Set in a not-too-distant future, composer Rolf Wallin’s new opera Elysium, with a libretto by Mark Ravenhill, deals with the question of what it truly means to be human. Despite being overly moralistic at times, it proves an engaging piece with committed performances.

<i>Elysium</i> at Norwegian National Opera © Erik Berg
Elysium at Norwegian National Opera
© Erik Berg

Elysium shows the downside of a Utopian vision of the future. It is set in a future where humans, having witnessed countless wars and other atrocities, invent a computer chip for the betterment of themselves. When implanted, this chip allows them to transmit incredible amounts of information at once, no longer relying on the inaccuracy of language, making these transformed humans – transhumans – more a constant stream of energy and ideas than actual physical beings. Only 40 humans have not had the chip implanted and are kept on a remote island by the transhumans, as a reminder of the past, of what the transhumans gained by transforming, but also what they lost. This reminder is a yearly performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, performed by the remaining humans.

Ravenhill’s libretto was effective in outlining the big struggles faced by the main characters, yet at times, it bordered on the preachy and moralistic, especially in the second act. The opera relied heavily, perhaps too heavily, on spoken dialogue, yet this made sense; with Wallin’s penchant for lyrical, drawn-out word settings, the spoken lines helped hurry the narrative along. Wallin’s music is one of repetition and sudden contrast, of occasionally shimmering microtonality. Repeating harmonies are suddenly taken over by dramatic outbursts, yet the melody, or lack thereof, of the vocal lines is what pushes the music forward. With the large extent of spoken dialogue, especially in the first act, the music often seemed to go nowhere. The second act proved both musically and dramatically tauter, although the libretto lacked the ambiguity and mystery of Act I.

<i>Elysium</i> at Norwegian National Opera © Erik Berg
Elysium at Norwegian National Opera
© Erik Berg

Set designer Leslie Travers sets Elysium in a world of brushed aluminium and safety glass, a transparent prison mirroring the island on which the humans are kept, literally like performing apes. Even though the chorus plays a crucial part in this opera, tiredly performing (literally) their duties as transhuman playthings, director David Pountney did not seem to give them much attention. While lining them up in static tableaux proved effective, especially with the set spinning around them, they seemed at a loss for what to do when moving, resorting to unenthusiastic, generic gestures. Luckily, he seemed to have divulged more attention on the main characters, especially The Wife and The Woman. The Woman’s second act mad scene in particular was harrowing.

The two soprano roles of The Wife and The Woman dominated vocally and both Lina Johnson and Eli Kristin Hansveen impressed greatly in their respective parts.  The two roles are remarkably similar, both written as virtuosic tours de force, with giant leaps, high notes and coloratura to rival many a bel canto heroine, although the music for the human characters was clearly influenced by speech, generally staying in the middle register. The transhuman coloratura was paired with electronics, here in the form of generic sci-fi bleeps and bloops, and while the electronic sounds on their own might have sounded ridiculous, they fit in admirably. Hansveen’s Woman was especially impressive, both dramatically and musically in the second act, portraying a woman rapidly losing her mind.

<i>Elysium</i> at Norwegian National Opera © Erik Berg
Elysium at Norwegian National Opera
© Erik Berg

While the music for the other characters perhaps wasn’t as exciting as that of The Wife and The Woman, they still made a great dramatic impact, especially Ketil Hugaas as the increasingly paranoid and generally unpleasant Husband. Hugaas’ dry and leathery bass is not the most beautiful, but he is a hugely compelling vocal actor, going all in for characterisation. Inga Lohne Otterstad from the Opera’s children’s chorus also impressed as The Boy, the son of The Husband and The Wife, tackling challenging music and managing staying dramatically involved.

Rolf Wallin and Mark Ravenhill’s Elysium explores just what it means to be human, what a “good” society is, asking if change is actually possible. It may not give many definitive answers, but I certainly hope it will be seen again.