Ibsen originally conceived his picaresque play Peer Gynt (1867) as a “dramatic poem” fit for narration but not stage production. Ibsen wanted to combine pagan and Christian moral elements into one continuous narrative, evolving as discreet tableaux. In 1874, Ibsen proposed to composer Edvard Grieg a collaboration to transform the drama into a theatrical work that would maintain audience attention for its five acts. A morality play, Peer Gynt is a variation on the Prodigal Son motif: the dreamer and wastrel whose egotism, greed, and lust lead him around the world in exile, until broken by experience and a number of betrayals, he returns to his faithful Solveig, the patient lover who swore eternal devotion. Alternately whimsical, passionate, materialistic, and carnal, Peer is a complex figure who occasionally waxes urbane: he quotes Goethe when courting Anitra, calling her “Das Ewig-Weibliche.” But he also makes crude puns when playing with the Three Herd Girls, and he quips to the ardent Woman in Green, “Great folk may be known by the mounts that they ride!” Musically, Grieg employs any number of folkish modalities to communicate Peer’s Norwegian roots; exotic orchestration to depict Anitra’s desert kingdom; a fervent a cappella chorale-style when waxing religious; but the sea-storm and horn-calls clearly owe debts to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The last act heavily smacks of allegory, with Peer’s ruing his lost kingdoms, his failure to answer the Sphinx’s riddle, his bearing the mark of Cain. When Ase’s voice comes to remind Peer of his frustrated quest, the allusions to Homer’s Odyssey would seem complete.
Each Peer Gynt I review becomes increasingly ambitious: is this the Peer Gynt par excellence? The Norwegians certainly love their Grieg–every bar of music, every declamation by the actors, has the ring of total conviction. The accompanying booklet allows you to follow the original-language text as well as its simultaneous translation in English; the sojourn into Ibsen’s native dialogue reveals the music of his words. The surround sound medium permits all sorts of vibrant effects to emerge in your musical space, the horns, the timbrels, the peasant violin. I have a picture of a beleagured John Garfield speaking to Karl Malden in their 1951 production of this drama; were their realization, too, preserved with as much fidelity as this inscription! Kudos to vocalists Hagegaerd, Kosmo, and Solberg for their splendid contribution to the sung incidental music. I doubt not that actor Hungnes is the Maximilian Schell of Norwegian drama. Conductor Ruud and the recording engineers for this 2003 production have created a definitive account of Peer Gynt, until someone resurrects Grieg himself at the podium and Ibsen in the narration. [The included booklet of photos from various Peer Gynt productions since its premiere gives a fascinating summary of this popular drama, which is right up there with Shakespeare in its popularity…Ed.]