January 2006

Grettir | An Icelandic Saga
Presented by New Music Concerts
January 8, 2006The Betty Oliphant TheatreToronto
From Iceland with Love
by Stanley Fefferman
Grettir is an Icelandic chamber opera, sung in English, which focuses on the love story embedded in a 1000 year old saga of a killer.

The hero of the opera is Dromund who has been imprisoned for killing the killer of his brother, the famous outlaw, known as Grettir the Strong.

In the Icelandic tradition, Dromund is a poet-singer as well as a warrior. During the opening scene, he sings the saga of his famous brother’s youthful misdeeds to cheer his despairing cellmate. His song reaches the street where an unhappily married woman, Spes, hears him and pays Dromund’s ransom so he can sing to her for ever.

During the course of three furtive meetings in Spes’ boudoir, Dromund completes his recital of the life of his brother, from Grettir's outlaw days to his death. The excitement they share serves as a courtship that eliminates Spes’ jealous husband, Sigurd.

Thus a tale of violence, by being transformed into poetic song, serves to simultaneously liberate a man from prison and a woman from an unhappy marriage. At the same time, singing of the daring deeds of his brother, gives the sexually shy Dromund the confidence to approach Spes man to woman.

Grettir the Strong
The music, composed for 5 singers and 6 instruments by Thorkell Sigurbjornson in 2004 is having its North American premiere in Toronto. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter — revenge, wrongful imprisonment, marital deception — the music is buoyant and often humourous, commenting on dramatic moments in a farcical way, especially in the deployment of the trombone and clarinet.

The vocal harmonies, especially the duos and quartets, and the interplays of voice and violin, voice and organ, create an atmosphere of considerable charm. That said, it is not until the intense third act that the music becomes completely compelling.

The libretto by Bödvar Gudmundsson is based on chapters 87–90 of the Grettirsaga. The translation into English is excellent, and the enunciation of the fine young Icelandic cast of singers is also excellent, and all the words come through.

We learn from the libretto that (like the American outlaw heroes Jesse James and Billy the Kid) Grettir was not bested, but was killed by treachery. Like Hamlet, Dromund has the responsibility of avenging his family member’s death. Unlike Hamlet, though, no obstacle can withstand Dromund’s intention.

On this point, here is an odd historical fact. Dromund follows his brother’s killer from Iceland to Constantinople where Nordic tough guys often found employment as body guards in the Turkish court. Another point in the libretto is the suggestion that true love justifies marital deceit. If all these points add up to any thing, it is this: courage and prowess can animate songs that will inspire passion over the long span of time.

Some Further Credits

Director Sveinn Einarsson

Spes: Regina Unnur Olafsdottir; Elja (her maid): Dora Steinunn Armanddsdottir;
Dromund: Bragi Bergthorsson; Bishop: David Ingi Ragnarsson; Sigurd: Hugi Jonsson

Ensemble conducted by Gudmundur Emilsson

Instrumentalists of the Bayreuth Youth Festival:
Antonia Havesi, piano; G.T. Gudmundsdottir, violin; Sigrun E. Egilsdottir, cello;
Sigurjon Bergthor Dadson, clarinet; Oddur Thorri Vidarsson, guitars and bass

We welcome your comments and feedback
Stanley Fefferman
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