Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is an unlikely national hero. Rake, liar, charmer, crook, he is fiercely independent and consummately Norwegian.
Though Grieg’s musical take on the ne’er-do-well is the most famous, a number of other composers have written Peer Gynt operas. Estonian composer Jüri Reinvere, commissioned by the Norwegian National Opera, is the most recent to take on the challenge, also writing his own libretto. His Peer is a modern-day wastrel, and adds mass murder to his catalogue of infamy.
For many, this is a step too far. Ibsen’s iconic figure holds so much meaning for so many that any attempt to re-invent him is fraught with danger. In commissioning the new opera, Oslo Intendant Per Boye Hansen was courting controversy from the beginning.
Hansen’s choice of a non-Norwegian composer/ librettist must have been influenced by the success of Reinvere’s gripping Purge for the Finnish National Opera two and a half years ago. The business of adapting a contemporary Estonian novel for the stage is very different from that of finding an acceptable new take on a cherished piece of historic national culture, but Reinvere set to the task with a healthy mixture of curiosity and disrespect; hence the mass murder.
Inevitably, such an attempt will be defined by what the composer chooses to leave out. Reinvere amalgamates characters, omits some scenes and interpolates others. His focus is on the dichotomy between truth and lies, illustrating the split through a musical exploration of romantic harmony as juxtaposed with modernity. There are fragmentary references to Wagner and Grieg, but for the most part, Reinvere makes his own music, often meditative, sometimes witty, always deftly orchestrated.
The Norwegian National Opera has thrown every imaginable resource at this production, and it shows. Sigrid Strøm Reibo’s production is lavish and thoughtful, Katrin Nottrodt’s design a symphony in its own right, John Helmer Fiore’s conducting attentive and nuanced. The cast is never less than superb, from Nils Harald Sødal in the title role to Australian countertenor David Hansen’s seductive charisma as a composite of five accompanying figures.
This new Peer Gynt is sprawlingly ambitious, wordy, ponderous, and dark. Reinvere’s eclectic appropriation of musical styles is adroit, his use of the chorus haunting, his vocal writing polished, his humour rare but effective. His dramaturgy is seldom as strong as his music, and many scenes drag. Audience response is tepid; almost any other subject would have been safer. But Hansen wanted Peer Gynt, and the national hero today proves as unbiddable as he ever was.