Thursday, May 2, 2013

Song of Norway: Grieg goes Broadway-style

Danieley, Silber, and Fontana sing of Norway. Photo (c) Erin Baiano
On Tuesday night, the eve of May, the Collegiate Chorale presented an appropriately romantic extravaganza at Carnegie Hall. The 1944 Song of Norway was the brainchild of Robert Wright and George Forrest, also responsible for the later and more famous The Great Waltz and Kismet. Commissioned as a light opera, Song of Norway was here presented as a musical, but a happily hybrid one, its material based on the music and life of Edvard Grieg. Melodramatic episodes are heaped with indiscriminate zeal onto a slight plot, but the show boasts considerable charm nonetheless. Dramatic chemistry was intermittent on the night (many of the singers glued to their scores) but the musical values were solid and I enjoyed myself along with the rest of the audience. The American Symphony Orchestra played well under the baton of Ted Sperling, treating sentimental crescendos and sprightly folk rhythms with a schmaltzy sincerity which would have done an MGM extravaganza proud. The ballet artists of the Tom Gold Dance Company credit for doing their best in a constrained space with limited choreography. The Collegiate Chorale was on superb form. As a multifunctional vox populi and provider of sound effects, they sang with good diction and smooth sound, performing their various dramatic functions creditably.

The drama starts with an Enoch Arden setup and develops amicably; tensions between Grieg's musical ambition and his obligation to his family's trade are likewise smoothed over with good will. The real danger to our young hero comes from a predatory prima donna who wishes to lure him away from the fjords and into the international music scene. I found the themes of intertwining nationalism and folklore interesting, and would have liked more to be made of them, but the nature of the drama seemed to preclude this. Some of their development may have been obscured by cuts; numerous small roles and the function of narrator were taken by Jim Dale in order to facilitate the flow of the piece in this concert version. The characters of the drama are types: the composer's wholesome parents; the cosmopolitan count with a faux French accent. Judy Kaye was hilarious as a parody of a prima donna in the role of Louisa Giovanni, sensual and vain, polished, predatory, and possessive. Her siren song, a hymn to indulgence ("Now") was sung with great panache. With a bohemian scarf, a Byronic profile, and good presence, tenor Jason Danieley took on the role of Rikard, a passionate and (alas) consumptive poet. A pleasing chiaroscuro effect in his sound served the titular ballad well. The characterization of Nina was (to me) irritatingly perky, but Alexandra Silber was game in her commitment to the role, and vocally consistent. Happily, she was friend to the poet and composer, as well as mediator and muse, and sang beautifully the adaptation of "Ich liebe dich."  Santino Fontana was the mildly tortured composer; the high tessitura of the role was perhaps less than an ideal fit for the light baritone. His timbre was pleasing, however, and he used phrasing expressively, especially in the requisite love duets. Benevolent trolls and dramatically significant pastries aided the progress of the plot towards its conclusion--triumphant chorus and orchestra celebrating the lovers' unclouded future.

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