Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How Swede It Is

Many travelers refer to Stockholm as the Venice of the North and, with its buildings spread over fourteen islands, the beauty of this city's harbor easily rivals that of Sydney or San Francisco. On a sunlit day Stockholm glows with a combination of old-world charm, crisp Swedish efficiency and a strange, almost spiritual hydrokinetic energy which seems to rise from the area where the salt waters of the Baltic Sea meet the fresh waters of Lake Malaren.

In the morning, one can walk through the narrow streets of the Gamla Stan, the tiny island where (having been preserved with the usual Swedish respect for beauty) many of Stockholm's 17th-century buildings are still in use. Later, one descends into the city's twelve-year-old subway, the T-Bannen, whose stations have been decorated with such amusing paintings, murals and sculptures that -- despite the overabundance of spray-painted graffiti --each train trip becomes a source of curious amazement and artistic gratification. In the afternoon, one gets immense pleasure from touring Stockholm's Radhuset (whose phenomenally beautiful Golden Hall is decorated with nearly 18 million mosaic glass tiles) and then exploring the reclaimed wreck of the Royal Warship WASA, which sank in Stockholm's harbor on its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628.

Occasionally, one encounters odd clashes between fantasy and reality. Only in Stockholm could the Opera Pizzeria's staff coax me into trying a salad with "Rhode Island-style dressing." Only in Stockholm could I discover an excellent slide show about the Swedish passengers who perished aboard the Titanic and be able to read two letters written by First Officer Murdoch to his family before the ill-fated White Star liner set sail from Southampton seventy-five years ago.

Only in Stockholm could I dine at the Glada Laxen, delighting in such curious dishes as salmon pudding. And only in Stockholm could I descend into the nether regions of a porno cinema to discover that its three entertainment chambers were showing (a) gay fuck films; (b) straight fuck films and (c) a TV-talk show with special guest stars Birgit Nilsson, Elisabeth Soderstrom and Haken Hagegard! (Readers may take note that, with a great deal of respect for the rules of fair time in media-related matters, I divided my attention equally between the three screening rooms).


While most people think of Italy and Germany as the centers of operatic activity, Stockholm has its own peculiar operatic claims to fame. Baroque operas are still produced at the Drottningholm Court Theatre (a phenomenon to be discussed in a subsequent column) and there is a new company in town, the Volksoper, which is doing a commendable job of attracting young audiences. Using synthesizers instead of a full orchestra, the Volksoper (whose company of 12 singers performs in a tiny old movie house on the island of Sodermalm) has already toured its controversial productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute and Verdi's Aida to Scotland's prestigious Edinburgh Festival.

More important, however, is the impact of Sweden's King Gustav III who, in addition to nurturing the arts in Sweden, provided the inspiration for Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera through his untimely death. As many readers know, Gustav III was shot during a masked ball held at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Partially because he was an aspiring actor, incredibly vain and a bit of a ham, the costume in which the King was murdered can still be seen on display at the Royal Armouries. This unique piece of operatic history gives an operagoer fresh insights into the life and times of one of Europe's most beloved monarchs.

All too often, when attending historical costume dramas and operas, it's easy to wallow in the fantasy or fiction of the piece without remembering that these works may be tied to events which transpired in real life. When one sees the special beds for the king's pages which are still on display in the Royal Palace's Exhibition Apartments -- beautifully sculpted wall tables whose drawers fold out to provide a bed for young men like Verdi's Oscar -- one gets an uncanny sense of history and opera come to life. Although Stockholm's original Opera House burned down more than a century ago (the building which currently houses the Royal Opera stands on the site where Gustav III's fatal masked ball took place) one can get an idea of what the first Opera House looked like by examining the federal building directly across the plaza, whose edifice is almost a mirror image of the original theatre.


Until very recently, most of my travels have been within North America. As a result, one of my most cherished fantasies has been to explore some of Europe's ornately crafted opera houses; those tiny little baroque jewel boxes which have long been famous for their vibrant acoustics and theatrical intimacy. Stockholm's Royal Opera House fits the bill to perfection; an 1,130-seat auditorium whose walls are dripping with gold leaf. The auditorium's famous Gold Foyer is an interior decorator's wet dream; the sound within the hall is staggeringly bright.

However, all that glitters is not gold. In fact, I fear that the truth of this adage applies to what's happening onstage in some of Europe's smaller opera houses as well as what one sees in their beautifully baroque lobbies. On opening night of the season in Stockholm I could not help but be disappointed when that I saw that that evening's performance of Bizet's Carmen, was being staged -- quite needlessly -- behind a scrim. This very old Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production (with some rather antiquated stage direction) predates Ponnelle's San Francisco version of Carmen by many a blue moon. Although I found it interesting to see where some of the director's ideas may have started out, by the end of the evening, the Royal Opera's Carmen began to feel like a Rod Serling trip into provincial production styles of the late 1950s.

This Carmen was performed in a Swedish translation by Caj Lundgren and, since the Royal Opera primarily employs Scandinavian artists, the role of Don Jose was sung by a medium strength Black tenor named Esaias Tewolde-Berhan. Baritone Anders Bergstrom offered audiences a rather lame Escamillo. The best work of the evening came from soprano Mari Anne Haggander who, as Micaela, revealed a full-throated instrument and a pleasing stage presence.

When I spoke with the Royal Opera's Marketing Director, Lars Olaf Friborg, he assured me that although his company does what it can on its "modest" subsidy of $20 million (a figure which approximates the total annual budget of the San Francisco Opera!!!) this Carmen production had been extremely well-rehearsed. But on opening night, the mezzo-soprano singing the title role, Inger Blom muffed quite a few of her lines and I was surprised to hear some orchestra members flubbing their entrances as well.

Frequently, when discussing European productions with friends, I have been warned that unless one attends a gala opening of a new production, the artistic product one sees onstage can be disappointingly mediocre. To my amazement and dismay, the opening nights of this fall's opera seasons in both Stockholm and Copenhagen confirmed the fact that, despite each company's heavy government subsidies and ornate, intimate theatres, opera production can be a far from perfect affair -- even in the capitals of Europe.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 24, 1987.

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