Imagine a cathedral, made of cool-dark-gray rock like the surrounding hills. On one side, it looks down a short slope to a pool in the middle of Stavanger town; on the other side, the Torget or main square slopes down to the head of the harbor, where you have just landed from a boat that took you thirty miles up the fjord between two-thousand-foot vertical cliffs of this same brutal cool-dark-gray rock. You climb the square (also of gray rock, with steps) to the cathedral. The west door, as usual with cathedrals, is the main entrance, but it is locked; you walk all around, trying brown polished wooden doors, all are locked, till you come almost around to the beginning and find a small door that opens. But you have entered a construction scene: a platform on trestles fills the whole length of the nave. You can’t really come in yet: the cathedral is to be the stage for an opera, which will start in an hour.
But a young Norwegian named John offers to tell you about the cathedral. This dark nave, with its two arcades of short fat columns supporting semicircular dog-tooth arches, is of the naive Romanesque style, like old Norman churches in England; but Norwegians were more accustomed to building with wood than with stone, so they brought English masons, a few centuries later, to add a chancel in the lacy Gothic style. John is one of the tenors in the opera. It’s a new opera, by Stale Kleiberg, on the theme of “David and Bathsheba.” We’ll certainly come back for it.
We came back, cutting it rather close because we had been wandering the hilly streets between the pastel-colored wooden houses, so Tilly went in at the north door to get us as good a position as she could while I went to the west door as instructed to buy tickets. Too late, no tickets left. I went back to the north door, tried to explain that I had to find Tilly and bring her out. There was our friend John, I told him “Sold out” and he said “No, no, that can’t be!” and ushered me in.
And so we came to be right at the front. But it was almost all front: along the platform that filled the aisle the performance took place.
Imagine yourself with your knees to this platform, as if in a seat at a theatre right up against the stage; there are only half a dozen spectators just here, blocs of others are scattered around the cathedral; to your left are the cellists, one so close that you can read his score over his shoulder; behind him are the two double-bass players; behind them stands the tenor section of the chorus, John among them; opposite to us across the raised platform are the sopranos, next to them the xylophone player, next to him, silhouetted against a window, towers the harp. Elsewhere among the pillars lurk other sections of the orchestra: and the conductor climbs to as central a position as can be, but there is no central position in this jigsaw puzzle or partition plan of orchestra and audience, so it is amazing that the perfornance can be conducted at all and unfolds flawlessly. And as I commit the sin of occupying a front row seat without even paying (but I’ll make up for that later), so King David with his powerful baritone commits the sin of lusting for the wife of Uriah the Hittite and sending Uriah to the front line of the battle, where he will be killed. A troupe of dancers expresses sometimes the struggles of armies and sometimes the emotions of the story, in writhing dances mostly down on the floor, their hips writhing to within inches of me and once dislodging the score on my neighbor cellist’s music stand; but all standing in a pack they carry off aloft the body of Uriah. And far up behind this scene, so that for me the lofted body is silhouetted against it, is the great stained-glass window at the east end of the chancel. The sun has just set (not long before we have to return to our ship) at the end of this eighth day after the March equinox. The sun is in Pisces, therefore opposite to it beyond that east window are the stars of Virgo and Bootes, which according to an alternative story represent Ruth and Boaz. If Boaz the farmer had not noticed and married Ruth the humble gleaner there would have been no David, and if David had not stolen Bathsheba there would have been no Solomon. Perhaps we can see these stars – certainly we could see ruddy Arcturus and icy Spica – among the myriad fractured colors of the window.
The opera was performed in English, because the company intends to transport it to other parts of the world. Stavanger, which used to export herring, now exports oil and opera.