Wilhelm Stenhammar: Gillet Pa Solhaug (1899)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 41 minutes.

This is one of my longer reviews, over 3000 words. I started working on it back in July 2022 and picked it up again recently. Unfortunately, Sterling Records never issued a libretto with this one, so I am basing my synopsis on their retelling of the story. Hopefully you will all enjoy this one.

Gildet Paa Solhoug was the sixth (and first successful) play of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and its plot might just come off as black comedy (although there is murder, the person who commits it is not exactly the one whom one expects). What I am reviewing here is the Swedish operatic adaptation of the play (Stenhammar set the original Ibsen Norwegian text to music, essentially unedited, so in spite of the fact that I am using the Swedish version of the title, this is actually my first review of an opera in Norwegian). This resulted in plagiarism charges from Ibsen, since the libretto of the opera was literally his unaltered Norwegian text. Composed between 1892 and 1893 (when the composer was only 21-22 years old!), it received its first performance at Stuttgart in 1899 in a German translation (Das Fest auf Solhaug). The first Swedish performance was in Stockholm in 1902. The recording, from August 2015, is in the original Norwegian.

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) was studying in Berlin when he wrote this opera, which explains both how German it sounds and the composer’s devotion both to Wagner and Bruckner. His output can be divided into two major periods: 1880-1903, when his music was heavily influenced by “German” concepts, and including everything from his earliest piano works (Stenhammar was considered the finest pianist in Sweden during his lifetime, and started composing for piano at the age of nine), his 1st Symphony, a series of a cappella choral works, and his two operas (the second is Tirfing). The second period was from 1903-1927, when his music became heavily influenced by both Nielsen and Sibelius, taking on a “Nordic” mode, and focused on his 2nd and 3rd symphonies, incidental music for plays (including As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet, and Swedish folksongs (which were a lifelong interest of Stenhammar). Stenhammar was considered one of, if not the finest composer of Swedish music at the turn of the 20th century, although he personally suffered from conflicting personal views of his talent.

SETTING: Solhoug, Norway (15 miles south of Oslo), 1300s on Midsummer. (Unfortunately, due to the fact that the recording of the opera I purchased did not include the libretto, (possibly because the text is in Norwegian?) I am providing a full synopsis of the opera here at the get go).

(ACT 1) The “feast” of the title is the third wedding anniversary party of Bengt Gauteson (bass-baritone) and his wife Margit (mezzo-soprano). Erik of Hogge (baritone, an otherwise unimportant character) and Knut Gesling (tenor, and basically the closest thing this show has to a villain), the King’s Sheriff, arrives at the party. Knut has fallen in love with Margit’s sister Signe (soprano) and has his friend Erik act as intercessor, proposing marriage. Knut, who is notoriously violent, is told that he must refrain from violence for one year before Margit will give her blessing to her sister marrying him, although she also says that Signe is free to marry if she so chooses regardless. Meanwhile, thickening the plot is Gudmund Alfson (tenor), a former personal friend of the King now turned outlaw, with whom Margit was once promised to marry. They are reintroduced (although not romantically reunited) and Margit plots to have her husband Bengt (whom she only married because he is extremely rich) poisoned so she can marry Gudmund. (I will go into details as to why Gudmund is no longer in favor with the king within the review as it is complicated and involves characters who never show up in the opera).

(ACT 2) Meanwhile, during the anniversary party, Gudmund and Signe fall in love with each other, and only Knut’s vow of non-violence saves the couple after the two men realize they are both in love with Signe. Knut leaves, promising to have Gudmund arrested in the morning, as he has been sent by the King to find him. Margit plans to make the poison.

(ACT 3) After a long prelude depicting the starry night as the party guests leave, Margit attempts to trick Bengt into accidentally drinking poison, and almost ends up poisoning Gudmund and Signe instead (this is the black comedy element). In the morning, Knut ends up slaying Bengt when he resists allowing for the arrest of Gudmund, and is brought before Margit for justice (the irony!).Gudmund believes that he is about to be arrested, but the King has given orders that his lands and titles be restored to him, and Margit wishes the happy lovers off as she declares her intentions to retire to St. Sunniva’s Cloister.


ACT 1: The festival hall of the house of Bengt Gauteson, a party in progress as the day progresses into the evening of Midsummer Night. (59 minutes)

9: Vel var det, han gik The opening scene starts off with a very diatonic if bouncy first few bars from the orchestra before we are immediately into the plot: Bengt and Margit greet their guests, among them Erik and Knut. Margit mentions Signe, and embarks in a long, (if plot important as it provides back ground and insight into Margit and her sobering personality), conversation with Knut, who is determined to marry Signe even though she hardly knows him. Margit tells him that he is too violent to marry her sister, and that he must swear off violence for a year before she will consent to giving Knut permission to marry Signe. All of this is musically okay, mostly rolling along sunnily, although frankly nothing stands out. Alone, Margit is finally able to express her own feelings and angst in her first aria * (which introduces a major musical theme which returns later in the score). She wants to die.

14: Margit, Margit, han kommer! Signe comes on like a Valkyrie *** announcing that Gudmund is returning to a rather lovely bit of coloratura.

17: Men sælsomme tanker Signe and Margit embark on a flighty if extremely tuneful sisterly duet ***.

23: Gudmund Alfsøn skulde komme hidt? Margit contemplates seeing Gudmund again * knowing that she was so close to becoming his wife. She is interrupted by Bengt, but is eventually allowed to continue to vent her frustrations with her life.

27, 37: Margit, kære Margit!/Fredløs! Du Gudmund! The arrival of Gudmund * is greeted by some rather interesting pseudo-Wagnerian phrases, rather unique actually. The extremely long duet between Gudmund and Margit, (which takes up most of the remainder of the act apart from interruptions from Bengt) starts to bog down musically early on (as Margit acts unconcerned about Gudmund, which is yet another front on her part), but eventually takes up a second theme, and then a third, which slowly improves the situation. Gudmund (who gets the best music in this section) goes into a lot of detail about how he followed the Chancellor, Audun, to France to collect a princess as bride for the King. While returning to Norway, Gudmund spotted the princess and Audun conducting an affair, and, when he confronted Audun, found out that the lovers plot to assassinate the King with a poisonous juice (which is now in his possession, an important plot point). When they landed, Gudmund fled, and was declared an outlaw. Now he has fled to Solhaug, hopefully to find peace from the misdirected wrath of the King. Ten minutes into their conversation the music becomes more strikingly dramatic ***, although at this point, the best music in the opera so far belongs to Gudmund. Margit, whose infatuation with him has been quickly rekindled, promises to help him in a bit of a musical climax. A beautiful seven minute passage, particularly from the orchestra.

44: Du ved, jeg var i de franke riger Gudmund goes into the story about what transpired on the ship in the most instrumentally illustrative passage so far in the score ***. In particular is a distinctly Norwegian sounding theme occurring in the brass and bassoons. This passage also starts to bog down into despair rather quickly (as so much of the opera will) but there are spurts of orchestral effects (dramatic and joyful) which prop up the dialogue attractively.

53: Hvor blid denne sommerdag er Margit gets a joyous passage *** just as Signe returns and Gudmund sees her, almost not recognizing her since she was a young girl the last time he saw her, and he becomes smitten with her. She reminds him that his harp has been kept by her and she presents it to him, prompting him to sing for her a chant which is somewhere between labored and lyrical. In the last thirty seconds, Bengt returns with the party guests, and the curtain quickly falls to a symphonic interlude.

ACT 2: Outside of the Hall on the left, a fjord and waterfall which drains into the sea on the distant right, Midsummer night. (51 minutes)

0: The act starts off with a very brief prelude *, followed by an even more brief party chorus and a dialogue between Knut and Erik about the need for Knut to fulfill the King’s orders and arrest Gudmund. Knut decides to wait until the following day, knowing that the arrest might ruin his chances of gaining Signe’s hand from her sister and brother-in-law. They go back to the party (Erik doesn’t really appear again after this point). A dance is heard in the distance and a reprise of the chorus.

6: A Tal! Signe and Gudmund come on to the prelude to La Traviata and declare their love for each other ** for nine minutes. They decide to break the news gradually to Margit first. A dance tune pops in as they leave and Margit comes on plotting to murder her husband with the poison Gudmund told her about. This is mostly accompanied by whole-tone chords and isn’t all that musically interesting although it is important to the plot. Gudmund comes back, intending to inform her of his intentions regarding Signs, and she slowly convinces him to show her the vial of poison, under the context of planning to destroy it.

19, 24: At jeg var huldren som/Det var sig en frue A rather lovely, nature music-like, passage from Margit *** leading to a brilliant climax both vocally and orchestrally. Things return to the more dull in the third part of their dialogue *, but it was a lovely five minutes.

27: Gudmund Alfson! Knut comes on and encounter Gudmund in an unusual tenor-tenor scene ** Signe and Margit watch in the wings as the two men have a pleasant interview with each other in which Knut promises not to arrest Gudmund during the party and the two men reveal that they are in love with a woman at the party (the same woman, as it turns out).

33: Ah! hende var det! Knut and Margit separately come to the correct conclusion that Signe and Gudmund are in love with each other * and they both take it rather in character (Margit feels doom, Knut reacts violently). Rather explosive. Knut leaves, promising reprisal the next day.

34, 37, 40 : Herude, herude skal/Ak! jeg har gleam dem all tilhobe A pretty feminine chorus * (chimes are a nice touch) as all the party guests come out to see the open night sky. The rest of the act consists mostly of a song contest of sorts: Bengt rather ignorantly, drafts Gudmund and Margit into singing a series of love songs which reveal their prior relationship, which ultimately causes Margit to faint. The first has a strong **, fluttering theme coming from the orchestra (woodwinds and upper brass in particular) which is very illustrative. Bengt thinks it is all a joke, but Gudmund sees through all to the brooding underneath, although his own number is a very lyrically romantic passage *** (even the chorus gets in on it with a fugue).

44: Naesten er jeg bange for Margit gets the third and final number, which builds on a combination of beauty and terror climaxing on a high mezzo B *** before passing out. Quick Curtain.

ACT 3: Same as in act one, only moving gradually toward dawn and then into the day. (51 minutes)

0, 5: Guds fred da The act starts with a long prelude ** which starts off very, very, dark (mostly lower strings and woodwinds with an underlying low timpani). A theme comes in from earlier in the opera and is given an orchestral outing. The number depicts the Midsummer night. This is let up by a drunken Bengt coming on briefly to a fun-loving theme * (it returns) and then following his guests (who sing a cheery, if meaningless, number) back inside.

7, 14: I morgen sa drager vel Gudmund herfra/Se sa! Margit, having recovered apparently, comes on gloomy as ever contemplating the fate of Gudmund and how his arrest that morning will leave her alone with her detested husband. She ponders for some seven minutes ** about this (and goes into a story about a child born blind who is briefly given sight by a witch, only to lose their sight and then mourn the lost for the rest of their life, moral: you can’t miss what you don’t know), before Bengt returns to the fun-loving theme ** and she decides to use the poison on him after he forces her to sit on his lap. He complains about Knut’s plans to marry Signe as Margit finds a beer beaker and poisons its contents before leaving it for her husband. Dramatically, the scene is really a tour-de-force of dramatic musical theatre. Eventually, he falls asleep and then wakes up to the sound of Knut outside, demanding to arrest Gudmund. Bengt goes after the sheriff with his axe.

26: Det ma de sa vaere! The lovers come out to the most chromatic elements coming from the orchestra ***. They decide to elope immediately, but also to empty a drink in honor to the house before fleeing. Gudmund sees the beer beaker and throws its contents out the window. Margit enters at this point, and seeing Gudmund with the beaker in his hands, assumes that he has consumed its contents and screams for help. Gudmund, realizing that Margit used the poisoned vial (which she pretended to destroy earlier) on the contents of the beaker, assures her that no one will ever consume the lethal substance. Margit gets a powerful, if brief, interjection.

35: Fru Margit! A lot happens in the last fifteen minutes of the opera: The house servant (baritone) arrives will news that Knut has slain Bengt and is brought in to stand trial with Margit to the most romantic theme **, presumably to settle wergild, or blood money, for the slaying, which Knut pleads was in self-defense when Bengt went at him with the axe. Margit sets only a single condition on Knut: that he release Signe from his marriage claim. He agrees and departs.

41: I kongens navn og aerend The bass-baritone King’s Messenger arrives to a terrifying orchestral passage **, and Gudmund is about to turn himself over (both women are terrified) when it is announced that Gudmund is being summoned to be rewarded by the King: Chancellor Audun has been executed for his treasonous adultery with the French princess, who has been sent back home, and Audun’s position and lands are forfeit to Gudmund.

44: Skaermende engel The finale ***: Margit gives her blessing to Signe and Gudmund, telling them to leave for their new estate and flee Solhaug (the romantic theme from the prelude and act two reappears), as she will soon be entering the cloister as a nun. Gudmund and Signe say their bittersweet goodbyes to her as they leave her in solitude accompanied by a hymn-like chorus. Fade out to curtain.


Gillet pa Solhaug is a good opera, the work of a composer who, already at 22, knew how to write an opera (which is unusual). Although it does have flaws, the best music goes to Gudmund, Signe, and the orchestra, with Margit as a supporting honorable mention character musically if she is dramatically the most important of all six of the principals. This might be due to the inexperience of the composer, after all, he was only 22 when he finished the score. However, he already had characterization down, as all five of the main characters have distinctive sound worlds: Margit is a combination of brooding and triumphant ecstasy, Bengt has a pathetic fun-loving drunken theme, Knut has violence but also an odd tenderness about him (casting the role for tenor helps make him a bit more humane to the audience), while Gudmund and Signe (the lovers) sort of intersect musically with a rich romantic vein although both have distinctly masculine and feminine iterations. And, although there are rambling orchestral passages throughout, the opera gets progressively better; the first act is by far the weakest. Stenhammar eventually develops a universal in acts two and three which make up for the stagey-ness of the first act, which mostly consists of needed plot exposition to minimal orchestral accompaniment and a couple of musically brilliant dialogues involving Margit and either one of the two lovers, which, again are basically nothing more than plot exposition. The second act has its low points, such as much of the dialogue between Margit and Gudmund, but it stays at a higher level than the first and the third act is by far the finest with the fewest random or low passages. This is probably due to Strenhammar gaining more confidence as composition progressed.

I feel a little sad for Bengt. Although Margit hates him, it is obvious that Stenhammar found something musically redeemable about him as his music tends to be rather fun-loving and attractive in a drunken sort of way, which is appropriate since he is drunk for most of the opera. He doesn’t get enough stage time, although that is mostly Ibsen’s fault, but there is something lovable about him, which is odd.

Although after finishing the first act, I felt it was definitely a beta, the last two acts convinced me otherwise. An alpha minus it is then, I certainly recommend this one!

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