Laci Boldemann: Svart är vitt - sa Kejsaren (Black is White - said the Emperor)

A Fairytale opera in a prelude and two acts.

The Opera takes place in the orient at the beginning of the Christian era, that is around the time when the three wise men went out in search of a star.

Black is White, said the Emperor was performed successfully at the Swedish Royal Opera in the mid nineteen sixties. It is a complete opera for children and families, which came to stay on the repertoire for three whole years. The libretto is the biggest piece of writing for the stage by the Swedish author and renowned poet Lennart Hellsing.

It is a fairy tale opera for both children and adults and as such an odd phenomenon on the Swedish opera stage, as well as internationally. Along with Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, which is also intended for an entire opera evening, Black is White, said the Emperor is one of very few existing real family operas. It consists of two acts with intermission and was composed for an orchestra of 27 musicians, a choir, a ballet corps and ten soloists. In other words it is a real opera without the economical compromises that so often follow suit when a musical performance is intended for younger listeners.

The present recording of Black is White, said the Emperor is the only complete recording known to exist. It was made at the Royal Opera House at the very first performance on 1 January 1965.

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Laci Boldemann was born in Helsinki in Finland. His grandfather on his mother’s side was the writer Arvid Järnefelt, whose brother Armas was Court Conductor at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Their sister Aino was married to Jean Sibelius and Laci met them all. His grandfather on his father’s side was a friend of Sibelius and the song Den första kyssen (The First Kiss) was dedicated to him.

He became a German citizen and went to school in Berlin. He was then sent to London to study with Sir Henry Wood, but when the war began he was deported to Germany and was enlisted in the Nazi army. He managed to desert and got to the Allies, spending the last months in the US. After the war he settled in Sweden, where his grandparents lived.

The music is easily accessible, tonal and with catchy tunes, often with a simple folksong flavour. It was written for an orchestra of 31 players and the score is colourful, rhythmical and the chorus have a lot to do. The scene with the Emperor and the Court, opening the first act, immediately after the prelude, could just as well have been culled from a Broadway musical. Solo arias are mostly short and beautiful. The boy, who is the hero of the tale, has several solos. The Princess has a couple of lovely solos as well, the first act ends with a beautiful quintet. In act 2, which is more coherent, there is an oriental dance and in the finale the Prince and the Princess sing a love duet. Boldemann utilises leitmotifs very effectively and there is even some electronic music.

The story takes place somewhere in the orient at the beginning of the Christian era. A mighty Emperor wants to lay down what the people in the Empire have to think. He even decides that black is white and white is black, and no one dares to contradict him. His daughter, the Princess, wants to marry a Prince from another country but the Emperor opposes this and has the Prince imprisoned. A boy without parents has managed to pass by the guards and sneaked into the Emperor’s palace. Eventually he is able to persuade the Emperor to accept the people’s freedom and human rights. He admits that black is black and white is white and the Prince and Princess get each other. The moral of the story is highly topical today with all these alternative facts that are in circulation.

Sven Nilsson is a monumental Emperor, his bass voice still in fine shape though the tone is drier than it was in his heydays. Gunilla Slättegård’s glittering soprano is ideal for the innocent but clever boy, and Laila Andersson’s youthful lyric voice suits the role as Princess to perfection. Here she is not yet 25. The chorus and the Royal Orchestra are in fine shape under Per Åke Andersson’s inspirational direction.

This is a valuable addition to the catalogue of Swedish opera on CD and it is a wonderful memento of a highly individual composer who left us far too early. Göran Forsling, MusicWeb

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