Cher Public

C’est une chanson qui nous ressemble

She never cancels.

“The only thing about reviewing movies that makes me unhappy is that I can’t get to the opera often enough,” wrote one of our famous film critics in 1975, when both she and the art form she covered were at their high noon. I have that problem in reverse. Before I was listening to and occasionally writing about opera, I was quite the cineaste. I regret that I no longer find time to keep up properly. In the battle of interests, something always cedes territory. 

Lately, the movies have chased me down on my own turf. Everywhere of late there have been operas either directly based on films or dramatizing material at least as well known through a film adaptation as through the original source. A list of premieres of the 21st century resembles the Netflix catalogue: Dead Man Walking, The Fly, Il postino, Dolores Claiborne, The Shining, Notorious, Brokeback Mountain, Before Night Falls, Breaking the Waves, The Exterminating Angel, soon Marnie.

Now the revered Swedish director/screenwriter Ingmar Bergman‘s turn has come ’round. Brazilian composer João MacDowell‘s The Seventh Seal, based on the 1957 medieval fantasy-drama, is presently a work in progress. In September, Finnish National Opera gave the world premiere of Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata), based on Mr. Bergman’s 1978 study of a troubled mother/daughter relationship. The 44-year-old Finn Sebastian Fagerlund composed the score, and Gunilla Hemming adapted Mr. Bergman’s screenplay for the stage.

I reacquainted myself with the film, which I had not seen in more than 15 years, before giving the opera a second viewing. This was one of Mr. Bergman’s chamber dramas, with four significant characters and only fleeting escapes from a single location. There is a mathematical symmetry in the film’s structure. At the beginning, the midpoint (to the minute) and the end, the same passive character speaks in a confiding tone about his wife. A simple story is told in sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation.

The internationally famous, sixtysomething concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman, in her sole collaboration with Ingmar, no relation) has recently lost her lover of many years, the cellist Leonardo, following a long illness. Charlotte’s 38-year-old daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) invites Charlotte to stay for a time with her and husband Viktor, the village parson, some years Eva’s senior.

Eva gave up her career as a journalist/author to be a full-time wife and mother. Charlotte and Eva have not seen in each other in seven years. Eva and Viktor too have experienced loss. Their four-year-old son drowned, and Eva maintains his room as it was.

Charlotte accepts the invitation, and the women greet each other with embraces and superficial pleasantries. Charlotte is discomfited to learn that her younger daughter, Helena or “Lena,” now lives with Eva and Viktor. Lena suffers from a progressive neuromuscular disorder. She can recognize, understand and respond emotionally to others, but can barely produce intelligible speech or control her movements.

Eva has taken Lena out of a nursing home, perhaps as a replacement “child” for the son she lost. Charlotte is uneasy in the ill daughter’s presence, and we later learn she distanced herself from the dying Leonardo too, returning to his side only at the very end.

The difficult relationship between Charlotte and Eva comes into focus. When Eva speaks of playing the piano for her church congregation and talking about each piece she played, her mother airily replies that she herself recently played for enormous crowds in Los Angeles. Charlotte encourages Eva to demonstrate a Chopin prelude for her.

Charlotte improves upon Eva’s nervous, flat-footed performance, playing the piece with poise and iron control while lecturing in master-class fashion on the composer’s character and nuances. The practical Charlotte listens to Eva’s talk of her son still being present with her, of “a reality beyond dull senses,” and finds it morbid and unsettling.

The climax is a mother/daughter argument that rages through the night, as Viktor helplessly eavesdrops and Lena falls from her bed and drags herself on the floor. Eva lashes out at the artist-careerist mother with all the resentment she has held back through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Her accusations conflict with one another. She assails her mother both for the times she went away and for the times she stayed at home, for lack of attention and for excessive attention.

She even holds Charlotte accountable for Lena’s condition, which she believes worsened when Charlotte became jealous of the mutual fondness of Leonardo and Lena, and limited their contact. As the Christ figure Lena writhes and cries out, Charlotte begs Eva’s forgiveness and three times is denied.

Charlotte cuts short her visit and returns to traveling and concertizing. “No one plays Schumann’s concerto with a warmer tone!” she crows to her agent, but she is haunted by the face reflected back at her in the glass. In a coda one can read as hopeful or naïve, Eva, having had her catharsis and found the aftermath less satisfying than expected, writes her mother to offer an olive branch.

“One must learn to live; I practice every day,” Eva once had written in a book, summing up the film’s theme—living with grace, letting go of hurts, accepting loved ones as they are, is not a matter of divinity so much as discipline and application.

What kind of music would a modern composer write in making an opera of a film in which music is often talked about but rarely heard? Aside from a Handel chamber piece over the opening credits, all of the music in Mr. Bergman’s film is played by the characters: Chopin from mother and daughter, Bach from Leonardo in a flashback.

Mr. Fagerlund finds the quality of “autumn” in his music. There is a burnished richness to his orchestral colors, something past ripeness. Under the direction of conductor John Storgards, the score shimmers, glistens and churns, but then it can fade to whispers, and we think of faint breezes that chill, and etiolated trees.

When characters are in the solitude of thought, the music hums and burrows like life around us going dormant and subterranean. Although the forces of the Finnish orchestra make forceful impact en masse, the composer shows consideration for singers when their voices must predominate.

The vocal writing is not explicitly “popular,” not melodious in the Romantic fashion (you will not think of Grieg songs), but even though it occasionally lapses into plodding rhythms and patterns, it also caresses and palliates. The confrontational nature of the drama had me fearing an opera of two women shrieking at the top of their ranges (and lungs) for two hours. Autumn Sonata is not that.

Two hours is, in fact, the approximate duration. Minus intermission, it takes about 20 minutes longer to hear Autumn Sonata the opera than to see Autumn Sonata the film. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the opera is that Mr. Fagerlund and Ms. Hemming have reconceived the material for their medium, rather than slapping it onto the stage and coasting on a tony pedigree. In finding alternatives to the film’s realism, they have made their work genuinely operatic.

Director/designer Stéphane Braunschweig‘s work is spare and efficient, with a single set divided into chambers that segregate characters; these chambers light up or go dark. You may think of Katie Mitchell‘s visual scheme for Written on Skin, or Dmitri Tcherniakov‘s for Khovanshchina. Mr. Braunschweig may have added some surreal touches of his own, such as a doll that Eva removes from the piano case and clutches as she prepares to revert to the eager-to-please little girl.

Mr. Fagerlund has given a choral role to Charlotte’s fans, who are first seen at a recital. The fans chatter with dissonant excitement as they await Charlotte’s arrival, bliss out as she prepares to play, clutch programs to their bosoms like newborns. They are symbolically present in the parsonage arguing with Eva, taking their idol’s side.

These witnesses for the defense offer Charlotte’s playing of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata as Exhibit A. To make them feel as they feel hearing the notes she produces, as no one else produces those same notes, she must be not only a great artist but a great human being. To an opera fanatic, the line of argument may be familiar.

Ms. Hemming’s text is faithful to Mr. Bergman’s screenplay not only in shape and incidents but in long passages of dialogue reproduced word for word. There are additions, though, and even identical scenes have a slightly different tone. Mr. Bergman rarely used overlapping dialogue, in Autumn Sonata or other films. He tended toward the formal, sculpted orderliness of great 19th-century stage plays, in which characters spoke deliberately in turn, often in monologues of chiseled beauty.

Mr. Fagerlund and Mr. Hemming have created vocal ensembles including a quartet and a quintet (the four characters in the parsonage plus Leonardo from beyond the grave).

Some lines of the climactic mother/daughter argument run simultaneously, as Eva accuses and Charlotte defends herself and describes her own hurts and disappointments. We can see both sides of what we hear (or read, in titles), but the women cannot. Each is too fixated on her words to absorb the other’s. These overlapping miseries use operatic convention to make a dramatic point: mother and daughter are imprisoned in cells of, respectively, narcissism and bitterness.

Mr. Fagerlund, like Mr. Bergman, had a very good all-Scandinavian cast. Like Ingrid Bergman was in 1978, Anne Sofie von Otter is now a great star in her early sixties, bringing with her all sorts of associations. If you have followed her career, it is impossible to watch and hear her without thinking of memorable portrayals of her prime. Like Ms. Bergman, she has added a new, age-appropriate one.

Others on this stage have more vocal capital, but no one is more compelling in shaping the music and fusing it with the theatrical drama. Her cool, lean mezzo is well matched to the writing and to this venue, and is heard in good condition.

Erika Sunnegardh brings dignity to Eva. Like her cinematic predecessor, she makes clear that this unremarkable woman has chosen to be unremarkable, obsessively pursuing a life as Charlotte’s opposite in every way. Eva is plain and dowdy rather than glamorous and stylish, deeply spiritual rather than worldly and agnostic, a homebody rather than a vagabond career woman, a caretaker who nurtures rather than one holding herself aloof.

Ms. Sunnegardh, a Salome and Turandot, retains clarion top notes and color with them. The middle register on this occasion sounds somewhat wizened, although the soprano works within her means toward strong delineation of character.

Among the opera’s most beautiful vocal music is a solo for the stricken Lena, who in the film barely says an understandable word, but here is briefly liberated under operatic rules. She rises from her bed to provide her account of a long-ago Easter with Charlotte, Eva and Leonardo (more Lena/Jesus subtext—Easter was the occasion on which Lena’s condition seemed to remit).

The soprano Helena Juntunen has the freshest sound of the female principals. A passage that in the film may have seemed the biased, unfair recollection of the prosecuting Eva takes on greater weight.

Tommi Hakala‘s attractive baritone at times sounds taxed by Mr. Fagerlund’s writing for Viktor, which is full of successions of long-held notes that present a breathing challenge. I also found him too strong a presence, too forthright and masculine, to bring focus—or its lack—to this ineffectual character. (Eva married her father, we intuit, and gave him the wife she thought he should have had.)

However, it is possible that a different direction with Viktor was part of the opera’s design, and a viewer not influenced by Mr. Bergman’s film may react differently. Nicholas Söderlund‘s bass grounds the quintet, and in solo pronouncements creates the effect that a benign, sorrowful ghost should create.

Is Autumn Sonata, as some early reviews have suggested, a great new opera? For now I would stop at “worthwhile and admirable,” but it says something for the work that on repeated listening, my initial concerns about whether it was drama “with” music as opposed to drama “in” music began to recede. I hope the opera travels and receives other productions so that I may return to the question.

In my head I began to make lists of other singers who are intriguing possibilities for the roles. Swedish is an unusual language for opera, but there are many good Scandinavian singers, some of them international stars, and non-natives do learn roles in such remote languages as Russian, Czech and Magyar. The results may not always be ideal, but the operas get performed.

Like the film, the opera is not easy to love; it is intelligent, chilly and tough-minded. We may see ourselves in these characters, and wish we did not. The slender thread of hope offered in the film’s epilogue becomes even slenderer here. As Eva hopes for reconciliation, Charlotte is talking to her agent on her cell phone and reminding him that she never cancels.

The last words in Mr. Bergman’s film, delivered by Ms. Ullmann with something between hope and conviction, are “It must not be too late.” I watch the film and I want for that to be the case, for these characters and for any of my real-life equivalents. I see the opera and it occurs to me that usually when someone reaches the point of voicing such a hope, it was too late long ago.

Autumn Sonata, an opera in two acts, sung in Swedish with optional English, French, German and Polish subtitles, will be available for streaming at OperaVision (formerly The Opera Platform) until 22 March 2018.