Album Review: Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt, by various artists

Admittedly, it must be stated at the outset that this is not the most accessible opera for most listeners.  The opera itself, with words by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and with music by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, is in German and the liner notes, which include a fair bit of the lyrics to various songs, are translated into Norwegian.  As neither Norwegian nor German happens to be a language that I know well I was limited to recognizing the cognates and remembering the plot of the opera based on my own reading of Ibsen’s play [1].  For me, at least, the second act of this opera is the most memorable and it was the part I was most familiar with because the trolls are pretty memorable (and Peer Gynt isn’t particularly wise in his dealings with them) and because the only part of this opera’s music I am all that familiar with is “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” which is part of this opera.  Aside from that piece of music, it is likely that none of the lyrics and none of the rest of this opera is going to be familiar, and that’s not such a bad thing.

This particular opera is 2 cds long.  The first cd covers the first three acts of the play, totaling about 55 minutes or so of material.  The second cd then covers the longer last two acts of the opera that are more than an hour in length combined.  By and large the cast is skilled. The material is sung in Norwegian, spoken in German, and the musical parts are performed by the Orchestra of the Swiss Romandy from Geneva.  Dietrich Henschel does a great job both singing and speaking for Peer Gynt, which is an immensely challenging task given the large amount of complexity this particular opera has in terms of its material as well as its far-flung story.  The other parts tend to be splot, so that only three people total are involved in speaking parts, with a single woman, Susanne Lothar, handling all the women’s parts (including the troll princess), and Thomas Anzenhofer handling all of the male parts aside from the lead.  There are a few more singers, at least, who provide more balance to the material.  Overall, I have to say that even if this opera is not the easiest to understand it has some strong material.

Is this an opera worth enjoying?  I found it enjoyable to listen to despite not being able to understand it well.  One of the joys that can be found with music is appreciating music that is outside of one’s comfort zone and experience, and that is certainly something that can happen here.  This is an opera that features a lot of explaining, some dialogue, and a good amount of singing.  The mood overall seems to be a mixture of celebrating the trollish aspect of Norwegian culture while also providing a compelling story for those who can understand it or are already familiar with it.  The combination of Ibsen’s words and Grieg’s music makes for a powerful opera, one that might well be the highest achievement of Norwegian opera, even if the opera itself as listened to here and performed by a variety of vocal and instrumental talent is mostly based in the German-speaking world.  Hearing this in Norwegian would likely have been an even better experience as far as the nationalistic goals of the composer and playwright were concerned but it would make the play even less accessible to a mainstream European audience.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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