Circus and opera merge in Malmö Opera’s terrific Philip Glass premiere

The Malmö Opera world premiere production of Philip Glass’s Circus Days and Nights (2020), directed by Tilde Björfors. © Mats Bäcker

Ever since the premiere of Einstein on the Beach (1975-76) forty five years, Philip Glass’s operas have been an integral part of the realm of contemporary opera, both reinventing and revisiting its vocabulary. While his ground-breaking Portrait Trilogy focused on non-narrative music theatre in the seventies and the eighties, the sublime Cocteau Trilogy of the nineties examined the possibilities of mixed-media settings, combining opera with film and dance.

Glass’s latest opera, Circus Days and Nights (2020), in its turn, is rooted in an unprecedented fusion of circus and music theatre, giving rise to one of his most original creations. Commissioned by Circus Cirkör and conceived in collaboration with director Tilde Björfors and librettist David Henry Hwang, the new opera received its world premiere performances at the Malmö Opera over the past couple of weeks, featuring both limited-capacity in-house audiences as well as those with livestream tickets.

Cast in two acts, with a prologue and eleven scenes, Circus Days and Nights is based on a series of cyclical narratives, derived from the poems of Robert Lax, examining the realm of circus as a metaphor for life, manifesting not only as between-the-lines subtexts, but in Biblical paraphrases as well, referring to the Story of Creation as well as the Book of Job.

The dramatis personae include young and old Lax, sung by soprano Margaux de Valensart and baritone Anton Ljungquist, and various artists of the Christiani circus troupe, alongside Malmö Opera Choir. As often with Glass, the vocal style is straightforward and devoid of traditional bravura, aiming to present the text in the most natural way, in intelligible musical lines. The virtuosity comes in the guise of ensemble performance, resulting in fluidity of counterpoint and astonishing clarity.

The instrumental scoring is among the most brilliant by Glass, featuring accordion, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and percussion. The septet sonics bear some interesting sonic parallels with some of Igor Stravinsky’s works for smaller ensembles, while maintaining an unmistakably Glassian character. Lead by accordionist Minna Weurlander, the fabulous instrumental septet sets the opera going, with solo percussionist delivering some additive processes, paving the way for the accordion, followed by the full ensemble.

Singers, circus artists and musicians sharing the stage in Philip Glass’s Circus Days and Nights. © Mats Bäcker

The opera unravels on two time-levels. The sequences of events are seen through the eyes of young and old Lax, with two levels of commentary on the stage action. As implied by its title, Circus Days and Nights revisits both the public magic of the circus ring and the private events outside the acts. Onstage, the narrative is divided seamlessly between the singers, the instrumentalists and the circus artists, resulting in a dazzling Gesamtkunstwerk. Instead of music with circus, or vice versa, the two forms of expression are organically joined, giving rise to an invigorating stage dramaturgy.

With unparalleled experience of writing more than twenty five operas, Glass’s impeccable sense of stage time keeps the nonlinear narrative in apt motion, serving the fascinating libretto by Hwang and Björfors beautifully. In the course of the eleven scenes, the fantasy and reality of circus are merged into a powerful story, with a vast emotional scale ranging from glistening magic to yearning nostalgia, not forgetting those darker undercurrents, manifested in the second act nightmare sequence par excellence.

While there are several familiar compositional devises at play, Glass’s score keeps venturing into resplendently new harmonic and timbral realms throughout its two-and-a-half-hour-arch. The inherent cyclical structures of the music go perfectly together with the stageplay, yielding to a marvellously timeless whole.

Soprano Margaux de Valensart as Young Robert Lax in Circus Days and Nights. © Mats Bäcker

The juxtaposition of the soprano and baritone renditions of the character of Robert Lax serves as an appealing devise, both in terms of vocal and stage presence. Wonderfully sung by de Valensart and Ljungquist, the two parts are often touchingly merged, adding up to the character’s sonic range and narrative depth.

With notable contributions from mezzo-soprano Karolina Blixt as Mrs. Christiani, aerial arobat Nikolas Pulka as Mogador, the eldest Chrisitiani son, and trapeze artist and singer Pierre Heault as La Louisa, alongside the rest of the cast of singers and circus artists, one is simply overjoyed by the intensity and sublimity of all of the stage performers. There is a wondrous aura of a dream-like reality in the performance; a fusion of a circus act and real-life repercussions. The balance between sung and spoken parts is a well-achieved one,

The overall impact of the music and stage direction is more than well served by Magdalena Åberg’s riveting sets and costumes, bridging the circus imagery and Glass’s score together into compelling continuum. Together with subtle stage movement and stunning acrobatics, the visual beauty of the production parallels that of the music, making the distinctions between the eye and the ear often quite difficult and, in fact, quite arbitrary, for the thoroughly entertained audience member.

Philip Glass and Tilde Björfors, the co-creators of Circus Days and Nights. © Mats Bäcker

Beginning and ending with a pinnacle of a circus act, Circus Days and Nights is a celebration of touring life and its extended sequences of creations and recreations. An immensely beautiful collaboration between Glass and Björfors, the Malmö Opera production is a terrific affair, one hopefully to undergo many revivals.

Philip Glass: Circus Days and Nights (2020)

Malmö Opera

Tilde Björfors, director and concept

Minna Weurlander, conductor and accordion

Magdalena Åberg, sets and costumes

Margaux de Valensart, soprano (Young Robert Lax)

Anton Ljungquist, baritone (Old Robert Lax)

Karolina Blixt, mezzo-soprano (Mrs. Christiani)

Simon Wiborn, choreographer (Mr. Christiani)

Nikolas Pulka, aerial acrobat (Mogador)

Aaron Hakala, acrobat (Belmonte)

Andreas De Ryck, acrobat (Paraito)

Lars Johansson Brissman, baritone (Bruno)

Susanna Stern, soprano (Julia)

Peter Åberg, juggler (Enrico Rastelli)

Pierre Heault, trapeze artist and singer (La Louisa)

Bia Pantojo, aerial acrobat (Penelope)

Methinee Wongtrakoon, choreographer (The Orphan)

Malmö Opera (Livestream), Malmö, Sweden

Saturday 12 June, 6 pm

© Jari Kallio

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