Music Festival Retains Tradition While Honing Fresh, Edgy Relevance

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen made her debut in the title role in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ at the Bergen International Festival. (Photo by Thor Brøreskift)

BERGEN — There’s something reassuring and heart-warming about the Bergen International Festival. As Norway’s flagship festival, there’s an enduring past-present-future feeling. The festival always begins with a fanfare event for its people in the town square and, for the duration of the 15 days (May 24-June 7), this is the place to gather. It’s the Festival Square. Recitals and chamber-music concerts are always present at Grieg’s home (Troldhaugen), and the festival’s sign-off signature is the composer’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Bergen’s finest musical assets, such as the Philharmonic Orchestra and Camerata Bergen, are given the opportunity to connect with new audiences and explore new repertoire.

But alongside these traditions lies a zest for the future. In 2023 and for the next three years, the mantle is entrusted to the festival’s new artistic director and chief executive, Lars Petter Hagen. In his first year, Hagen did not disappoint. His keen eye for placemaking — for finding the nexus between Bergen and the globe — augurs well for the reputation of this festival.

‘Tosca’ conductor Edward Gardner and Bryn Terfel, as Scarpia (Photo by Thor Brøreskift)

Hagen comes to the festival well known to Norway. He’s an established composer for groups such as Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien, a curator, and a former director of the Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival. In this year’s programming, there’s a distinct feeling that the festival will maintain its relevance and connections to Bergen. Hagen says, “Norway’s (and Bergen’s) unique identity on the periphery of Europe and the world, its gateway to the sea, and its connection with nature will form a programming vision that will be built on democratic ideals.”

This year’s festival was particularly patriotic, with Norway’s own head-turning soprano, Lise Davidsen, installed as artist-in-residence. Davidsen opened her residency with a dashing debut in the title role in Puccini’s Tosca as part of a staged performance. She was joined by Bryn Terfel (Scarpia) and Freddie De Tommaso (Cavaradossi), the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and the Edvard Grieg Kor and Edvard Grieg Boys Choir under Edward Gardner.

A scene from Jon Fosse’s ‘Inside the Black Forest’ (Photo by Thor Brøreskift)

As with most concert performances of opera, there’s tension in finding the balance between a semi-staged element and the concert presentation. Tosca is particularly challenging. Its narrative is driven by action and physicality of place. For this performance, the night turned out to be a mini-showcase for the three principals. Three different approaches prevailed. Terfel brought the sum of his visceral theatrical manifestations to the role, roaming the front of the orchestra with liberal self-direction, while Tommaso summoned attention to his voice. Davidsen found the balance between the two. With a luminous, fresh sound, she delivered a 21st-century Tosca. Bold and believable, she capitalized on a spectrum of vocal colors to portray the passions of the melodramatic singer. Davidsen owns her Tosca. It was a seize-the-day performance. We connected.

The Norwegian flag was again hoisted for the country’s most-lauded playwright, Jon Fosse, with his newest play Inside the Black Forest, Norwegian singer-songwriters Nils Bech and Sondre Lerche, and this year’s festival composer, Anne-Marie Ørbeck (1911–1996), the first Norwegian woman to compose a symphony, but whose works are seldom performed today.

The Oslo-based female electronic trio Han Gaiden performed at the Kulturhuset. (Photo by Synne Sofi Bårdsdatter Bónes)

A very cool program found its home in the local Kulturhuset. The season opened with the Oslo-based female electronic trio Han Gaiden. These women — Kristin Myhrvold, Ingrid Skåland Lia, and Ragnhild Moan — know how to strike the pose. Thank you very much, Madonna. Han Gaiden sings original songs in wispy harmonies, with electronic loops and soprano saxophone creating the drama. All the while, the lyrics are choreographed with idiosyncratic architectural dancing. The result is alarmingly charming.

This year’s Bergen Festival is a portrait of Norway’s creative heart, but if the rumors are true, its international side will be amped up over the next iterations.