IN: Reviews

BSO Does Theatrical Peer Gynt


Dima Slobodeniouk (Robert Torres photo)

For the second of two programs titled “Music of the Midnight Sun,” the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk, presented Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a theatrical adaptation conceived, written, and directed by Bill Barclay. Soprano Georgia Jarman, eight actors (playing 18 roles), and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus shared the stage with the BSO.

Ibsen’s original 1867 conception of the play is truly an epic in rhymed Norwegian verse, intended more to be read than acted, with some 40 scenes spanning 60 years and three continents. Barclay’s intention was “to tame the story while going back to the wilder incidental score, mining for fresh bits of Grieg,” and his adaptation largely achieved this, though his text could occasionally be overly self-referential as well as poetic. This production (I attended the Friday afternoon performance) involved considerable infrastructure, including numerous costumes, rudimentary sets and lighting, and a fairly sophisticated sound system involving speakers located around Symphony Hall, not to mention a Norwegian-American playing the hardanger fiddle, a mainstay of Norse folk music not often heard in this country.

After the colorful overture we met the Button-Moulder (actor Robert Walsh), a mysterious figure, sometimes a character, sometimes a narrator, speeding us through the longueurs of Ibsen’s epic. Here he set the scene and briefly described Peer Gynt’s nature in rhymed English verse. We soon witnessed the fraught relationship of Peer to his widowed mother Åse (actors Caleb Mayo and Bobbie Steinbach, respectively) who alternated between wanting to believe his tall tales and berating him for lying shamelessly to his mother. And soon enough we learned that he is not merely a disrespectful son but a ne’er-do-well, viewing his blatant egoism as self-actualization with little or no regard to those he hurts on his quest to reach his maximum potential. (The adaptation, showing admirable restraint, made only a veiled reference or two to the former U.S. president who also fits this description.) Peer went to the wedding of Ingrid, an old flame whom Åse had once hoped he would marry, where he first met Solveig (played by singer and actor Georgia Jarman), another young woman whose unusual inner perception made her see something to love in Peer though he himself did not and left her behind. He soon seduced and abducted Ingrid in short order. A seed was planted, though, when he was about to abandon her and cursed “the tribe of women—except one,” informing Ingrid that she was not that one. Slobodeniouk and the orchestra vividly evoked the vortex of emotions in Ingrid’s Lament; anguish and anger alternated with resignation in the introduction followed by a moaning string theme that gradually rose to a deeply felt climax before subsiding again. What a pity that the amplified dialogue of Peer and Ingrid covered a number of musical passages. We needed to hear this compelling music which is absent from both suites.

Act II found Peer on the run to escape retribution for bride-rape, ending up in the realm of the Mountain King, leader of the troll nation. The exotic and attractive Woman in Green, the Mountain King’s daughter, entered in the middle of the hall and gleefully accosted at least one male audience member before meeting Peer and enjoying mutual flirtation with him and further intimacies. When the Mountain King appeared in order to inform him that he must now marry the King’s daughter, we met the character who is the chief comic relief in the play. Regrettably, the actor playing him didn’t fully trust the character’s clever costuming and bizarre physique and made several cheap (and not too effective) plays for laughs—“that one got a bigger laugh last time”―which also deflated his status as a serious threat to Peer’s well-being. But when the orchestra took over with “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” particularly with the entrance of the bloodthirsty chorus representing trolls, the threat became vividly real. Our antihero made another hair’s-breadth escape (with credit going to the prayers of Åse and Solveig) only to be immediately entrapped by an entity he could not see but which held him immobile. The Boyg would only answer Peer’s rattled questions with riddles in a ponderous voice. The music here added hugely to the eeriness of the scene as it was based on the most unstable interval, the tritone, historically known as “the devil in music.” Here the balance between dialogue and music worked ideally, no doubt helped by the Boyg’s voice emerging from various speakers throughout the hall, contrasting with strings, organ-tone, and chorus. Strikingly, the formerly fearless Peer Gynt began to lose heart (even sanity) before he called psychically on Solveig for aid; the Boyg ultimately released him (“He was too strong. There were women behind him”) to the sound of bells and a seven-bar Amen on the organ.

Peer greeted the sunrise from a mountaintop as the BSO played what is possibly Grieg’s best-known tune, “Morning Mood,” with an appealing freshness. But after virtually no pause, Peer was at his dying mother’s bedside; her brain addled by age, Åse didn’t initially recognize him as her son but finally took from him what comfort she could. (This is likely the first time we saw Peer showing genuine concern for someone other than himself.) The dialogue aligned successfully with the dynamic arch-form of Grieg’s “Åse’s Death,” a hugely affecting piece of remarkably simple construction. The tender interaction of actors Bobbie Steinbach and Caleb Mayo combined with the darkly beautiful sound of the BSO strings in the most heart-rending moment of the production. After Åse’s death, Solveig entered to console her beloved, but, still not ready to accept her love, he left the scene. Left to herself, she sang “Solveig’s Song” to express her love for Peer. Georgia Jarman and the BSO made a moving alternation of melancholy and hope, minor and major, Jarman closing each vocal verse with caressing piano high A’s.

As prologue to Act V, the Button-Moulder reappeared to summarize Peer’s subsequent adventures in South Carolina (of all places) where he became rich via gambling before embarking on his yacht with an entourage to return to Europe. Demonstrating that his experience had taught him nothing, he shared his philosophy with his followers: “self is all.” Next he proved it as the orchestra played the tempestuous “Peer Gynt’s Homeward Journey” depicting a violent storm at sea where Peer had the only life preserver and was unperturbed to watch his entourage drown around him. Having washed ashore in North Africa, bereft of his possessions, he luckily found a trunk with a fancy Turkish costume and some money; the locals hailed him as a prophet (Barclay made good use of the wordplay “profit/prophet”). Meeting the attractive young woman Anitra, Peer assumed he could con her as well but soon found out differently. In the familiar “Anitra’s Dance” she mesmerized him sufficiently to pick his pockets with ease before departing at a gallop, leaving him as penniless as before. Somehow making his way to Egypt, he found himself at the Sphinx in conversation with a man who turned out to be the head of the local madhouse (and very possibly an incarnation of the Devil). This person imprisoned him in the madhouse and, along with the other inmates, questioned Peer. At this juncture we had the awkward simultaneous delivery of two of Ibsen’s scenes: the madhouse interrogation (Egypt) and the Night Scene musical melodrama (Norway). As with Ingrid’s Lament earlier, dynamic balances here were not well calculated and the amplified spoken dialogue obscured the music and important sung text of the Night Scene. Again, we regretted the loss of beautiful music and sung text not found in the suites. As his trials came to a climax, Peer called on Åse to help him. Finally, arriving back in Norway (perhaps with Åse’s aid?), he met the Button-Moulder who informed him that his life was about to end. Employing his deal-making skills, Peer wheedled him into granting him some extra time, and when that time was up, the two of them by happy chance found themselves in front of Solveig’s cabin as she prepared to go to church. (The Tanglewood Festival Chorus here sang a ravishing a cappella hymn.) Some 60 years after their first meeting, her love for him had remained steadfast and he was at last ready to accept it. He placed his head in her lap as she sang a lullaby and the play ended serenely. Solveig, in contrast to the philosophizing and quasi-psychoanalyzing of many of the other characters, consistently expressed herself simply and directly, so Georgia Jarman’s singing here perhaps “gilded the lily” by adding a few portamenti and rubati. Nonetheless, the radiant warmth of her tone and the orchestra’s velvety accompaniment left us in loving glow.

It is worth remembering that there is no “standard” score for the complete Peer Gynt incidental music; Grieg modified the score repeatedly, tailoring it to various productions. Likewise, Bill Barclay has altered slightly his adaptation from his 2017 BSO version, but in both cases Ibsen’s drama and Grieg’s music married with nearly perfect equality thanks to the commitment and attention to detail of all the artists involved. Next time the director/writer might consider having less simultaneous delivery of dialogue and music and, when it does occur, to oversee the calibrating of the balances of amplification more carefully. On the whole, though, this vigorous and heartfelt Gesamtkunstwerk both entertained us and charged us to consider the varieties of human nature; this charge feels as relevant to us now as it must have to Norwegians in 1867.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

Captions for Robert Torres photos below:

(L) Yacht Scene   (R) Georgia Jarman and Caleb Mayo
Vidar Skrede plays fiddle
Caroline Lawton, Risher Reddick, and Caleb Mayo
Caleb Mayo and Kortney Adams


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Terrific, 😀 BSO, for celebrating this masterpiece. Disrespectful to Norse tradition and culture,however, with re-setting to gambling in South Carolina etc. How are today’s audiences supposed to learn the text and context of the story ? Would this creative take DARE take one of those ancient ” proud african warrior” tales abd resetting it to Mickey Spillane’s Brooklyn? Of course not.

    And I dont think this is the right place for anti Trump or any, political screed.

    Comment by GM — March 10, 2024 at 5:21 am

  2. The actors performed from memory, in English, from the front of the stage.

    The Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the original Bokmål text by Ibsen and a bit in English and . Ibsen’s original text was a form of Norwegian Bokmål, incorporating a few other Scandinavian words and archaic spellings/pronunciations for regional/folk effect (as found in Ibsen’s text).

    Chorister’s perspective:
    This production was largely the same as the 2017 BSO presentation under Ken-David Masur, with more than 50% of singers/actors/players returning from that production. Tempos were brisker and the overall expression was more varied this time (tighter conducting of recitative-like sections, wider range of dynamics, and more voices added to the unison choral parts for clarity). The original text was supposed to be “underscored” by a lot of the music, in the manner typical of 19th-century melodrama. From the chorus’ position, seated on the stage, we always heard the orchestra more than the text at these times, as the BSO added speakers to enhance the clarity of the spoken text for the audience.

    The Chorus sang in a more “modern Norwegian” accent this time, contrasting with the historical 19th-sound of Ibesen’s original text (as coached/performed in 2017). English surtitles were not consistently projected, appearing as one condensed block of text (each) during Solveig’s 2 arias and the penultimate choral hymn. The only a cappella section for chorus performed was this penultimate “Pinselsalme” beginning with the text “Velsignede morgen.”

    The order of movements of music from Grieg’s original incidental music used in this production was: 1, 6, 2, 3a, 3b, 4, 3a again, 8, 7, 9a with cuts, 9b (with chorus), 13, 12, 18, 17, 19, 15 (with chorus), 16, 17, 21, 22 (a cappella chorus), 23.

    See the Comments section of the 2017 review in this publication for a complete list of movement titles heard in this production:

    Comment by Laura Prichard — March 10, 2024 at 11:30 am

    One of Grieg’s performing full scores for the complete incidental music (in manuscript, from the Royal Library of Copenhagen archives),
    with additional orchestrations in the hand of Danish composer Robert Henriques,
    may be seen here:

    The first printed edition (with text both in German and Ibsen’s original) may be seen here – it includes the lengthy No. 6 with soloists and chorus omitted from this 2017/2024 BSO production):

    Comment by Laura Prichard — March 10, 2024 at 11:49 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.