Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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The bad boy of Norway (story audio)
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The bad boy of Norway

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Hanne Thorbjornsen and Trond Halsetin Moe of the Norwegian National Opera in "Peer Gynt." (Photo by Erik Berg, courtesy of VocalEssence)
As Norway celebrates the centennial of its independence, VocalEssence stages "Peer Gynt" by Henrik Ibsen Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Paul. The drama is a centerpiece of Norwegian culture. But the character of Peer Gynt seems to be at odds with the stoic stereotype commonly associated with Norwegians. He is a colorful and selfish scoundrel who travels the world just living for the moment.

St. Paul, Minn. — Peer Gynt is the sort of guy who deserts his widowed mother, gets drunk and steals the bride at a neighbor's wedding and abandons her in the mountains. He's selfish and lazy. He's a lying braggart, a womanizer, and a thief.

"Yeah, I think he's a charming guy," says Trond Holstein Moe of the Norwegian National Opera who sings the role of Peer Gynt in the VocalEssence production.

Members of the Norwegian National Opera join the 125-member VocalEssence choir for a concert production of the Henrik Ibsen play with music by Edvard Grieg. Grieg's score sets the mood of the story as Peer Gynt gets mixed up with trolls and shapeless monsters, seduces women and finds and loses a fortune.

Todd Nichol is a professor of Scandinavian-American Studies at St. Olaf College. He says Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" is one of the great works of Norwegian literature. "Peer embodies much of what Norwegians often think and say about themselves," he says. "Is it a fair representation of Norwegian culture? I think one would want to ask a Norwegian that."

Thor Johansen is the Norwegian consul general in Minneapolis. He says that is you look very closely at Peer Gynt, you'll see into the very soul of the Norwegian people.

"Peer Gynt is a man who everybody looked up to in Norway because he was a free man and did what he wanted to," Johansen says. "He became rich and he left Norway. Like Peer Gynt, so many people left Norway because they wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain."

Thor Johansen says everyone in Norway knows the story of "Peer Gynt." But the idea that Peer Gynt himself provides a window into the soul of Norwegians may be surprising since he's the opposite of the stereotype of Norwegians as hardworking, dependable and virtuous.

St. Olaf professor Todd Nichol says Peer Gynt is only one side of the Norwegian character. "He is a bookend to another great figure created by Ibsen, Brand," Nichol explains. "Brand is a highly idealistic, enormously willful Lutheran pastor and Peer Gynt is a feckless opportunist."

According to Professor Nichol, Peer Gynt is similar to other characters in Norwegian tales. Trond Holstein Moe of the Norwegian National Opera says Henrik Ibsen adapted the story from Norwegian folklore to create a social commentary on the 19th century Norwegian man.

"Peer Gynt is the critical analysis of a Norwegian by Ibsen sitting in Italy looking on Norway from afar," Moe says. "He's making fun of a Norwegian man, but with a mixture of love and hate."

In the end, Ibsen allows Peer Gynt to find redemption in the woman he left behind, Solveig. Philip Brunelle, the Artistic Director of VocalEssence, says the themes in "Peer Gynt" are universal.

"It's another one of those fairy tales," Brunelle says. "Peer Gynt travels the world, trying to find the woman of his dreams. He comes home to Norway and finds she was there waiting for him. The story is about that searching for fame and fortune and finally realizing you would have had it all along if you would've stayed right where you were."

Philip Brunelle will conduct VocalEssence along with members of the Norwegian National Opera, Theatre and Ballet companies in a concert production of "Peer Gynt" this week at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.

Norway's Crown Prince Haakon Magnus will attend Wednesday's performance.

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