Bo Holten: The Visit of the Royal Physician
19 July 2010
Holten's opera deals with the events surrounding the weak, and mentally ill, young king Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808). The Royal Physician was one Johann Struensee, who on account of his influence over the king and his affair with the young queen, became de facto ruler of Denmark for several years until his attempted reforms (after the French model, and in opposition to the aristocracy's treatment of the peasantry) offended powerful interests and he was removed from power and executed.
The libretto does an excellent job of balancing the political intrigues and social commentary with the love stories - there are two, the queen and Struensee, and the bewildered king and a courtesan, the only person who treats him decently - into a coherent and flowing narrative. Holten's music seamlessly blends styles - all of them tonal, but drawn from various periods of history and chosen for their appropriateness in illustrating the events and characters at any given point in the drama. If this sounds like artifice, and a recipe for polystylistic pastiche, Holten avoids any such pitfalls through the skilled craftsmanship with which he dovetails the various æsthetics together. Thus the passionate emotional scenes are painted in rich, late-romantic chromaticism of Wagner and Mahler, while scene-setting set pieces in the court are accompanied by music of the period of the action, or its early classical offspring. Holten's own voice is the Nielsen- or Sibelius-derived tonal language of many Scandinavian 20th-century composers, with his great experience of vocal music readily evident in the superb clarity and technical eloquence of his writing for soloists and chorus. A compelling and emotionally gripping opera in the finest tradition of the genre.
The production elegantly balances realism of costume with stylized minimalism in scenery and extras, keeping the audience's attention focused where it should be at all times. Filmed at a live performance with multiple camera angles and close-ups; not always with the technical precision of a made-for-TV production, but giving a very convincing and involving degree of involvement in the production.