Brothers by Daníel Bjarnason in Reykjavik

Daníel Bjarnason’s Brothers was given its premiere at Aarhus in 2017. The production by Kasper Holten, designed by Steffen Aarfing, has with some changes been given a single performance in the composer’s homeland, Iceland. It is a bleak piece relating how the experiences of war and incarceration traumatize the individuals involved but also damage relationships with and within their families. On returning home, Michael the chief protagonist cannot re-enter the secure warmth of domesticity but remains inconsolably alienated. The climax is reached when, in an emotional outburst, he confesses that, to save his own skin, he killed his fellow prisoner.

It is remarkably accomplished work, all the more so considering it is Bjarnason’s first opera. The music is contemporary in idiom, underscoring the military themes with jagged march-like passages and the intensity of inner torments with plangent discordant phrases. But there is also much which is tonal and lyrical sounding in places, when restrained, like chamber music. The English libretto by Kerstin Perski too is most successful. The characters vent their feelings in short pithy phrases, leaving a more poetic commentary on what has occurred to the Greek-style chorus.

All aspects of the Reykjavik performance were at a high level. Kasper Holten’s austere but satisfying production addressed the key dramatic issues without frills. Movement and groupings were astute and, in creating mood, much use was made of lighting, particularly to accommodate flashback sequences. I liked the way in which the principal characters emerged from the chorus who, lining the amphitheatre steps, encircled the action. They – and us – are all implicated in what happens. Video effects were used so discreetly to indicate the political and military context that the only occasion on which the stage was enveloped in red to project violence was most telling.

Oddur Arnþór Jónsson who took over the role of Michael a mere three weeks before the performance was remarkably assured vocally and dramatically; his mellifluous baritone revealed his inner self as though in Lieder. As his ne’er-do-well but extrovert brother, Elmar Gilbertsson deployed his well focussed tenor voice to striking effect. His developing passion for Sarah, Michael’s wife, was convincingly communicated. Her repressed emotions, and uncomprehending mental state, came across well in Marie Arnet’s portrayal.

Daníel Bjarnason himself conducted and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra supplied all that was asked of them. A superb evening of music theatre. Let us hope that Brothers will be taken on by other companies; it deserves to be known internationally.