In the 1970s, Per Nørgård was developing a utopian musical style of incredible beauty and cosmic harmony. It seemed he had reached the summit of music. And then on October 9, 1979 everything came crashing down, when Nørgård saw an exhibition of drawings by the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). The sketches of this madman, who spent most of his life in a Bern asylum, show a constant veering between idyll and catastrophe. In his work and life, there was never bliss without some element of discomfort, and never tragedy without some beauty held within it. This yin-yang vision, Nørgård felt, speaks directly to the human condition.
Nørgård swiftly produced a series of works directly inspired by Wölfli, such as the choral setting "Wie ein Kind" and the tumultuous Symphony No. 4. His most ambitious project was this 90-minute opera, THE DIVINE CIRCUS (1982), based on Wölfli's own life -- or at least the fantasy life that the artist carried out within the walls of his cell, which Wölfli documented in thousands of pages. This is no ordinary opera, for the scoring is limited to six percussionists, synthesizer and amplified cello. Dacapo has released this live recording of a production at the Stadttheater Bern in 2008, and Wölfli's own texts are in their original Swiss German (Schwyzertüütsch), but the booklet includes English and Danish translation and ample commentary.
The opera opens with a furious percussion solo identical to the fourth movement of Nørgård's "I Ching" of the same year (the whole of that work is heard on an old BIS disc). This solo presents the basic musical material of the work, a fractal-like line based on the opposition of "bright" and "dark" tones, and themes from this introduction reoccur throughout the opera.
We find Wölfli is in the asylum, but his imagination roams free. He is surrounded by alter egos portrayed by different singers: Doufi (his inner child), St. Adolf (his fantasy self) and St. Adolf II (his even more grandiose fantasy self). An alto represents at one moment his mother, but at another metamorphoses into Queen Catherine of Spain. The lead soprano is initially his childhood friend Bianca, but then, as Wölfli's thoughts turn toward the sexual, becomes the lascivious Lydia and more. Wölfli's "birds", the schizophrenic's chorus of accusing voices, repeatedly knock him back to the ground, but each time he manages to rise again.
At the end of the opera the characters join together and bid adieu through Wölfli's weird hymn "Hallelujah, the Lord has gone mad" set to curious Balinese rhythms.
This is a key work in Nørgård's output, but frustrating in an audio-only format. If in earlier operas Nørgård was wrapping a drama around abstract music, here it sounds like the drama comes before the music. The music is not meant to serve on its own, but only to underscore the bizarre action unfolding before the eyes of the audience. Furthermore, the visuals evoke pathos through the constant shift between Wölfli's lavish fantasy and his primitive cell.
THE DIVINE CIRCUS seems to be an appealing work on stage (recent productions have included large crowds and long standing ovations), but I'd recommend this disc only to established fans of Nørgård's music. Luckily Nørgård's output on disc is vast and there's plenty of good music for neophytes to get acquainted with first.