World-renowned soprano Iréne Theorin is a regular performer in the most important opera houses in the world, an acclaimed interpreter in the late-romantic repertoire of Wagner, Puccini and Strauss. However, she is rarely heard in her native Sweden, having made her debut at the Konserthuset in Stockholm only last January in a Lieder concert held at the Grünewaldsalen. Now she returns for a concert in the main hall, which is featuring a programme mainly by Richard Strauss.

Iréne Theorin © Jan-Olav Wedin
Iréne Theorin
© Jan-Olav Wedin

The concert opened with an orchestral piece, Pan, composed for BBC National Orchestra of Wales by the Swedish contemporary composer B. Tommy Andersson, whose world première was during the BBC Proms of 2015. The piece, scored for organ and large orchestra, is a musical portrait of the Greek god Pan, a mythological figure featuring a wide range of traits, which the music tries to convey by evoking an equally wide range of atmospheres. Pan raised terror in classical times, and the beginning of the piece focused on this chaotic, panicky feeling: the sound is overwhelming, communicating an enormous power that is hard to contain. The wonderful, large organ of the Stockholm Konserthuset, the centre of the musical action, evoked the largest set of panpipes ever seen on a stage. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra gave us a remarkable and committed description of Pan's strength, also following Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård in the more subdued and lyrical description of other traits of the Greek god, his sensuousness, his closeness to nature.

The first part of the concert was concluded by the final scene from Salome, one of the most intensely written by Strauss. Salome, inebriated by power and sexual desire after dancing for Herod and requesting John the Baptist's execution as her reward, kisses John's severed head. Theorin commanded Strauss' style with great skill; she was clearly at ease in this music, her powerful voice soaring over the orchestra in beautiful high notes and spine-chilling pianissimi. The interpretation of this scene is a challenge for any singer; it is extremely hard to convey all the nuances of Salome's character. Theorin gave a credible and moving account of her madness and sensuality. It was a very enjoyable performance. What was perhaps lacking was the young girl's surprise, her incredulity about her own power, which is one of the drivers of her madness. Theorin's Salome was more evil and scheming than reckless.

Thomas Søndergård © Jan-Olav Wedin
Thomas Søndergård
© Jan-Olav Wedin

The second part of the concert started with the big scene at the beginning of Strauss' Elektra, which Theorin performed with confidence, perfectly owning the character. Elektra mourns her father, calling him aloud. Theorin's repetitions of "Agamemnon! Agamemnon!" were heart-melting and terrifying at the same time. Elektra invokes a bloodbath to avenge her father's death and envisions herself dancing amidst the blood over her father's grave. The imagery is very powerful, and Theorin mastered the scene with her skill. Her voice was strong and well suited to this repertoire, and her legato carried the musical phrases with great beauty. She followed the playful, yet dramatic, interpretation that conductor Søndergård gave of the final dance, her voice waltzing with the orchestra.

The tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra closed the concert. Strauss takes Nietzsche's labyrinthic work and distills it into only eight parts, with an introduction and an epilogue. Søndergård's reading of the score was less desperate than that of other conductors; he smoothed some edges and managed to convey some hope. The wonderful brass section of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra had a true chance to shine, and it didn't disappoint. 

****1