Friday, 24 November 2017

Fagerlund - Autumn Sonata (Helsinki, 2017)

Sebastian Fagerlund - Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata)

Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Helsinki - 2017

John Storgårds, Stéphane Braunschweig, Anne Sofie von Otter, Erika Sunnegårdh, Tommi Hakala, Helena Juntunen, Nicholas Söderlund

Opera Platform - 23 September 2017

Ingmar Bergman's films manage to strike such a fine balance between realism and heightened drama that it's hard to imagine that they would gain anything from being adapted into an opera. Bergman however was always a director keen to experiment in film expression and indeed even a creative opera director himself, his filmed version of The Magic Flute in particular showing that perfect balance between dealing with the practicalities of the dramatic stage and sparking the imagination.

Adapting Bergman to the stage is particularly challenging in the case of working with one of Bergman's intense late works of family drama and personal crisis from the late seventies onwards. Autumn Sonata, like Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, are all characterised not only by fraught situations of lives in pain with brutal exchanges that cut to the bone, but there is also often a less tangible element in them dealing with death and ghosts, or ghosts of the past.

Both elements weigh heavily on Autumn Sonata, and Sebastian Fagerlund addresses them immediately from the start of his new opera Höstsonaten, setting the dramatic and musical tone for what is to follow. There's an anguished exchange between Eva and her husband Viktor while they are expecting the arrival of Eva's mother who is visiting them. She hasn't seen her mother in seven years, Charlotte having largely neglected her family for the demands of her career as a famous international concert pianist.

There are issues on both sides that suggest that tensions are likely to arise. In the seven years of her absence, Charlotte has not only missed the birth of Eva and Viktor's son Erik, but she didn't even return when the boy died, drowned a day before his 4th birthday. Charlotte herself has recently lost her husband Leonardo, also a musician, who has died a slow, agonising death. To add to the tensions Eva has been looking after her mentally disabled sister Helena, and Charlotte is still reluctant about dealing first-hand with her child, and would have preferred to have her out of the way in a nursing home where she had been committed.

Those however are only the most recent and present issues that are likely to be the source of tension between mother and daughter; the latent animosity between them goes back further and deeper than that. Eva has a lifetime of hurt, pain, disappointment, lack of affection and validation left unspoken that she holds against her mother. It's been building up in her and it's time she had her say. She doesn't hold back, airing all her grievances, reproaches and recriminations in wild outbursts like "I love you" and "You hate me".

Some might expect a little more from an opera than self-absorbed people involved in a full-blown domestic dispute, and there's no doubt it's all more than a little overstated, but that's the point. Bergman's attempt to lay bare the stark reality of mother/daughter relationships is incisive and beautifully crafted, and essentially, the parent/daughter melodrama is no lesser a theme and treatment of the subject than many of Verdi's operas (Simon Boccanegra or Rigoletto). Still, the challenge remains for Sebastian Fagerlund to justify Autumn Sonata's translation from cinema screen to opera stage, and he does that well.

As the title indicates, there is an implicit musical dimension to Autumn Sonata that connects creativity to artistic inspiration. "Where do you draw it from? The brilliance, the pain" the chorus ask, Charlotte's public always with her and in the back of her mind. The question is not just where the artist draws their inspiration from but the hard price they often have to pay for it in the failure of their personal lives is also realistically considered here. Charlotte's career has left her in severe physical pain, and her taking of sleeping pills and painkillers compound her failure to be a good and understanding mother. Above all however, her public comes first.

Fagerlund interweaves all these elements well, pitching the music towards the emotional tenor of the work without letting it add to the high melodrama that is being expressed on all sides. The scoring for the voices is particularly good in this respect, permitting arias of reflection, duet duels and competitive trios of overlapping sentiments spilling over one another as they vie for attention. Fagerlund even permits the rarely lucid Helena her moment of vocal expression. With a chorus always ready to well up also in the background, temperatures are raised in intensity as Charlotte's visit descends into increasingly violent verbal blows.

The other critical factors contributing to Autumn Sonata working as an opera are of course the singing performances and the staging. All the roles are well sung and all the different voices here play a significant part in the work as a whole, but the principal roles are very much tied into the mother/daughter relationship of Eva and Charlotte. Erika Sunnegårdh is compelling and credible in her expression of Eva, and Anne Sofie von Otter shows none of the weakening that has been detected in other traditional roles, but is actually in superb voice in her creation of the role of Charlotte. The only fragility she shows here is her character's inability to continue to deny the damage she has done to her family.

With expression of personality and interaction of characters of primary importance, it's all very well directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, who also designs a set that helps express the multiplicity of views and sentiments. The stage is broken down into rooms and compartments, with backgrounds that open and close in response to the various levels that the libretto and characterisation operate on, showing parallel scenes, flashbacks, ghosts and even expressions of inner-life in the case of Helena. Without question, Bergman proves to be well suited to opera, and Fagerlund serves Autumn Sonata well.

Links: Opera Platform