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.

  • southerndoc1

    Von Otter demanded a slightly lower hem line before agreeing to return to the Met in the Decker Traviata.

  • “In the battle of interests, something always cedes territory.” Well said.

  • Leontiny

    Thank you for this insightful and well-written review. I’ve been waiting and waiting for this, and now thanks to Operavision will be able to watch and listen, and learn. I’ve been very nervous about von Otter because the last time I heard her in recital, in an intimate hall with very fine acoustic, she was barely audible. If she is mic’d in this, then good. On first listen the sound engineer is being very good at the mixing board.

    • In my experience her voice has never been very big, and she tends also to go for subtle effects, so…

      • Porgy Amor

        It is difficult to sort out whether it was the differences in the music, the engineering, or perhaps just being in better voice, but she sounded much better in this than in the Marthaler Hoffmann (Nicklausse/Muse) I covered here a couple years ago as my hazing ritual.

  • Camille

    This movie scene depicted above I found to be as creepily chilling as any horror movie and had some particular personal resonance for me. First time I saw it was in a theatre on Third Avenue across from Bloomingdales in 1979. Second time I saw it was at MoMA just two summers ago, in a really interesting retrospective of Ingrid Beegman films, and at which her three daughters appeared and apoke both fondly and ruefully of their beloved late mother. They were all three there—Pia, and la bella Isabella with her twin Isotta (I think she calls herself Ingrid now) in the theatre on the culminatory occasion of showing this film, Autumn Sonata. Sitting there, one wondered what the hell was going through their brains. It must have been hard for them since Ingrid Bergman was such a great star and must have been an overwhelming challenge as mother-imago-imprint. Or—maybe not! These ladies all turned out all right, more or less.

    There was another Bergman film, and one which I absolutely LURVE for Cary Grant as well, which was turned into an opera just a few seasons ago and served as vehicle for Nina Stemme—the Hitchcock delight—Notorious. I wonder how they staged the cinema’s longest kiss and Alicia’s drunken drive along the palmy byways at the Swedish Opera? No reports I’ve ever come across, at least in English. Must have been fun watching Nina=Ingrid being a Bad Girl.

    It sounds to me like a great role for Anne Sofie as an aging diva and should play well, even if barely audible. As a filmed entity, well one may always turn up the dial. She does have a pretty timbre of voice, though. I’m not quite sure if I go for the bit about Lena having an aria, but I suppose that the context makes or breaks it? I felt sorry for the poor pastor husband. And poor Liv Ullman! After her turn in “The World is a Circle” in Lost Horizon, one woulda thunk she’d have never gone near a film with musical subtext.
    Exhibit A:

    I don’t know which I love more—the little boy Liv holds up who sings “Whoa”, Sir John’s phallic cap
    or Peter Finch trying to maintain a straight face. Guessing that you had to have been stoned, either way.

    • Porgy Amor

      I’m not quite sure if I go for the bit about Lena having an aria, but I suppose that the context makes or breaks it?

      Right. I might not have either, just reading or hearing about it, but by the time it happens, it has been well prepared and supported. This adaptation provides additional points of view, and the proceedings are not as realistic as in Bergman’s film. Charlotte’s admirers, dead Leonardo, and afflicted Lena all step forward to “testify,” and the central characters seem to hear them. I give Fagerlund, Hemming, and Braunschweig credit for achieving a good balance between fidelity to the material and making it their own.

      Someone on another forum reminded me of something that had slipped my mind. Persona is an opera now too, by Keeril Makan. It played in Los Angeles two years ago. So, three Bergman films have had (or are getting) this treatment very close together.

      • Camille

        “Okay, then!”, as they say in Fargo. I gotcha and that makes sense to me.

        Also, about that composer you mentioned above in the third paragraph or so, well um, my hooosband has been to a couple of workshop things (not this one) of his (as he is always on the scene and handing out postcards about his upcoming works) and even likes him and all, (as he is a nice guy and even cute)— but don’t get your hopes way up there. And that is putting it as nicely and politely as possible. He IS cute.

        There’s a retrospective of Coen Brothers films coming up at MoMA next which I’m licking my chops over. We just finished a Cassavetes one which strained and taxed my patience to the utmost. Just saw Gloria the day before yesterday which was the best of the lot and Gena Rowlands did pull out all the stops and the kid was cute. Mah!

        Tanks 4 the word.

    • southerndoc1

      “I don’t know which I love more”

      Or Bobby Van, who apparently forgot to stop by Wardrobe and just wandered into the scene in his 1970s LA street clothes.

      • Camille

        You know, he’s got some restaurants around the city here--one I trudge past on a semi-habitual basis on 59th Street across from the Park, and on my way to Columbus Circle. It’s kind of incredible that his name is still on there and it’s operative all these years later. It must pay to tapdance!

    • Big Finn

      These small countries in the North, there’s no difference :) What makes an opera Swedish, the language of its libretto or the its origin in the Swedish film? The composer is a Finn, it’s production is Finnish, and the premiere took place at the Finnish national opera :) Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. I suppose if a Canadian composer and librettist would write an opera in French, premiering as a Toronto production, based on a French story, then the opera would be French?

      • De Gaulle would probaby have claimed it as such, if it were played in Montréal: “Français du Québec…”

  • Wow, Porgy, thanks for this extremely well-crafted review. You make me want to see both the film and the opera.

    • Porgy Amor

      Thanks. They are both so concise that you could watch them back to back in about three and a half hours. This is about the same duration as, what, the average Lohengrin DVD? Or (from the other angle) The Godfather Part II? It would be a lot of familial psychic flaying to take in a double dose, but it makes for an interesting comparison.

      I was talking about this subject with another of the parterre writers last night. I used to think of Autumn Sonata as second-tier Bergman. On revisiting it at my present age, rather than as a young person, I found it meant more to me. It is a kind of screenwriting and filmmaking we simply do not have anymore. There are movies that are great in their own 21st-century ways, but some links have been severed.

      Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman did not have an easy time making the film. Their methods were so different. He was not used to being challenged by an actor (especially a female one), and she was already suffering with cancer, in pain, and being asked to work in a very different way, not so predetermined as in her Hollywood films. She also lacked sympathy with the material. She said if one of her daughters spoke to her as Eva speaks to Charlotte, she would slap her face. She wanted the film to have more humor, more “life.”

      She even hated the Chopin prelude that is played in its entirety twice in a crucial scene (one the opera, for all its virtues, cannot do justice to). She said, “Ingmar, is that dreadful piece really going to be played twice? People will walk out! Can’t it be something beautiful, at least?” (Sources for all this are Ingmar’s memoir and Liv Ullmann’s recollections.)

      However, the piece is perfect for that scene. “The prelude should be played in an almost ugly manner […] it should sound wrong,” as Charlotte lectures. Halting gestures toward grace and beauty in the right hand, always tugged down by that shambling, murky foundation in the left, which is like a deformity. He found a piece that captures in music what these characters are struggling against. (The actual playing, both the “bad” playing and the “great” playing, is by one of Ingmar’s ex-wives, the pianist Kabi Laretei,)

      • Porgy Amor
        • Leontiny

          Once again thank you for your research and the fine words in which you present it. I loved this film. He made so many fine works of art and for me this is one of them. Ms Bergman is brilliant in the listening scene, and the entire film. I always wonder how many takes it took to get that depth of feeling. Having watched the opera twice I agree with so much of what you have to say. Lena’s scene was very powerful and placed correctly in the structure. The irony of von Otter is the art is at its peak when the voice is in decline. I’m pretty certain she is mic’d and could care less. That performance will live in memory for a long time. I liked the music very much and thought it worked well with the story. For me the last couple of years have brought some fine new work -- Breaking the Waves, Hamlet, and now Autumn Sonata.

  • Big Finn

    I saw the original run of the Bergman Film. Liv Ullmann has never been a favorite actress, and this film was nearly ruined by her hyper realistic crawling down the stairs, and vomiting the words out of her mouth: “Mommy, I NEVER wanted to go to ballet school but you made me!”. Now there we had it, the reason of all the trauma in this girl’s life, how crude and unfair! Get over it and grow up, I thought, or should we instead talk about REAL trauma…

    • Porgy Amor

      Ms. Ullmann does not crawl down stairs in the Bergman film, Big Finn. Lena Nyman, playing the daughter with the neuromuscular condition, attempts to, because she’s fallen out of bed and no one has come to help her.

      Sympathy/lack of sympathy with Eva and her issues — that is a personal response. But I do think the writer/director put a lot of himself in both the mother and the daughter. It’s a 60-year-old artist raking over his issues with both his parents and his children. We learn that Charlotte had cold, distant parents too.

      • Big Finn

        Despite a wish to originally like the film (because of Ingrid Bergman, and a general appreciation of Ingmar Bergman’s more successful films), I was left with a feeling that the whole thing was too pretentious, demonstrative. That is a lifetime ago, so in my memory I had tied into one the two bits of examples of this unbelievable over-the-top quality: crawling down the stairs and Ullmann’s complaint about having to take ballet lessons destroying her life.