by Nicholas Jones
The Palace Theatre at Drottningholm, a royal residence on a beautiful lake not far from Stockholm, is celebrating its 250th anniversary this summer. Replacing an earlier baroque theatre destroyed in a fire, the new theatre was used steadily during the second half of the 18th century by the opera-loving Swedish king, Gustav III.
In an operatic turn of fate, Gustav was assassinated in 1792 during a masquerade at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House — a story revisited in Verdi’s opera, Un ballo in maschera.
After Gustav’s death, operas ceased at Drottningholm. The theatre was abandoned and turned into a place to store old furniture. In the early 20th century, theatre historians discovered that most of the original stage equipment — flats, drops, candle-powered lights, thunder sheets, and other special effects of early opera — had been preserved intact, as in a time capsule. Now restored, the theatre is once again used for operas, under the direction of the Drottningholm Theatre Museum. It is one of a handful of surviving European opera houses from the 18th century.
Many opera fans know the Drottningholm Palace Theatre as the nominal venue of Ingmar Bergman’s charming film version of Mozart’s Magic Flute (1975), which ventures backstage to show Papageno (the very young Håkan Hagegård) dozing amidst the stage machinery and nearly missing his cue for the bird-catcher aria. In fact, the actual theatre was too fragile for movie-making, so Bergman filmed his movie in a replica on a soundstage in Stockholm.
Travelling recently in northern Europe, I had the opportunity to see an opera in the Drottningholm Palace Theatre. The Rococo Machine had been commissioned from Swedish composer Jan Sandström for the 250th anniversary of the theatre’s construction. I thought that it might be a pastiche opera along the lines of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 Enchanted Island — assembled from tunes by Handel, Vivaldi, and Rameau — but I was delighted to find it a brand new work. Its own engagingly eclectic music has echoes of Handel and Mozart, as expected, but also draws on a number of 20th-century composers, such as Mahler, Strauss (both Richard and Johann), Britten, and even Morricone and Sondheim.
The premise for Tuvalisa Rangström’s libretto was the fire that destroyed the original baroque opera house. A young apprentice to the lighting-master (soprano Elisabeth Meyer) arrives at the newly-built replacement theatre, not quite knowing what she is supposed to be doing. One by one, she encounters the backstage personages whose skills at illusion and fantasy will eventually bring the theatre to life with a new opera: the melancholy librettist (mezzo-soprano Matilda Paulsson), the bossy stage manager (baritone Loa Falkman), the romantic set-painter (tenor Martin Vanberg), the flamboyant wig-maker (soprano Kerstin Avemo), and the ballet master (bass Johan Schinkler). Four versatile dancers also play a number of roles, reminding us that dance is a crucial element in rococo opera.
I’m not sure I caught all the nuances of the plot (the opera was sung in Swedish, with English supertitles), but perhaps it’s enough to say that after various dream-like temptations, tests, and trials reminiscent of Mozart’s operas and Bergman’s movies, everything seems to come out fine in the end. The singers form a balanced vocal sextet, who happily come together in a Figaro-like finale.
Conducted by Daniel Stern, son of violinist Isaac Stern, the small orchestra performed on early instruments, including natural horn and trumpet, and period clarinet.
The singers, dancers, and orchestra were excellent, but the real star of the production was the theatre itself. Appropriately, the opera’s subtitle was “an anniversary opera about loving a theatre.”
The stage lighting played an important part. Muted in intensity and directed onto the stage from the wings, it lit the singers from the side. Totally absent was the bright front spotlighting that we have come to expect in the theatre. It wasn’t always easy to know what we were seeing, but that uncertainty was part of the experience.
Like many audience members today, I often experience opera through brilliantly-lit close-ups — on DVD or in the Met’s HD Live presentations — in a glaring (if fascinating) scrutiny. There, it seems we know everything about the singer and the character. Here, the lighting emphasized what we can’t see, and perhaps shouldn’t.
As in the 18th century, the chandeliers in the theatre were left on during the performance (they would have originally been candles; here they were low-wattage electric bulbs). Thus, people in the audience were aware of each other and of the hall in which they were sitting — a consciousness that was totally appropriate in this opera about the mysteries and lure of theatricality itself.
As in Bergman’s film, there was a lively, Chinese-style dragon with dancers visible beneath its sinuous body, and a spectacular hot-air balloon was obviously being lifted into the flies by hand-pulled ropes. Scenes changed by means of painted flats pushed into view from the wings, and trap-doors opened and closed with no attempt at disguise. Thunder came from a bowling ball running down a wooden chute, and the storm from a cranked wind machine.
The theatre, in short, was an actor in the opera, as much as any of the singers or dancers.
Having gotten my ticket the night before, I sat in the back row, feeling a bit like a minor emissary to the Swedish court from some even more minor dukedom. Even so, I could hear everything. The acoustics, with no electronic enhancement, were superb. The singers were vocally present, and balanced perfectly with the orchestra.
Click here to watch a video tour of the Theatre and its machinery.
Part of the theatre’s excellent sound might be due to the shape of the hall — an extended rectangle. Part might also be due to the wooden floors and walls: it felt a bit like being inside a Stradivarius. But much might owe itself to the small scale of the whole enterprise: holding, I’d guess, about 500 people, the theatre maintains a strong connection between listener and stage, allowing everyone to feel an intimate involvement, acoustically and visually.
Writing this after coming home, I’ve gone back to watch part of Bergman’s The Magic Flute. As the orchestra plays the overture, the film shows members of the audience listening with silent, deep attentiveness (including Bergman’s own granddaughter). As in that film, watching this live production in the Drottningholm Palace Theatre was a way to appreciate even more deeply the importance of theatricality. And to remember that opera’s wonder and delight are not made by hiding the machinery, but rather by letting the machinery be present, and by daring to give it a life of its own.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com June 29, 2016.
Click here for a printable copy of this article