In his 1979 film, "Manhattan," Woody Allen, ever the sarcastic pessimist, wonders why life is worth living. He comes up with Brando, Sinatra, Groucho, the second movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Cézanne's pears among the few things that make it worthwhile. And "Swedish movies, naturally." Director Ingmar Bergman was the best-known Scandinavian artist, and Swedish cinema was a voyeuristic American's most likely contact with a supposedly sexually liberated Scandinavia.
Two years after his death at 89, Bergman still looms large over Scandinavian culture. Sex clearly hasn't gone away, either. But on a recent trip to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, I found that classical music now appears to be widely regarded as one of the certain things that makes life worth living in a land where pessimists, sarcastic and otherwise, are not hard to come by.
Bergman and, at least to some extent, sex play into this phenomenon. Every opera production I saw, for instance, was Bergmanesque, sexually graphic or both. The brilliant way Bergman used music to find unexpected levels of meaning in his films and opera productions seems to have seeped into a musical culture. But there is also a new generation afoot, applying these influences to its own ends.
All but one of the major orchestras in Scandinavia are directed by conductors between the ages of 28 and 45. (The exception is the 53-year-old Finn Jukka-Pekka Sarasate at the Oslo Philharmonic.) When a 27-year-old Danish director, Kasper Bech Holten, was appointed head of the Royal Danish Opera in 2000, he became the youngest person to head a European opera house.
In January, a 44-year-old Scottish director, Paul Curran, became head of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo, where the company has a year-old opera house that's become a tourist attraction. Copenhagen boasts a brand-new concert hall and a 3-year-old opera house on the harbor that has become one of the welcoming sites for cruise ships sailing into the city.
I began my trip late last month in Stockholm just as the Ingmar Bergman International Theatre Festival 2009 was beginning. On back-to-back nights I saw a crude, silly, sex-besotted staging of Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Royal Swedish Opera and a far crasser staging of Bergman's 1972 masterpiece, "Cries and Whispers."
The "Traviata" production, by Bech Holten, was first given by the company in 2007. In it, Violetta (earnestly sung by a company regular, Maria Fontosh) became a hostess in a Manhattan gentleman's club on a high floor of a skyscraper. During the third-act ballet, dancers simulated sex with Kama Sutra thoroughness. At the end, the erstwhile consumptive courtesan slept on the streets and died of an overdose. The audience seemed blasé but happy.
The Royal Swedish Opera is in transition. Next season the Swedish mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svendén will become the new artistic director. She recently told Opera News that she hopes to eradicate the myth that opera is an elitist art form. I don't think she has much to worry about. Despite the historic opera house, the "Traviata" audience was less formally dressed than you would typically find in America. On a warm (and sunny) Nordic white night, several people wore shorts.
A "Traviata" in which Violetta is the victim of such exploitation at least hints at misogyny. "Cries and Whispers," presented by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, shouted the same misogynist message.
Bergman's film has, for me, the greatest use of music in all of cinema. Two sisters, faced with the death of a third, are uncommunicative until a final emotional breakdown. When they achieve ardent conversation, all we hear is Bach's inconsolable Sarabande from the fifth solo cello suite. But in the staging, Flemish director Ivo van Hove replaces music, lyricism, understatement and ambiguity with dramatically high-pitched hysteria, humiliation and degrading nudity. The opening-night festival crowd, in Dramaten, the theater where Bergman often worked, gave the production a standing ovation.
A blue draw
The city's blue concert hall, home of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, is also historic. The Nobel Prize ceremonies are held here. On warm days, its steps are packed with young people hanging out and necking. A marvelous food hall is adjacent.
The music director is 44-year-old Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo. He was preceded by New York-born Alan Gilbert, who took over the orchestra in 2000 at age 33. (In September, Gilbert becomes music director of the New York Philharmonic.) A few miles away, at Stockholm's Berwaldhallen, the Swedish Radio Symphony is headed by a 33-year-old Brit, Daniel Harding. This was Esa-Pekka Salonen's first orchestra: He was 27 in 1985 when he became its chief conductor.
So it hardly seems surprising that Gustavo Dudamel's first professional music directorship would be in this country as well. In 2007, when he became music director of the Gothenburg Symphony, he was 26.
Sweden is obviously a proving ground for these young foreign conductors. Thanks to socialized music, the local government in Gothenburg foots 75% of the orchestra's budget. The Volvo factory is in Gothenburg, and it is a major sponsor. This allows for subsidized tickets, making concerts affordable to students (Gothenburg is a university town) and most who want to attend. The situation further creates very good working conditions for musicians, and it means support for touring, broadcasting and recording.
But there are a few cracks in the system. Money is tight everywhere these days, and Volvo is particularly vulnerable, since it is owned by Ford, which would like to unload the company. Inexpensive tickets can be misused. A couple sitting in front of me at a magnificent matinee performance of Verdi's Requiem brought their two squirming young children. One demonstrated his protest by sitting with his fingers in his ears until he fell asleep. The older one was more obnoxious.
Gothenburg also initiated the Scandinavian fashion for opera houses on harbors' edge. Its auditorium, completed in 1994, is designed to appear like a ship about to be launched into the picturesque Packhuskajen quay.
The company itself has an innovative streak. It just ended the current season with a well-received new version of "Romeo and Juliet," with a hodgepodge of music by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tchaikovsky, Leonard Bernstein, Radiohead, Wagner, Gounod and many others (but no ABBA).
The new Opera House on the Oslo Fiord feels even more seafaring. It goes right up to the water (you can slide into the harbor if you lose control of your skateboard). The outside is a triumph of design by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. The lobby looks great thanks to illumination by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. But that seems to be all $750 million buys in the extravagantly high-priced Norwegian capital.
The interior is a traditional horseshoe but as gloomy the inside of a Viking ship. The large pit means that even if you sit in the fourth row (as I did) you feel disconnected from the stage. Acoustics are bright but uninviting. Tackily tacked on to the backs of the seats are cheapo versions of Met Titles. Unlike the polarized ones at the Met, you can see these distractingly flashing all over the place.
A new production of Strauss' "Elektra" by Norwegian director Stein Winge was again cliché-ridden and degrading. The set was an upside-down room. Elektra (enthusiastically sung by Caroline Whisnant) displayed an insatiable hunger for humiliation, although she had to compete with her sister and mother in that department. Strauss interestingly balanced horror with lyricism; Winge did not. As part of the production, young children sat in the corners of the stage and cringed.
A new production of "Tristan og Isolde," as Wagner's opera is called in Danish, at the Royal Danish Opera was, on the other hand, genuinely Bergmanesque. The easiest way to the Copenhagen theater is by boat, and nothing could be more appropriate for Wagner's opera with this new staging that takes place entirely on a modern vessel. Directed by Danish heldentenor Stig Andersen as an elegant, stylized drama, the production became the psychodrama of a feminist, imperious Isolde (Tina Kiberg) and a depressive antihero Tristan (Johnny van Hal). The soprano was vocally adequate and a stunning presence on stage -- imperious with just a hint of vulnerability.
A new Concert Hall
But the talk of Copenhagen is its new big blue cube of a Concert Hall, designed by Jean Nouvel (what is it with blue concert halls in Scandinavia?). It is home to the Danish National Symphony, adventurously led by Thomas Dausgaard, which will surely benefit from wonderful sound provided by Walt Disney Concert Hall acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota.
That is not to say that Scandinavian cinema is dead. In his controversial new film, "Antichrist," Danish auteur Lars von Trier uses the aria "Lascia ch'io Piango" from Handel's "Rinaldo" as effectively as Bergman employed Bach in "Cries and Whispers," if to very different ends. Here the score serves simultaneously as turn-on to a pornographic sex scene and as a heavenly accompaniment to a baby's fall from the window, conflating meaningless eroticism with meaningless death. From there, things get really nasty.
The late-night audience I joined for "Antichrist" in a Copenhagen art theater was mainly schoolboys in their early teens, furiously eating huge quantities of popcorn and candy while absorbing huge quantities of sexual violence and emotional themes a million miles over their pubertal heads. Afterward, the wildly energized kids headed out into the mean, midnight streets.
It wouldn't surprise me if one or two of these kids becomes seriously weird in part by seeing such shocking images at an impressionable age. And Handel could well stay in the mix. This now is way past Bergman, but the future of Scandinavian music should be very interesting.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times