The new season of the Opéra national du Rhin (ONR) opens with a popular tale revisited by contemporary music. As usual, this is a unique creation in France. Snow Queen is an opera written in 2019 by Hans Abrahamsen who uses Andersen’s tale to create a piece imbued with the fantastic. Between ice storms and marvelous castles, little Gerda searches for her friend Kay, suddenly kidnapped by the sovereign.
Starting the season with Frozen at the opera is indicative of a desire for openness. Presented as part of the music Festival, the contemporary piece poses as much a symbolic and mature story as a children’s fable. In a vast gallery of magical landscapes and curious characters, the music unfolds in an ever-changing atmosphere. The Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen is little known to the French-speaking public but his musical mastery is well established. The opera faithfully follows Andersen’s tale, but the inventiveness of its music gives it an unmistakable taste for topicality. James Bonas and Grégoire Pont have designed a moving decor for the occasion, partly based on video and animation.
Confront the losses in a tale of wandering and courage
The first scene acts as a prologue and prepares all the challenges of the adventure. The public is immersed in the cozy warmth of a home protected from the wrath of the elements rumbling outside. Gerda and Kay are in bed, the grandmother knits while listening to the snow buzz. It’s an evening of storytelling. It tells the story of the Snow Queen, but also the legend of an enchanted mirror made by demons. Capable of corrupting what is reflected in it, it has been shattered in heaven and its shards roam the world, cursing everything they touch. It is when Kay receives a shard in the eyes and another in the heart that he becomes bad and abandons Gerda. The Snow Queen then arrives and carries him very far, in his palace. Gerda then throws herself headlong into the world, and begins a journey that breaks with the security of her childhood.
During her quest, Gerda encounters many creatures, including two crows, a reindeer, a witch, a prince and a princess. These common figures of all tales take on new forms in this show. The crows are two half-feathered men, somewhere between a burlesque cabaret and a partial metamorphosis. In the castle, Gerda is greeted by floating humanoid forms with stoic faces. Even the reindeer, a bound ally, takes on the air of a wild man with an ominous face.
As for the Snow Queen, they are camped by a low soloist of high stature. This surprisingly deep voice only adds to the character’s inordinate power. The Queen, as well as the Castle Crow, express in their appearance a fluidity of genre which serves their evocative force. It is like music, all in hesitant textures that can change at any time.
The entertainment decor in the service of fantastic travel
In keeping with the story, the visual effects are striking. The large curtain of chains stretched over the stage provides a movable, textured screen for projections. Grégoire Pont strives to create his animations to the rhythm of the opera. It accompanies both the music and the movements of the soloists with astonishing precision. It is about feeling all the magic and the fryeur which inhabit the story. The flight of the Snow Queen kidnapping Kay, in the middle of an icy vortex, is the sovereign’s first display of magical power.
Gerda’s train journey and her accident are also very striking, as the alliance of visual effects and weightless movements of soloists suspended by discreet cables works. The mobility of the projections allows a rapid and striking change of scenery. Snowstorms, supported by relentless music, directly impact the struggling bodies on stage.
Sometimes this single use of video projection leaves a taste of unfinished business, because it cannot compete with the pervasive sensation of a physical setting that emerges from the mechanisms of the scene. But this is the flip side of an indisputably grandiose coin. There is no doubt about the care taken in the animations and their impact on the evocative power of the opera. Certain effects which seem complex to achieve without these artifices become very convincing. With this dynamic dressing, the stage is covered with spells and constantly evolving misty scenery.
The music that gives rhythm to the world of storytelling
The evocative force of the great classics can make one forget the existence of a contemporary creation. And yet, she is very vigorous. Hans Abrahamsen’s music has a strange ambiguity in relation to this heritage, which the composer has handled all his life as an arranger. He is known to belong to the movement of the new simplicity born in the 60s in reaction to the intellectualism of learned music. However, this opera turns out to be extremely complex. With an ensemble of eighty-six musicians, the ONR pit is no longer enough. The performers are therefore at the back of the stage, separated by a semi-opaque curtain, and are part of the set.
The music is composed with great mathematical rigor, but also a disturbing arrhythmia. The image of snow deeply inspired Hans Abrahamsen in his work, and Snow Queen is the result of a reflection initiated in the 2000s. Just like the snowflakes, the constituent elements of this music are rigorously detailed. Almost each instrument has its own score and then performs orchestrated variations. This heterophony is so demanding that, for a while, a second conductor joins Robert Houssard.
This set produces a singular harmony and an apparent simplicity. But these shifts can also take on an erratic and furious dimension, like a blizzard blowing in unpredictable directions. The general impression that emerges from it oscillates between a form of recognition of lyrical music and an inexplicable distortion of it. The alternative ear between familiar ground and puzzling surprises. As when the strings, suddenly plucked, emit a concert of shrill highs that evoke ice as well as knife blades.
The ONR, present with the Musica festival, Schnee, another creation by Hans Abrahamsen. This piece already works on the motif of snow and prefigures his opera, written a few years later.
Snow Queen never train long. With its three relatively short acts, of 18, 30 and 40 minutes, the opera offers a direct journey into the world of fantasy. Time is sometimes stretched out, in moments of tenderness or frozen wanderings. The quest of young Gerda becomes more and more urgent as she approaches her goal, and the instruments punctuate her anguish as well as her will. The ambiguity of the snow, soft and silent in the bite of the cold, is contained in this changing and ample music. Snow Queen is ultimately little present on the stage of his own opera and only intervenes in a few scenes. But it is that it is basically only the embodiment of a more global atmosphere, which permeates every note of this show.