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A soldier and his lass

07/12/2000 -  and 13, 15 July 2000
Per Norgard Nuit des hommes(British première)
Helge Rønning (Wilhelm/soldier/Coro), Helene Gjerris (Alice/war correspondent, Kali, Coro)
Kaare Hansen (conductor), Jacob F. Schokking (director/libretto)

The title of Per Nørgård's Nuit des hommes is translated in the programme notes as "the night of mankind", but also as "the night of men". A powerful reflection on aggression, physical fear and desire based on selections from the poems of Guillaume Appolinaire, it evokes the terror of Flanders during the first world war but also the darkness present in all humanity, embodied by the Hindu goddess Kali. Like Janacek's Diary of one who disappeared, it is somewhere between a song-cycle for two voices and an opera, though with chamber instrumentation of strings, percussion, keyboard and an uncredited instrument similar to a horizontal theremin. Jacob F. Schokking's production uses projected text, coloured lights and real-time sound loops and video to create a saturated effect of fire and anguish at night, where the only order is in the words and the repetitions of the music.

The peformance begins with a prologue in which the "chorus", the singers in commentating mode, see a feeble sunrise. A couple, Wilhelm and Alice, eat a last meal before his departure for the war, and become aroused by the red wine and his uniform. He departs into the nightmare of the trenches, a sequence of memories and impressions that builds up into the terror of a grenade attack and a triumphal rampage by the bloodthirsty and sexually predatory Kali. Wilhelm, blinded and overwhelmed, returns home cut off from life, and the chorus closes the work with a pessimistic return to the dim sunrise.

Nørgård's music is, like Param Vir's in Ion, solidly tonal, direct and often lyrical. The two singers gave powerful performances, especially Helene Gjerris as Kali. They had to sing almost continuously for over an hour, about the same as an act of Tristan and in similar vocal style, and their physical effort and commitment was moving in itself. The most disturbing moment came, though, when Kali pointed one of the video cameras that were relaying the singers' images to the screen behind them at the soldier as he lay terrified in the night as if killing him with its gaze, and ours. We need to remember and reflect on the horrors of war, but we also need to ask why we want to watch and hear such evocations of extreme emotion.

H.E. Elsom



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