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Laci Boldemann’s Svart Är Vitt Sa Kejsarn (Black Is White, Said the Emperor): A Family-Friendly Fable from Sweden (1965)

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Laci Boldemann, Svart Är Vitt (Black is White)

Laci Boldemann, Svart Är Vitt (Black is White)

LACI BOLDEMANN: Black Is White, Said the Emperor (opera)

Sven Nilsson (Emperor), Gunilla Slättegård (Boy), Laila Andersson (Princess), Tord Slättegård (Prince), Conny Söderström (Doctor), Paul Höglund (Fool), Sven Erik Vikström (Runner), Sven-Erik Jacobsson (Security Guard), Gunnar Drago (Printer)

Swedish Royal Court Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Per Åke Andersson 

Sterling CDO 111/1112 [2 CD] 91 minutes

We normally think of operas as being serious or comical. But a number of operas—some familiar, others forgotten—are neither of these. Instead, they are fantastical, dealing with such things as the fairy world and sorcerers, or with the world of dreams. One of the best such works is Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges (which might be freely translated as “The Boy Who Meets Objects and Creatures that Magically Begin to Speak and Dance”), which has recently been blessed by two astounding new recordings (conducted by, respectively, Stéphane Denève and Mikko Franck).At the present site I have recently reviewed a very engaging Czech opera by Otakar Ostrčil, based on a quasi-folktale by Tolstoy, in which the Devil seeks to seduce three brothers into serving his own destructive ends.

Here is another such tall-tale opera, by a composer whose own life story was full of all-too-real drama. Laci Boldemann (1921-69) was born in Helsinki to a distinguished family that was half-Swedish, half-German. His grandfather Arvid Järnefelt was a well-known Swedish author whose sister Aino was married to the composer Sibelius. Boldemann studied in Germany, then in England and Sweden, but, because of his German father, was conscripted into the Nazi army. He became gravely ill on the eastern front. Later, in Italy, he deserted and was brought to the United States and put in a prison camp. After war’s end, he settled in Sweden, where his maternal grandparents lived. He succeeded in having a number of his works performed by major orchestras and opera companies in Germany and Sweden. But he died suddenly from complications after a gallstone surgery in Munich when he was only 48.

Black Is White, Said the Emperor (Svart är vitt, sa kejsaren) is the first of his two full-length operas. The present recording was made at the world-premiere performance, on January 1, 1965, at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. (It can be heard, broken into numerous segments, on YouTube.) The scenario was drafted by Laci’s wife Karin. It was fleshed out into a libretto by Lennart Hellsing, a noted author of children’s books and nonsense literature. The informative notes are by Marcus Boldemann, presumably Laci and Karin’s son. 

Boldemann’s musical style is very traditional and straightforward, generally shying away from modernist asperity. In Sweden, Boldemann is still known today for some endearing choral songs. Lovers of solo vocal music may know his fourteen-minute song cycle with orchestra: Four Epitaphs, Op. 10, using four poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. (YouTube offers it, sung with rich tone and pointed meaning by Anne Sofie von Otter, conducted by Kent Nagano.)

I will not try to summarize the eventful plot, which takes place in an unnamed “Oriental” walled city, apparently somewhere along the Silk Road. The storybook quality is already apparent in the list (above) of the various characters, all of whom are “types” rather than individuals—somewhat like the characters in Prokofiev’s jaundiced fairy-tale opera The Love for Three Oranges. Similarly, the nameless Doctor who examines the Boy, while uttering meaningless pseudo-medical chatter, seems like a less menacing version of the crazed and equally nameless physician in Wozzeck. But nobody and nothing in this family-friendly opera stays menacing for long.

The work is built out of numerous short scenes, most of which involve quick exchanges between several characters. There are few extended separable numbers that could help advertise the opera, which is perhaps one reason that it has sunk from view. Still, the Boy gets a number of short songs that are quite appealing: often diatonic or folkish-modal and built of easily grasped foursquare phrases. There is also an immensely appealing tune that recurs several times (e.g., CD 1, tracks 8 and 10) and that sounds like something out of a Lehár operetta. The link just given comprises CD 1, track 8, which begins with the Princess singing the tune; her words refer to the handsome Prince who, riding by her window on a white horse, stole her heart. When the Prince and Princess try to sing it together, the hot-headed emperor cuts them short. (The lovers get to sing the whole tune at the end of the opera, then walk off slowly into a happy future.)

The duet-interruption is typical: the opera is marked by much purposeful discontinuity, and the discontinuity is sometimes emphasized by an unexpected shift to a new harmonic area. The net result of all these tuneful moments and sudden, disorienting surprises is refreshing to the ear. Certain passages reminded me of works as varied as the Mephisto Waltz, Carmen, Carmina Burana, and Bernstein’s Candide. None of these resemblances seem to have been intended as recognizable allusions; rather, I suspect that they are the result of Boldemann’s open-mindedness and wide-ranging stylistic curiosity. Similarly, some choral passages made me think—for whatever this is worth—of certain ensembles in Puccini’s Turandot, such as the Act 2 trio for Ping, Pang, and Pong. At various points, the music briefly sounds pseudo-Asian (or maybe pseudo-Middle Eastern), then quickly veers back.

In short, there is always something interesting going on. Three ensembles are particularly effective. The quintet near the end of Act 1 (track 20) seems inspired, to good effect, by the Te Deum finale of Act 1 of Tosca. A rhythmically intriguing trio in Act 2 (CD 2, track 7) is sung largely in unison—sometimes unaccompanied, other times with alert orchestral punctuation. And a trio toward the end (CD 2, track 9), during which the Runner and the Fool prepare to eject the Boy from the city, has the quality of a distorted, possibly sardonic, Viennese waltz. Many sections of the score are strongly continuous (quasi-developmental). In some of these, an orchestral instrument or section of the orchestra expands on a phrase that a character has just sung or gives it a new twist.

Typical for Sweden in the 1960s, there is a “modern technology” element: the brief appearance of electronic sounds near the end of the opera, when an auspicious star is seen in the sky. (Click here and forward to 2’35”—orchestra then yielding to electronic tape.) The implication is that the emperor has seen the astonishing, noisy Star announcing Jesus’s birth. He removes his crown, places it on the Boy’s head, and marches off in the direction of the Star, thus apparently becoming one of the famous Three Kings who, bearing gifts, visit the Christ child.

Electronically derived sounds, a high-modern resource, had been used six years earlier in a Swedish opera whose recording was widely reviewed at the time: Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s outer-space fantasy Aniara. Blomdahl’s opera got a second recording in 1985 (on Caprice, conducted by Stig Westerberg). I suspect that Black Is White is at least as worthy of a modern recording and of some staged performances. Christmastime might be an apt season, given the appearance of the Star near the work’s end. Perhaps the brief but rather crude electronic track (which the composer did not create; the realization here is credited to Karl-Otto Valentin) could be replaced by something more sophisticated, in order to prevent the work from being forever anchored to the era of Sputnik and the Univac computer.

The current recording has fine presence, despite having been made during a stage performance more than fifty years ago. The singers are all vivid exponents of their roles, with sharply differentiated voices: for example, the Runner is a character tenor, quite different from the Prince, a lyric tenor. Gunilla Slättegård is a constant pleasure as the Boy, her sound clear and sweet as a mountain stream. She made her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in this role and, under the name Gunilla Wallin, went on to sing major roles by Mozart and others there until 1989. The veteran bass Sven Nilsson brings to the role of the Emperor great authority, honed over the years in operas and spoken plays. (His Daland is preserved on Naxos’s release of a 1950 Flying Dutchman performance at the Met conducted by Fritz Reiner and starring Hans Hotter and Astrid Varnay.) The mikes occasionally pick up light laughter from the audience. A modern recording would give the orchestra (which seems of chamber proportions) more roundness and richness, but I wouldn’t want that to happen at the expense of the wonderfully precise characterizations that we hear here, in voices and orchestra alike.

There are two extensive booklets. One contains the libretto, with translations into English and German that are frankly announced as “raw” (that is: rough)! The English translation is comprehensible but full of misspellings (inamoured, turikey) and confusing usages: it uses “port” to mean a palace gate, and “rideau or veil,” in the stage directions, to mean “curtain or scrim.” And what, I wonder, does the Emperor have in mind when he threatens to turn the Boy and members of the court into “ghaith birds”?

The other booklet contains Marcus Boldemann’s essay, a first-rate synopsis (with track numbers), and bios of the composer, librettists, and performers. Four lively sketches by the opera’s original set designer, Hermann Sichter, plus a photo of the Emperor in costume, help us visualize our way into this remarkably fresh-sounding opera from 1965.

I recommend the recording to anybody—child or adult—who is curious about what an opera can be like when it is not so much serious or comical as . . . wild (and tuneful and colorful and entertaining)!

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide. and then, lightly updated, at OperaToday.com. The current version appears here by kind permission of American Record Guide and OperaToday.com.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015), his most recent (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book). His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaToday and MusicologyNow. His previous pieces for New York Arts were on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëll, a major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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