The Darkness Below: The Snow Queen at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Abrahamsen – The Snow Queen

Gerda – Barbara Hannigan
Kay – Rachael Wilson
Kay (double) – Thomas Gräßle
Grandmother / Old Lady / Finn Woman – Katarina Dalayman
Snow Queen / Reindeer / Clock – Peter Rose
Princess – Caroline Wettergreen
Prince – Dean Power
Forest Crow – Kevin Conners
Castle Crow – Owen Willetts

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Cornelius Meister.
Stage director – Andreas Kriegenburg

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, January 4th, 2020.

Premiered in October last year at the Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen, in the composer, Hans Abrahamsen’s, native Danish, this new production of The Snow Queen by the Bayerische Staatsoper, marked the work’s English-language premiere in a translation by Amanda Holden.  The staging was confided to Andreas Kriegenburg and the house assembled an international cast of both ensemble members and guests, Anglophone and Scandinavian singers.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The work is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous fairy tale.  It takes the personal relationship between Gerda and Kay and develops it into a tale of Gerda’s desperate quest to regain her one true love, who is apparently suffering from mutism after undergoing a trauma.  That what precisely that trauma was, is not immediately apparent.  Kriegenburg gives us a staging that is very much a meditation on memory, one that transcends time with multiple versions of Gerda and Kay, whether as children, teenagers or adults on stage, at any one time, or simultaneously.  The adult Kay is played by an actor, Thomas Gräßle.  The presence of nurses and other patients on stage, suggests that Kay’s trauma is not unique.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This is very much an adult version of the Snow Queen tale, especially as the Snow Queen herself is played by a bass who here is very much a man – even if the libretto refers to her using female pronouns.  Kriegenburg gives us a world that is rather dark – the Snow Queen asking Kay to come and kiss her and be protected inside her coat, Gerda given space to sleep in the Prince’s bed, or Gerda kissing passionately the reindeer, performed by the same singer who sings the Snow Queen, all point to something very dark – an undercurrent of abuse that hides below the pristine whiteness of the stage pictures.  It’s presented dispassionately, in a way that provokes reflection, and suggests that even within the most innocent tales, there’s a darkness to the human spirit that’s inescapable.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Around this, for his first opera, Abrahamsen has given us a score that very much lives in its own sound world.  He uses an extremely large orchestra, but the forces are used to provide a wealth of instrumental colour, rather than creating volume.  Indeed, the vocal lines are allowed to emerge over the textures, especially in the grateful acoustic of the Nationaltheater, and are also generally quite singable, revolving around a relatively narrow vocal compass.  The exceptions are for Gerda and the Princess, both written in quite an angular way, with both given some extreme leaps into the stratosphere.  Some of the word setting for Gerda is redolent of the Rake’s Progress, the closing ensemble seemed to hark back to the closing moments of the Britten War Requiem.  Abrahamsen gives us a score of extreme rhythmic complexity, providing layers of delicate, constantly repeating, yet shifting rhythmic patterns.  The sound world is as fragile as the many snowflakes descending onto the stage – whether in the use of extremely high string harmonics, gargling winds, or threatening brass interjections at the bottom of their range, setting that atmosphere of danger below the surface.  The work unfolds at a natural pace – perhaps the final scene drags slightly – but otherwise it didn’t seem to outstay its welcome over the two-hour-twenty-minute running time, including intermission.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In this, one of the world’s pre-eminent lyric theatres, one has come to expect an exceptionally high standard of musical performance and the Bayerische Staatsoper once again tonight demonstrated why this house deserves its place at the top of the operatic league.  Cornelius Meister (and assistant conductor Chad Kelly), led an assured reading of this complex score, alive to the multicoloured nature of the writing.  The orchestra rewarded them with playing of easy virtuosity – I counted a single ragged entry during the entire evening.  Stellario Fagone’s chorus also sang with excellent blend – the ladies in particular offering us some ravishing singing in close harmony during the chorus of the flowers.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Barbara Hannigan gave us a staggering performance as Gerda.  The tone was initially somewhat brittle, but as the evening progressed, it filled out and Hannigan gave us some impressively full and open singing on high.  The rhythmic assurance and accuracy of pitching with which Hannigan dispatched the angular writing was most impressive.  As the teenage Kay, Rachael Wilson offered her peachy mezzo.  The tone was impressively full and rounded, the voice seemingly defying gravity, and absolutely even from top to bottom.  She also exploited a notable range of vocal colour, modulating her use of vibrato to haunting effect.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Katarina Dalayman sang her music in a full, warm contralto of chocolate chestiness.  Peter Rose was slightly tentative at first in his roles but grew in confidence, giving us his generous bass descending with fullness to the sepulchral depths.  The vibrations have loosened somewhat but what is undiminished is his superb verbal acuity.  Caroline Wettergreen offered some remarkable acuti as the Princess.  The top of the voice is a thing of wonder, with the crystalline purity of a Norwegian glacier, taking flight, and always easily produced.  Kevin Conners’ robust tenor was heard to advantage as the Forest Crow, Owen Willetts’ fruity countertenor was a positive presence as the Castle Crow, while Dean Power’s handsome tenor was usefully deployed as the Prince.  Diction throughout the cast was excellent.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Abrahamsen’s Snow Queen makes for a fascinating evening in the theatre, especially when performed at the level we heard tonight.  Kriegenburg’s staging gives  us an insight to the darkness behind the fairy tale – especially in a closing tableau that sees the happy reunion of Gerda and Kay, but also the Doyen of the family, previously the Snow Queen and the Reindeer, sitting to the right of the stage, repeating ‘tick, tock’ to himself, perhaps now broken with the reality of what he’s done.  It was especially gratifying to see a new opera received so enthusiastically by a capacity audience, with Abrahamsen himself coming on stage to be greeted with a rousing ovation.  It proves that there really is a future for the glorious art form.

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