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Poul ROVSING OLSEN (1922-1982)
Belisa – An Opera in Four Scenes

Text by Federico Garcia Lorca - Sung in Danish.
Belisa: Eir Inderhaug (sop)
Don Perlimplin: Sten Byriel (bass)
Marcolfa: Marianne Rørholm (mezzo)
The Mother: Anne Margrethe Dahl (sop)
Household Spirit 1: Lise-Lotte Nielsen (sop)
Household Spirit 2: Elisabeth Halling (sop)
Vocal Group Ars Nova, Odense Symphony Orchestra / Tamás Vetö
Bo Lundbye Jaeger, electronics.
DDD. Recorded at Odense Concert Hall May 1st -3rd, May 6th -7th and June 10th and in the Danish Radio Concert Hall on October 29th 2002. Recorded in cooperation with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
DACAPO 8.226013 [72:00]


Poul Rovsing Olsen was something of a polymath. He trained first in music at the Royal Danish Academy, graduating in theory and piano in 1946 and then went on to take a law degree at Copenhagen University. On completing this, he resumed his musical studies with Boulanger and Messiaen, and combined careers by working as a lawyer at the Danish Ministry of Education, by composing and by writing on music for Danish newspapers.

In 1958, Rovsing Olsen went to the Arabian Gulf where he developed an interest in ethnomusicology. He returned to the Gulf States several times and also went on music-collecting expeditions to India, Turkey, Egypt and Greenland. He became an expert on the music of the Gulf States and was appointed as Keeper of the Danish Folklore Archives, where he concentrated on ethnomusicological work, also becoming Chairman of the International Council for Traditional Music. His musical output totals some 85 pieces and includes orchestral works, songs, piano music, ballet scores as well as his two operas, Belisa and Usher.

Rovsing Olsen apparently said that ‘his dream was to make music as direct as possible and to bring it closer to the listener,’ and he pursued this ambition vigorously by fusing Oriental and Western influences (like his teacher Messiaen) to provide what he called ‘clarity and substance.’

On the strength of this short opera at least, these ambitions have been fulfilled. The world première of the work at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in 1966 and received enthusiastic reviews throughout Scandinavia and Germany. The score contains music of wonderful delicacy combined with powerful and engaging harmonies, and while undoubtedly ‘modernish,’ it is easy on the ear and thoroughly compelling. It is also reminiscent on occasion (perhaps unsurprisingly given the composer’s interests and indeed the opera’s plot) of Bartók.

Like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Lorca’s story explores reality’s boundaries. Married off by her Mother to the elderly Don Perlimplin, the beautiful Belisa takes five lovers (or says so) on her wedding night. She confesses to Perlimplin, who says he loves her, understands her and forgives her.

Perlimplin discovers that Belisa is captivated by a mysterious man who always wears a red cloak. He sends her love letters and waves to her, but she has seen him only at a distance. A stone with a new love letter wrapped round it, is thrown through a balcony doorway from Belisa’s admirer: Perlimplin hints that he knows the man and vows to sacrifice himself for her happiness.

Belisa waits for her admirer in a garden at night. A male chorus sings as she enters and a red cloaked man shows himself briefly, but then disappears. Belisa declares her love for the man to Perlimplin who says that he will stab him if he returns. Perlimplin leaves and when the cloaked admirer returns, he has been stabbed and is revealed as Perlimplin himself. Belisa has no other lover.

Unlike many modern opera composers of the last thirty years or so, Rovsing Olsen understood how to write for singers. The many short ‘arias’ for Belisa, for Perlimplin and for the Mother are always singable, interesting and emotionally expressive. The duet for the two House Spirits in Scene 2 is particularly lively, puckish and quirky.

The orchestral interludes between the four scenes are small masterpieces too however, as is the garden scene piece for the off-stage male chorus (in which the dynamics range only between pp and mp). This chorus combines a tenor soloist with multi – part harmonies and electronics to produce a sound that moves around the auditorium: it is magical even in two channel stereo and reminded me sharply of the wonderful Jan Sandström double choir setting of Praetorius’ ‘Es ist ein Ros’ on the Swedish Christmas Music disc, ‘Nu stige jublets ton.’ (BIS Northern Lights CD – 5008.) The work is worth hearing for this passage alone.

As a performance, this recording seems pretty well faultless with excellent orchestral playing by the Odense Symphony Orchestra and remarkably fine singing from all the soloists. Sten Byriel has wonderful dark bass tone, Eir Inderhaug is a fresh voiced and lyrical Belisa and Marianne Rørholm (Perlimplin’s servant, Marcolfa) and Anne Margrethe Dahl (Belisa’s Mother) are both on the good form typical of Royal Danish Opera principals. The recording is clear, noise free and convincing and the informative booklet that accompanies the disc contains the plot synopsis and libretto in Danish English and German. Anyone interested in unusual opera or Scandinavian music should rush out to buy this recording. It’s a Disc of the Month for me.

Bill Kenny


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