For the last eight centuries or so, Skírnismál – a folkloric tale about a giantess forced to be the mate of a violent god – has been seen as a romance, according to composer Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir and poet Ger∂ur Kristný. Speaking before the presentation of their Bló∂hófnír (Bloodhoof) at Speyer Hall in Manhattan’s University Settlement, the pair explained the history of the story and how they came to re-envision it as a victim’s tale, told from the giantess Ger∂r’s perspective.

<i>Bloodhoof</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Bloodhoof
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Reykjavik’s Umbra Ensemble commissioned Haraldsdóttir to set Kristný 2010 poetic retelling to music in 2016. Scored for Baroque strings, lever harp, harmonium and three voices, the piece was staged in New York by MATA (Music At the Anthology) with both the composer and poet in attendance and, as with the Umbra’s production, an all female ensemble.

The tragic heroine was given voice in the MATA production by Sara Couden, a contralto with a rich and resonant voice befitting the giantess. In an inspired bit of stagecraft, Haraldsdóttir’s score calls for two additional voices (in this case Augusta Caso and Tynan Davis) also singing the role of Ger∂r. The two mezzo sopranos joined Couden only occasionally, building the protagonist voice in layered harmonies and unison declarations.

<i>Bloodhoof</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Bloodhoof
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The voices of the giantess shone over the drone of harmonium in the room, dark like the long night of Ger∂r’s abduction at the threat of her father’s life. There was no stage lighting, only the star-like points of music stand lights and the glow of Tinna Kristjánsdóttir's video projection. Behind the performers, images of rocks and ice, and later a watchful, ominous eye, shone on the wall. To their side, supertitles presented a dozen or so lines at a time, allowing audience members to take in the text at their own pace without the distraction of shifting gaze with each line sung. The presentation benefited Kristný’s lines, allowing the mind to hover over her imagery: “Of dark glass were the enemy’s eyes”; “Love had indeed come armed to the teeth / with an envoy brandishing a hate-infused sword / its shaft carved in cruelty.”

The unfolding of the tale (sung in Icelandic) was beautifully unhurried, made all the more effective by not being an updating. It was rather a Falknerian shift. Kristný’s text didn’t revise the story, it just changed the vantage, making the perspective that of a woman taken against her wishes and over her protests. Underscoring connections to the current day wasn’t necessary. The #metoo reverberations were apparent.

<i>Bloodhoof</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Bloodhoof
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

In the staging, the tale still carried the feel of an epic poem. The score supported it in meter and mood (following the original Umbra instrumentation), moving slowly, only occasionally breaking into a gallop or staccato rainfall as the story demanded, and then only briefly. Haraldsdóttir’s score primarily set incidental music against rich vocal lines, but she provided some wonderful passages – a duet for harp and cello preceding the giantess’s mother coming to her in a dream, and later opposing violin and viola lines against a relentless bass pulse after Ger∂r is (at agonizing length) assaulted by her captor and left alone and broken.

The other (male) characters were barely present in the narrative. They impacted the heroine’s life entirely, but the telling left her alone in her rumination. At tale’s end, another male arrives: the son that is the product of her attack. The infant saves her (to a degree) from loneliness, but she is still left longing for her homeland. Through the efforts of Kristný and Haraldsdóttir, and with Couden’s emotive strength of Couden, an 800-year-old injustice, however fictional, was finally tried and its victim given voice.

****1