Fear of outsiders, the corruption of the state, violence – familiar literary themes, but ones which retain the capacity to thrill, especially with the addition of both local history and witches. This is the world of Heksehammeren (“The Witch Hammer”), a new north-Norwegian opera by composer Ragnar Rasmussen and librettist Ragnar Olsen, which opened the Northern Lights Festival in the city of Tromsø on Friday night.
This year, its 26th, the Festival is placing a lesser emphasis on star power than in previous recent years, which have welcomed an array of remarkable international talent including the the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet. The focus in 2013 is more on the local, as this new opera makes very clear – it tells a historical story from the area, and was created by two people based nearby. I’m pleased to report that the regional tradition of witch-burning seems now to have been extinguished, but the historical veracity of the events depicted on the stage certainly leant a compelling edge to this new piece.
Heksehammeren is the story of Sigrun, a Sami woman native to the area who incurs the wrath of the Norwegian state and eventually finds herself burned for witchcraft. Such incidents were widespread in 17th-century northern Norway, and Rasmussen and Olsen understandably see little need to elaborate on the historical facts: though it was (quite reasonably) presented in Norwegian with no English translation, the essential dramatic thrust was clear enough even to me, which is evidence of accessible musical storytelling. Analysis of the libretto, on the other hand, is unfortunately beyond me.
Rasmussen, who teaches at Tromsø University’s Music Conservatory and works primarily in choral music, is an unusally humble composer, keen in conversation to express his good fortune in this commission given his little prior experience. Heksehammeren is his first opera, and he stresses his lack of absorption in operatic tradition. This is no bad thing in most ways: it renders him refreshingly unhampered by the weight of past masterworks and able to concentrate simply on finding an appropriate means by which to express his story. The result is perhaps not daring in its musical vocabulary, but it is skilfully assembled and a thoughtful dramatic work.
One way in which this opera distinguishes itself from most is in its extensive use of the chorus, who have a number of church music-style set pieces directly suggestive of Rasmussen’s choral background. This was one factor which led to the work seeming very at home in the semi-staged production given here, with chorus and soloists largely stationary and some impressive projected visuals compensating for the lack of set. A pretty small cast with just three significant characters raises further questions for me about the piece’s suitability for a full opera-house staging, but such a project (which the creators hope for) will also entail an expansion of the orchestral arrangement, so perhaps there is scope too for more material to be added.
Nimble performances from the cast made for a strong account of the piece: Berit Norbakken Solset (soprano, Sigrun) sang tenderly and with a smooth tone, making her character a sympathetic figure. Carlo Allemano (tenor, Priest Reinert) made an impressively grand sound, though his vibrato-heavy approach made him stand out rather; Trond Halstein Moe (baritone, Sheriff Abraham Lockert), meanwhile, took a very direct approach to his role and had the vocal strength and sinister air to capture his character well. The choir and chamber orchestra both impressed, and Rasmussen himself conducted.
What I found most rewarding about the project, however, was its real sense of ambition. There is little history of operatic composition in Norway, but this is a sincere and worthy effort at beginning such a tradition. Plans for a second opera with the same composer and librettist are already forming – they are taking another piece of north-Norwegian history, but this time adding the king of Denmark and John Dowland into the mix – and Norwegian National Opera are apparently taking an active interest. It will be well worth watching the development of this collaboration in years to come, and it’s a wonderful thing to see a national operatic tradition begin, at a time in history when such an event seems rather unlikely.