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Sebastian FAGERLUND (b. 1972)
Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) (2017)
Charlotte Andergast – Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Eva – Erika Sunnegårdh (soprano)
Viktor – Tommi Hakala (baritone)
Helena – Helena Juntunen (soprano)
Leonardo – Nicholas Söderlund (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Finnish National Opera/John Storgårds
Rec at performances on 19, 23 and 30 September 2017 at the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, Finland
Libretto with English translation enclosed
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2357 SACD [76:26 + 42:54]

When I reviewed the world premiere of Höstsonaten a little more than a year ago, I expressed a wish that YLE, the Finnish public service company for radio and television, would one day issue a DVD of the opera, since the premiere was broadcast on TV nationwide. It hasn’t happened yet, but shortly after the premiere BIS announced that they were going to issue Höstsonaten in CD format – and here it is. But my request concerning a visual production was also granted a while ago when the premiere was broadcast on SVT, Swedish Television. Thus I have now seen it twice, and then listening to the BIS discs, libretto in hand, further deepened my insight in the work. It is not a very easy opera to come to terms with. Musically it is utterly expressive, but like many present day operas the tonal language is not immediately accessible, and the story is, like many of Ingmar Bergman’s works, dark, emotionally complicated and elusive. I think the best way of describing the work is to quote my initial impressions, as expressed in my original review:

“Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 relationship drama Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) has become a film classic – even though Bergman himself was dissatisfied with the result. When the Finnish National Opera commissioned a work for Finland’s centenary of independence, Sebastian Fagerlund chose the script for the film, adapted for the opera stage by Gunilla Hemming. It is, like many of Bergman’s works, a dark and trying drama, a chamber play taking place within the four walls of a vicarage, where Eva and her husband Viktor are living. They also take care of Helena, Eva’s sister who is seriously handicapped and can hardly speak. Their mother, Charlotte, who is a celebrated concert pianist touring the world’s great venues, has announced that she will pay them a visit for the first time in seven years. Eva and Victor have lost their three-year-old son Erik and Charlotte has also lost her male friend Leonardo.

When Charlotte appears, all she talks about are her new clothes. Her main interest is herself, her career and her admiring audience, which is present at some distance, but later on enters the room and takes part in the conversation. Leonardo also appears in flashbacks. There is a certain surrealism about the proceedings. Charlotte is annoyed when she learns that Helena, whom she had put in a nursing home, now lives at the vicarage. The relationship between Eva and Charlotte is uncertain and tentative. Do they even like each other? Eva grew up with a frequently absent mother, and in the second act their conversation becomes more and more heated. Eva accuses Charlotte of having pressured her to have an abortion when she was 18. After long and aggressive discussions they part company for the night and Charlotte, alone with her audience, apologises for everything she has done wrong.

The next morning Charlotte leaves and Eva begins a letter to her mother in which she regrets the dispute and claims she has wronged her. Charlotte on the other hand has obviously already forgotten about her apologies.

This is a masterly libretto, deviating in several instances from Bergman’s script. The emotions are strong and after 2½ hours one is quite exhausted as a listener and onlooker. Sebastian Fagerlund has created a colourful score that powerfully comments, underlines and punctuates the text. The music is not melodious, but it is expressive and full of feeling. Where I am in two minds is about the design of the vocal parts. In the first act, these stand out as rather wooden and foursquare. In the second act, when the drama increased, there is more life, more expression, the temperature rises, the tempo quickens and some of the dialogue is spoken. In the second act there is also a scene filled with light, joy and happiness. The paralysed Helena comes out of her room and speaks of a holiday in Bornholm, where Leonardo kissed her – and she was utterly serene.”

In the movie version two great Swedish international actresses impersonate the roles of Charlotte and Eva: Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann. Liv Ullmann, who turned 80 the same day as I wrote this, had a long relation with Ingmar Bergman, personally and as a frequent actor in his films. But for the legendary Ingrid Bergman – no kinship with the director – this was her first, and last collaboration with him.

In the opera the role of Charlotte was tailor-made for Anne Sofie von Otter, who was seen for the first time in an operatic role in Finland. It is a strenuous role, not least mentally, and she expresses every facet of the complicated feelings provoked during the disputes. Noble and aloof, she gradually weakens, but ultimately never changes.

Eva’s character is entirely different: she is vulnerable, uncertain, vacillating, and Erika Sunnegårdh impresses greatly in this role. She was a late starter, making her operatic debut when she was 38 in the title role of Turandot. It was a sensation and she soon sang at the Met and many other big houses. Vocally she may not be at her best, but the identification with the role character is so tangible, so involved, that one can feel all her pain, all her frustrations. And it should be added that there are few opportunities to display vocal beauty in this role, but there are moments when the glistering steel in her Turandot voice adds an intrinsic strength that Eva has repressed from her youth and until the confrontation with her mother goes so deep that she can’t hide it any longer. The other roles, though important, are rather limited in scope, but Tommi Hakala, not in his best voice either, is a believable Viktor, rather pale and indecisive and ultimately sceptical to God – a motive that is recurrent in Ingmar Bergman’s works. Nicholas Söderlund’s Leonardo is fairly anonymous – and that is hardly his fault. Helena Juntunen has her big number in the second act, when she suddenly appears, from another world it seems. This solo is also the only music that is cantabile in the traditional sense of the word, and she sings gloriously. Chorus and orchestra are splendid under the direction of John Storgårds, but the function of the chorus as a kind of image in Charlotte’s mind of the only thing that is really important to her: the admiration from her audiences, is more diffuse when only heard. It should be added though that some of the scenes with the chorus are among the most powerful in the whole work.

After the live experience at the premiere, the reprise of the premiere on TV and now the “soundtrack”, I have come down with a great admiration for Höstsonaten in its operatic incarnation. It isn’t an easy work to come to terms with, but closer acquaintance with it has convinced me that it is a valuable addition to the repertoire: agonizing but perspicacious. The recording is up to BIS’s regular high standard.

Göran Forsling


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