“Oh, Kristina, gold can turn to sand,” cautions her husband Karl Oskar’s younger brother, and there’s no more apt description of the strange alchemy that has taken over Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the writing team who turned ABBA into gold (in every sense).
Helen Sjoholm (Kristina) in Kristina at Royal Albert Hall Photo: Tristram Kenton
While the jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, constructed out of their back-catalogue, has become one of the most successful musicals of all time, this new musical, originally titled Kristina fran Duvemala, actually preceded it by some four years, premiering in a Swedish-language production in Malmo, Sweden in 1995.
But in the wake of the success of Mamma Mia!, Kristina (as it has now been simplified to) finally received its English premiere in a one-off staging at New York’s Carnegie Hall last September, an event that has now been reprised at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the same fine quartet of principals.
Helen Sjoholm reprises the title role from the original Swedish production and our own Russell Watson plays her husband.
But though they give a robust, and occasionally searing, account of a score that is by turns bombastic and brooding, the inspiration for both score and lyrics feels more like a retread of the worst excesses of Les Miserables (a fact amplified here by sharing the English lyricist of that show, Herbert Kretzmer) and Frank Wildhorn, with the occasional Lloyd Webber rock riff thrown in for good measure.
There’s little trace of the unique melodic gifts that informed Andersson’s best work for ABBA. And it definitely doesn’t benefit from translation, either, into lyrics of sometimes stunning crassness, in one song about a Queen of the Prairie stove, we are told that “she will cook you a goose, or boil you a moose”.
Nor can an English audience easily care, as we are invited to do here, in its open-hearted (and vocally full throttled) story of celebrating the Swedish diaspora to America in the mid-19th century, focussing on one over-fertile woman. This may be a story with more personal resonance to Swedes.
What we’re left with are one or two scorching songs, Sjoholm brought large sections of the audience to its feet with her rendition of You Have to Be There, but that apart, you really didn’t have to be there at all.
The double CD recording that has been released of the Carnegie Hall concert is sufficient to get a measure of the score. And although the sight of a full symphonic orchestra under the baton of the legendary Broadway conductor Paul Gemignani is indeed a stirring one, everything is amplified to smithereens so even that effect is undermined.