WSO concert proves to be a true crowd-pleaser
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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra whisked 1,620 listeners off to the frozen climes of Norway Saturday night, with a relatively rare, semi-staged presentation of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” as the latest offering in its (B)eyond Classics series. The Scandinavian composer’s full score of incidental music that fleshes out Henrik Ibsen’s allegorical drama about the vainglorious peasant who travels the world in search of fortune formed the basis for his later works, “Peer Gynt Suites, No. 1, Op. 46” and “No. 2, Op. 55.”
The two-hour evening (including intermission) led by WSO maestro Daniel Raiskin featured legendary American actor/director/producer/writer John de Lancie of Star Trek fame (among other credits) in the title role for his own stage adaptation of the time-honoured tale. The all-Winnipeg cast also included soprano Andrea Lett (Solveig); soprano Julie Lumsden (Anitra); sopranos Chloe Thiessen, Claire Wright and Alice Macgregor (shepherd girls); joined by the University of Manitoba Singers (Elroy Friesen, director), the latter ensemble morphing into a quasi-Greek chorus to help propel the action.
To get this immediately out there, what truly fascinated is realizing how little we actually knew about this work; pored over and analyzed in its more truncated guises in music history classes for generations; with Grieg’s 23 individual pieces seamlessly interwoven into the spoken narrative offering greater historical context and a more fulsome picture of Ibsen’s story.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more compelling raconteur than de Lancie, who brought operatic intensity to his role of Peer; wholly in character throughout the show’s five acts without benefit of “stage business,” costuming, or frankly, being able to move freely across the stage as he perched atop his mid-orchestra riser. The actor held the audience firmly in the palm of his hand with his animated, biting delivery, despite the challenges of being (somewhat) obfuscated by the onstage musicians; nonetheless creating a tour de force performance that dazzled.
Bravo also to the soloists, with Lett performing her haunting “Solveig’s Song” and its many reprises with utter sincerity, as Peer’s long-suffering love interest willing to wait 20 years for his return. Lumsden bewitched with her own powerful vocals as the Sheik’s sly daughter Anitra, albeit her English text could not always be clearly heard during her “Arabian Dance” solo as she tricks Peer into giving her his gold.
The chorus of three shepherd girls – calling for their lost Troll lovers, no less – proved a well-balanced ensemble, however felt squished onto de Lancie’s riser that marred their all-too-brief appearance.
“In the Hall of the Mountain King” will never quite sound the same again, with the choristers belting out its words for all they’re worth during its ferocious climax – as Grieg had originally intended. Raiskin held a taut rein throughout, carefully pacing the highly visceral piece that gradually builds up steam before bursting into a final explosion of sound.
“The Death of Asa” became another highlight, with de Lancie bringing heart-rending pathos to this scene as Peer thanks his dying mother for her lullabies, heightened further by the lush lyricism of Grieg’s orchestration.
One would be remiss not to mention the trolls, goblins and gnomes, brought to life by the choristers, that hunt Peer as prey until he meets the “Boyg,” a disembodied voice serving as the protagonist’s conscience. The rhythmically lively “Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter” even saw the maestro bopping along on the podium, before hissing out his own line of text that both surprised and delighted.
“Morning Mood” including glowing lighting effects felt not a slow, leisurely dawning, but shards of sunlight abruptly breaking through the night mist, thanks to a relatively brisk tempo that hindered this music’s inherent, flowing lyricism.
Some other minor flaws became never really “seeing” the choir, positioned upstage presumably on risers that created a strangely distancing effect as bit players in their own drama. Having the two female leads fully integrated with the orchestra, while instilling an overall organic sensibility, each magically rising for their respective solos, nevertheless paid a price in terms of having visible presence the currency of stagecraft.
Still, it’s refreshing to experience this work with new eyes and ears, whether one ultimately ascribes it as a cautionary tale about the perils of hubris, or a timeless story trumpeting the redemptive power of love able to heal deep wounds of the heart and soul. This production successfully left this an open question, with viewers called upon to draw their own conclusions, and move beyond the proverbial tip of the iceberg to plumb the depths of the human condition. As expected, the audience leapt to its feet at the end with a rousing standing ovation for this unusual performance.
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