Libretto by Henrik Ibsen; Original Score by Filip Sande; Directed by Lars Øyno
Produced by La Mama in association with Grusomehetens Teater
Off Off Broadway, Opera
Ran through 3.5.16
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street
by Ran Xia on 3.5.16
Ensemble of Grusomehetens Teater in The Mountain Bird. Photo by Eric Didym
BOTTOM LINE: Grusomehetens Terter stages Henrik Ibsen's unfinished libretto in a visually stunning and highly expressive style.
Henrik Ibsen made several attempts to write librettos for operas during his time. In 1859, he started to work on The Mountain Bird (Fjeldfuglen), using the same source materials of Catiline, the Warrior's Barrow (Olaf Liljekrans). He must have been quite taken by the surreal romance involving a wild girl singing birdsong in the Norwegian mountains. The piece was ultimately abandoned before completion, and was never scored or performed until in 2009 when the Grusomhetens Teater (Theater of Cruelty) staged it in Oslo.
The narrative of this avant-garde opera follows a medieval Norwegian legend: a 17-year-old girl runs away from home to live in the mountains; she is protected by the mountain god and the fairies as the years pass her by; she is the sole survivor of the Black Death, which had plagued the region decades before the townsfolk found her in the wilderness.
In the first act, the scenography is a sight of desolation: a barren tree stands alone, signifying the aftermath of a plague, with thunderclouds tumbling in the distance. A young girl dashes across, with a scream like that of a wailing bird. The entire opera is accompanied with traditional Nordic instruments (performed live by Lars Tore Pedersen and Maja Gravermoen Toresen), which set the show's mournful tone. A team of villagers dressed in traditional festive attire (Gjøril Bjercke Sæther's spectacular designs) enters the snow-capped mountain in search of a bridegroom, who has been drawn to the mysterious maiden of the mountain. A melodramatic love affair unfolds between the wild girl, the enchanted bridegroom, and the anxious, golden-crowned bride. The second act introduces a Norwegian village at night, in preparation for a wedding. Jan Skomakerstuen's lighting design transforms this into a snowy slope, as guests ready themselves to travel to the church by skis. Unfortunately, the manuscript abruptly stops, and we can never know how the story ends.
The style of the production is reminiscent of the style of traditional 19th-century drama. The wide-open eyes on the performers' faces reminds one of black and white silent films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Nosferatu. Their makeup is exaggerated and stark to the point of being almost grotesque. Their marionette-like movements also add a kind of morbid beauty to the show. Each picturesque scene makes the show seem like it came out of an illustration book you might find on a dusty shelf in an antique shop. In fact, if Tim Burton had directed Lord of the Rings, it might look like The Mountain Bird.
This is not an opera that's easy on the ears, like those by Mozart or Verdi. You have to let the piece in, as if a biting wind, in order to appreciate its utterly earnest deliverance.
(The Mountain Bird played at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, through March 5, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 35 minutes without intermission. Tickets were $10. For more information visit grusomhetensteater.no and lamama.org.)
The Mountain Bird (Fjeldfuglen) libretto is by Henrik Ibsen. Directed by Lars Øyno. Original Score is by Filip Sande. Lighting Design is by Jan Skomakerstuen. Costume Design is by Gjøril Bjercke Sæther. Live Music is performed by Lars Tore Pedersen and Maja Gravermoen Toresen.
The cast is Hege Tunaal, Miguel Emilio Dobrodenka Steinsland, Odille Heftye Blehr, Jimmie Jonasson, Stig Zeiner-Gundersen, Silje Breivik, Hanne Dieserud, Nina Eileen Sponnich, and Johanna ØynoName.