Obsession and Revenge: Drot og Marsk at the Kongelige Teater

Heise – Drot og Marsk

Marsk Stig – Johan Reuter
Kong Erik – Peter Lodahl
Rane Johnsen – Gert Henning-Jensen
Fru Ingeborg – Sine Bundgaard
Aase – Sofie Elkjær Jensen
Grev Jakob af Halland – Morten Staugaard
Jens Grand – Simon Duus
Herold – Teit Kanstrup

Det Kongelige Operakor, Det Kongelige Kapel / Michael Schønwandt.
Stage directors – Amy Lane & Kasper Holten.

Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Saturday, March 23rd, 2019.

Tonight was an opportunity to see a rarity.  Peter Heise’s Drot og Marsk is widely considered to be Denmark’s national opera.  Premiered by the Kongelige Teater in 1878, it addresses a key moment in Danish history – the murder of King (Drot) Erik in 1286 by Marshall (Marsk) Stig.  This new production, for which tonight was the first night, was entrusted to the Royal Theatre’s CEO, Kasper Holten, who was joined by his London-based collaborator, Amy Lane.  The house helpfully also offered English-only surtitles for this production.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

King Erik is something of a piece of work, who drops his initial love interest, the comely Aase, for Stig’s wife, Fru Ingeborg, as soon as Stig heads off to war against the Swedes.  As the evening progresses, it’s revealed that quite a few members of Erik’s court have beef with him, a king who allows his obsession with the ladies to cloud his judgment.  Indeed, that idea of a leader so fixated on their own obsessions, to the detriment of their people, felt incredibly timely tonight.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Heise’s music is relatively engaging.  The sound world is big and craggy, with some attractive folkloric elements, notably in Aase’s opening number, as well as some powerful, emotionally heartfelt scenes for Stig and Ingeborg.   There are also some big, stirring showcases for the chorus – not least in a rousing Act 2 finale where Stig and the chorus express their thoughts of revenge.  The musical language seems redolent in some places of the Beethoven of Fidelio, combined with early Wagner, in addition to some tantalizing hints of Nielsen.  It felt, at least on this hearing, to be somewhat episodic – there are several moments along the way where it felt that the interesting melodic material was underdeveloped.  Still, it’s a work worthy of discovery and clearly means a lot to the audience.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Lane and Holten give us a visually stimulating staging.  In common with Holten’s Don Giovanni, which Lane has revived on his behalf in a number of theatres worldwide, the set is constantly moving.  We see the shell of the King’s castle, full of ornate paintings, compared with the bunker outside.  It meant that as the evening developed, the set dissolved and reformed – at one moment setting the action within the castle, at another without.  It made for an interesting visual perspective.  The problem is that that the carefully choreographed moving of the set was met with personenregie that far too often required the singers to indulge in stock operatic gestures – looking to the front desperately, or holding an arm out aloft.  The chorus, was also parked at the front in rows, occasionally gyrating in the dances, but otherwise appearing somewhat under-directed.  Lane and Holten used the set interestingly to set up a scene, showing characters listening outside to events within, but I would question how much of this was actually visible from parts of the theatre.  In many respects, I wish that Lane and Holten had choreographed the set less and used the text to create a deeper theatrical argument.  There is no shortage of material here for a meditation on the betrayal of power, but it felt underdeveloped, instead offering us a more prosaic reading.  That isn’t to say we didn’t get some gripping performances from the principals – with singing actors of the calibre of Peter Lodahl as Erik and Johan Reuter as Stig this was of course expected – just that it could have been something even more compelling.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

Both Lodahl and Reuter were absolutely enthralling.  Lodahl’s tenor appears to have opened up quite nicely in recent years.  The oaky core and characterful tone were ideally placed to interpret the lascivious king.  The top rang out nicely and he also used the text to create some masterful tone colours, bleaching the sound quite hauntingly as he reflected on death.  His Erik was an insinuating, dangerous playboy and his healthy tenor was a pleasure to hear.  Reuter commanded the stage as Stig, finding a genuine beauty in the text.  He brought out the Marshall’s pain with warmth and fullness at the bottom and an admirable ease in the higher reaches of the part.  There was an undeniable electricity whenever he appeared on stage.  Reuter clearly loves this music and sang his role with such persuasive passion that we were also won over by it.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

As his wife, Sine Bundgaard sang with dignity and generosity.  Her big scene, as she contemplated her own death, was dispatched with easy lyricism and an attractive, fast vibrato.  As Aase, Sofie Elkjær Jensen, sang with bright, diamantine tone, the top penetrating into the house with ease.  As Erik’s somewhat put-upon sidekick Rane, Gert Henning-Jensen dispatched his music with a bright, focused tenor and was an active and energetic stage presence.  In the supporting cast, Teit Kanstrup revealed a handsome baritone as the Herold and Simon Duus’ firm and resonant bass-baritone was an asset as Jens Grand.  The chorus sang with lusty enthusiasm and made a mighty noise.  The sopranos didn’t always agree on what pitch they were aiming for but the gentlemen sang with excellent blend and admirable amplitude.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

The superb house orchestra was on formidable form for Michael Schønwandt.  It really is one of the best opera orchestras around.  Schønwandt brought out the big, dark cragginess of the score, the band producing a remarkable range of orchestral colour.  The strings dispatched some really quite treacherous rapid figures in the fourth act with almost nonchalant ease, while the brass, horns in particular, were deliciously characterful.  Schønwandt’s reading was well paced, particularly in a gripping Act 3, but it would be wrong not to mention that there were a few longueurs along the way, particularly in the earlier acts – though I’m not sure any of the performers could do much to negate them.  Nevertheless, as guides through this unfamiliar score, one could not hope for better.

Photo: © Miklos Szabo

This was a most interesting evening in the theatre.  It was a pleasure to be able to discover a work that one rarely, if ever, gets to hear – especially in performances as strong as these.  We were given a towering pair of central performances from Lodahl and Reuter and the remaining roles were all satisfyingly sung.  The staging was efficient, if perhaps lacking in the ultimate degree of psychological insight.  The audience received the cast and production team with an extremely warm ovation.

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