Much has been written in Norwegian media about Jüri Reinvere’s new operatic adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. The rehearsal process has been marred by delays and last-minute changes; the orchestral score of Act II was ready less than three weeks before opening night. Still, Saturday’s première revealed a thought provoking, if rather uneven, reinterpretation of Ibsen’s ever relevant play.

David Hansen (The Bøyg) and Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt) © Erik Berg
David Hansen (The Bøyg) and Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt)
© Erik Berg

Reinvere’s adaptation of Ibsen places the action in our time. While the general outlines of the story remain the same, Reinvere gets rid of the quick-witted, funny Peer, replacing him with a darker, more explicitly tragic figure. Locales are changed, removed and added, perhaps the most notable addition being a slaughterhouse in Rome where people come to see themselves for who they really are. When their true self is shown to them, they all wish to die. When the butcher shows Peer who he truly is, Peer imagines himself going on a murderous rampage, unable to contain his anger and resentment towards the world and society.

The biggest weakness of the piece is its libretto, written by the composer in German, set to music, and then translated into Norwegian by Tor Tveite. How much of the fault lies with Reinvere, and how much lies with Tveite is unknown, but regardless, it is simply too verbose and is primarily occupied with contemplative ramblings on life and our place within it, instead of moving the action along. The text was largely Reinvere’s own, with very little trace of Ibsen, which meant that the few places that actually quoted the play stuck out rather awkwardly. While some of the more philosophical stretches did work rather well, most notably the scene with the Bøyg (no small thanks to David Hansen’s magnificently sung and acted Bøyg), many of the other scenes suffered from a general lack of dramatic impetus. The narrative itself was often lost in sudden jolts of unprovoked action.

Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt), Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven (Anitra) and Ketil Hugaas (Eberkopf) © Erik Berg
Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt), Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven (Anitra) and Ketil Hugaas (Eberkopf)
© Erik Berg

In contrast, the orchestral writing was, along with Katrin Nottrodt’s ingenious topographical set designs and inventive costumes, by far the strongest element of the piece. Reinvere’s sound world draws heavily on operatic tradition, with echoes of Wagner, Ravel, Puccini and especially Strauss permeating the score. The all but inevitable Grieg quotations are there, but subtly tucked into the orchestral texture; Reinvere quotes harmonies rather than outright taking Grieg’s melodies. John Helmer Fiore led the orchestra with an at times searing intensity, producing some utterly beautiful orchestral sonorities, especially in the transitional music between scenes.

Reinvere’s vocal writing was rather unremarkable, being mostly conversational in nature, largely without the lyricism and long lines found in the orchestra. The only real standout as far as vocal writing, was David Hansen’s Bøyg and Cheshire Cat, both wonderfully characterised musically and dramatically, and giving him an excellent opportunity to show off some rather fiendish coloratura.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is in many ways an interrupted monologue with the character of Peer essentially carrying the whole show throughout. Reinvere reduced the part of Peer quite substantially for his operatic adaptation, which seems to have been a wise move; Nils Harald Sødal seemed to have more than enough with getting through the part as it was, resorting to falsetto singing seemingly at random. His acting was static, his expression ranging from mildly annoyed to slightly angry. Marita Sølberg as the young Solveig did not do too much in terms of acting, but she sang beautifully. It is a shame her part didn’t exploit her talent for singing long lyrical lines to a greater extent. Ingebjørg Kosmo’s Mother Åse and old Solveig were touchingly acted and sung, especially Åse’s death, but her part, as so many others, suffered from rather uninspired vocal writing.

Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt) and David Hansen (The Cheshire Cat) © Erik Berg
Nils Harald Sødal (Peer Gynt) and David Hansen (The Cheshire Cat)
© Erik Berg

Kari Ulfsnes Kleiven, taking on the three parts of Ingrid, the Green-Clad Woman and Anitra, had more success vocally, especially her surprisingly naïve Anitra, although this final part was not a perfect fit. As the embodiment of corporeal lust, she was surprisingly non-sensual as Ingrid and the Green-Clad Woman, and suffered under what seemed to be rather weak direction. Things improved markedly, however, with her flirty Anitra. Ketil Hugaas once again proved himself as a fine singing actor, especially in Act II. But the vocal standout of the production was David Hansen as the Bøyg and the Cheshire Cat. He had ample opportunity to shine with virtuosic runs and plenty of high notes as the Bøyg (complete with glowing wings made from inflated rubber gloves!) and proved delightfully camp as the Cheshire Cat, admittedly a very strange addition to the plot.

Jüri Reinvere’s Peer Gynt is a decidedly uneven opera, but it does have some very moving moments, not least thanks to a very clever staging. Perhaps heeding the advice of the Bøyg to go around is too strong of a reaction, but with a few changes, Peer Gynt could have been a much more rewarding piece.