been given strong publicity and the stamp of royal approval given by the attendance of King Oscar II, the principal soloist (Fredrika Stenhammar) fell ill. Without any understudy available the performance had to be cancelled. This interruption to the opening run (as with Wallace's Lurline) sealed the fate of the work; in total only six performances were ever given. It was not revived until 121 years later. The failure of Duke Magnus did not dampen Hallström's determination to continue composing for the stage. He produced The Enchanted Cat in 1869 and, of course, The Mountain King. Incredibly, before being assured of any success, Hallström had spent much time reducing the scoring to suit a standard pit orchestra so that the work could be more widely performed.

 

Duke Magnus and the Mermaid (Hertig Magnus) involves a real location and Vadstena Castle does exist. In Act I the characters are introduced on a rising scale of social status while in Act II they feature in a descending order. In Act III the characters' genuine opinions and relationships are revealed. This is a subtlety, which would not come across in its stage production, which I'll discuss later.

Act I: Briefly the plot concerns a village of fishermen and wives preparing for their day's work. Peder is bitter at having lost everything when the Crown took the Vadstena monastery. He relates this fact to Duke Magnus, a feeble and unstable nobleman who believes that a mermaid is trying to entice him to the depths of the lake surrounding Valstena Castle where a tranquil and glorious existence awaits. Peder realises that his daughter, Anna, has been noticed by the Duke and decides that he might steer a marriage union and bring prosperity to the family. A monk, equally bitter at having lost status as a result of the Crown's interference, joins Peder with a plan to lead Anna and the Duke back into the Catholic faith, thus getting the Church and monastery to regain their power. Their plotting is overheard by Lisa who dislikes the monk's advice. Lisa's fiancé arrives to tell her he has been appointed to a position in the Duke's employ, and the two decide that they can now afford to get married.

Sir Brynolf enters and reminisces about his attraction to Anna: she enters and soon joins in a duet, declaring her love to him. Anna has momentarily forgotten their social differences, yet reassures her that this is not a problem. In a romantic aria, I played as a child, she soliloquises before the Duke arrives with a hunting party. The duke sings of his tormented mind and his need for the mermaid to grant him his peace. The tension heightens as he starts to hear sounds coming from the shore. Anna in a boat pretends to be the mermaid and sings, 'Come son of the King to my longing breast beneath the waves'. Magnus answers and jumps from a hill into the lake. A cry comes from Anna. We continue with Peder recognising his daughter's off-stage cry of shock and Sir Brynolf going to the Duke's rescue. The Duke is saved to general rejoicing in contrast to the Monk's sour words of 'Heaven's revenge'.

In the second Act, Hallström relaxes more and provides better melodies and orchestration. Act II: In Peder's cottage his wife is found spinning and he mending fishing nets. He finds out from Lisa that his daughter, Anna, is in love with Sir Brynolf. The couple are summoned to the Castle constable. The scene changes to a Castle interior where courtiers sing of the silent unease of 'the prince on the shore'. Lord Sten asks his son, Brynolf, 'Did someone push the Duke?' Brynolf protects Anna in his reply and later announces his love for her. Anna is now summoned and Sten asks if her father made her lay traps. Puzzled by this Anna is told to forget Brynolf on grounds of ill feeling towards the Duke. Suddenly the Duke arrives, and seeing in Anna the mermaid, he rushes to her, asserting his love for her. After an argumentative duet Brynolf now enters and pushing the Duke away embraces her. The Duke intervenes and Brynolf draws his sword. The Act finishes with the Duke chasing Brynolf and Anna with drawn sword as they try to hurry away.

Act III: On the shore again the scene mirrors the opening of Act I with a fishermen's chorus declaring a splendid catch. Lisa presents her fiancé to them and their engagement is celebrated. A dance follows. The gaiety now subsides as the chorus retire and the monk enters with Peder. The monk is annoyed at hearing Anna's love for someone else and their plan for her to marry the Duke is in jeopardy. Peder declares that he and his wife found Anna abandoned as a baby by the Castle at the time when a Prince and Princess were guests there. Her clothes showed she was of high birth. They agree that Brynolf must not stand in their way. They hide as Brynolf and Anna arrive and in a sextet they embrace. The monk re-enters with dagger raised and heads for Brynolf. Sten intervenes and the monk is taken prisoner. The Duke who has previously entered in bewilderment, also with sword in hand, stands in amazement. In confusion at the complicated skein of sub-plots everybody stares at each other with astonishment unable to understand what crime has been concealed. The Duke comes to his senses, understanding that his mermaid was only a dream. He sentences the monk to death. Information reveals that Anna turns out to be Brynolf's cousin and the Duke agrees to their marriage, allowing mercy to go before justice.

From the above one considers that there is a fair plot, allowing the contrasts of pastoral/court settings, action and drama. The dramatic situation at the end of Act I must have been difficult to stage effectively, yet although the libretto gave Hallström a golden opportunity to excel in fine music yet there is a lack of inspirational energy in the result: much is written in a minor key. Hallström seems to detach the emotions he expresses in the music from those expressed in the lyrics. Neither does he see the need for using musical passages to portray the on-stage changes in mood. At the start of the Finale, Magnus's soliloquy (CD1 tk.11) contains a musical blandness that does not relate to excitingly descriptive lyrics or hearing sounds off-stage. This could have provided a powerful conclusion to the Act but, despite Hallström's practice in choral setting, there is no intensity of musical excitement, nor any integrated choral work where the characters interact vocally. This is a wasted opportunity since at this point the music could have provoked a crescendo of emotional intensity.

Act II opens with a plodding introduction and heavily weighted verses that don't seem to match 'I will be rich again … everyone will be your friend' but then we have to remember that Hallström set for character rather than situation. After this, Act II and Act III improve and the score becomes more lively. It is here that we find a few operatic gems from the work. Anna and Lisa's duet 'How can you be so full of joy' (CD2 tk.3) comes like a breath of fresh air. The Act II finale is better written with the music well matched to the lyrics and dramatic crescendo.

Comparing the similar opening of Act III with Act I the writing is much more fluent (CD2 tk.12) and a well-written polka follows. The operetta ends with a reprise of Anna singing the mermaid song; but what a pity Hallström did not work harder to provide a less melancholic tune, for the Act finishes on a sombre note.

 

The singers on this recording are all experienced, well respected Swedish names. There is little point in discussing their individual merits when no other version is available for comparison, so we are grateful to Marco Polo for making the set possible. The orchestra works sensitively under Niklas Willén, who studied conducting at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm and works internationally. The recording is excellent, though the choir are at times rather too recessed for my liking.

The 2 CD set comes with a 52 page booklet containing good background notes on the work. The libretto is given in Swedish and English and is clearly typeset, Plot development is described in boxed-notes between the vocal numbers.


Raymond Walker

 



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