top of page

Melancholia an Opera by Mikael Karlsson

The Sky is Falling – Lars von Trier’s Melancholia an Opera by Mikael Karlsson

October 7, 2023

Music, Mikael Karlsson

Libretto, Royce Vavrek

Royal Swedish Orchestra

Andrea Molino, Conductor

Director, Sláva Daubnerová

Sets, Boris Kudlicka

Costumes, Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko

Lighting, Tom Visser

Choreographer, Charlotta Öfverholm


Justine, Lauren Snouffer

Claire, Rihab Chaieb

Gaby, Anne Sofie von Otter

Michael, Jens Persson Hertzman

John, Ola Eliasson

Jack, Johan Edholm

Based on the film, Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier

Melancholia an Opera by Mikael Karlsson

Ensemble from Melancholia
(l to r) Jens Persson Hertzman (Michael), Lauren Snouffer (Justine), Rihab Caleb (Claire), Johan Edholm (Jack), Anne Sofie von Otter (Gaby)

Like many of Lars von Trier’s ineluctably fascinating films, Melancholia doesn’t really deal with real people on a real Earth. Instead, his human characters are icons, symbols, avatars, puppets, of larger concepts, or dei ex machina, powered from without. Some characters, like the two lead roles, Justine and her mother Gaby, form a sort of Greek chorus providing the clues of the author’s thoughts on our vapid human condition as we approach our last days. Thus, it is hard to find narratives in which human emotions are convincing or compelling. But, of course, opera has always been torn between representing reality and platforming ideals.

The film is imbued with many levels of art, most significantly an unapologetic pæan on the Wagner-Schopenhauer axis of human procreation, sexuality, and death. Superficial beauty, security, wealth, enterprise, and putative family values become the fissionable and lethal core of why a red dwarf becomes an enraged blue dwarf heading to destroy our world.

The intoxicating beauty of Wagner’s opening “Tristan motif” is repeated ad fatigatio throughout the film: an enchanting foreboding of both love and death. The photography and long shots, too, are mesmerizing and only make the horrific ending more of a shock. The film, by the way, acts as a cinematic tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky with images somewhat cryptically referring back to the Soviet’s auteur’s film masterpiece, Mirror. Von Trier is a self-admitted devotee of Tarkovsky. Von Trier could not resist depicting The Hunters in the Snow of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; this painting as well as and images of falling birds and stumbling horses are all reminiscent of Tarkovsky. These images were faithfully reified by director Sláva Daubnerová in the dream sequence in Act II of the opera. John Everett Millais's Ophelia, is. also depicted.

The basics: Justine, daughter of Gaby, is wedding vacuous and horny Michael in the splendid estate of her sister and brother-in-law, Claire and John. The bride-to-be has an implied history of depression and is restraining a breakdown in front of the wedding celebrants. This suppression parallels the stifling of her concupiscence, demonstrated by her physical rejection of her mate. It’s a wedding of financial convenience: Jack, her employer and Michael’s father, will be giving her a promotion. Good sister Claire is in charge. Gaby, Justine’s divorced mother, is an embittered abuser, opposes not only her daughter’s marriage, but also the institution of marriage as a whole. She gets drunk at the celebration, ultimately insulting everyone present, and is ejected by John. It is clear that the dynamics of this wedding portend familial disaster. A celestial parallel is about to befall them: a rouge planet, Melancholia, is weaving its way through gravitational ping-pong into contact with the Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, believes the experts that the orb will miss collision, and preps Claire and their son Leo with equipment to “wave hello-goodbye” to the planet as it becomes increasingly visible. Of course, a double apocalypse is nigh: the ruination of the emotional bonds of family members as well as the marriage of Melancholia with the Earth. Claire, Justine, and John become harrowing emotional combatants. Not only is the galactic dynamic reflected in the familial collisions, we clearly see that Justine is herself an embodiment of the planet Melancholia. She longs to penetrate the Earth, and this longing is presented with carnal power. Justine displays parapsychological gifts and presages the planet’s inexorable intentions.

planet Melancholia
Coming soon - rogue planet Melancholia (with Rihab Chaleb)

The film exhibits an unusual repose depicted by the lovely mansion grounds, the curbed emotional bearings of the characters, and the painterly imagery. Composer Mikael Karlsson, librettist Royce Vavrek, and director Sláva Daubnerová, have made a far more disturbing experience than the film by concentrating on the operatically appropriate trope of a family’s self-destruction, and exposing the vile underbelly of their motives.

The production’s weaknesses stem from the inclusion of overly-subtle plot points from the original film. It's almost as if no detail was spared lest the opera fail to mystify and confuse as much as the film. Of course, film can succeed in hazy mystery far better than opera can, hence film’s rise above opera as a contemporary art form.

As the dysfunctional family unravels, the opera depictions are gratuitously harsher than the film. For example, there is Justine’s sexual aggression toward a timid work colleague; Diva Anna Sophie von Otter as Gaby has an aria of sorts mostly uttering “f*** you.” For those of us who enjoyed von Otter in her earlier days, this nasty role is all the more shocking. In the film, the usually demure and inimitable Charlotte Rampling plays Gaby merely as a drunken, vulgar harridan. However, in the opera, von Otter carries Rampling’s torch with a stentorian savagery.

Much of the frightening and nightmarish imagery must be attributed to director Sláva Daubnerová, whose grasp of the von Trier film is exhaustive. The psychodrama that ensues casts the principals themselves as alien beings, and puppets to the overarching symbolism of love and death. This dramaturgy combined with dazzling special effects (Melancholia’s encroachment is really harrowing) serve as a coup de théâtre for Ms. Daubnerová.

The score abounds in eerie and frightening stretches following suit with the visuals and lighting, evoking the mounting terror as the monster planet approaches, ready to obliterate all. The music sometimes groans, sometimes bleats through low brass belches and portamenti slides, reminiscent of composer Giacinto Scelsi’s tortuous scores. One’s hair stands on end. I doubt if anyone in the audience snoozed through the two and one-half hours. The mise-en-scène perfectly complements the eerily molten emotional outbursts, and scatological dance numbers. As the characters bear their stark primal feelings facing death, no compassion, decorum, or gentility accompanies their liquification.

While there is sufficient material in the original story to create a libretto focusing on the fuzzy relationships of the bride’s family and the insipid husband, Vavrek’s libretto is brilliant in focusing much of what we hear and see on the role of Justine. Soprano Lauren Snouffer is given a role of a lifetime here, as difficult to sing as it is to dramatize. Her spectral other-worldly expression, body gestures, and choreographic moves were just as stunning as her voice. The vocal dexterity required is astonishing, and Snouffer is almost the only voice needed in the score. As well, her physical allure, sporting a sylph-like spirit, was perfectly integrated and imparted. She is clearly likened to Ophelia, adorned in a beautiful madness in face of a marriage she can’t bear.

Lauren Snouffer (Justine)

I was fortunate to have seen Ms. Snouffer in a vocal recital of Bizet when she was starting out in 2011 with Francesca Zambello’s opening season at Glimmerglass. She has become, I believe, a truly great soprano with this opera role as a remarkable artistic achievement.

As I’ve noted, Mr. Vavrek’s chief shortcoming was being all-inclusive of the movie’s minutia and incidental dialog, some of which is almost self-deriding and confusing. Ultimately, all of the symbolism of the movie carried murky baggage making an already heady dynamic into a menagerie of horse husbandry, astronomy, existentialism, and sexual abuse. Yet, to his merit, Mr. Vavrek sewed up some plot threads that were left untied in the film: for example, the predatory relationship of Justine’s boss (and wedding best man) Jack with Gaby, lending a near incestuous twist.

The performance of Claire (mezzo Rihab Chaieb) was outstanding as the “good, successful, abiding” sister. Her tolerance and mitigation of Justine’s abuse made one wince. While clairvoyant Justine salaciously welcomed the consummation of Melancholia's penetration, Claire tidied up her family values and easily bore her husband John’s suicide before the conclusion of the opera. Her vocal performance was nuanced, beautifully projected, and served as a good foil for the floridness of sister Justine.

Anna Sophie von Otter showed that even in advancing years she can be as viscerally defiant and lurid as if she were performing Salome.

Karlsson’s score deserves much praise. He understands the “new” language of contemporary opera that maintains tonal underpinnings but stretches tonal boundaries. The music has the kind of dissonance borne of our exposure to contemporary cinema in which musical scores have done a magnificent job of tuning our ears to new classical idioms. The dissolution of Justine’s marriage includes familiar ground bass treatments with bluesy ostinato modulations. While the vocal lines can be disjointed, at no point does Karlsson’s score seem off-putting. There were many memorable passages, and I’d hope with some cuts, this work might rank as one of the most interesting operas of this quarter-century.


bottom of page