Bo Holten: The Visit of the Royal Physician
02 September 2010
Unveiled in a Royal Danish Opera production last year, this is the sixth opera by the celebrated Danish composer Bo Holten, and outstanding proof of the capacity of contemporary opera to deal with serious and important topics in a lucid, wholly accessible manner. It wears the signature of a composer who is also a renowned and versatile performer, with an ear for what ‘sounds': in addition to his extensive list of compositions, Holten is internationally pre-eminent as a choral conductor.
The Visit of the Royal Physician is an ambitious work. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by the acclaimed Swedish writer Per Olov Enquist (published in 1999 and widely translated), it tells a tragic story from a momentous period in Danish history, as Enlightenment ideas clashed violently in the late-18th-century with the forms of a repressive, absolutist state. The teenage King Christian VII has married the 15-year-old English Princess Caroline. But he is deeply scarred psychologically and entirely incompetent as monarch and husband. So Struensee, a young doctor convinced by the new ideas sweeping Europe and committee to their implementation, is hired as royal physician. Major scandals ensue. The king has an affair with a former courtesan, and Struensee uses his position at court to become a social reformer, at the same time he becomes the young queen's lover and fathers her child. Disgruntled members of court stage a coup; Struensee and supporters are executed, while the queen loses custody of her child and is exiled.
Since the opera sets itself out to be a powerful and passionate defense of the values of Enlightenment, the very lucidity of both music and text is of no small significance. The writing is luminous (often with a diaphanous beauty), humane and uncluttered. It's an achievement made even more notable by the opera's complexity, combining as it does a number of stories and levels of meaning - ideological, historical, social, human, erotic. Indeed, so highly did the composer prize the goal of clarity that he set the most crucial portions of the libretto in mid-voice registers and frequently in the rhythms of ordinary speech. Meaning is aided, too, by the use of a range of styles, seamlessly incorporated, and carrying various sorts of implication: folk and dance idioms, for instance, and subtle parodies of the music of different historical periods. The music moves effortlessly through this plethora, stretching from medieval to modern, with Richard Strauss emerging as a composer to whom it owes a great deal. I won't easily forget the rich and tragic lyricism of the aria in which Caroline expresses her forebodings, or the touching innocence of the seduction duet involving the boy king and the beautiful courtesan, or the affecting and magisterially constructed aria in which Struensee dreams of making a difference to the world. Or, indeed, the terrifying conclusion, carried in music of starkest power.
The performances are admirable, without exception. As the young Queen Caroline, Elisabeth Jansson is vocally ravishing, even if sometimes in an appropriately chilly manner. Visually, she offers a perfect combination of virginal grace and seductive beauty. Later she adds to this a steely resolve: in fact, her Caroline matures wonderfully, finally achieving real tragic stature. Johan Reuter is entirely believable as Struensee, the Voltarist reformer regarded by many of those around him as a dangerous radical. His warm, ample baritone and imposing stature provide the perfect vehicle for Struensee's enlightened, empathetic, generous outlook. The role of the deeply disturbed king is most affectingly filled by Gert Henning-Jensen; Gitta-Maria Sjöberg is a suitably formidable Queen Dowager; and to the role of Guldberg, the insufferable court official, Sten Byriel brings exactly the right sort of menacing, self-righteous pomp.
As a film of a live performance, the picture is of high quality, and the filming has been unobtrusively done. But in close-up - and there is a lot of that - the inevitable stage make-up is likely to strike DVD viewers as out of place. In contrast to the complex and superbly crafted performances, the sets are surprisingly simple. Typically just a series of abstract, column-like rectangles and large, sliding panels, these may well hav served more effectively in the theatre than they do on film. The audio recording is clean, though occasionally the voices lose some presence, as if drifting too far from the microphone. Subtitles are available in English, German and Danish. As extras, there are interviews with the composer and others; and the booklet, which offers everything from short biographies of the opera's main historical characters to scholarly essays on the historical events themselves, is a model of its kind.