This is in some respects rather surprising, as Borgstrøm was an influential and widely respected figure in Norwegian musical life in the first two decades of the last century. This has often been attributed to the fact that his contemporaries, Grieg included, felt his music lacked a definable Norwegian colour or mood, and was firmly (and unfashionably!) rooted in the Germanic tradition of Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss. Since he spent two years studying at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1887, and then lived in Germany until 1903, this may have counted against him.
Much of his chamber music and songs date from this period of his life. Also composed at this time were two operas, Thora paa Rimol (1894) and Fiskeren (1900). Perhaps owing to Borgstrøms apparent lack of interest in musical nationalism, and the lack of a strong operatic tradition in Norway, these two works were never performed in their entirety or staged in his lifetime not until these performances of Thora paa Rimol were mounted by Trønder Opera and Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Discovering Thora proved a hugely enjoyable and interesting experience.
The Wagnerian influence did not seem as strong as many commentaries would have led one to expect, despite some definite echoes of Lohengrin and perhaps Der fliegende Holländer. For a first opera this is a rather mature work, and one more rooted in the French and possibly the Italian operatic movements of the late 19th-century. Influences of Gounod and Saint-Saëns seem prominent, and given that the subject matter is based on Norwegian myth and legend one is tempted to wonder whether the nationalistic or pageant operas of Smetana and Dvořák were known to the composer. The vocal lines are always lyrical and fluid, and the orchestration much coloured, but never too dense as to overwhelm the vocal lines or the drama unfolding on the stage.
The plot centres round Thora, a noblewoman, who has been deserted by her lover, Earl Håkon, the usurping ruler or Norway. As the opera opens she reflects on this betrayal and then incites the local people to support the claims of his rival Olav Tryggvason, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, to the throne. Håkon and his henchman Kark arrive in disguise seeking refuge from Olavs advancing armies. At first she rejects him, but in a long, lyrical and beautiful duet he gradually wins her (and us!) round, and she decides, despite her misgivings, to hide him in her hayloft as Olavs army arrives in the distance.
In Act Two Olav questions Thora as to the whereabouts of the fugitives, orders his men to search the area, and offers a reward for Håkons life. Attracted by this, Kark betrays the lovers and murders Håkon in his troubled sleep. On claiming his prize he is rewarded by execution. As the plot and Thoras involvement is revealed the people turn against her, and, in a final dramatic aria, she takes her life with Håkons sword leaving Olav to march towards Nidaros (Trondheim) to claim the throne.
Trønder Opera mounted a big production on a specially constructed stage in a large sports hall in Melhushallen. The staging by Marianne Berglöf was simple, effective and beautifully lit allowing both the intimate and grand moments to register as needed. Subtle use of film projections to further the drama, as in the dream scene where Håkon foresees his death and Norway being ruled by Olav and converting to Christianity, were particularly well managed. The direction of the huge and lusty amateur chorus, drawn from local choirs and music groups, was impressive, especially the arrival of Olavs troops.
The opera was double cast with soloists drawn largely from Trønder Opera. In the first cast the singers included Ingebjørg Kosmo and Trond Halstein Moe as Thora and Håkon. Both have large and lyrical voices and natural stage-presence and sang most winningly in their Act One duet and dominated in their big operatic moments. By contrast the alternative castings of Maria Stattin and Fredrik Zätterström both tended to internalise the drama more. Stattin with her dramatic voice was very exciting when exhorting the chorus and in her final aria, and moving in her portrayal of Thoras conflict between her private thoughts and public declarations. As Zätterström presented a more introverted Håkon, bringing out the vacillation of his character, the drama took on a different feel, accentuated by the different Olavs Harald Bjørkøy in the first cast portraying the future king with a courtly and statuesque manner, with Thor Inge Falch a more extrovert and more dangerous adversary in cast two. Kark is a rather cardboard villain in operatic terms but both basses, Knut Stiklestad and Roar Wik, gave vocally strong performances.
Conducting the performances was Terje Boye Hansen, who has apparently been much involved in the preparation of the performing edition. He was most sympathetic to the singers, and under his baton the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra produced some impressive playing. Woodwind solos were particularly fine with the overall sound full and exciting. This was achieved despite a difficult acoustic the soloists were discreetly amplified. The audiences were large, despite the inclement weather, and the performances were greeted with enthusiastic standing ovations every night. One could not help feel that this staging was an important event both locally and nationally certainly if it starts a revival in Borgstrøms attractive music and leads to the staging of other neglected operas, Trønder Opera and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestras daring venture will have paid off handsomely.
- Alexanders review covers performances given between 17-21 October