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Peer Gynt
Ballet in two Acts by Edward Clug (2018)
Music by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Choreography and libretto by Edward Clug
Peer Gynt – Jakob Feyferlik, Solveig – Alice Firenze, Death – Eno Peci, A deer – Zsolt Török, Ĺse – Franziska Wallner-Hollinek, Ingrid – Ioanna Avraam, A green-clad woman – Nikisha Fogo, Little Helga – Isabella Lucia Severi
Wiener Staatsballett
Shino Takizawa (piano)
Chorakademie und Extrachor der Wiener Staatsoper
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Simon Hewett
Video director: Balázs Delbó
Filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source
C MAJOR 755904 Blu-Ray [112 mins]

One has become, unfortunately, increasingly immune to video versions of musical stage works which bear little or no resemblance to the scores originally intended by their composers and creators, but this video recording is probably one of the most egregious examples I have encountered where what we find on the disc bears at best an extremely peripheral relationship to its labelling on the cover. Oddly enough, where usually critical comments on such issues come in the shape of favourable remarks about the musical performance coupled with recommendations for the purchaser to listen with one’s eyes closed, here the concerns are less with the dramatic excesses apparent in the production as in the musical ones.

Danger signals are immediately apparent when one finds that the name of Henrik Ibsen is totally omitted from the listed credits. Peer Gynt began life, of course, as an early play by Ibsen which was intended for the reader at home rather than the theatre-goer. Some of the required stage effects would have been expensive or impractical for the nineteenth century stage – giving rise to one of the best lines in Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita when the young student suggests that the best way to produce the play would be to “do it on the radio.” But when it was adapted for presentation before live audiences, Ibsen himself suggested that Grieg should be invited to write incidental music to cover the substantial scene changes and some of the more operatically-conceived passages. Grieg, despite considerable misgivings, produced his largest-scale musical score for this event; but soon afterwards the two orchestral suites which he had extracted from his various contributions (with some revisions) established themselves as favourites in the concert hall, and these suites and Ibsen’s play agreed amicably to part company. It was not until the 1970s that the complete original music began to become re-established in the repertory, and delighted listeners discovered that some of the passages that Grieg had omitted from his suites comprised some of his most effectively dramatic music – indeed established him as an unexpected force to be reckoned with in the realm of musical theatre.

Under the circumstances it might have seemed quite appropriate to centre a balletic treatment of the play around the Grieg music in its newly revealed entirety, even when the absence of a single word of Ibsen’s original text leaves rather a vacuum in its central thesis (revealed in the last Act) that the lives of most men are pointless – neither good nor evil, but simply mundane and ripe for melting down in the ladle of the Button Moulder. Edward Clug, although we are informed in the booklet with this release that he had never staged a narrative ballet before, might have been expected to respond to the challenge with enthusiasm. But no such luck. The whole of Ibsen’s conclusion is jettisoned in its entirety, replaced instead by a hackneyed struggle with Death – when the original drama went out of its way to stress that it is not Death that Peer Gynt fears, but to be forgotten. Indeed, in the play it is made clear that Peer would rather do a deal with the devil and end up in hell than simply sink into oblivion.

This wholesale rewriting of a pivotal element of the plot means at the same time that the masterfully dramatic music that Grieg wrote for the final Act – the storm and shipwreck at sea, the chilling scene on the withered heath where even the ghost of Peer’s mother appears from death to reproach him, and the final reconciliation in the forgiving Solveig’s lullaby – all these stupendous passages disappear in their entirety. What we get as a totally inadequate substitute are excerpts from Grieg’s other music including music originally written for string quartet, piano and (most disastrously of all) two movements from his sunny and optimistic piano concerto which stands at the opposite end to the pessimism which haunts Peer Gynt for most of the play’s duration. This is half-heartedly justified as an attempt to supply an additional element to the production in the form of an autobiographical representation of the composer himself; I cannot believe that Grieg would have recognised the slightest resemblance between his own decidedly mundane life and that of either the controversial Ibsen or his extravagant anti-hero.

After this fundamental misconception it seems to me that it is hardly worth discussing the merits of the actual performance as a representation of the work either of Grieg or Ibsen. But it has to be admitted that the realisation of what is left of their efforts is carried out with technical thoroughness and conviction. Particularly effective is the choreography of the scene in the hall of the Mountain King, with the trolls prancing around like a collection of gargoyles and Grieg’s music given its full measure including his written choral contributions. We also get some isolated phrases of Peer’s dialogue (oddly delivered by the dancer portraying Death) which would be more effective if we were provided with subtitles (there are none in any language). What we do get, so far as I can detect, is a German translation of Ibsen’s original Norwegian – although Edward Clug takes credit for the provision of the “libretto”, which is either an attempt to increase his share of the royalties or suggests that something else may have been going on. But his choreography is frequently ugly – not so much a problem in the scenes with the trolls and the lunatics at the Cairo asylum, but less attractive elsewhere, and downright offensive when he inserts a gratuitous incident with Ĺse peeling down Peer’s trousers to administer a spanking during the sublime music that Grieg wrote to accompany the scene of her death. I am fully aware of the value of irony in a stage production of Peer Gynt – Ibsen wrote a brief scene to follow Grieg’s dewy-eyed depiction of morning in which apes are seen pelting the protagonist with dung – but this irony is best conveyed by contrast, and not by outright contradiction.

What is also missing entirely from this production, as from so many modern productions, is the slightest visual indication of the presence of the natural world. The set designer is credited as Marko Japeli, but his contribution seems to be limited to the provision of a dimly glimpsed pile of masonry and a partly disassembled ring which looks like a leftover from a Wagnerian production of the 1950s; both of these elements disappear for substantial sections of Act Two leaving a bare stage. What we are given instead are various recorded montages of natural and other background sounds – sighing winds, trickling water, forest noises and even an Arab street market – some of which seem to go on for overly protracted periods and actually obscure the quiet opening of musical movements such as The Hall of the Mountain King. The costumes by Leo Kulaš, seemingly updated to the one of the drabber eras of the 1940s, are often ugly and don’t seem to assist the dancers to project much sense of character. The stag which portrays Peer’s ambitions and dreams is the most prepossessing of the images provided.

The dancers themselves do everything that is required of them in terms of athleticism and stamina. This applies in particular to Jakob Feyferlik in the title role; he is on stage practically from beginning to end and is required to indulge the choreographer’s whims with unfailing energy. He is also the one dancer who manages by facial expression to portray his thoughts and feelings, to such an extent that one wishes the video director Balázs Dalbó had allowed us more close-up observation of his features. But even he cannot redeem the ridiculous image of Peer sitting in a supermarket toy aeroplane on his journey to Africa (during Grieg’s radiant Morning Mood!) which elicits cruelly ribald giggles from the audience.

The booklet, as seems to be increasingly the case nowadays, provides a series of extracts from reviews of the stage production, one of which refers to the musical performance as being of “resplendent vibrant power.” I must disagree. The extracts from Grieg’s first string quartet are given by the full body of strings. I have no objection to this (indeed, Grieg’s writing benefits from such treatment) but the sound here is ragged and untidy in places; and later on during their playing of Shepherd’s boy from the Lyric Pieces the violins approximate the sound of Mantovani’s cascading strings – not at all appropriate to the music itself, or to the dramatic situation at the time where Anitra is stealing Peer’s belongings and clothes. The sound of Shino Takizawa’s solo piano in the extracts from the piano concerto is tubby and is totally ruined by the unrhythmic chanting of the chorus of lunatics from the stage (and is the finale of the piano concerto really appropriate as a depiction of lunacy anyway?). The instrument sounds better by itself in the closing Melody from Book IV of the Lyric Pieces where it depicts the final reconciliation of Peer and Solveig.

But even this moment highlights the cavalier treatment of Grieg’s score. After Anitra’s Dance, some seven minutes into Act Two, we hear absolutely nothing of the music that Grieg wrote for Peer Gynt for some 35 minutes; and then we are unexpectedly presented with a reprise of Ingrid’s Lament to accompany the meeting between Peer and Solveig (it’s the wrong girl, and the wrong mood). Indeed, apart from a brief reference to Solveig’s Song in the Prelude, we hear not a single note of the music that Grieg wrote for the heroine. And the whole of the last half hour of Grieg’s score, some of the most gloriously dramatic and emotionally moving music that he ever wrote, is missing as well. What sort of treatment is that to dish out to a composer? The Vienna State Opera should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

I suppose for fans of the choreographer and modern ballet styles, this disc might prove to be of interest, although how many times it would bear repetition might be more questionable. For those who know and love Grieg, Ibsen or Peer Gynt it is best avoided; the evisceration of the score alone would be likely be extremely deleterious for the blood pressure. Perhaps the uneducated Rita was right after all: “do it on the radio.”

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD): Rob Maynard

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