Review in Klassekampen, 14 February 2022. By Magnus Andersson.
Festiviteten: Conductor Halldis Rønning unearths several layers in Puccini's «Tosca».
The Conductor’s Art
Giacomo Puccini (music), Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto)
The Opera in Kristiansund, Halldis Rønning (conductor), Hilde Andersen (stage director), Ann-Helen Moen (Tosca), Kjetil Støa (Mario Cavaradossi), Jørgen Backer (Baron Scarpia)
Festiviteten Opera House in Kristiansund, 9 February
Why choose an evening with Giacomo Puccini's «Tosca»? It has one of the most vicious characters in the history of opera, Scarpia, and all the good ones die in the end. Its themes are politics, abduction, abuse of power and torture, although the love affair between Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi is also significant. No, this is not at all entertainment, even though it contains two of opera history's most beautiful arias. However, the evening was unforgettable because of what conductor Halldis Rønning did with the orchestra. Puccini's score is one of the most complex a conductor may attempt. The overture begins with fateful, heavy chords and places us directly inside Scarpia's terror regime. Rønning finds weight in time, and seconds later, the weight is more pointed, screaming and chaotic. Everything then collapses into a spiral that stops time, and the weight ceases as if the ground under your feet disappears.
In addition to shaping subtle sounds, both the music and Rønning's conducting are about rubato – about marching a little to the side of the music's rhythmic regularity to give it life. It is, of course, about these weird, highly romantic Italian things, where the music stops quite a few times before the beat and then falls into the next beat. But not least, it is just as often about dwelling on a harmony that shapes a thought in a character. And it is about giving and taking in time and making the whole ensemble flow in the same breath. Rønning achieves all this with the Opera's Sinfonietta, a mixed professional ensemble of 13 core musicians reinforced by hired professionals. Yes, this is exemplary opera orchestra art, and I have confidence that Rønning can conduct whatever opportunity provides her. Everything switches quickly, but Rønning's conducting captures the psychological depths of the work. It is about shaping the most intricate melodic sequences, and she does so with such life in every joint of her arms. You can see the music all the way to her fingertips, as Rønning conducts without a baton. At times – no, at all times – it is about emphases: about making a quadruplet flow as one beat, or stomping forward on all four beats, or emphasising more often so that the music is short of breath.
The most exciting figure in front of Rønning is Kjetil Støa as Mario Cavaradossi, the sculptor who is in love with Tosca and is executed at the end. He has the power to carry all vocal registers and can shape the sound according to what he wants to express. Thus, he masters everything Puccini has written in the mid and low register and makes it sound like natural but singing speech. This allows him to be a good song actor on stage while simultaneously having enough musical sensitivity to evoke tears in the famous «E lucevan le stelle». With subtle timbre and form of melody like a prayer, Ann-Helen Moen gives shape to the second of the opera's most famous arias, «Vissi d’arte». However, she does not quite carry in the speaking register, though the aria does present itself as a highlight. The role of Baron Scarpia makes superhuman demands to contain evil within a sound, and Jørgen Backer makes a good effort. He has level power in all registers, even though he works hard to make it happen – so that there could be more space for several different tonal nuances. Opera has so many aspects to consider that not all elements can be perfect. The casting is generally good, both of those already mentioned and the other four solo roles.
That I have not mentioned the directing and theatrical aspects of the performance until last is both because Rønning puts music at the centre and because it is difficult to understand what stage director Hilde Andersen wants to accentuate (and it does not help that neither the programme nor the website has any articles about it). It could have been about brutality, but the violence was hidden. The sculptures, the wardrobe, the stone slabs that are moved around to create different spaces – these elements are neither so familiar as to give «Tosca» a new context relevant to our time, nor so little known as to fascinate by being unfamiliar. Yet, there are interesting things, such as Tosca wearing black leather pants in the first act, perhaps symbolising a freedom and independence in her. Still, I do not quite understand how it plays into the work and directing as a whole. Spoiler alert: The strangest thing was probably that Tosca did not commit suicide towards the end (the libretto says that she throws herself from the prison walls/roof) but instead went and got a sculptural head. (I later learnt that Andersen lets Tosca live on to take care of Cavaradossi's art, indeed all art, and to continue to fight for freedom in art and love.)
On my trip to Kristiansund, I was also supposed to see a new production of «The Troubadour». Due to recent pandemic restrictions, the amateur choir was not allowed to meet to rehearse, and thus the production was cancelled. However, the choir did a good job in «Tosca», and so the journey was worth it. Rønning's conducting unearthed psychological depths in Puccini that I possibly otherwise could only hope to hear at La Scala in Milan.
Translated to english by Britt Embry
Trailer from Workshop in Reykjavik
Halldis Rønning Composer/conductor
Hilmar Thordarson Composer/electronics
Thorbjörg Jónsdottir video-art
In creative collaboration with
Karen Eide Bøen, Choreography
Mira Svanberg, light-art
Niels Thibaud Girerd, Staging
Jostein Stalheim, accordion
Guro Skumsnes Moe, doublebass/voice
Else Olsen Storesund, piano
Guðni Franzson, clarinets
Björg Brjánsdóttir, flutes
Sigurður Halldórsson, cello
Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson (Keli from Agent Fresco), Percussion
The Icelandic Opera:
Oddur Jónsson, Baryton
Herdis Anna Jónasdóttir, soprano
Tabula Rasa vocal Ensemble:
Sigrun Jørdre, Soprano
Zsuzsa Zseni, mezzosoprano
Tord Kalvenes, tenor
Arild Rohde, tenor
William Hjort-Johansen, electronic sound assistant
Gunnbjørg Johannessen, producer from Syv mil
World premiere at Reykjavik Arts festival juni 5th 22
In the period november 2020-february 2021 Halldis Rønning has done research for the Stavanger University resulting in video interviews with festival leaders and an article on the topic:
"Perspectives on gender in conducting"
The research was comissioned by Stavanger University of Performing Arts for ConductIT, an international web-based education for conductors.
ConductIT is an international collaboration between the Stavanger University, Norway, University of Aveiro, Portugal, Royal Northern College of Music and Open University, UK.
Video interview with Peter Meanwell and Halldis Rønning,
"Perspectives on genderbalance in arts and music":
Article for ConductIT by Halldis Rønning, january 2021
|Perspectives on gender in conducting. Article by Halldis Rønning|
|File Size:||81 kb|