Miracle at Drottningholm


The fine baroque palace of Drottningholm is about an hour’s trip by slow vintage ferry from the center of Stockholm. Drottningholm means Queen’s Island and the first castle was built in this then-remote spot in the late 16th century by Johan III for his queen, the Polish Princess Catherine the Jagiellonian. It is a lovely setting on a gentle bay on the island which is set in a huge lake more than a hundred kilometers across, with countless other islands and maze-like stretches of narrow water, marshy nooks alternating cooperatively with gently sloping rocky shores. The first palace burnt down a century later and a larger baroque structure was erected in its place. In the middle of the 18th century Drottningholm was given to Crown Princess Ulrika Eleonora of Prussia when she married the future Swedish King, Adolf Frederick; the pair began their reign in 1751.

Ulrika was a younger sister of Frederick the Great, who, after becoming the King of Prussia in 1740, unabashedly pursued his mania for music in the grand style, inaugurating his imposing opera house in the center of Berlin only two years after ascending to the throne. Ulrika likely frequented those early Berlin performances, and when she was given Drottningholm Palace and its adjoining park lands in distant Sweden a decade later she quickly built herself a modest theatre just off the north wing of the palace. When that theatre burnt down in 1762 she had another one built in more outwardly luxurious style, but with more limited means. The interior’s classical details were done on the relative cheap: marbled walls, plaster pilasters, and corbels finished in papier mach?, their apparent heft quickly belied by the hollow sound elicited by a light knock. One has a hard time imagining the Bourbons, Romanovs, or even Ulrika’s own Hohenzollern clan making do with such economies.

At the end of the 18th century this gorgeous little theatre, which holds about three hundred people, fell into disuse, and like an antique dresser dragged up to the attic, was left virtually undisturbed until 1921, when the Swedish theatre historian Agne Beijer followed King Gustaf V (who had no idea which of the buildings on the grounds had once housed the theatre) and put the key in the main entrance’s lock. The two men literally walked into history?into a theatre undisturbed and in miraculously undamaged condition. All of its antique stage machinery and noise-makers, raked stage and wide floorboards, rows of wooden benches for the spectators, and slender area in front of the stage for a small-ish court orchestra were intact and unchanged. Even the original sets were there: the spiral waves to be brought to roiling life by a crank, the columns receding in perspectival splendor, the pastoral trees and shrubs, the boats and carriages, and flying chariots, which can bring down the diva from the heavens, where the singers have to make their way down a narrow and seemingly frail set of steps to the waiting conveyance high above the stage (the opera house is now classified as a museum, not a theatre, and therefore none of the strict Swedish health and safety standards apply). The cogs and pulleys and ropes below and above that operate all this bring to mind an 18th-century man-o-war, and indeed the theatre hands were often dock workers.

In making this fabulous relic accessible to 20th- and now 21st-century, audiences a few concessions had to be made to modernity: basic refurbishment of the wings and of the machinery and the house itself was carried out, and the hall retrofitted with electric lighting. In its present state, these amenities are very tastefully executed. The bulbs on the wooden music desks of the orchestra are hidden behind soffits. The hundreds of lights in the wings have the same strength as candles and are placed in metal reflectors as in the 18th century. The footlights are also out of sight behind wooden hoods, and are not too overbearing.

In general the wattage suggests an 18th-century ambience, with the house lights remaining fairly luminous during the performance itself, as they would have done for pre-electric audiences who might have wanted to follow along in their librettos, or at least survey the other nobles?their wigs and jewels, coiffures and decolletages.

Nonetheless, one misses the flicker of tapers. The chandeliers hold ersatz electric candles, whose slender bulbs sway back-and-forth ever so slightly, but however endearing this clever touch may be, it calls even greater attention to what is lost in the performance of these incandescent re-enactors: the flirting shimmer, the guttering bow, the courtly nod of real candle light stands in relation to the real thing, whose motions?unlike those of singers and instrumentalists?have not changed at all since the 18th century. On the ceiling above one can still see the soot from the candles of yore.

The orchestra now includes both men and women?as it wouldn’t have done in the Age of Royalty?all of them clad in wigs and livery: a fetching unisex look for the Age of Reason.

Yes, the theatre has green exit signs required by modern fire codes, and a hugely annoying electronic display for super-titles crowns the stage with garish concession to utility and comprehension.

When the devastating fire broke out in the first Drottningholm theatre during a performance in 1751, the famous French actress, Marie Baptiste, came to the front of the stage to inform the court audience, making the 18th-century theatrical gesture for fire and saying with perfect, deliberate elocution “Le feu.” The audience applauded her acting. So stylized and convincing was this attempt at urgent communication that it was taken to be part of the play. Rather than storming out of the burning theatre, the audience then followed elaborate court protocols with royalty leaving accompanied by requisite bowing and scraping by their underlings and then an orderly exit according to rank ensued, though as things heated up the women in large hoop skirts found it especially hard to move out of the theatre quickly. Unfortunately, allowed the subsequent report, a maid, two boys, and three “working men”?probably in the bowels of the theatre at their ropes and pulleys?died in the blaze.

The Drottningholm opera season is confined to the summer months and now consists of two productions: the first featuring students from the national opera school, and the second involving professional singers. The professional orchestra, in its 18th-century get-up, accompanies both shows. The eight-performance run of Mozart’s Cos? fan tutte with a mostly excellent student cast concluded this past Sunday afternoon one of those long midsummer Swedish days, when boats, buses, and cars carry enthusiasts from nearby Stockholm and from around the world to the island (now accessible by bridge), emulating, though with far greater ease, the comings and goings of the courtiers of the 18th century. Sitting in that small theatre it is easy to think one has been elevated to the aristocracy by just being there.

The ferry proceeds from the shadows of the City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are doled out each year, out into the Knight’s Fjord through the narrow passageways of Lake M?laren, past the Victorian blocks on the bluffs, giving way to the glass-and-steel waterfront villas with their Zodiacs and sailboats moored in front, until civilization and settlement gave way to birches and oaks and diminishing signs of human habitation. It was as if the boat itself was heading back into the 18th century, as if the labyrinthine geography of waterways, islands, rocks, sloughs and slurries, made development difficult enough in this direction west of Stockholm for nature still to prevail.

As the end of the journey neared, the boat curved into the harbor with a fine view of the waterside parterre of the palace and the quaint landing dock. I could already see buses and traffic busy along the flank of park and palace. What for the 18th-century Swedish royals and their court must have been a form of communal isolation from the city had been reeled in by the automobile.

Disembarking and walking towards the palace along the pea gravel in front of a row of perfectly executed neo-classical nudes one could hear the din from the four-lane road Even in the park, with its carefully trimmed and rectilinear central French section, flanked by its more “natural” English section with requisite Gothic tower, the road trumped what would have been the gentle sound of the wind frolicking in the pollarded limes and maple trees. Drottningholm is a UNESCO world heritage site but the road harshly challenges that status.

Next week: Cos? fan tutte at Drottingholm.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas