Baroque Opera-Ballet In the Swedish Style: Drottningholm and Vadstena Akademien an antithesis in approach to early art forms.

Baroque Opera-Ballet In the Swedish Style: Drottningholm and Vadstena Akademien an antithesis in approach to early art forms.

Baroque Opera-Ballet In the Swedish Style: Drottningholm and Vadstena Akademien an antithesis in approach to early art forms.

It’s widely known that reviews are hardly ever truly objective. As much as the author may try to remain dispassionate, their own experience and erudition affect their evaluation of the piece, be it positively or negatively. Moreover, this effect is intensified if the theme or genre is close to one’s heart or area of expertise. This is precisely why I avoid writing reviews of productions of older ballets and operas (from the 18th century), which I have been researching for several years. A thorough knowledge of the historical material and never-ending discussions with colleagues can result in someone developing their own interpretations and ideas of how such productions may have appeared. And those productions which are carried out very rarely correspond to these interpretations.  On the other hand, any presentation of this repertoire, which isn’t really at the centre of interest in contemporary cultural productions, will produce excitement and respect in the expert. Especially if this presentation is ‘historically informed’, which requires a great deal of erudition, study of the sources, feeling, and imagination on the part of the artist. At the end of the day, operas and ballets shouldn’t be staged as only an illustration of history, but mainly to interest the modern spectator and reveal their inner beauty and charm.

From this point of view, this summer in Sweden was fruitful, as pieces from the opera-ballet genre from the 17th and 18th century were put on by two renowned operatic institutions. The Drottningholm court theatre (which is as old as the theatre at Český Krumlov castle) staged the well known single act piece Pygmalion by Jean-Phillip Rameau and the Art Academy in Vadstena, an evening composed of short pieces under the name Sun and the North Star (Solen och Nordstjärnan. Opéra-ballet pour Louis XIV et Charles XII) was devised. Of this year’s choice of repertoire, I was particularly interested by the fact that both institutions decided to move away from “classical” opera interpretation, in which the director takes the lead and the dance plays only an accompanying role, but instead they placed the entire production in the hands of the choreographers. Another interesting fact was the unique approach which the selected artists chose to go down. It consisted of two diametrically contrasting methods, representing opposing ends of an approach towards older musical and dance pieces, both of which became unique exponents in their category.  

Sun and the North Star: Baroque isn’t Boring!

On one end of the imaginary pole we can see a historically informed way of production, by which Swedish choreographer Karin Modigh works. The founder of the group Nordic Baroque Dancers has extensive experience with the repertoire and dance technique of the 17th and 18th century as a performer. She repeatedly collaborated with French choreographer Marie-Geneviève Massé’s ensemble Compagnie de Danse l’Eventail (ballets Don Juan, Rinaldo a Armida, Médea a Jáson), she even performed in other historical pieces by other directors-choreographers such as Deda Cristina Colonna (Lully’s opera Armide) and Sigrid T’Hooft (Handel’s Imeneo). Every summer she also organises a prestigious international baroque dance school in Sweden.

This year in Vadstena she received the opportunity to employ her experience in a new role as both director and choreographer at once. The Vadstena Academy is a unique institution whose mission is both the education of young artists and the preparation of professional productions. After intensive preparation they are revealed in what’s known as the wedding hall of a local castle. The academy’s artistic director, Nils Spangenberg, chooses novel material and frequently provides the opportunity for older pieces to be produced, even those which have never been performed in the modern era.

Karin Modigh was given carte blanche when choosing a piece and, together with the conductor Dan Laurin, chose three musical dance pieces. The Prologue of Desfontaine’s opera Le désespoir de Tircis (1699), an effusive ode to the French king Louis XIV; Lully’s Ballet des Nations from Moliere’s comedy-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) and Narva Ballet (Ballet meslé des chants héroiques, 1701) performed as a world premiere in the modern time. The final named piece has a well-known place in Swedish dance history. It was a court ballet arranged by Nicodem Tessin to honour the monarch Charles XII on the occasion of a victorious battle against the Russians at Narva. French artists performed in the piece (from the Rosidor Group) and recent research has revealed that their celebratory ballet was a selection of famous pieces from the French ballet and opera repertoire. The music was composed by Jean Desfontain and J-B Lully, as well as by the Swedish court composer Anders Von Düben.

The introductory prologue from the composite evening named Sun and The North Star presented a scene of French court life where noblemen entertain themselves by the performance of a pastoral opera. Dressed as gods, goddesses and shepherds, Games and Pleasures (Jeux et Plaisirs) celebrates life and youth, the return of Louis XIV being the pretext for this cheerful pastoral.   A series of arias, choirs and dances are essentially a display of artistic achievements and fantastic costumes, the story is redundant. All the same, the spectator isn’t tired, the audience still has something to watch. There’s a charm in the directoral-choreographical solution of the prologue where performers gradually appear on stage and for the most part stay there, communicating with each other, constantly active even though they don’t have a solo. The singers mingle amongst the dancers, sometimes all dancing together - in short there’s no silent place. The artistic quality of some of the scenes varies - it’s an academy show after all, containing young artists, some of whom were trying out the technique of baroque dance and singing for the first time. Somewhat stiff hand movements or musical immaturity is compensated for by live acting on the part of the performers, which is uncommon even among experienced artists. Their engagement and playfulness manages to sufficiently interest the audience.

Attention is constantly drawn towards the costumes of Anna Kjellsdotter, inspired by baroque designs and cuts, bursting with imagination which also define individual characters. Pomona, the goddess of the garden and fertility, is dressed in a round crinoline skirt made entirely of flowers, the god of the sea and a nymph in a dress which is blue in colour and laden with sea shells, “The Games” are wearing the symbols of playing cards, Amor in a pink tonnnelet, little wings etc, even with high feathered plumes and numberless sequins. After a short pause followed the well known Ballet des Nations, consisting of musical-dance miniatures on the theme of courting of Spaniards, Venetians and French shepherds. This divertissement is presented as a ‘play within a play’. It starts with the arrival of French artists to the Swedish countryside, led by an especially funny libretto distributor (speaking a mixture of old French and Swedish), where they are met by a rather “austere” audience. The individual performances overflow with lyricism, endearment, and humour. A trio of exquisite Spanish singers alternate with dancers who skilfully master the playing of castanets. During the Venetian nights, the canal is represented by a strip of blue cloth, which Harlequin and dozy Scaramouchi, with a gondola, scurry down with a melancholic singer - obviously, mimic and movement techniques of comedy dell’arte appear here. In the last scene, the French from Poitou sing their love songs and shepherds dance joyful minuets. This middle section was (from a musical, dance, and acting point of view) even livelier than the previous. From an interpretational and production standpoint, it could be considered the pinnacle of the evening.

The following Narva ballet showed the lofty and pompous celebration of the monarch, primarily consisting of heroic arias and ceremonial processions. It proceeds, by its very nature, at a slower pace and, unlike the previous two pieces, doesn’t contain as many contrasting scenes. The gloomy beginning consists of a sad scene with Carnival who loses his ability to entertain people. Despite the fact that his costume is literally an explosion of imagination, all those around him go unnoticed. Even the two doctors are unable to help him (yet they are able to entertain the audience with their minimalistic choreography). That is until the God of Medicine, played by Martin Vanberg, appears on a high podium in a long, golden robe, cures him by singing beautiful, lyrical aria. (This performer was a mentor for the singers during the rehearsals). The mood changes with the arrival of Gloria, who announces the King’s victory in battle with the celebrated arias by Mars and Bellona. They are joined in the scene by Swedish noblemen and soldiers. While the former don’t move too much, the soldiers assemble themselves into an acrobatic pyramid form known from 17th century manuscripts. A generally slow tempo and more static direction made the whole thing slightly more clunky, even though it was still worth watching. Perhaps if this part were placed in the middle, the programme would benefit and the audience would leave on a slightly more cheerful note.

In any case it was a very successful artistic feat, which largely thanks to the directoral-choreographical leadership of Karin Modigh and her motivated team, proved that baroque opera-ballet consists of many colours, expressions, movements, life and can offer the audience a varied spectacle. And this is quite rare within the realms of so-called historically informed performances which often fall into a near museum-like stasis influenced by period art and references.

Monochrome Pygmalion

At the court theatre in Drottingholm (Drottningholms Slottsteater) they are taking a completely new approach towards older pieces. One of the smaller European baroque theatres with preserved and functional machinery and scenery, has being churning out a modern mise-en-scène for several years, even if their orchestra plays period instruments and the repertoire is limited to pieces composed before 1800. The conflict between the historical scenery, music and the modern directorship is at times almost painful and many consider it a waste of a unique opportunity. After all, there are many modern theatres where these kind of experiments can be staged, but not very many baroque theatres - and their specific architecture, acoustics and overall aesthetic often makes modern mise-en-scène rather difficult. Similarly, many of those here who saw the opera-ballet Pygmalion by J.-P. Rameau this year may have felt the same way. However, I was rather torn as my reverence towards baroque theatre clashed with my fondness for contemporary dance, specifically the work of Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara. However, I was excited to find that this well-known artists, who has created pieces for the Parisian Opera worked very sensitively and respectfully with the space. He didn’t try to impose any foreign scenography elements, nor baroque phraseology, which are not his own. He simply stayed true to his own style which he tastefully built into this unique space.

Firstly, Teshigawara decided to use some baroque set pieces and machine elements, which meant that after quite a long time, the audience saw the movements of the clouds, the changing of scenery and the trap door in a Drottingholm production again. Selected scenery of the inside of the palace, the walls and landscape bore subdued beige tones, the same as the wooden floor, and this shade was used for the simple costumes consisting of light strips of cloth wrapped around the performers’ bodies. In order for the choreographer to highlight his discipline, he decided to double the singing roles with dancers. We saw Pygmalion almost constantly on stage along with his reanimated statue of performers (Anders J. Dahlin and Silvia Moi) and dancers (Quentin Roger a Rihoko Sato). Teshigawara alone undertook the role of narrator of some kind - as the only one dressed in a flowing black costume, revealing himself at the start of piece and again at key moments. For the most part, the singers sat at the front of the stage in a square of light, without any significant movements or facial expressions. The dancers in the background, on the other hand, moved around non-stop. The choreographer dipped into his typical vocabulary putting emphasis on the fluttering and flapping of arms and a fluency of movement - walking, running and hopping on the stage. The movements at times faithfully mirrored the music, at other points flowed on its surface, however formally these two elements definitely did not come together as is (was) common in baroque dance.

The entire concept, which was pleasingly complemented by the lighting (which is for Teshigawara an inseparable part of the piece, which he often devises himself), created a beautiful and peaceful image. However, after some time this monochromatic image became somehow monotone, just like the view of three unchanging dancers. The monotony was more pronounced as this one act piece was preceded by a purely abstract dancing section, consisting of a similar phraseology, was accompanied by the music of Rameau’s predecessors (Lully, Rebel, Marais and Forqueray). It was at this point that I felt some colour and life was missing, typical of the opera-ballet genre. This problem was most apparent in the Dance of Graces which is supposed to celebrate beauty and love. However, instead of joyous dancing, the black figure of the choreographer appeared on the stage again and partly danced and mimed the story of a statue turning into a woman, or more generally, an artist’s love of his work. The monotony didn’t leave the performance until the end, the admirable performances of the artists notwithstanding. Everyone, including the singers, started to move in a grand finale, composed of complex arm movement combinations, accompanied by a joyful, blusterous orchestra.

The invitation of a contemporary choreographer to produce an opera-ballet was a bold choice on the part of the theatre leadership. And to a certain extent a successful one. Slightly paradoxically, it was he who showed a greater respect to the theatre and was able to incorporate it into the aesthetic of his work, more than has been seen here in the past three years. His style is visually beautiful and very kinetic, even if his encounter with the opera-ballet genre wasn’t a great fit.

I wonder what the outcome would be had Karin Modigh taken the lead on this, with her emphasis on baroque dance, with its link to the music and live gesture? This we can only imagine and hope that this style one one day return to the Drottningholm stage.  

Written at the performance of the 8th & 11th August 2018 in Vadstena and Drottingholm respectively.  

Solen och Nordstjärnan Music:  Anders Düben, Jean Desfontaines, Jean Baptiste Lully
Libretto: Charles Louis Sevigny, Nicodemus Tessin, Molière
Conductor:  Dan Laurin
Choreography and arrangement: Karin Modigh
Assistant choreographer: Lena Cederwall Broberg
Scenography and costumes: Anna Kjellsdotter
Masks and wigs: Anne-Charlotte Reinhold
Light design: Marcus Philippe Gustafsson
Dancers:

Adrian Navarro (mentor), Julia Bengtsson, Valerie Lauer, Niklas Fransson, Matilda Larsson, Mathias Terwander Stintzing, Aleksandra Pawluczuk, Edgar Lewandowski
Singers: Martin Vanberg (mentor), Annastina Malm (mentor), Jakob Nilsson, Ingrid Berg, Kajsa Lindberg, Frida Bergquist, Nana Bugge Rasmussen, Richard Lindström, Philip Björkqvist
Premiere: 20. 7. 2018, Vadstena 

Pygmalion
Libretto: Sylvain Ballot de Sauvot
Conductor: Vittorio Ghielmi
Arrangement, choreography, scenography, lights, costumes: Saburo Teshigawara
Artistic collaboration: Rihoko Sato
Masks and wigs: Sofia Ranow
Soloists: Anders J Dahlin, Kerstin Avemo, Hanna Husáhr, Silvia Moi
Dancers: Rihoko Sato, Saburo Teshigawara a Quentin Roger (KARAS)
Music and singing: The Drottingholm orchestra and choir
Premiere: 28. 7. 2018, Drottningholm

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