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Kristina, Royal Albert Hall

20 Apr

Last year, I managed to miss out on both A Celebration of the Music of Abba in Hyde Park and the Benny Andersson Band on Hampstead Heath, by foolishly taking holidays at the wrong time. So when differentkate invited me to see a concert performance of Benny and Bjorn’s 1995 musical Kristina at the Albert Hall, I jumped at the chance.

Kristina från Duvemåla, as it’s called in Swedish – though the title and lyrics were translated for the UK performance, of which more in a moment – tells the story of a family of Swedish immigrants to the US in the 1850s. It’s rather a bleak tale, and although the relentless misery is punctuated by  moments of light and humour, the overall tone is rather a mournful one.

Some clever thought had gone into the staging: I was expecting a fairly static production with singers in evening dress, but there was an effort at costume, and some minimal but effective acting, which along with a screen which displayed some (not all) of the lyrics was enough to bring the story to life. I wouldn’t say I caught the finer nuances of every number, but I didn’t ever feel as though I was struggling to work out what was going on.

The lyrics were perhaps not the best I’ve ever read, but everything rhymed and made approximate sense, which I think is as much as you can hope for in a translation of a three-hour musical from Swedish into English. In a proper staged production it doesn’t matter if the words are rubbish, because each lyric only lasts a moment, but when you’re projecting the words onto a screen above the audience’s heads any want of literary merit becomes more pronounced. Still, nobody listens to ABBA for the lyrics, right? And as with ABBA, while the words might not always be spot-on, the underlying emotions are perfectly intelligible and no less potent for being expressed slightly awkwardly.

I was expecting that the music would all sound like ABBA too, but actually it was more interesting than that. Benny still has the ear for a melody that he always did, but the interplay of themes and the orchestration are unexpectedly complex and unusual. I’d like to hear it again, because I think I’d get more from it a second and third time.

Helen Sjöholm as Kristina sounds very much like Agnetha Fältskog, which I suppose is why she’s also the singer in Benny’s band. It’s not quite a musical theatre voice, and in duet with Russell Watson as her husband Karl Oskar it struggles to compete, but overall hers was a charming performance, suffused with a warmth that radiated as far as our seats, right across the other side of the Hall.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Russell Watson was in it, and as he started to sing for the first time I thought gosh, I wonder who this is, he’s really good! – so I had a look at the programme and realised that this was not news. Honourable mentions, too, for the other two principals, Louise Pitre and Kevin Odekirk, who were both also very engaging and helped to tell a convincing story with a bare minimum of materials, in a space which doesn’t lend itself to intimacy.

I don’t know whether Kristina would succeed as a stage musical in its current English form, but I’d like to see someone try it. It might perhaps need to be made a bit shorter, and slightly less doom-laden, but there was a lot to enjoy and I think it deserves a wider audience.

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3 Comments

Posted by on April 20, 2010 in Music, Theatre

 

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3 responses to “Kristina, Royal Albert Hall

  1. Kate

    April 20, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    I also really enjoyed this (though you’re right that the English lyrics are not always as strong as they might be), but I agree it would struggle to find an audience in the UK as a fully staged show. It seems totally out of keeping with the current fashion in musical theatre. It’s not just the fact that it’s long and pretty much relentlessly grim and serious. The lushness of the orchestration and relative complexity of the melodies make it hard to assimilate on a first hearing (I’ve had a copy of the Swedish recording for a couple of years and still doesn’t come to my mind as easily as any number of simpler shows do after a handful of listens). The closest analogy I can think of in recent years is The Light in the Piazza and I’m not sure that ever even opened in London despite winning six Tonys. Removed of the cultural hooks it has in Sweden (the books from which it’s adapted are apparently landmarks of Swedish literature) I just don’t think it’ll find an audience.

    I think that’s fine, though. They’ve released the Carnegie Hall concert performance on CD, so there’s an English language version which can be enjoyed and appreciated as its own, slightly curious self. It’s moving and fascinating and full of lovely moments and well worth the effort.

     
  2. elsiem

    April 21, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Oh good, I think I will try to get hold of the CD of the English language version. Although it’s probably just as much fun in Swedish.

     
  3. Kate

    April 22, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I’ve just got my copy of the English CD and it’s pretty great; it’s a lovely recording and every word is crystal clear which certainly makes it easier to get involved in the story. Being able to listen to it more carefully has also revealed a couple of lifts I hadn’t noticed before. ‘Down to the Sea’ owes a lot to ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Mis, and ‘Stone Kingdom’ is pretty much a wholesale reversioning of ‘Mountain Duet’ from Chess. Benny shows predictably excellent taste in plagiarism.

     

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