Every summer since 1928, the Peer Gynt Festival draws huge crowds to the shores of Norway’s Lake Gala to observe Ibsen’s birthday with an outdoor production of his monumental 1867 verse play dramatizing the exploits of Norway’s bad-boy national folk hero. Although it’s performed in English on the Delacorte stage by a company that’s more than 150 strong (if you count all the cutely costumed trolls), the theatrical event loses something in translation. While the Central Park acoustics prove hospitable to the glorious Grieg score, film projections floating above the open stage are a poor substitute for Lake Gala and its majestic mountain views.
Anyone unfamiliar with the picaresque adventures of the legendary folk hero would probably also be at a loss with this truncated version of Ibsen’s epic drama — one of several events being staged locally for the centennial of the dramatist’s death. Even at two hours, the multimedia concert production barely suggests the milestones in the riotous life cycle of the hero or the phantasmagoric nature of his epic adventures.
From youth to death, these include Peer’s outlandish boyish pranks; his impulsive kidnapping of a bride on her wedding day; his disastrous dalliance with the Mountain King’s daughter; his fatal decision to become a troll; his career as an international businessman; his elevation to emperor while confined to a madhouse in Egypt; his shipwreck on the journey home; and his final reckoning with the sinister Button Molder, who pronounces him an unfit hero for his life and times.
Directing himself in the title role, as he has at Lake Gala for more than a decade, Svein Sturla Hungnes maintains a stolid presence as Peer Gynt. With stage scenery limited to a single roughhewn cart, helmer relies on the majesty of Grieg’s score (as performed by the American Symphony Orchestra and sung by the Peer Gynt Chamber Choir) to suggest the sweep of Ibsen’s vision — and on his own blunt and forceful personality to convey his hero’s charismatic appeal.
A company of professional, if underutilized actors is pressed to sustain the drama through sketchy scenes with Peer’s mother Aase (Kari Simonsen), his beloved Solveig (Linda Ovrebo), and his nemesis the Button Molder (Stein Gronli). But the marvelous sense of spectacle that Robert Wilson brought to the stage of the Brooklyn Academy earlier this season with the same source material is all but missing here.
Much of this missing spectacle, it seems, has been entrusted to the scenes filmed on location at Gudbrandsdalen and projected on a screen above the heads of the orchestra. But it isn’t until Rune Reksten, as the terrifying Mountain King, and Mari Maurstad, as his monstrously misshapen daughter, materialize on stage with a full assembly of white-faced trolls that the show achieves a hint of magic — and fun.
Which leaves a bit too much stage time to settle back, absorb the music and dream of warm summer nights on Lake Gala.