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Pentimento Painting

12/21/2019 -  & December 26, 28, 30, 2019, January, 4, 6*, 2020
Hans Abrahamsen: The Snow Queen
Barbara Hannigan (Gerda), Rachel Wilson (Kay), Thomas Grassle (Kay double), Katarina Dalayman (Grandmother, Old Lady, Finn Woman), Peter Rose (Snow Queen, Reindeer, Clock), Caroline Wettergreen (Princess), Dean Power (Prince) Kevin Conners (Forest Crow), Owen Willetts (Castle Crow)
Bayerische Staatsoper Choir, Stellario Fagone (Chorus director), Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Cornelius Meister (Conductor)
Andreas Kriegenburg (Director), Harold B. Thor (Scenery), Andrea Schraad (Costumes), Michael Bauer (Lights), Zenta Haerter (Choreography)

(© Wilfried Hösl)

The Snow Queen composed by Hans Abrahamsen, with libretto by Abrahamsen and Henrik Engelbrecht, premiered in Copenhagen in the fall. A commission by the Royal Danish Opera means that the libretto will be in Danish. The composer’s intent had been for the soprano Barbara Hannigan to take the lead role. She would not join the production until it was re-imagined in English by the Bayersiche Staatsoper for a new mounting in December, 2019. (Munich rarely performs a new opera that is not in their own production).

Abrahamsen had joined forces with the Hannigan earlier for the cycle of seven songs entitled let me tell you which has been declared the best piece of classical music written in this century. It won the Grawemeyer award for musical composition, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Like the music of The Snow Queen, the orchestra is the singer’s partner. Both vocal line and orchestral color are often delicate, sometimes powerful and always full of feeling. Andris Nelsons performed the work in Berlin. Franz Welser-Möst and Hannigan got rave reviews at its Carnegie Hall concert in New York.

The opera is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, darker than most. The creators realized that they had to write a work in which the lead singer is nearing 50 could not be focused on a young girl. The search for Gerda’s childhood friend remains intact, but it is the search of an older woman who is deeply concerned for the pain her childhood companion is enduring. A more adult relationship is also suggested by bed scenes. To set the problem up in the context, we open with Gerda anxious to help Kay, played and sung with stunning variety by Rachel Wilson. The Forest Crow and the Castle Crow are both happy meet-mates and harbingers. Kevin Conners and Owen Willeletts vigorously flap and sing imperturbably in the roles. Caroline Wettergreen has a delightful lilt to her voice as Princess, and Dean Power is a powerful prince.

We are bowled over by white. Feather-like snow is kicked up from the floor. White drapes drop from the ceiling. The operation room which brackets the story is Thomas Eakins’-like in its surgical room sterility. It suggests both urgency and detail. This is not going to be a nice fairy tale. Yet the attendant nurses and medical personnel appear to be at once earthly nuns and celestial angels. They also always suggest snowflakes. They form the chorus.

The music is a complex mix of the ethereal and earthly. While we hear the shivers and sharp attacks of icicles in Icelandic music, this work has its own sound. Stage right, two harps have their own box. A marimba is poised in its own box across from them. Group singing ranges from duet to quartet to quintet to chorus. The duet is an example of the vocal relationship between characters. Each singer has a clear line, and when they are together, they are still like ships passing in the night. We hear them at once, but they each seem to be going their own way. Even when five people are singing in a block, separateness is there. The ethereal and the real sit together in both the drama and the music.

Time floats in the piece. Kay’s troubled doppelganger is played with sensitivity by Thomas Grassle. Both Gerda and Kay have very young children playing their much younger selves. Hannigan watches a grandmother (Katarina Dalayman) read to young Gerda and Kay about the Snow Queen, who rules over the snow bees, snow flakes that look like bees. We begin to hear her voice, telling the tale of a mirror which reflects only the bad in people. The glass has shattered and its splinters and shards have fallen all over the earth. Whenever one lodges in a person’s eye, he can see only evil.

Gerda and Kay once lived near each other. Gerda’s window box, from which she looks at Kay, is full of rose blooms which always remind her of him. He has been damaged by an evil splinter and now can only see bad. Roses do not help now. Kay’s sled attaches to the Snow Queen’s as she breezes through town. She kisses him once to numb him with her cold. She kisses him again, to help him forget Gerda. She does not deliver the third kiss because this would kill him. The Snow Queen is sung regally by bass Peter Rose, who also gives us the Reindeer and the Clock, the universal figures in the work.

Gerda goes on a search for Kay. She is wearing her precious red shoes, which she offers to the river in case Kay has drowned there. The river refuses them. Then she knows that Kay has not drowned. Hannigan, with her physical talents among so many others, paddles away imaginatively. She could be Liza running in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or in the midst of a Japanese No drama. Rich evocation whisks by us in this work, even as the music, complex and always lyric in texture, draws us in. References slide by as they enrich. At one point a Gerda look alike is put to rest like a sleeping beauty, her head and long hair draped over the edge of a bed which looms often in the work. Here Gerda tries to rescue Kay with beautiful red flowers. Seduction is impossible as his heart freezes.

Cornelius Meister conducts with authority. He was joined in the pit by Chad Kelly, a British musical polymath. Keeping divergent rhythms together required more than one person at the helm.

Gerda travels to the Finn woman’s house, where she learns the secret. Finding Kay is in her warm heart. Hannigan’s warmth underlies even the most harsh stretches of her voice. Her many musical postures are given ample opportunity for expression. Never composing a line for its own sake and amply providing orchestral glints, Abrahamsen deeply understands the relationship between voice and instrumentation. Hannigan knows exactly how to wear this role. It fits. She captures the dramatic arc, singing at first in the repeated notes of Baroque agitation and moving into those wide ranging leaps she executes with such beauty and also horror. Driven north by the Snow Queen, Kay’s doppelgänger finally disappears too, as Gerda’s warm heart beats out the devil.

It is difficult to discuss separately the elements of Munich’s production of The Snow Queen. The relation of the parts is one of its wonderments. Like pentimento painting it is layered. Like a beautiful silk, it is subtly interwoven, the music, the visual setting and the superb singing actors.

Susan Hall



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