Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt story revolves around a legendary fantasist, a lazy but ego-driven adventurer whose reality is full of emotional extremes and misdemeanors. Set to Edvard Grieg’s sublime score, as well as other fragments of music by the Norwegian composer, the drama is an irresistible mix of naturalism, realism and the absurd, a profile which would spur any imagination. And while a high order to fill, choreographer Edward Clug has achieved it famously in Zürich, portraying his Peer as a figure ultimately deserving of a life full of contrasts, but one which, ultimately, is marked by compassion and colour.

William Moore (Peer Gynt)
© Gregory Batardon

In truly countless configurations, Clug accents the successive phases of Peer Gynt’s life, consistently juxtaposing fantasy and reality with an eye to the figure’s inner journey. Peer’s ambitions and unstilled cravings very clearly cost him. To his detriment, he passes through horrors, even an insane asylum, before being redeemed by the love of his Solveig – a youthful figure who epitomises loyalty and sweet devotion – who was danced lithely and convincingly by gifted soloist Katja Wünsche.

Katja Wünsche (Solveig) and William Moore (Peer Gynt)
© Gregory Batardon

As Peer, William Moore portrayed the cockiness and egotism of a character whose abuses seemed interminable. He dazzled with physical prowess and stamina, regardless of the legion demands on his body. The final pas de deux with his Solveig was as lyrical as it was convincing. Just as Ibsen had expounded upon in Act 5 of his play, by comparing the revelation of inherent goodness in his main character to the peeling of an onion, layer after layer, the errant Peer is ultimately transformed for the good by the power of, and slow exposure to, human love.

William Moore (Peer Gynt)
© Gregory Batardon

Costume designer Leo Kulaš’ ingenuity is apparent throughout, not least for the utterly outrageous costumes of the trolls. The catalogue of enormous second skins with their rubbery welts, bruises and teeming deformities seemed endless. It’s hard, in fact, to even imagine the time it would take to dress some 30 figures in such bulky gear, much less assemble and construct them first. In light of the large number of dancers on stage simultaneously, Marko Japelj’s multi-layered set calls little attention to itself, but takes advantage, near the end, of a graceful oblong ring-ramp that hoists any upstage action and, wisely, steers clear of the danger of having too many bodies downstage at once. Tomaž Premzl’s lighting was highly effective too, both conflicting emotions and tortured bodies.

Peer Gynt
© Gregory Batardon

In the pit, Victorien Vanoosten conducted the Philharmonia Zürich masterfully in the highly varied score. The spectrum of sounds stretched from the unbound tutti to a thrilling solo piano in the asylum scene, with the orchestration being supplemented by a fine offstage choir of some forty singers. The tireless presence of Peer himself, the precision of the demanding group work and the convincing portrayal of the notion that good always wins in the end, showed the entire company at its very best. It seemed that all of us in audience just treasured the trolls, the clutter, the wedding, the muscle and, not least, the simple moral lesson that love conquers all.

*****