sun 16/06/2024

theartsdesk at the Birgit Nilsson Days - the rich legacy of a farm girl turned diva | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Birgit Nilsson Days - the rich legacy of a farm girl turned diva

theartsdesk at the Birgit Nilsson Days - the rich legacy of a farm girl turned diva

The greatest of sopranos who never forgot her roots lives on in her successors

Birgit Nilsson at the open-air museum above Båstad, the Bjäre peninsula's main townBirgit Nilsson Museum

Feet firmly planted on fertile native soil, but always open to the world, lyric-dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson soared into realms no-one from the rolling hills and coastline of Sweden’s Bjäre peninsula, where she grew up, could possibly have imagined.

The Met, Bayreuth, and all the other great opera houses of the world fell over themselves to acquire stakes in her special incandescence, but she always returned to her home region.

Her parents’ farmhouse became a summer home, and their only child laid flowers on their grave when she gave recitals in the church at Västra Karups where she’d sung in the choir. Her huge financial legacy – Nilsson and her vetinarian husband of 58 years, Bertil Niklasson, alongside whom she is buried in the family grave of the Västra Karup churchyard, had no children – is chiefly threefold. It helped turn the family farm into a threefold museum (pictured below), with tours of the beautifully preserved main building by guided tour only, a finely crafted exhibition space and cinema in the cattle barn, café/restaurant serving Nilsson recipes in the pig barn. It also launched on the one hand the glitzy biennial Birgit Nilsson Prize and ceremony in Stockholm, where Nina Stemme was the most recent recipient, on the other the Birgit Nilsson Days on home turf, including masterclasses by distinguished singers and concerts, not least from the outstanding young talent granted the annual Birgit Nilsson Stipendium. Birgit Nilsson's farmhouseOf the three enchanting summer days I spent exploring the hills, woods, coastline, farm tracks and buildings of the Bjäre peninsula, courtesy of a meticulous programme arranged by the Birgit Nilsson Museum, accounts must be given elsewhere (and footnoted in links at the bottom of this piece as and when they appear). Suffice it to say that the warm, unaffected and still-vital personality of La Nilsson shines through in the warm welcome of museum manager Gitte Lindström-Harmark, so palpably related to the great singer in looks and opennness, and in the exhibitions at the farmhouse; I’ve never laughed so much going round a museum. Nilsson's outdoor life can be traced by following in her footsteps and along her cycle tracks in various routes laid out with options to access topical songs and arias at each signposted spot (the most charming, perhaps, are the vibrant folksongs complementing a hillock on which outdoor dances took place).

You don’t of course get to share in the hard work of farm life, such as the finger-shredding art of thinning beets (Nilsson on the left pictured below) which was part of her daily life between the ages of 13 and 23, when some savings from her mother allowed her to go and study music in Stockholm in the face of her father’s stern disapproval. Birgit Nilsson working on planting beetWhat matters here is the excellence of the performances I heard on three fine evenings at the Västra Karup church, most of them designed to send out into the world promising young singers, maybe not mostly of the one in a million kind that young Birgit undoubtedly was, but including some major talents and one budding star. It was pity to have missed the masterclasses of the wonderful Miah Persson - these are available online, but you'll need to know your Swedish - yet what shone out from the eight participants showing the results of their hard work with pianist Elisabeth Boström in the first of the three concerts was the high level of communication, the effort to project the meaning of each song or aria; you don’t get that without intense preparation.

The singers faced another challenge due to the unusual layout of the high-ceilinged church (the exterior pictured below on a walk around the area), extended in the 19th century to accommodate the entire parish (attendance by then had become compulsory). The altar is in the middle of the T-shaped church; the singers faced the shallower seating area and gallery to the west, but also had to embrace the majority of the audience to the sides of the double nave. An appropriate greeting, Elisabeth’s “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner's Tannhäuser, acknowledged us all in the soaring ecstasy of soprano Matilda Sterby, whose career is already launched (she sang Fiordiligi in Gothenburg Opera’s streamed Così fan tutte and will take on the role of Mozart’s Countess in Hanover and Klagenfurt this coming season). Birgit Nilsson's local churchDespite the social distancing – though Swedes rarely wear face-masks, least of all on public transport – this was more than the now-familiar format of one interval-free event. The two halves allowed us to reassess the performers in the light of their Part Two choices, where a strand went deep. That was especially true of bass-baritone Joakim Larsson. The Wolfram aria from Tannhäuser had needed more line, but the high drama of Emil Sjögren’s low-lying “Bergmanden” ("The Miner", a grim poem by Ibsen) brought out a surprising intensity and charisma. The melancholy sweetness of Rachmaninov’s Georgian Song suited tenor Theodor Uggla’s fast-vibratoed tenor and his deep musicianship better than Almaviva’s “Ecco ridente in cielo” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Swedish-American soprano Kristine Nowlain commanded immediate attention with a fully-lived and finely-phrased “Deh vieni, non tardar” from The Marriage of Figaro, but simply stunned us in the drama of Rebecca Clarke’s “The Seal Man”, a remarkable setting of a John Masefield poem rich in sensitive speech-melody: singers looking for strong repertoire by a woman composer, please note. Birgit Nilsson masterclass singersThe evening ended as rapturously as it had began with Karolina Bengtsson radiant in Grieg’s “Ein Traum” ("A Dream", a Nilsson speciality), clearly responsive to the charged atmosphere of the occasion. (Pictured above: Miah Persson just visible on the left, Boström and seven of the eight masterclass participants: Bengtsson, Sofia Warden, Larsson, Ugla, Sterby, Ingrid Berg and Nowlain).

"Ein Traum" was also last on the programme of this year’s Birgit Nilsson Stipendium recipient, 28-year-old soprano Johanna Wallroth, who gave us all six of Grieg’s Op. 48 songs setting German poets. As her pianist Magnus Svensson, the best of his kind in Sweden as the recital richly proved, put it afterwards, she is “the total package”, despite only having been training as a singer for five years, redirecting her talents from dance. This fourth song from the Grieg set, “Die verschweigene Nachtigall” (“The Secretive Nightingale”), will probably tell you all you need to know.

It was as rich and as satisfying a recital as any I’ve heard. How refreshing for the pianist to take the spotlight so exquisitely in two serenades by Pauline Viardot and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger; at the “efterkonsert” meal in the museum, Svensson told me that top partners Nina Stemme and Dorothea Röschmann had encouraged him to do the same in joint recitals, but that agents and promoters had the narrow-minded view that audiences had come exclusively to hear the singers. Wallroth sang in four languages, entering character immediately as Mozart’s Susanna, with musical ornamentations perfectly fitted to the essential directness of “Deh vieni”, and Puccini’s Lauretta, desperate enough to threaten suicide by drowning in the Arno.

The complicity with Svensson brought rich results in Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage” and Korngold’s “Was du mir bist?” ("What you are to me?"), with a thrilling flipover in the highest phrase. It was good to hear an alternative to Sibelius’s setting of “The maiden came from her lover's tryst" in Stenhammar’s equally original take (the great Swedish composer’s 150th anniversary year seems to be passing unnoticed everywhere but in his native land). Best of all for sheer humour and delight was the vivid realization of Thérèse’s liberation from breasts and sprouting of a beard in the big number from Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias.

A special festival frisson came in the knowledge that Wallroth would be returning for the operatic concert-finale showcasing four stipendium winners and works in which Nilsson had made a special impression, though one wanted Svensson to be there too; Boström hadn’t had time to work as intensively on the alternatives to orchestral splendour as she had on the masterclass numbers, and the endless tremolos in Strauss and Wagner could have done with some toning down, especially as the church’s odd acoustics tended to amplify the sound. The first half offered Mozart arias and ensembles in need of a director; stock gestures aren’t enough. The real wonders began with Miah Persson in the spotlight singing Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin. She is now beyond the good girls of yore – Anne Trulove, Pamina, Sophie – and this was rich proof that, given the right house (say Glyndebourne) and a sympathetic conductor, she could be perfect as Wagner’s less strenuous heroines, especially given her still-youthful looks.

Some of us already know from the Garsington production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier that Persson has the capacity to be a perfect Marschallin, gracious and wistful, given the right direction. And what came as a revelation here was that a perfect Nordic cast for Rosenkavalier is to hand. Persson later admitted surprise that Wallroth’s Sophie was very much herself at that age – the opera’s unspoken theme of an older woman making a sacrifice partly so that a younger one will not have the same indignity forced on her straight out of the convent, of marriage to a man she can’t love. And Emma Sventelius, 2020 stipendium recipient, is already Octavian to the life. Everything was fully lived and embodied in the acting-out of this Presentation of the Rose and final trio plus duet. Rosenkavalier trio at the Birgit Nilsson DaysWhat also became clear in 2016 “stipendarist” Henning von Schulman’s second-half delivery of Banquo’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth is that he is a true bass – much as managements seem to have denied that fact – and could step in to the role of Baron Ochs, presumably a youngish man and not the old lech that’s often depicted. Exciting times ahead: when the Swedish/Danish Rosenkavalier happens, be sure to travel to see it. And mark out a week for walking and swimming around the Bjäre peninsula too, as I intend to. The splendid new chamber concert hall with art gallery above just outside the attractive regional town of Båstad opens for events and exhibitions in October, and there’s so much more to see.


"Singers looking for strong repertoire by a woman composer, please note": for the most accurate, up-to-date information on Rebecca Clarke’s life, career, and works, including an illustrated Gallery feature on "The Seal Man," please see Clarke's official website, For further details, use the website's “Contact” page. I am a great-nephew of Clarke’s and the owner of her rights as composer and author. (Christopher Johnson, Brooklyn, New York, USA)

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