Saga King Becomes Opera - at Last!

"Where is the ship, Ormen Lange? Is Olav Tryggvason not coming?" The cry that resounded in the Viking Age and in National-Romantic poetry has echoed since Grieg and Bjørnson failed to complete their opera project about the saga king almost 130 years ago, and it rang optimistically across the nation when Ragnar Søderlind’s opera Olav Tryggvason was first performed - one thousand years and one month after the King fell at the Battle of Svolder.

Ragnar Søderlind

Many people have asked the composer, half jokingly, if he would complete Grieg’s unfinished opera about Olav Tryggvason, but Ragnar Søderlind found that quite impossible. Until it became possible.

“The time has not been ripe until now, when style is no longer a deadly sin! In The Magic Flute, Mozart juggles with all manner of styles. The gaps have disappeared in the course of time and today it sounds coherent. Mahler was also criticised for mixing folk and intellectual elements. Once I had accepted the idea, I was able to approach the material and free myself from it. Since the Bjørnson text covers only the first three scenes, I was also free to decide in which direction the plot should proceed,” says Søderlind.

‘Style’ is one of the hobby-horses about which he has engaged in polemic and argument with his composer colleagues. He is convinced that music must address people, a view most of us find it difficult to disagree with, but the term ‘neo-romantic’ is not an honourable label among most modern composers, who prefer to call it ‘old-fashioned’.

Entirely new opera
“Modernism has ruined the relationship between European music and its audience. Serious music has become a niche culture that is totally unexciting to ordinary people, and it has taken time to approach the emotional aspect in modern music. Everything had to be intellectual, and if I can’t compose feelings I will stop composing. The time is now ripe and it was possible to realise my idea,” says the composer, who has not completed the opera in the sense that the first three scenes are Grieg’s and the following twenty Søderlind’s, but has in reality written an entirely new opera into which the first three scenes have been incorporated.

Søderlind has created transitions – ‘seams’ – between Grieg’s music and his own, in which his music takes over just before Grieg’s finishes. Bjørnson/Grieg’s Landkjenning (Land-Sighting), originally written in 1872 for a lottery at Akershus Fort in aid of Trondheim Cathedral and a powerful element in the Norwegian national choral heritage, has been used as a prologue.

“I often develop Grieg’s music, create my own version with variations on his themes so that you can recognise them although they are not the same as Grieg’s. It will sound modern to the ordinary ear and old-fashioned to modernists! I have returned to tonality, but my dissonances are as daring as other people’s, although melos – melody – has been reintroduced. Talk and chat in opera become so prosaic. Opera takes place in an atmosphere very different from the trivial; it is the singing that differentiates it from everyday life. The text and music must suit each other and be integrated in such a way that the two elements are equally important.”

Grieg and Bjørnson
The Norwegian operatic repertoire is relatively limited and the possibility of creating a monumental national work of 19th century format was lost when Edvard Grieg and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson fell out in 1873. Grieg nagged about a libretto that never appeared, and when something finally materialised he had begun work on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and had no time for Bjørnson “since I am now sitting here composing music for Peer Gynt instead of Olav Tryggvason. There you have it,” wrote Grieg. To Bjørnson this was almost unforgivable and the hatchet was not buried until the composer dedicated the Tryggvason fragments to Bjørnson when they were first performed in Christiania in 1889. They were also performed nine times at the National Theatre in 1908.

This time the text is complete and singer and librettist Knut Jørgen Moe’s version is in a very different style from that of his predecessor. It has become an original drama more than a libretto, often in saga style, and whereas Bjørnson and Grieg would have written an opera about conversion to Christianity which would end with everyone being nice and walking round in white cloaks, Søderlind and Moe have written a more truthful, bloody story, depicting the Battle of Svolder in 1000 as the bloodbath it really was. In The Battle of Svolder, fate motifs from Wagner, Beethoven, Liszt and other composers are incorporated into Søderlind’s own music. Director Ronald Rørvik has participated as dramatic adviser from the start.

Christianity, paganism and women
Olav Tryggvason grew up in Russia, was baptised in England and set off, full of international impulses and under billowing sails, to cross the North Sea to Norway in order to unite the country, defeat paganism and lead the people into modern times. To most Norwegians, Olav was a heroic king who was unfortunately killed at Svolder. Søderlind and Moe try to show why he suffered such a fate and how his behaviour and over-confidence – hubris – led to disaster.

“He was typical of his time, a chieftain obsessed by Christianity who approached the conversion of his people with an almost heathen brutality. It is said that Norway was converted to Christianity by the axe, and this is expressed visually in a scene where half the cast sing their way to perdition (Hear us, Balder) while the other half sing beautiful hymns (Veni creator!). We allow the Russian monk, Pyotr, to represent the meditative, mild aspect of Christianity, while Jon Bisp (Bishop John) and Olav represent the more aggressive aspect. White Christ – Christ as a fighting, conquering king – was tailor-made for the Vikings,” relates Søderlind, who has portrayed the rise and fall of the Norwegian king in two long acts.

The turning point comes when Gudrun tries to kill Tryggvason on their wedding night. He has chopped off the head of her father, Chief Iron Beard, who resisted conversion to Christianity by force. He was given the choice between the chalice and the sword – Christianity and death – and chose death. The statue of Olav Tryggvason in Trondheim depicts him in precisely this way, with the chalice in his left hand and the sword in his right.

Due to the king’s cruelty and propensity for torturing people, his friends and comrades desert him one by one. He famously hits the Swedish dowager Queen Sigrid in the face with his glove and incurs the enmity of both the Swedish and Danish kings. At Svolder in the Year 1000, where the megalomaniac Olav expects to unite the entire Nordic region into a Christian realm, he is ambushed. The mythological Volven intervenes and determines his fate while his three women – Gudrun, his wife Thyra and Sigrid – become norns who spin the threads of his destiny. “Toying with women has caused the death of many men,” sings Volven.

No-one knows where Svolder is today and Søderlind and Moe do not try to specify its location. Rügen, Øresund, Iddefjord and a place close to Gothenburg have been suggested. The composer believes most in the Gothenburg alternative because Danaholmen, the ancient border between Norway, Sweden and Denmark, is there.

The music
Ragnar Søderlind’s score is for a full orchestra without electronic elements or Viking-type buck horns. “There are enough problems without that,” he says. But he allows the Wagnerian tuba to represent the pagan element and the organ to represent Christianity. The musical contrasts are extreme, in the characterisation, too. While Olav begins melodiously, he ends in a more modernist, abrupt style that expresses his hubris.

The tonality is modern, but the format is more in the Puccinian than the Wagnerian tradition. There are arias and monologues that promote the action, passionate love scenes and theological debates, a seamen’s choir, storm and calm, battle and prayer, pagan dance at the sacrificial site, fire and sea battles – as dramatic and violent as any action film.

“Can the audience hum anything as they leave the auditorium?”
“Thyra’s cradle song for Harald is hummable. It must be the first cradle song to be written by a classical composer in Norway since World War II!” responds Søderlind with a smile.

Bergen, City of Culture
One thousand years and one month after the Battle of Svolder, on 26 September 2000, the opera Olav Tryggvason was first performed in the Grieg Hall in Bergen with Trond Hallstein Moe in the title role. The Oslo première was at the end of November at the Norwegian National Opera. Earlier this year, the Norwegian National Opera had staged Ariadne in the Cultural City of Santiago de Compostela to great acclaim. The first performance of the new Norwegian opera took place in the west-coast town of Bergen precisely because it is also a European City of Culture in 2000.

The Norwegian National Opera, the West Norwegian Opera, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cultural City of Bergen cooperated on the production of the three-hour performance. Although their relations were relatively turbulent, all the pieces of the puzzle finally fotted together and the opera was enthusiastically acclaimed by both audiences and critics in Bergen and Oslo. The launch of the project by the Norwegian National Opera as a completed version of Grieg’s opera was, however, appropriately criticised by the Norwegian press as being misunderstood and erroneous. Opera Director Bjørn Simensen rejected the criticism as being formalistic.

“We have performed somersaults forwards and backwards in history,” he says, proud that Grieg’s sketches have provided the foundation for a complete and entirely new opera. Olav Tryggvason is the first major Norwegian première in eight years, and the first ever in Bergen.

The British music critic Rober Matthew-Walker, who reviewed the opera for the International Record Review in November 2000, wrote the following:

“….the completed three-hour score produced no stylistic collisions. Not that Søderlind writes Griegian pastiche: he is his own man, but the drama in the long First Act (…) is admirably fleshed out. Søderlind brilliantly incorporates Grieg’s Land-Sighting, Op. 32 as the overture… As the story unfolds (Grieg’s music naturally comes near the beginning), and in so doing becomes more a mixture of fact and fable, Søderlind’s own emerging style takes us on to another level. The staging was superb, the production was excellent, and the singing was uniformly outstanding, as was the orchestral playing…..One of Søderlind’s finest achievements was that, although his orchestra was large, it was so adroitly used that every word was audible.”

In an interview on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s culture channel P2, he said “This performance, with all its qualities, was a brilliant demonstration of what Scandinavian art can be in the Year 2000.”

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.9 - 2001 No. 1
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