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Scandinavian psychodrama

Scandinavian psychodrama

Daníel Bjarnason's opera ’Brothers’ at the Armel Opera Festival. Review.

The premiere of a young, contemporary Icelandic composer’s opera in Hungary promised to be something special. I did not expect too much from the performance because Daníel Bjarnason, although a well-known composer, is a beginner opera composer: Brothers, his only opera so far, was first performed in 2017 in Aarhus, Denmark, and next year in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In its introduction to the performance, the website of the Armel Opera Festival also highlights director Kasper Holten as ’the father of the so-called “Northern-style” opera’, hardly mentioning the composer himself.

Discovering a new opera has rarely been such a pleasant surprise for me. Brothers is a first-rate work, both musically and dramatically professionally composed; a high-quality piece among the best contemporary operas I have seen.

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The libretto is the work of Swedish writer, dramaturgist Kerstin Perski, whose sophisticated, belletristic lyrics were written after Susanne Bier's film of the same title.

The performance was worthy of the quality of the music and the text: we saw excellent staging and great performers.


The story is about Michael, a soldier believed dead by his family, who returns home from the war. His wife, Sarah and his daughter, Nadia, realize in horror that the man is severely depressed, aggressive, and is not himself anymore. The desperate, lonely wife finally returns her husband's never-do-well brother’s, Jamie's sentiments. Slowly Michael’s heavy secret is revealed: in the war he was captured, tortured and forced to kill his fellow prisoner, Peter, to escape.


Daníel Bjarnason is a composer blessed with a flair for theatrics. He has a special talent to create tension and to maintain it for a long time. In Brothers, there is no single minute for the audience to relax, calm down and relieve; which is quite an achievement considering that the length of the one-act work is one and a half hours.

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Marie Arnet (Sarah)

Bjarnason’s ’secret’ lies primarily in the exceptionally cleverly used contrasts between music and situations. For example, vocals that are often markedly melodic have many times the opposite effect to the dissonant sounds of the orchestra. The moment when the returning Michael finally embraces his wife is awesome, but during their intimate duet the accompanying high notes on the violins are creaking. While Jamie, playing and japing with his brother's daughter, Nadia, we hear almost cheerful, playful music, but at the same time, thanks to the subtle, discordant harmonies, the scene is extremely nerve-racking. Similarly, the scene where the family is celebrating Nadia's birthday begins with a jolly music, recalling the atmosphere of a funfair. However, during the happy greetings, we hear music reminiscent of horror movies. And, though Peter’s duet with Michael in the prison cell is lyrical, the sound of the music makes it ominous.


Director Kasper Holten’s extremely pure stage setting consists of a four-level, snow-white staircase that surrounds the stage, forming a square amphitheater. The choir sits and stands on the stairs, sometimes walks in the middle. Their black clothes make a sharp contrast with the dazzling white stairs. They are reminiscent of a Greek chorus: they tell the story, comment, but above all, symbolize Michael's, the protagonist’s conscience and inner voice.

As the set of this minimalist stage direction, we only see a table and some chairs. Nothing more is needed; the music, the acting, gestures, mimics of the singers - and of the choir members! - tell everything.

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Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (Michael), Selma Buch Ørum Villumsen (Nadia) 
and Marie Arnet (Sarah)

The stage is mostly dim, only a light beam focuses on a particular actor. At other times everything becomes brighter, and, depending on the atmosphere of the action, the space is dominated by different colours: for example, the lyrical scenes are warm green, and the dramatic parts are cold blue or gray. On one occasion, we see video effects on the back wall: behind Sarah, who is hallucinating and shuddering at the spectre of war, there are red flames pouring out and we hear explosions. Often, in opera performances, these types of effects – in order to overcome the shortcomings of the direction – predominate. Fortunately, Kasper Holten used it moderately, which proved to be very effective this way.

Sometimes the lyrics are also projected onto the back wall. I do not know why, nor the reason for choosing those particular parts. In my opinion it was unnecessary.


The work is dramatically well structured, mostly characterized by short scenes and brief dialogues. It is one act, but can be divided into two larger units. The first part is about the mourning for the men who disappeared during the war. In their plaintive songs the choir sings about the fate of the soldiers, the horrors of war. Here the lyrics are poignant, but a bit didactical and clichéd. After the funeral of the soldiers thought to be dead, Sarah and her little daughter fall to the ground, embrace each other, and then everything is plunged into darkness. This is the end of the first half hour, which is actually one grand requiem.

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Marie Arnet (Sarah) and Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (Michael) 

After that, the pace of the narrative changes, and events move more swiftly. We witness Michael’s quick mental breakdown. Everything has changed around the man who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He is now a stranger in his own home and becomes more and more aggressive. It is an interesting dramaturgical solution, how timelines alternate in the last scenes. One minute we see Michael with his friend Peter in the prison cell, in the latter’s last hour, the next, he is at home with Sarah, preparing to confess, then in Anna’s (Peter’s widow’s) house. At the family dinner, time stops: the singers stay motionless for minutes, only Michael keeps on acting. He drinks his bottle of whisky to the last drop, and at last tells what happened.

The fate of the man and the surrounding people could already have given ample ammunition to many tragic works, but being a Scandinavian thriller, the bloody drama is just coming. Sarah and Anna are horrified at ’watching’ the past come to life (in their imagination, but also for us on the stage). In the prison cell the brutalized Michael beats Peter, who is begging for his life, and literally executes him (we don't know exactly why, but that was the price of his release). The scene is really naturalistic scene with blood and vomiting. Slowly everything goes dark, the subtitles on the back wall fade away.


In accordance with the topic, the music of Brothers is mostly slow, quiet, gloomy. However, during Michael’s angry outbursts, or during his impetuous dialogues with Sarah and Jamie, it becomes faster, excited, fragmented and chaotic. We hear tonal music with beautiful dissonances, characterized by sophisticated, inventive orchestration. Often only one instrument or one group of instruments is playing. The chords struck on the piano – a relatively rarely used instrument in operas – convey the threatening atmosphere, just like the tolling of the bells and the creepy, throbbing rumble of the timpani. The music often becomes frightening, almost bloodcurdling, but in the lyrical scenes of the little girl and her parents, the strings sound warm and velvety.

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James Laing (Peter) and Thora Einarsdottir (Anna)

One of the musical highlights of the work is the quartet of Michael, Sarah, Jamie, and the colonel which is one huge crescendo. (At the same time, it is a psychological turning point. While the anguished Michael and the confident colonel sing alone, Sarah and Jamie are slowly approaching each other; they can no longer control their desires and kiss each other hotly.)

The shocking scene, in which Michael visits his cellmate’s widow, is also exciting both musically and dramatically. Slow, descending melodies indicate how the horrible suspicion grows in the woman’s mind. Only when she has laid her baby to sleep and the two adults are standing face to face does the music become more and more intensifying, almost to the extreme.

The beautiful closing scene is sad, at the same time majestic. After the murder, we hear the choir singing about the stars, accompanied by the sound of the dark bass strings and the fading bells.


In some scenes, the vocal parts give the opportunity to sing legato, while the scenes having a troubled atmosphere feature more staccato singing and unexpected intervals. Intelligent, accurate diction and mature acting characterized the performance of the soloists. I am sure that all the singers in Brothers could do well in a play.

Baritone Oddur Arnþór Jónsson, who played Michael, was expressive, powerful in the dramatic scenes, but he could also sing with warm colours. His portrayal was honest, free of any mannerisms. By his vivid acting, he soulfully illustrated the process, how the sense of guilt slowly consumes the man.

Similarly, soprano Marie Arnet played with empathy the transformation of Sarah’s, the wife’s emotions from the loving concern to the ultimate despair, when she realized that she and her daughter had no further life with Michael. She illustrated demonstratively as the woman, longing for affection, slowly, gradually lets Jamie get close to her. Her singing was sophisticated; she sang with subtle shades of tone and colour.  

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Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (Michael) and James Laing (Peter)

Tenor Joel Annmo interpreted the role of Jamie, the distempered, humiliated, loser brother, who can finally take revenge. (He also played the drunk convincingly; even professional actors do not always succeed in it.)

Thora Einarsdottir, portraying Anna, the murdered Peter's widow, gave a fine performance. The well-known lullaby ’Mary had a little lamb’, which Anna often sings to her baby, grows once to a grand aria, and the soprano sang it effectively.

Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson, singing the Colonel, was also a good choice for the role. He depicted the apathetic, unemotional, sometimes foolish soldier with delicate humour, to whom only the glory of the army is important. (’Emotions are the privilege of civilians!’ – he explains to Michael.)

Michael's cellmate, Peter, is sung by a countertenor. James Laing, in his weaker voice (due to the nature of the voice type) illustrated the man's helplessness very well. He sang clearly and distinctly in his lyrical duet with Michael, and was pitiable as he began to beg his friend, who was preparing to kill him.

Selma Buch Ørum Villumsen, playing Nadia, the little girl, was really nice and very professional. She sang in a clean, ethereal voice. She was angelic in the lyrical scenes with her parents, but became terribly mature when she slapped her father and accused her mother of being faithless to her husband.

In their smaller roles, Jakob Zethner and Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir (for us, Hungarians it will not be easy to memorise the Scandinavian names…) interpreted convincingly Michael’s conservative parents who were proud of their hero son at the beginning, but were baffled by his behavior after returning from the war.  

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Oddur Arnþór Jónsson (Michael) and James Laing (Peter)

The choir plays a prominent role in the work, especially in its first half, which is like an oratorio. They sang expressively and focused. All the choir members were present all along – but not only in the physical sense. With their movements and facial expressions, they responded to every event; the choir itself became a protagonist, too. (The scene was especially scary at the end of the work, when some members of the choir were imitating women rocking their babies, staring accusingly at Michael, who was plagued by nightmares. Or when they were shouting into Michael's ear: ’Do it!’, driving him mad.)

The relatively large Alba Regia Symphony Orchestra, directed by the young conductor Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason, gave a high-standard rendition worthy of the level of the whole performance. Their interpretation was sophisticated, accurate and sensitive; the different sections were clearly balanced.  

I saw a fascinating performance, a spectacular musical theatre production.

Balázs Csák

photo: Anett Kállay-Tóth




2 July, 2019, Budapest, MÜPA, Festival Theatre

Armel Opera Festival

Daníel Bjarnason:


Sung in English with Hungarian subtitles

A production of the Icelandic Opera

The libretto was written by Kerstin Perski based on ’Brothers’, a movie by Susanne Bier

Set, stage and costume designer: Steffen Aarfing

Lighting designer: Ellen Ruge

Video designer: Signe Krogh

Assistant Director: Amy Lane

Musical Director/Conductor: Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason

Director: Kasper Holten


Michael - Oddur Arnþór Jónsson

Sarah - Marie Arnet

Nadia - Selma Buch Ørum Villumsen

Jamie - Joel Annmo

Peter - James Laing

Anna - Thora Einarsdotti

The Father - Jakob Zethner

The Mother - Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir

The Colonel - Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson

Alba Regia Symphony Orchestra