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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Gillet på Solhaug (The Feast at Solhaug) Lyric Drama in 3 Acts after Henrik Ibsen Op.6 (1892-3)
Per-Håkan Precht, Gudmund Alfsøn: Karolina Andersson, Signe: Matilda Paulsson, Margit: Fredrik Zetterström, Bengt Gautesøn: Erik Lundh, Erik fra Hægge and Huskarl: Mathias Zachariassen, Knut Gæssling: Anton Ljungqvist, Sändebudet
Symphony Orchestra of Norrköping, Musikaliska Sällskapets Kammarkör, Akademiska kören Linköping, Norrköpings Vokalensemble / Henrik Schaefer
rec. De Geer-salen Norrköping, August 2015
STERLING CDO1108/1110-2 [3 CDs: 160.56]

This is the only complete recording of an opera by Swedish late-romantic Wilhelm Stenhammar. His other opera Tirfing, a Wagnerian Norse mythological drama, is only available as a handful of extracts, also on Sterling. Purchasers of the present issue, assuming they are not fluent in Norwegian and/or Swedish, will be reliant on the generous quantity of thoroughly researched and referenced notes in Swedish, English and German. There is a synopsis and a full parallel translation of the libretto, this last provided in a separate booklet and in Norwegian (the language used by Ibsen), English and German. I cannot speak for the German notes but the English ones have been mangled by a poor translation. Sterling should really have passed this before the eyes of a native English speaker, or just a better translator. The libretto, too, suffers from being in rather strange English. An example from the words of Margit: "How I should quaver my magic lay! Quaver and croon it both night and day!" (Suggestions to our editor, not me). To put this in context. Ibsen's work is a mid-19th century (1855) poetic drama and translations of any poetry are fraught with problems. The English translation is that of William Archer and Mary Morrison from about 1899 and freely available from Project Gutenberg, (the Norwegian original is on Project Runeberg). They discuss openly the difficulty of expressing Ibsen's heroic-style Norwegian in English. Nonetheless I found following this through 83 pages of small print to be a challenge. It is a valiant attempt at emulating in English a particularly high-flown Norwegian original, and without it one has to rely on the awkwardly translated synopsis. The actual business of following the parallel translation is eased by the excellent diction of all the soloists, to the extent that the Swedish accenting of some of the Norwegian text by some singers was obvious to a fellow listener who knows both languages.

With that gripe out of the way, what of Stenhammar's opera? He follows the plot of Ibsen's play in its final 1883 version and leaves the text largely unchanged. The opera is set in and around Bengt's house at Solhaug. The plot is broadly this: Margit is married to Bengt, who is much older than she is and whom she does not love. She married him because he was a wealthy and powerful landowner, and after her true love Gudmund left to serve the King far away, she was not left with any other option. During the preparations for the wedding anniversary feast Gudmund returns, having been outlawed by the King, who suspected his involvement in a plot. He is seeking shelter at Solhaug. Margit's feelings return, but Gudmund is now attracted to her younger sister Signe. Knut, a local lord, was hoping for Signe's hand in marriage and sees this hope dashed. Knut also knows that his duty to the King is to arrest the outlaw Gudmund, but he cannot, because Bengt has given Gudmund sanctuary. Gudmund and Knut realise they are both seeking to marry Signe and are thus enemies personally as well as politically. Margit attempts to poison her husband Bengt so she may be free to win back Gudmund, even though she realises Gudmund loves Signe. The poisoning attempt misfires. Knut, in an argument, kills Bengt; thus Margit attains her wish anyway. She accepts Knut's murderous act in exchange for him agreeing not to pursue Signe and to allow Signe to be united with Gudmund. Just as Gudmund and Signe set off into hiding, the King appears, having resolved the issue that caused Gudmund to be outlawed and releasing him from his outlaw status. Gudmund and Signe can leave as a free couple. Margit is left alone.

The music is that of a Wagnerite and it is striking how close Stenhammar comes to musical quotation, especially towards the end of the work, where Gudmund and Signe are finally allowed to be together. It is no coincidence, as Anders Wiklund implies in his essay, that Stenhammar writes such confident and indeed passionate music, because he was, at the time, engaged to be married to a girl we only know as 'Signe'. It seems his creativity was fired by this relationship, one which only lasted until the following year, when he met his future wife Helga Westerberg.

In Act 1 it is easy to lose the thread, because the voices of Margit, sung by Matilda Paulsson, and Signe, sung by Karolina Andersson, are so similar that their frequent dialogues seem to become monologues. Careful listening soon shows that Stenhammar has an attractive line in lyricism, which is strongly reminiscent of early Wagner. The orchestra does much more than merely accompany, it binds the first scenes very effectively. The problem here is that despite the confrontations that take place between Margit and Knut, and between Margit and Bengt, the music remains rather earthbound. Only when Signe rushes in with the news that Gudmund is returning, does a welcome element of emotion creep in, and Signe's naive outpouring becomes gently radiant. When Gudmund announces he is fleeing from the King, Margit is shocked. This is the one moment, when the music is dramatic. The remainder of this Act is taken up with exchanges between Margit, Signe and Gudmund. The former tells Gudmund that he is not welcome, because she is no longer a free woman and he makes to leave. Margit relents and accepts that, as an outlaw, he needs refuge. Signe appears and soon realises that Gudmund is attracted to her. It is perhaps a reflection of Stenhammar's lack of operatic experience that he allows all of this to proceed with an unvarying easy lyricism that borders on the dull.

Act 2 offers more opportunities for soloists and chorus, because the eponymous feast is actually taking place to celebrate the third wedding anniversary of Margit and Bengt. Short dance and choral interludes come and go between scenes. More importantly, the act covers significant emotional territory for the three central characters. The characterisation is much stronger now. Margit realises just how impossible all her dreams of happiness have become, and Gudmund, as the erstwhile object of her affections, is not only much more aware of her growing despair, but his love for Signe has become impossible to ignore. These two issues allow Stenhammar to go beyond the gentle lyricism of Act 1 and give both brighter and darker hues to his orchestral colours and more rhythmic impulse to the lines. By the time Margit collapses, overcome by regret, this work is becoming altogether more involving for the listener.

In Act 3 the drama strengthens again and Stenhammar's music is at its best. The feast over and the guests departed, Margit sinks into despair. She has nothing to look forward to except life with a husband she loathes. She prepares a poisoned drink for Bengt as he, still drunk, makes it clear what he wants from her. The ensuing scene is tense as she tussles with her own conscience: should she give him the drink or not. In the end she leaves it on a table and withdraws from the room. Bengt is about to empty the cup when a servant runs in to say a group of armed men, led by Knut, is heading for the house. Bengt puts down the cup and, axe in hand, goes out to face Knut. Gudmund and Signe enter, preparing to flee into exile. They almost drink to their own good fortune from the poisoned cup but Gudmund, recognising it as the one Margit once used to toast her and Gudmund's future all those years ago, throws the contents from a window. There is a disturbance outside. Margit enters fearfully, sees the cup in Gudmund's hand and assumes the worst. Before she can be told that they have not drunk the poisoned contents, a servant enters with the news that Bengt has been killed by Knut, but his group have been overcome by Bengt's men. Gudmund then assures Margit they have not drunk the contents. Knut comes in and offers to pay tribute for Bengt's death. Margit refuses tribute but asks that Knut withdraw his claim over Signe. He agrees. A messenger from the King appears, summoning Gudmund. Gudmund thinks his time is up and that he is being called to account after fleeing the King's court. The messenger says the truth has been revealed and Gudmund is no longer accused of anything. He announces that the actual guilty party has already been executed at the King's court in Bergen. Margit thanks God that Gudmund is safe and, recognising that her old love must be forgotten, gives him Signe's hand in marriage. As the morning sun rises Gudmund, Signe and then the chorus sing of their happiness at a peaceful outcome.

All this is accompanied by music of considerable passion, which owes a great deal to Wagner. Some of it could almost have been written by him. For example: the gloomy introspective prelude to the act; the dramatic brass chords that punctuate the violent emotions and equally violent off-stage events; the sunrise has faint hints of the Magic Fire Music; the coda is a peaceful diminuendo avoiding all pomposity. But Stenhammar's critics did not like it and he never again attempted an opera. The music, for which he is remembered, is mostly orchestral and written well after this piece. It is undoubtedly a throwback to an earlier time in the 19th century and it was written just prior to the operatic revolution caused by Verismo in Italy and by Richard Strauss and Hugo Hofmannsthal in German music.

Sterling have not wasted their efforts in recording this unique work and it does repay the effort of listening, especially from Act 2 onwards. The recording and performance are good if not outstanding. Those who enjoy exploring the outposts of late romantic opera may find this worth the moderate price.

Dave Billinge


 

 




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