World premiere of Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata, streamed from Helsinki

Operas have, of course, often been derived from plays but turning a film into an opera is relatively rare. And if one looks to cinema for operatic inspiration, would one choose the redoubtable Ingmar Bergman as auteur? The anguish and angst which pervade his work might be readily expressed in musical terms, but the psychological complexities are less easily convertible. So, it was courageous of the Swedish composer Sebastian Fagerlund and his librettist Gunilla Hemming to undertake the Finnish National Opera’s commission to write an operatic version of Autumn Sonata.

Admittedly, the plot and themes of this film are more accessible than much of Bergman’s middle to late output. They involve the relationship between a celebrated and self-centred pianist Charlotte Andergast and her daughters, both of whom have suffered through her absence and indifference. Tensions build during her reunion with them, leading to an outburst from Eva, the elder daughter, which would seem to confront the mother with her own seriously flawed personality including all its shortcomings. Though on the surface Charlotte acknowledges her faults, tragically her inner self creates a barrier which cannot be penetrated by the truth.

The prelude, with its crashing dissonances and bleak timbres, gives us a foretaste of the grim conflicts to come, but Fagerlund’s score is not aggressive throughout and there is much grateful writing, some of it even lyrical, for the human voice. There are some fine distinctive passages, for example for the chorus which, while ostensibly representing an audience for Charlotte’s recital, reinforces her egocentricity by overloading her with repeated expressions of praise, chanted Greek fashion. And in the second act there is an extraordinarily powerful ensemble of the soloists as the tension between them mounts. The music may not be tightly structured, but many of the solo passages adopt, in the manner of an ariette, a repetition of key phrases or motifs, thus endowing them with strophic form.

In the original film, Bergman astutely engaged his famous actress namesake Ingrid, known for her engagingly sympathetic personality, to play the cruel part of Charlotte, thus rendering the role more rounded and interesting than would otherwise have been the case. In the premiere of the opera, performed in Helsinki and now available in a Operavision streaming, a similar approach was taken for the character was performed by Ann Sofie von Otter, renowned for her warm renderings of mezzo roles, as well as her versatility in shifting between musical genres. Needless to say, she gave a performance which was totally compelling, vocally alternating between forcefully haughty tones and the harsher colours necessary to express anguish.

She was more than matched by the Eva, Erika Sunnegård, whose facial expressions by themselves provided an eloquent commentary on her deeply unhappy past. With allowances made for occasional excessive vibrato, her singing too richly communicated her suffering, her voice soaring above the orchestra. As her husband, Tommi Hakala, fondly remembered as the surprise but wholly merited winner of the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the Year contest, offered a suitably low-key and sympathetic portrayal. The part of Eva’s physically and mentally handicapped sister was given a bravado performance by Helena Juntunen, totally convincing in its histrionics.

The experienced conductor John Storgårds was in control musically, letting loose his orchestral forces for the prelude but thereafter showing much consideration for the singers by maintaining a flowing stream of not overloud sound. Stéphane Braunschweig was responsible for the excellent production and scenic designs, these benefiting from simplicity and minimal movement.

Totally gripped by Autumn Sonata, I would consider it a major addition to contemporary opera. Hopefully, it will be taken up by other companies and in other countries.