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The Sunday Opera: Cesar Franck's "Hulda"

Cesar Franck is probably best known for his playing of and works written for the organ, but on this week’s Sunday Opera (1/30 3:00 p.m.), we’ll hear one of his operas.   Franck only attempted four operas, and only two of those were published.  “Hulda” seems to have been a difficult birth for Franck.  It was begun in 1879 and completed in 1895, never to be performed in its entirety during his lifetime.   “Hulda” is based on a play by Norwegian playwright Bjornstjern Bjornson and outlines a woman’s revenge against the captors who abducted her and killed her family in 11th century Norway.   Hulda Hustawick (Meagan Miller) is taken by Aslak (Jin Seok Lee) after he and his clan ransack her village and kill her mother (Anja Jung) and family.   After several years pass, Hulda is still in the hands of Aslak, and it’s determined that she will marry Aslak’s eldest son, Gudleik (Juan Orozco) which complicates Hulda’s plans for revenge.   The complications get worse when Hulda’s former love, Eiolf (Joshua Kohl) arrives and kills Gudleik in a ritual demonstration of martial skill after the wedding.   She now looks at Eiolf as a revenging angel, but that view is tarnished when she sees his relationship with Swanhilde (Irina Jae Eun Park), whom he once rejected.  

Now, an object of her scorn even though he helped her enact part of her revenge, Hulda arranges for him to be attacked by Gudliek’s remaining brothers where the defenseless Eiolf is killed.   Eiolf’s men arrive too late to save him but are in time to kill the brothers.  

With all of Aslak’s sons dead, Hulda’s revenge is complete, and with this, she throws herself to her death in the roiling sea.    Fabrice Bollon conducts the Opera Chorus and Extrachoir of the Theatre Freiburg and the Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a recording from 2019.  

After the opera, Michael Kownacky will bring you another of Franck’s rarely heard works, his 1873 “poeme-symphonie,” Redemption.   Based on a poem by Edouard Blau, the piece looks at mankind trying to “make honorable amends for its sins.”   This performance does not contain the lengthy narration, but still includes delightful solo work by Ge Neutel as an archangel and the Netherlands Radio Choir with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jean Fournet.

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.