On a stormy October night the Royal Swedish Opera held the world premiere of Mikael Karlsson’s Melancholia, two weeks behind schedule due to a fatal accident during preseason house repairs.
Based on the 2011 Lars von Trier film of the same name, Melancholia imagines the days preceding the earth’s collision course with a rogue planet, Melancholia. A sense of claustrophobic, impending doom begins before the auditorium opens: projections of the planet Melancholia adorn the foyer while fragments of Karlsson’s thundering, electronic-percussive leitmotif for the planet resound throughout the house, reminding you to “enjoy your pre-show drink, smoke your cigarettes: you cannot escape death.”
The opera and film share a plot, or lack thereof—an aborted wedding, a planetary collision, the confusion and despair in between. The librettist Royce Vavrek has fixed his scope on two women: the depressive Justine (Lauren Snouffer) and her anxious sister, Claire (Rihab Chaieb). Surrounding them are Michael, Justine’s well-meaning but clueless groom, sung with sad innocence by the lyrical baritone Jens Persson Hertzman; John, Claire’s seemingly competent but ultimately ineffectual husband, played with vocal command and delicacy by the bass-baritone Ola Eliasson; Jack, Justine’s boorish father-in-law and employer, portrayed by the booming baritone Johan Edholm; Leo, Claire’s son, sung by the soprano Anton Textorius; and Gaby, Justine and Claire’s Clytemnestra-like tyrant of a mother, performed with severity by the grande dame mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.
The action takes place on Claire and John’s estate, which the set designer Boris Kudlicka has constructed in cross-section and painted in dark jewel tones. It’s eternally night, a Cimmerian dollhouse. Screens lower, onto which are thrown images of forestry, nature, and horses as projections of the characters’ mental states, but more often the backdrop is dominated by the specter of death ruling over the opera: the rogue planet itself, Melancholia.
The soprano Lauren Snouffer’s Justine initially appears a happy bride, giddily introducing her new husband, Michael, to her favorite horse, Abraham. But she quickly begins to devolve as her melancholic temperament reveals itself. She ditches the reception, then dumps the groom. Justine’s vocal lines call for ample improvisation, a challenge Snouffer dives into with ferocity. She depicts Justine as a woman whose depression manifests as a confined rage; she longs for release from artificial life, a return to the primeval.
Rihab Chaieb’s Claire is Justine’s foil, grounded and secure in attachment. The warm-voiced mezzo-soprano sings with sober exasperation as she forces her depressed sister to carry on and shelters her son Leo from realizing their imminent doom. Unlike Justine, however, Claire remains an enigma: she breaks down upon discovering her husband committed suicide to avoid witnessing the apocalypse, but her disintegration doesn’t quite convince. As written, this Claire is too capable and assured, her music too stable, to convey a distressed psyche.
This lack of musical development is the opera’s central weakness. Karlsson’s score features every contemporary music trope: glissandos, meandering, all-too-similar vocal lines cluttered with half steps, drawn-out dissonances, and the ever-trendy incorporation of electronics and looping. The original story of Melancholia demands more sonic differentiation than what the postmodern idiom usually provides. A clashing soundscape makes sense for Justine, who wants nothing more than a self-obliviating reunion with nature, but it fails at developing other characters.
During a preshow talk, Karlsson insisted that he wanted the music to be accessible, to make the end of the world musically palatable. On these grounds he succeeds, but due to this approachability most of the music remains superficial, reliant on easy tricks. For example, during the apocalyptic final scene as Melancholia smashes into the earth, the orchestra and electronics crescendo to a floor-shaking din—“earth-shattering” made almost literal. The conductor Andrea Molino dispatches the score with efficiency, leaning into every accent and dynamic marking with ardor and occasional lyricism. The music is easy to grasp, but one wishes Karlsson wrote something more worth grasping.
Melancholia is Karlsson’s first grand opera. He chose a troublesome source material to adapt, as Lars von Trier’s film already comes with operatic entanglements. Wagner’s overture to Tristan und Isolde plays throughout the film, a character in itself. How do you adapt a film indebted to an opera into another opera without becoming derivative of that original opera—which happens to be one of the most famous of all operas? Karlsson’s tactic is total avoidance, which may partially explain the score’s underwritten nature. This avoidance lends itself, paradoxically, to a commonality with Wagner: the Wagner-skeptic critic Theodor Adorno wrote that “the eternity of Wagnerian music . . . is one which proclaims that nothing has happened.” Whether this assertion is fair isn’t the issue, but late Wagner does unmistakably sink into an “eternal song” where all seems interconnected. Karlsson’s score, in its own lugubrious way, achieves a certain endlessness as well.
Commonalities between the film and the opera aren’t limited to the thematic and aural. The director Slavá Daubnerová pulls directly from the film’s visuals throughout, often effectively. The opening presents Justine as a floating Ophelia, quoting directly an image from the movie (in turn lifted from Millais), establishing an air of surreal dread. In another scene borrowing directly from the movie, Justine squats centerstage, pulls up her dress, and urinates, legs spread to the audience. Other quotations overburden the opera, however, such as a second-act trio inspired by Breughel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, also borrowed from the film; the opera is already one long metaphor, and it eventually becomes needless to layer another on top.
The performance booklet attempts to establish Melancholia’s relevance in 2023 with mentions of war, disease, and climate change as our own looming “melancholias.” As in the finale of the opera, there’s a conviction that death comes not with a whimper but with a bang. But maybe the most dangerous “rogue planets” are the ones we don’t hear coming—after all, it was an unexpected death that delayed this very production. Who knows how our end will come? Whatever happens, the opera insists: “There’s nothing left to do.”