Even if you claim to know zilch about classical music, excerpts from Peer Gyntwill undoubtedly be familiar, though you may not have known to attribute them to Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg.
Portions of Peer Gynt have long been used for immediate cartoonish effect. And for good reason. With movements such as "Morning Mood" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Grieg seems to declare: Gather 'round! I have a great story to tell.
Peer Gynt was originally commissioned to write music to accompany Henrik Ibsen's dramatic poem of the same name. The resulting work premiered in 1876 in Norway, but its American premiere was not until thirty years later - the year of Ibsen's death. It is a work rarely staged. One obvious reason is that Grieg's unabridged score for Peer Gynt is over five hours long.
A condensed version of Peer Gynt was performed this week in honor of the centennial of Norway's independence from Sweden. You see, the folktale is part of the collective Norwegian consciousness; it is considered the pride and joy of Norway's contribution to the world of art and culture.
The local chorus group VocalEssence teamed up with The National Opera, The National Theatre and The National Ballet of Norway. It's been something of an international celebration. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has proclaimed Wednesday, October 19, 2005, to be Norwegian American Heritage Day in our fair state. Norway's Crown Prince Haakon Magnus attended Wednesday's "Royal Command Performance" at Ordway Center.
The program was edited down to a series of (familiar) orchestral interludes, and only partially dramatized. Still, the stage was brimming with action. Instead of slipping it into the pit, the orchestra was in full view, with the VocalEssence chorus behind it, and the soloists and dancers in front.
Peer Gynt the man is a character we love to hate - well, until he gets his act together; then we love to love him. He is nothing like the self-controlled, stoic stereotype we have conferred upon Norwegian males. Peer is a cheat, a thief, a liar, and an absentee father. He travels the world looking for fame, fortune, and his next sexual conquest - sometimes three at a time. He is nothing if not colorful. But with all his foibles, lack of self-control, and selfishness, there is something undeniably compelling in his spirit. Ultimately, of course, though not until he is well into his seventies, Peer finds redemption. By whom? Whom else but the woman he left behind all those years ago, the woman who has always loved him unconditionally. Purely. The woman from his homeland who was always right there. Waiting in the hills of Norway.
(Let this be a lesson, ladies: If you wait around for fifty odd years for a self-centered, philandering loser, he'll eventually come back to you when no one else will have him.)
Baritone Trond Halstein Moe of the Norwegian National Opera plays a boorish, unsympathetic Peer who doesn't become any more endearing when he is a pathetic old man. But the real star of the show is soprano Marita Kvarving S_lberg as Solveig. Her show-stopping performance of "Solveig's Song" was the highlight of the evening, and worth the wait.
The edited storytelling is as satisfying as the Ibsen gets, and hits the major plot points. The story is articulately narrated by Toralv Maurstad, who is billed as "one of Norway's leading actors." It is hard to know, however, if his editorializing was his own impulse, or if he was directed to do so. For instance, Maurstad sets up one number by telling us it is "perhaps the most beautiful of all theater and musical scenes." In a house where I am in the minority for not knowing the words to the Norwegian national anthem, I don't think he has to work so hard at national promotion. There was also an unfortunate misstep with his timing that brought the house to giggles, or at least those of us nearest the stage; he accidentally stood at the wrong time, then sat down with a small mumble.
Though I have made much of the story, the visiting opera company, and the visiting royalty; the real delight of this performance comes from Grieg's music, played and sung beautifully here by VocalEssence. It was lovely to hear Grieg's classic work juxtaposed with Norwegian, and the orchestra was rich and perfectly instep. By my count, the orchestra contained ten members of the world-class Minnesota Orchestra (well, nine, plus one recent retiree), and included its associate and assistant concertmasters. Acclaimed conductor Philip Brunelle is the artistic director of VocalEssence, now in its 37th season.
In contrast to the synergy of the chorus and orchestra, the (Norwegian) staging and costuming hit several bad notes. Many of the costumes simply just didn't work with the story. Den Gronnkledte ("the woman in green") has wild green hair that becomes a character on its own with even the slightest movement by the dancer - whom, incidentally can barely see. The costumes of the three farm girls are another gripe. When your dancers are stuffed so precariously into their corsets that they cannot lean into even a partial bow, it is distracting for the audience, who can't help but imagine an imminent wardrobe malfunction. Frankly, I don't want to be ripped from the reverie of the story by a salacious show of bosom.
Costume distractions aside, dramatically speaking, I loved the act with the three lusty farm girls. But most of the remaining stage direction becomes too bawdy or just plain ridiculous. During "The Hall of the Mountain King," the 120-member VocalEssence chorus singers begin to act like trolls, but all to different degrees. Most of the men either swayed nervously a bit with their eyes locked on the floor, or simply refused to comply with the direction to become troll-like. In contrast, a few female singers really got into their troll characters. The whole thing was nothing short of jarring and bizarre.
The biggest problem with Tuesday night's performance was a glut of errors with the supertitles. Some slides should have been separated into two, and slides often advanced too quickly or too slowly. This problem would likely have been resolved with additional rehearsal time.
Though there was no dearth of dramatic flaws in this production of Peer Gynt, none should be correlated to VocalEssence, a superb musical group of which Minnesotans can be proud.
There are several upcoming holiday performances to consider. The 32-member VocalEssence Chorus will team up with Garrison Keillor on Sunday, November 27 at Orchestra Hall for a Thanksgiving special. And Anthony Ross, principal cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra, is a guest performer for "Welcome Christmas!" (December 4 - 10), which will showcase the carols of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. VocalEssence's annual family Christmas concert (and sing along) will be held on December 3 at Plymouth Congregational Church. Perfect for children of all ages.
For more information on these and other upcoming VocalEssence performances, go to: VocalEssence.org