REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
4. KEJSAR JONES, directed by Lars G. Thelestam, at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, Sweden.
On September 29, 1984, the Royal Opera had as its opening night at Rotundan (the theatre in the round) the premiere of a chamber opera, Kejsar Jones, with a new libretto based on Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. This music and dance drama has as composer the young Swede, Sven-David Sandstrom; libretto and direction by the young Finn, Lars G. Thelestam; costumes and masks by the young Finnish lady, Sunniva Thelestam; and choreography by the young Pole, Stanislaw Brosowski. In short, this splendid presentation, based on the early expressionistic play written by the young O'Neill in 1920, is, altogether, a youthful production. It was proclaimed an immense success by critics and audiences.
In 1966 Mr. Thelestam became interested in The Emperor Jones when he directed the O'Neill play for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In the early 1970s he worked at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, and the head manager at that time, G÷ran Gentele, became very interested in a Jones project. Gentele, however, became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York; and not until 1978, when Folke Abenius was head manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm, was new interest aroused in doing The Emperor Jones as a music drama. Then composer Sandstrom got involved, and he and the others who became interested in the project decided that only one person could play the leading role: the young Norwegian singer Kolbj÷rn H÷iseth. The preparations had started.
Sven-David Sandstrom was born in 1942. In the beginning of his composing career he worked mostly with instrumental music, but when he got interested in great poetry, especially the English romantic poet William Blake, he became more and more interested in working with the human voice--first in pure songs, and then chamber operas. He finally found a dramatic libretto in Thelestam's Kejsar Jones.
The audience was seated in a circle around the arena stage, which, at the same time, is the place of worship in the voodoo culture. On the highest plat-form above the audience, the chorus stood like a wall around the stage, its members dressed in individual costumes and masks designed in a classic African style.
The action of the opera starts with the natives' escaping from the smoldering revolution; they are represented by an old woman (mezzo soprano), who has a short scene with the white man Smithers (baritone). Brutus Jones (tenor) appears and the earlier action is presented in a musical dialogue, which also brings Jones into the jungle.
Trees and stones are represented by the eight members of a mime group, Panopticon, who also symbolize the hallucinations in Jones' brain, haunted as he is by old racial memories which become more and more dominant as he tries to escape his pursuers as well as his bad conscience. Jones tries to shoot every new vision that appears, and, in doing so, he wastes all of his five bullets and even the sixth, the silver bullet meant for himself. During these scenes Jones takes off all of his gaudy uniform (one thinks of Idi Amin!), and in the end he wears only a pair of ragged shorts when he leaves the stage.
Smithers comes back, together with the native chief Lem (bass). They are followed by some native soldiers (one thinks of Fidel Castro's guerillas!). Lem has made silver bullets for his men, and after a short while they return, carrying the dead body of Brutus Jones.
Composer Sandstr÷m wrote the accompaniment for rhythm instruments--around thirty different such instruments--mainly drums played by four musicians. They, and the soloists, were conducted by the young Bj÷rn Hallman, who stood in the middle of the chorus. The performance was at the same time dramatic and tightly structured. Kolbj÷rn H÷iseth gave his role both seriousness (in his fear) and humor (in his pompousness). Staffan Sandlund as Smithers played his role perfectly, as did the other soloists. Music and score were appropriate and made the production a composite piece of art of the highest order. Every performance has been sold out since the opening night. A tour throughout Sweden is planned for Spring 1985.
--Tom J. A. Olsson
[The illustrations are from the program booklet for Kejsar Jones at the Royal Opera in Stockholm and are probably the work of costume and mask designer Sunniva Thelestam. --Ed.]
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