Fantastic review of Andy Papes "Leonora Christine"
5th December 2001
From "Classical music on the Web"
Andy Pape may be an unfamiliar name to British listeners. Although born in California in 1955 he has lived in Denmark for the last 40 years and the setting of Danish words in his operatic works emphasises his artistic positioning within his adopted country. His chamber opera of 1988, The Great Houdini was a great success and has been recorded (Helicon, HCD 1003). He followed this with The Boxer Opera, premiered in 1994. The librettist for this new work, Nina Malinovski, is well known in Denmark as a playwright, poet and writer for television drama.
The plot of Leonora Christine, Queen of the Blue Tower, which was first performed in 1999, is based on the true story of the illegitimate daughter of King Christian IV. After an accusation of high treason the unfortunate princess was imprisoned firstly in the fortress of Hammerhus and later, after a stay in Flanders, in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen where she remained from 1663-85. Malinovski has not created an historical libretto however; the writing rather focuses on the psychological claustrophobia of Leonora Christine during her incarceration.
There are only two other characters; a chambermaid called Karen and Christian Towerkeeper who is the jailer. Pape has emphasised the social gulf between the princess and her servant by contrasting the dramatic mezzo-soprano of Leonora Christine with the cabaret style contralto used for the part of Karen. This is partly because Maria Stenz, who sings the role of Karen and who is a well known as a cabaret singer, is credited with the original initiative for the opera.
Although the composer assigns some folklike and Weill-esque music to Karen whilst giving freer music to Leonora Christine the musical relationship between the two women is never built on unassimilated eclecticism. That Pape achieves compositional unity, despite the disparity of material, is admirable and is in direct response to the libretto which portrays the relationship in far more complex terms than those of mere social distance.
The interaction of the characters is driven in part by their seeming desire to engage in psychological warfare. In the barren prison world the imaginations of the characters work overtime often giving articulation to different 'voices'. These conjured persona are sometimes subjected to role reversal, most noticeably when the two women are play-acting a scene from the Book of Job. Karen is initially assigned the role of God but is soon outmanoeuvred by Leonora Christine as Job. Switching roles allows the princess to probe the murky past of her maid with the venom of an inquisitor. At times the dialogue shows affinity with the interrogation scenes that occur in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. There is the same sinister atmosphere of threat and abuse, yet, like Pinter, the motivation of the protagonists is obscured by the oppressive surroundings and their only partially revealed history.
The jailer, whose constant waltz music belies his vulgarity, engages in physical abuse of both women, forcing them to strip search each other in Act 1, Scene 7. This scene is mirrored in the second act, when the punishment meted out by 'God' is that 'Job' must strip. At this point the jailer bursts in and his sexual fantasies are further fuelled by the compromising attitudes of the two women. The forced and abusive nature of these scenes arise from the damaging environment in which the characters are forced to act.
Towerkeeper relishes all opportunities to humiliate Leonora Christine, at one point adopting her own 'voice' in order to present a mock plea for clemency. The princess takes the role of the Queen Mother in order to roundly abuse her jailer for incompetence. Pape and Malinovski have wisely not made Leonora Christine a stereotypical heroine. She is certainly capable of turning on her tormentors and in presenting her as a complex rather than simple character they do justice to the real life Leonora Christine, who despite the suffering she endured is also suspected of self-hagiography in her emotive biography, Memories of Woe.
The opera exposes that side of her nature prone to control and manipulate others, a nature she is thought to have possessed in real life. In presenting the drama of these three characters in the intimate medium of the chamber opera, the writers are successful in drawing the listener into the minds of the tormented individuals. The opera creates an expressionistic world where the elements of history or standard plot are fragmented within the interaction between high born prisoner, slave and jailer.
Leonora Christine's past is cleverly presented through her dreamy reminiscences and her reading from old letters; a fractured series of recollections that freshly undermine her with their recalled immediacy. As to the real world outside the prison, this can only be glimpsed by climbing on an up-turned bed to peer out of the cell window. The precarious witnessing of the Queen Mothers fatal fall during a royal ceremony has a lurid humour about it; one expects either Karen or Leonora Christine to fall at any minute in sympathy. At the end of the opera Towerkeeper enters to confirm the death of the Queen Mother and in so doing leaves the door to the cell open. An uneasy freedom awaits the princess whose future looks set to promise the same fragmentation and insecurity as her past. The open ended conclusion to the music underlines this feeling perfectly.
Pape writes music which embraces both tonal and atonal elements. Often familiar sounding chords and allusive melodic material is shown in a new light by its framing in less traditional contexts. Comparison could be made with the operatic work of the Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen in this respect. The sinewy and grainy instrumentation should be mentioned. There are 4 woodwind players although the expected clarinet is omitted in favour of 2 oboes which are often prominent in the orchestration. Likewise the string quintet has violin, viola, two cellos and double bass rather than the expected pairs of violins and violas and single cello. This shifts the colours to a darker sonority regularly explored by Pape; to great effect in Act 1 Scene 10, for example. The group is completed by horn, guitar, harpsichord and percussion. The guitar is used to underpin some of Karen's songs where they give them a Renaissance flavour. The drums used by the percussionist are helpful in underlining the violence done by the characters to each other. Bells are also used most beautifully near the end of the opera.
The performances of the singers are committed and powerful. As mentioned above, Maria Stenz is Karen, whilst Edith Guillaume sings Leonora Christine and Jens Bruno Hansen takes the role of the lecherous Towerkeeper. The ensemble is conducted by Kaare Hansen. This set affords us the opportunity to explore the music and words written by Pape and Malinovski. Together they have created a wonderful, yet disturbing, opera that hopefully will be staged again soon. The added visual dimension will no doubt enhance the qualities I have attempted to describe here.
David Hackbridge Johnson