Appearing for the first time in a concert version, the Dutch premiere of Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen conducted by Kent Nagano concluded NTR Zaterdagmatinee’s season with a flourish. Taking Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, Abrahamsen shaped the text in collaboration with librettist Henrik Engelbrecht. Evoking atmospheric scenes of a mystical Nordic world steeped in shadows and frost, circling the edges of such profound beauty an ominous presence lurks. It is between these two places that sound hovers. At each moment we the listeners can tumble either side of the sliver of ice on which we are suspended.

Kent Nagano
© Milagro Elstak

As with all good fairy tales, one winter’s night children Gerda and Kay are told a story about the Snow Queen by their grandmother. As night falls, their imagination takes flight and both children set forth on their own febrile journeys. Populated with sprookje characters Castle Crow, Forest Crow, Finn woman, Prince and Princess, Reindeer and Clock, with Angel voices, this is a tale of Kay being lost to the sub-zero wilderness, having been struck by ice splinters in his heart and in his eye, that have left him cold, emotionless. “How cold it is here, how empty the splinters in my heart,” he implores. We follow Gerda’s travails in searching for, journeying through barren ice lands, seeking out her lost and much-loved brother, saving him with “My tears have melted the splinters out of your heart.” The duo refrain between these main protagonists, each trapped in their own experience, apart from the one they love; this touching duet perfectly dovetails the voices.

In concert form, The Snow Queen works, simply and magnificently. Subtitling clarifies the text, but also supports the scenario’s unfolding. Then “you can hear the music for itself and let the opera come into your mind, your inner cinema.” Musically this idea is scrupulously upheld, as the interchange between character-populated scenes and instrumental transitions allows for us to embrace a fully engaged listened world, with the story emerging plainly before us. This would not have been possible without the large and fully populated vocal ensemble, without which such depth of expression would not have been reached. 

Mari Eriksmoen and the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest
© Milagro Elstak

Each individual singer, and member of the Groot Omroepkoor inhabited their role with distinctive individual presence, mindful of the overall whole. Helena Rasker executed her lynch pin roles of Grandmother, Old Lady and Finn woman most excellently. With most exposure, Mari Eriksmoen held her own as Gerda, a stolid and central expressive point, of particular note was her articulation of the highly effective word setting “How ice cold... I have no mittens,” in duo with the softly muffled backdrop. Bass-baritone Seth Carico as the Snow Queen, Reindeer and Clock, was to the point, and magnificently clear. Sumptuous mezzo Rachael Wilson, as Gerda's brother Kay, resonated a rich purity of tone, very suited to the part, blending well with Abrahamsen’s timbral evocation. Owen Willetts (Castle Crow) was in fine fettle, combined fluently with Paul Curievici's Forest Crow, both equal to their counterpart support, the Prince and Princess, Lucas van Lierop and Rainelle Krause. Sweet heavenly angel voices Varvara Tishina and Charlotte Janssen were in perfect balance and congruity to complete the line-up. 

A highly evolved sonic experience of singular deftness, from full tutti to fine expressive instrumental detail in the blink of an eye, the handling of form was precisely crafted. An intense, immensely rewarding listening experience, shaped, with lightness of touch by the understated, precisely meted baton of Nagano, who at the end of the opera, beat the silence into the distance, until the echo dropped away.

*****