Thursday, November 24, 2016

Les Misérables in Wermland Opera: Addendum

Last weekend, it was time for the year's second musical trip to Sweden!

Also time for the year's second trip to see Les Misérables in Wermland Opera in Karlstad, since I have a bit of a fixation like that.

I saw Wermland Opera's Les Mis first time this July. It filled me with the special glee only a fantastic production of this musical can inspire. Afterwards, I wondered if it's maybe the very best production of Les Misérables I've ever seen.

Having now seen it for the second time, let's take a short look at the experience. How did the production hold up?

Best things first.

In my original review, I said the following about Christer Nerfont's Jean Valjean:

"In short, I have never seen this thoroughly thought-out, three-dimensional, human portrayal of Jean Valjean's character. This is the first time the character has felt truely relatable to me."

Having seen the show for the second time, that is more true than ever. Nerfont's Jean Valjean is everything I could hope for the character to be.

Les Misérables is based on a 19th century novel with 19th century storytelling and Big Emotions – our hero essentially dies of a broken heart. It's no wonder Jean Valjean often feels a bit unrealistic and distant. Nerfont's Valjean, though, is none of that. He is a real person through and through, every action justified, every detail thought out (seriously, pay attention to his hands whenever he is trying to keep his calm while confronted by Javert). I couldn't bear to take my eyes off him whenever he was onstage, afraid I would miss some interesting nuance if I did!

I'm also glad I went for the second round since it gave me a chance to properly appreciate Cecilie Nerfont Thorgersen as Fantine.

I think I have found my dream Fantine. Nerfont Thorgersen's take is very angry and not fragile at all. This is a woman who has been let down by everybody, but even so, she refuses to break and keeps on fighting. The most important of all, she is a mother who loves her daughter with every fibre of her being. She doesn't feel regretful at all – it's all been for Cosette, so what would there be to regret? Nerfont Thorgersen's I Dreamed a Dream is especially impressive. It's such a journey through emotions, from hurt to longing and anger, I completely forgot how overdone the song is. I just listened and felt for the character.

Photo source: Facebook

In the role of Javert, we saw understudy John Alexander Eriksson. I liked him better than principal Philip Jalmelid. Jalmelid's out-of-this-world gorgeous singing remains unparalleled (though Eriksson's great!), but acting-wise, I prefer Eriksson's calmer, more stoic approach.

Eriksson is a very young Javert. Discussing the matter, me and my friends came to the conclusion it actually adds to the character. Maybe the Javert we see in the musical's prologue is an insecure young man who hides his self-doubts behind a harsh facade – and takes the hardships that come his way too personally, dwelling upon his mistakes until they turn into obsessions. By the time Javert and Valjean meet on the barricade, it's just been way too long for Javert to let go anymore. Eriksson does a great job highlighting the character's black-and-white worldview in Stars, making even a hardened Les Mis fan like me to stop and really listen to the lyrics for once!

It's a shame, however, that in James Grieve's direction, Javert is quite simply the villain of the piece. While Javert and Jean Valjean's scenes together are wonderfully intensive, our antagonist is still presented as a baddie who dies a horrible dark death all alone, and yet, is not worthy an absolution. I understand where that interpretation is coming from, but personally, I prefer a take with more shades of gray.

Watching the show for the second time highlighted the problems I have with the direction, but on the flip side, the good parts shone even brighter. The story flows forward with a flawless pace, the sets and lights are gorgeous, the orchestra is lush and the vocal performances top-notch. Many of the characterisations – the Thénardiers, Gavroche, Marius – are spot-on. Overall, the production is very refreshing to watch.

So, my sentence? Not quite as good the second time as it was the first, since the special magic of not knowing what you're going to get is gone... But let's be real here. The return trip would have been worth it for Jean Valjean alone. The rest is bonus goodness on top of that.

Les Mis is playing in Karlstad until April 2017. Catch it while you can!

Photos by Mats Bäcker.

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