A Night at the Opera

9 Mar


There are several stereotypical responses to the prospect of a night at the opera. Boredom for the men, a chance to be seen for the elite, an opportunity to show off for the connoisseurs.  None of these responses, you’ll note, are especially heartening.  But sometimes, just sometimes, not one of them occurs.

The Al Bustan hotel of Beit Mery is for the duration of this month playing host to a plethora of musical performances, otherwise known as the Al Bustan Festival.  The festival, which takes places annually, largely targets la crème de la crème of Lebanese society: tickets are expensive and publicity brochures are in English, as is the online schedule and performance description.  This is not surprising, as the festival mainly showcases international talent; but it certainly creates a sense of superiority that might prohibit otherwise interested Lebanese from attending.  Al Bustan festival hardly seems accessible, nor is it supposed to.

All of which does little to dispel the average responses to opera listed above.  And yet, in spite of my expectations – that the ‘Festival d’Aix en Provence’ would feed the audience’s probable sense of self-importance – the opera show shocked me.

The concert opened to the remarkable voice of Mari Eriksmoen, accompanied by Sveinung Bjelland’s expert piano-playing.  Dressed in an elegant purple dress, Eriksmoen looked every inch the traditional opera singer; and indeed her soprano voice is incredibly strong.  Her rendering of Strauss’ Amor in particular was moving and technically superb.  At the completion of her set, Bjelland and Eriksmoen  gestured generously towards one another at the audience’s courteous applause.  So far, so opera. 

It was the energising entrance of Auden Iversen, however, which brought the accomplished performance out of its modest, aristocratic realms.  Iversen’s facial expressions as he sang Schubert in a booming baritone were consummate, as articulate of emotion as the vocals themselves.  Audience response noticeably shifted: delighted by his evident enjoyment in his own performance, they too became more engaged.

Bjelland came into his own at this point.  It is often difficult to be the pianist; seated, it is no easy task to display the charisma that makes performance delicious; worse, you are seen as the background to the ‘main’ performer, the singer.  But Bjelland was wonderful to watch: he played Schubert ferociously, fingers flitting across keys, leg twitching and mouth silently mirroring the movements of Iversen’s own.  His utter involvement in the music was, like the energy of Iversen, infectious.

Post-interval, though, the quality of the performance attained excellence.  Eriksmoen and Iversen sang in duet, performing in action as well as in voice.  During songs from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, the chemistry between the duo transformed the atmosphere in the concert hall.  Instead of their previous modest reaction, the audience were sitting straighter, leaning closer, and, when the time came, applauding with rigour.  In a manner that leaked into the audience, all three artists seemed absorbed in the beauty of what was taking place: the music, the song, the mindset of the character depicted.

Moments of comedy were especially successful.  Iversen’s performance of Franz Lehar’s ‘The Merry Window’ oozed with mockery; Mozart’s ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa’ had the audience giggling throughout.  Eriksmoen’s technical performance during this song was astounding, her evident skill allowing her to hold a note for a time that seemed almost dangerously long.

Both Iversen and Eriksmoen are Norwegian, making their easy naturalness in Italian and German some achievement, especially given the tongue-twisting lyrics that occasionally came up.  According to one audience member, “the times of such speed and thrill really made it much better than I expected. [I thought] it would be boring.”  And indeed, so filled with oomph was Bjelland at various points that he seemed unbearably constrained behind the piano.  During the second half, the energy of all three performers was powerful, and, evidently for the audience, effective.

A performance of drama and music combined, ‘Festival d’Aix en Provence’ exhibited the raw qualities of opera that make it a winning form of art.  Far from the often stately or dry showings that have contributed to opera’s fall in popularity through the twentieth century, these three artists endeavoured to make opera lively, passionate and above all engaging.  Given the audience’s ear-splitting final clap, they did so with utter success.

The Al Bustan festival continues until March 27. For more information call 04-972980/1/2


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