Rosenberg's musical language in this dreamplay of reaching
out for the unattainable is tugged between the poles of Sibelian
cool and warm Gallic impressionism. As an opera this is not another
Pelléas. It is far too mercurial and word-responsive
for that. If anything it has subject connections with other operas:
Korngold’s Die Kathrin (CPO) and Schreker’s Die Ferne
Klang (Naxos and Capriccio). It occupies a surreal littoral
between Puccinian verismo and modernistic objectivity; neither
one nor the other. This is not intended as a criticism. Rosenberg
shows himself a master of vocal and orchestral art. The blend
of voices and instruments is beyond much criticism and here the
composer's stage-craft, learnt at the Royal Opera and on Swedish
Radio, comes through. Rosenberg first encountered the 1824 play
by Atterbom in 1929-30.
The French ‘voice’, rest assured, is more related
to the sensuous Ravel (Daphnis) than to the flinty-hearted
Parisian brilliance of the 1920s. Rosenberg was not a Francophile
in the filtered and desiccated form experienced through the likes
of Uuno Klami (violin concerto and
piano concertos) and Bohuslav Martinů (cello concertino and
harpsichord concerto). Barry's Bluebird (with Norman
O'Neill's music), Fournier's Grand Meaulnes and Debussy's
Sirènes are closer analogues. Other works which
look towards The Isle of Bliss without being style-models
are Rutland Boughton's wispily insubstantial Immortal Hour
and the apparitional Dali-like
‘melt’ of Martinů's Neveux-based Julietta.
The conversational intimacies of this work also
link with Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and that
wonderful proto-Sondheim one-acter by Samuel Barber A Hand
of Bridge. The Isle of Bliss is an escapist fantasy
of the sort also popular in the 1930s and 1940s; witness also
the Max Reinhardt Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's
Dream (for which Korngold specially adapted Mendelssohn's
music - recorded now on CPO). It is extraordinary to think of
the horrors happening while this music was bring written. But
then you might say as much of various Strauss operas produced
throughout Germany and of Othmar Schoeck's Schloss Durande
(1937-41) premiered at the Berlin Oper in 1943.
The plot: Astolf is the dreamer king of the Hyperborean
arctic kingdom whose people wonder about Astolf's suitability.
They expect warrior qualities from their king not those of a poet.
His friend is the bard Florio (a little like the poet Jafar to
the sultan Haroun al-Raschid in the Delius-Flecker play Hassan).
Florio sings of warmer realms (the Scandinavian fixation on the
Mediterranean again - Sibelius, Nielsen, Peterson-Berger). Having
lost his way on a hunt Astolf meets Zephyr, the spirit of the
west wind, who speaks beguilingly of the Isle of Bliss and its
princess Felicia. Astolf is carried to the island by Zephyr. Meeting
Felicia, the two fall in love, marry and drink from the Fountain
of Eternal Youth. Astolf is reminded of his responsibilities in
Hyperborea. Felicia calms his fears and he falls asleep. Felicia's
queenly mother upbraids Felicia for conspiring in Astolf's abdication
of duties to his home kingdom. Felicia is banished and she bids
Astolf farewell. Astolf leaves for his homeland. He returns to
Hyperborea to find that three hundred years have passed. He meets
a descendant of the poet Florio. Astolf surveys his court and
kingdom. Both are sunken into melancholy decadence. Zephyr reappears
and is to take Astolf back to the mythic isle. Astolf stops to
help an old man collapsed at the roadside but it is Time (Death).
Once Astolf grasps the cold and bony hand Death takes the disconsolate
Astolf. Astolf's winged horse Pegasus flies to the isle while
the king's lifeless body is left alone on the stage. Zephyr and
choir sing at the very end: ‘Dock evigt leva skall i saga och
i sãng / drömmen om Lycksalighetens ö’ [‘Yet
in saga and song shall we ever live / the dream of the isle of
This opera is a bold fantasy boldly performed.
Just listen to the Hyperborean testosterone of The Cave of
the Winds (CD1 tr.3) and the Delian heroics at 7.40 CD1 tr.4.
The singing carries strong characterisation. This is a live staged
production with applause at the conclusion of each act. There
are many affecting and magical moments including the tender cries
of Felicia (CD2 tr.6 4.02) and the melismatic singing to be found
on CD1 tr.4 6.10. Listen also to the voices volplaning like criss-crossing
swallows (12.02 tr.3 CD1) and the dancing-toned soprano innocence
at 10.40 CD2 tr.1; an effect further intensified by the children's
choir at 10.03. There is a playful soubrette quality to the waltz
song at tr.3, 08.36 CD1. The weaving of innocent song with intimations
of birdsong reflects recollections of carefree childhood (CD2
tr.6 1.40). The singing of the female spirits on the Isle has
a high ‘white’ faery quality close to the altitude of Stanford’s
Bluebird. Here and there you come across the passing suggestion
of a Mahlerian funeral tread. The use of a wind machine made me
wonder about parallels with the stormy passions of Riders to
the Sea but not a bit of it. The machine is used sparingly
to paint in colour and texture with the utmost gentleness as in
Daphnis. The joyful ululating bliss of the Zephyr finale
recalls the ecstatically floated ‘alleluias’ of Rosenberg’s Fourth
Symphony. At the very end there is enthusiastic applause and whoops
of joy from the perhaps usually impassive Swedish audience.
Phono-Suecia have certainly whetted the appetite
for other Swedish operatic delights. I doubt that Kurt Atterberg's
Fanal will disappoint; similarly Gösta Nystroem's
Herr Arne's Penningar.
This substantial Phono-Suecia set is superbly
well documented through notes by Sofia Nyblom, colour photographs
of the 2001 production (no clever-clever time displacements),
full colour plates of the stage designs from the original 1940s
production and profiles of all the artists. The two CDs are in
a single-width case. I had some difficulty extricating disc 2.
The Isle of Bliss is a translucent dream
of an opera laced with ice. It is cast with imagination and performed
with a commitment that must have met the experience of this reputation-effaced
music with joyous celebration. Most warmly recommended.
see also review
by Goran Forsling