Bo Holten: The Visit of the Royal Physician
02 September 2010
Revolution was very much in the air in the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition to the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Haitian Revolution of 1791, something akin to those egalitarian movements occurred in Denmark in the early 1770s. The Danish king Christian VII, a young man given over to fits of insanity, was placed under the care of the German doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. An avid believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, Struensee gradually became a regent to the king and shepherded through more than 600 royal decrees - including measures such as the abolition of torture, the establishment of freedom of the press, the end of serfdom and a more equalized system of taxation. Struensee and his reforms did not go over well with the aristocracy, and in January 1772, the Queen Dowager Juliane Marie and the political courtier Ove Høegh-Guldberg led a successful coup based on trumped-up charges that Struensee and Christian's wife, Queen Caroline Mathilde - who were known to be lovers - were plotting to assassinate the king. In the end, Queen Caroline Mathilde was banished for life, while Struensee was brutally executed in the public square.
This fascinating chapter of Danish history became the basis of P. O. Enquist's best-selling 1999 novel, The Visit of the Royal Physician, which in turn became the basis of Bo Holten's 2009 opera (with a libretto in Danish by Enquist). The present Dacapo release documents the opera's premiere production in a first-rate staging by Peter Oskarson.
The story behind the opera is complex, involving political, romantic, philosophical and personal subplots. Courageously, Holten addresses all of these issues, rather than turning the work into merely a love story or a drama of political intrigue. To carry out this plan effectively, the music and libretto needed to be as concise as possible. Holten has succeeded admirably in this, delivering honest, unfussy music under a dynamic text. Most of the music lies in the middle range of the voices, allowing the singers to deliver their lines with ultimate clarity. And although the orchestration is ornate, it never covers or interferes with the declamation of the words. The music has an extremely eclectic character, incorporating elements of musical styles ranging from the Middle Ages through complete atonality. This is not to say the music is a mere pastiche of styles. Holten's individual compositional voice - appealing, somewhat tonal, yet with original and surprising turns of phrase - rings through.
The cast is superb. Johan Reuter presents Struensee as a brilliant doctor and thinker, yet a man devoid of political and social niceties. The baritone is at his best in the love duet with Caroline Mathilde and in an aria in which he ruminates on how fate has provided an opening in the fabric of history into which he must now plunge. Elisabeth Jansson's Caroline Mathilde evolves from a frightened teenage girl into a poised woman burning with passion for life and fulfillment of destiny. Her Act I aria depicting her situation as the newly-arrived spouse-to-be of the mad king fills the listener with empathy for her plight, while her Act II love duet with Struensee shows the love, courage, wisdom and inspiration the young queen has come to embody. Her curse, thrown at Guldberg and his accomplice Rantzau at the moment of her arrest, is bone-chilling in its rage.
As Christian VII, Gert Henning-Jensen faced and triumphed over exceptional challenges, portraying a mercurial character whose personality careens from serene intelligence to puerility to complete, raging insanity, in music that reflects this schizoid quality. He makes the king into an intriguing, bewildering yet compelling character. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg is seething with malice and reactionary venom as the Queen Dowager, and Sten Byriel's depiction of the ambitious, pietistic, treacherous Guldberg is truly outstanding.
The Visit of the Royal Physician is an opera that deserves a much wider audience. It would make a welcome addition to the world's great opera houses.