Orlando Gough has a well-established reputation as a composer who can deliver imaginative large-scale events that span abilities and genres; his latest work, which opened the Bergen Festival (on May 21), is no exception. Stemmer, which means both “voices” and “votes” in Norwegian, was commissioned by Bergen National Opera to mark the bicentenary of Norway’s constitution, bringing together children’s, youth and adult amateur choirs alongside international soloists, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and five multi-instrumentalists as an onstage band.
This illuminating, and often moving account of the fight for freedom and human rights over the past 200 years focused on well-known campaigns in India, South Africa and Israel/Palestine. Wimme Saari, a Sami singer, bookended the 90-minute opera-torio which began with a summary of the rights enshrined in Norway’s 1814 constitution. However, the pellucid tones of soprano Hanna Husahr, as early Norwegian feminist Gina Krog, swiftly asked: “Whose rights?” The question was reiterated by Manickam Yogeswaran, as Gandhi fighting for India’s independence, and baritone Njabulo Madlala, who superbly recounted Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom in South Africa.
The most poignant passages highlighted the still unresolved conflict in the Middle East, juxtaposing those who fought for the state of Israel with the Palestinians forced from their homes. Reem Kelani’s haunting laments for Jaffa, the construction of the wall, the unstoppable intifada and the mounting dead were searingly beautiful.
Gough has an ear for a good tune, deftly weaving these diverse cultural strands together to create a vibrant musical tapestry, while in the pit, conductor Clark Rundell kept all the musical forces in play with crisp precision while maintaining momentum and balance throughout.
Staging productions of this nature can be tricky to bring off dramatically and director Olivia Fuchs wisely kept things simple. The 250-strong combined choir flanked the stage, contributing to the main action as and when required. The use of historic voice recordings, archive photos and other imagery projected on to a large screen also created a sense of unity, as did dancer Sulekha Ali Omar as a silent witness/companion moving elegantly between the different worlds.
It was humbling to be reminded of the hard-won freedoms we now take for granted along with many other human rights which are still not universal. Stemmer concluded by envisioning a new all-embracing constitution that commemorates the lost voices of the past, represented by candles flickering in the darkness, and reconciles dreams with reality.