Arts Review

Ophelia at Carnegie Hall

This year’s Grawemeyer Award-winning composition was Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s luminous let me tell you (2012–13), a symphonic song cycle whose conclusion depicts snowfall in a remote winter landscape. It is a musical setting of excerpts adapted by Welsh-born author and critic Paul Griffiths from his 2008 novella of the same title narrated in the voice—and limited to the vocabulary—of Hamlet’s Ophelia. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director Andris Nelsons conducted the world premiere of let me tell you with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2013 [Ed. note: footage from this performance shown in video above] and included the work in the BSO’s Shakespeare festival last winter juxtaposed with incidental music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich for a 1932 Moscow Hamlet. It has since been performed in ten countries, and last January I heard the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall by the Cleveland Orchestra under music director Franz Welser-Möst.

The song cycle owes its genesis to the distinguished Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan. She is a veteran of over eighty world premieres and possibly the only singer to credit Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti as vocal pedagogues (the latter’s Le grand macabre sealed her stature in contemporary opera). Intrigued by the immediacy of expression gained by Griffiths’ device—Ophelia expresses herself with a vocabulary of 481 words in the novella, as in the play—Hannigan spearheaded the creative effort to transform Ophelia’s reassembled text into music. Or, more precisely, retransform—for the astonishing lyrical outpouring central to the character’s climactic mad scene (act IV, scene 5) is unmatched in the Shakespearean canon. Whether the underlying literary conceit strikes one as provocative or presumptuous, the revelatory nature of song at its core is apt, for it remains the sole means by which Ophelia ultimately finds liberation from the suffocating powers of family and court. Griffiths’ reimagined heroine reveals a newfound agency through Abrahamsen’s mesmer­izing score, her opening utterance evocative of Hamlet’s act 5 valedictory (“Had I but time . . . oh I could tell you”).

The Copenhagen-born Abrahamsen might have been expected to interest himself in the poetic mysteries of Elsinore. The quest to achieve a unified dramatic and lyrical expression respectful of the Bard, however, would have been a daunting task for a less experienced composer. Now 63, Abrahamsen was considered a prodigy, receiving a Berlin Philharmonic commission at barely twenty; Berlin has kept faith by commissioning let me tell you in conjunction with the Danish Arts Foundation.

Griffiths himself is no stranger to the lyric art—his enigmatic debut novel Myself and Marco Polo served as the basis of the Tan Dun opera Marco Polo (coincidentally, a 1998 Grawemeyer Award winner)—but the often elliptical prose he favors can grow tedious in the absence of formal rigor. Ironically, the author obliged the composer on this occasion by abandoning the narrative structure of the novella, which functions in the manner of a prequel to the fateful events of the play. In its place, a series of spare, almost impressionistic, poetic ruminations on time, memory, and light gloss the drama while allowing space for music to contribute to the layers of meaning inherent in the text. The collective free verse is arranged in an arc of three large sections that delineate an all-encompassing timescape expressed through anaphora—Let me tell you how it was, Let me tell you how it is, Let me tell you how it will be—itself a meta-commentary on Ophelia’s potent experience of memory (“To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”).

Abrahamsen avails himself of the timbral forces of a post-romantic orchestra of considerable magnitude but avoids enveloping his soprano within its potentially lush textures. Rather, she is set like a jewel shimmering above as shifting instrumental groups reminiscent of chamber music combinations reflect Ophelia’s mercurial thoughts, retaining the essentially quicksilver nature of their subject and her condition. The composer’s aural landscape finds fascinating vocal expression in anachronistic deployment of the seventeenth-century trillo (pulsating on a single pitch), a staple of Monteverdian embellishment with which Hannigan must have become familiar during her tenure at Toronto’s early music scene. Typically heard at Baroque cadences, the device is employed to bewitching effect throughout let me tell you, nowhere more haunting than at its very inception. With eerie fervor, Hannigan’s Ophelia emerges into our consciousness as if from under water.

The anxiety of influence is rarely evaded in classical genres, but Abrahamsen’s contribution to the Ophelia canon resists categorization among the types that have historically dominated portrayals: folk-idiom reimaginings of ditties sung in the mad scene and final moments adrift (“which time she chanted snatches of old tunes / as one incapable of her own distress”); attempted representations of psychosis itself; and realizations of the offstage death, also a prime focus for visual artists (none more iconic than John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite floating maiden, Ophelia).

John Everett Millais, Ophelia. Oil on canvas, 1852. Source: Tate Britain, London.

Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophélie, a soprano scena on Gertrude’s narrative (“There is a willow grows aslant a brook”), is exceptional among the death scenes for its striking sense of transfiguration. Other artistically successful efforts, relating to Shakespeare’s allusions to songs of the day, are Brahms’s brief Ophelia-Lieder (1873), which hews so closely to the original texts and spirit that it works remarkably well in English translation, and the engaging folk idiom of the four Ophelia songs Prokofiev included in his incidental music to Hamlet, op. 77 (1937–38). With lieder serving as the prime locus for psychological penetration, Richard Strauss emerged supreme with his Drei Lieder der Ophelia in proto-expressionist style. Shostakovich’s spare Ophelia’s Song from the Seven Verses of Aleksandr Blok, scored for soprano and solo cello, matches Strauss’s sophistication with its mourn­ful premonition of death. And a recent entry in the genre, Ophelia Sings (2012), by Abrahamsen’s exact contemporary Wolfgang Rihm, sets the three principal mad scene texts in English by alternating expressionist song with spoken interjection, a strategy that respects the play more closely than any of its predecessors.

Abrahamsen’s expressive voice in let me tell you, while lightly tethered to the musical past, nonetheless feels fresh and seldom derivative. The orchestral opening of Part I owes its neo-medieval associations—paired piccolos sounding spare open intervals in parallel voice-leading—to Debussyan techniques (La cathédrale engloutie), and its abrupt shift to kinetic reality in the second poem (“O but memory is not one but many”) is reminiscent of the streetcar scene’s intrusion on the dreamy opening of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Even Stravinsky’s neoprimitivist woodwinds (Le sacre du printemps) appear for an impression of sonic antiquity (“There was a time . . . when we had no music”), yet all elements are seamlessly integrated into a spatially-oriented musical architecture that reveals the parameters of its landscape over time.

The earthy murkiness of the low woodwinds that open Part 2 brings the forbidding outlines of Elsinore into view, with its moody prince emerging from noble brass lines to inspire an excited soprano outpouring (“you are the one who loosed out this music”). Flights of manic coloratura portend the possibility of impending tragedy, while Griffiths’ parsing of text from the nunnery scene startles with its recognition (“You have sun-blasted me . . . You have made me like glass— / like glass in an ecstasy from your light”). At its apex, Abrahamsen’s dramatically romantic turn explodes into aural shards of shattered glass amidst showers of light, an incandescent mosaic of sound that dominates the score’s most brilliantly imagined pages.

Part 3 finds Ophelia not imprisoned by madness but rather seeking liberation from the turmoil of her circumstance in a contemplative epilogue that recedes gradually into hushed snowfall. The composer was encouraged by the poetic adaptation to fix his attention on the symbolic attributes of snow (“White his shroud as the mountain snow”), a topic he has essayed with distinction in previous scores. Long stretches of the score’s concluding section test orchestral mettle at the quietest reaches of the dynamic spectrum, as the music functions for its most extended period in a metaphorical blue light of sonic stillness.

Against an oscillating impressionistic haze of harmonics and micro-tunings, the soprano initiates a series of slowly descending pendulous phrases mirroring snowflakes drifting from heaven to earth. However, I found the composer’s deployment of an extended percussion technique, the sound of paper rubbed gently against a drumhead, “like walking in the snow,” intrusive to the reality of an essentially soundless experience.

The youthful timbre of Hannigan’s lyric soprano, which embodies colors more subtle than overtly expressive, suited this section most effectively. One felt her hand most keenly here in the challenging vocal writing, and as “snow flowers” magically appeared in the firmament, Ophelia’s incandescent upper-register entrances showcased the singer’s flexible virtuosity. Aided by Carnegie’s responsive acoustics, these phrases were dispatched with an arresting combination of accuracy and freedom. The soprano, a statuesque Hitchcock blonde, was a vision draped in shell-pink chiffon—regulation attire for Ophelias of innocence, past and present. Whether Ophelia is “drowned” in the shower of crystallized water into which she disappears is unresolved in the music as in the novella. In Hannigan’s interpretation of the setting at hand, the heroine remains a delicately impenetrable and eternally intriguing cipher.

The thirty-five-minute score, which extends Ophelia’s actual stage time in the play by a considerable margin, received concentrated attention and a rapturous reception from the large Carnegie audience. The Cleveland program also featured Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, a work whose bombastic outbursts could not have placed Abrahamsen’s nuanced orchestration in greater relief. The hall’s warm acoustical atmosphere served Ophelia’s cool Nordic sensuality admirably, and listeners in the parquet during the Shostakovich had ample reason to feel they were experiencing the Battle of Moscow at first hand. Welser-Möst clearly reveled in the challenges of the evening and in his great orchestra’s matchless ability to meet them.