Henrik HELLSTENIUS (b.1963)
Ophelias: Death by Water Singing (words: Cecilie Løveid)) (2005)
Elisabeth Holmertz - Ophelia; Tora Augestad - Gertrude, Ivan Ludlow - Hamlet; Silje Aker Johnsen, Janna Vestergren, Ebba Rydh - Woodmaidens
Cikada Ensemble/Christian Eggen
rec. Norwegian Opera and Ballet, Oslo, Norway, 3-10 May 2014
LAWO LWC1098 [77:33]

As I first learnt through a BIS CD of the second of his violin concertos (review) Norwegian composer Hellstenius is a pretty tough listen. He studied in Oslo with Lasse Thoresen, at IRCAM and in Paris with Gérard Grisey.

This piece, the second of his two operas, feels like an experimental work from the 1960s - not quite Cornelius Cardew but close. Hellstenius and Løveid are the co-creators of this flyaway avant-garde stage-piece around Ophelia. To my conventional ears this does not communicate as an opera. Its active chattering and shifting collage of a soundworld feels more like Peter Maxwell Davies' Songs for a Mad King. The individual panels - shards and motes - are small: some smoothly polished, others with jagged surfaces. There are certainly some eerily beautiful sounds and the vocal spectrum runs from chatter, to whisper, to grunt, to shriek. The sung text is in English but the words are pulled about and wrenched - listen to the slurs, moans and ululation around the word 'zigzag' in tr. 5 where taped voices are juxtaposed with 'natural' voices. The orchestral ensemble Cikada comprises seven musicians: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, percussion and piano. They are in evidence throughout. Tr. 7 opens as an instrumental movement with a flurry of woodwind and also a close-quarters cannonade of percussion. There is an undeniable witchery about this music and it is most gloriously recorded - a clean sound that accommodates the ratcheting and the strangulation of voices. An equal balance is struck between voices and instruments and all within an open-spaced acoustic.

The oddly titled Ophelias: Death by Water Singing must be a lapidary score but it is not without melodic vocal interest; try tr. 4, 4.03; tr. 10, 5:04. Its harum-scarum progress is a springboard for an open-minded imagination ready to accommodate flare-ups, collisions and shattering impacts. In this 14-episode piece the figures of Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia move and are swept along. Some appreciation of your tolerance and tastes may be grasped from the descriptive text for the last scene: "Ophelia, pregnant, in Wellington boots, is climbing a willow tree over the river. She is hanging gifts for Hamlet from the branches." It ends with instrumental flurries.

Løveid points out that the libretto brims with elements from The Myth of Amled by Saxo Grammaticus, from Shakespeare's Hamlet and Millais' picture Ophelia, as well as modern Ophelias from photographs and paintings.

This is something rich and strange indeed where the ideas are bounced and echoed back by Hellstenius's convention-unshackled score. It's a wild listen so be warned and the instrumental sounds vie in supernatural allusion with Løveid's words. There are virtuoso performances all round from singers and instrumentalists.

The single disc comes in a digipack with the extended liner-booklet fitted into the sleeve. It's probably me but I could not find an indication of the total playing time. Add to this that in an otherwise exemplary and even princely utilitarian booklet timings and track titles are unfeasibly printed in dark blue on black.

Rob Barnett

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