Werner Egk composed Peer Gynt in 1937/38 as a commission from the Berlin State Opera where he had been engaged as principal conductor since 1936. Henrik Ibsen's fantastical play about a feckless egomaniac's search for the meaning of life gave Egk the opportunity to write a varied score in which — stylistically close to Kurt Weill — he incorporated elements such as the Charleston, the tango, muted trumpets and the saxophone which were actually things the National Socialists disapproved of at the time. Despite this, the opera received the endorsement of the regime: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels appeared to like it. Egk succeeded in continuing his career after 1945, and his operas remained in the repertoire. From a musical standpoint, Peer Gynt is worth a closer look, possessing as it does a unique musical language: colourful mood paintings, strong characterisations and evocation of the realm of the trolls that uses trenchant rhythms and elements of satire to create thrilling musical theatre.
Peer Gynt lives in abject poverty from which he escapes into a fantasy world. He falls in love with Solveig, but when she rejects him at a wedding in the village he causes a scandal and runs away. He falls into the hands of the troll king, is nominated as the king's successor and is chosen to marry his daughter. However, he is frightened by the conditions attached to these plans and refuses to agree to them. When the trolls threaten him he calls despairingly for Solveig and the trolls leave him alone. Solveig comes to him, but their life together is disturbed by the troll king's daughter. Peer runs away again. Years later, he has become very rich from shady business deals and wants to become emperor of the world. However, this project fails. Once again, he falls into the hands of the troll king who now intends to pass judgement on his life: if the judgement is negative, the trolls will be allowed to keep him. Dead people who knew Peer are cross-examined. Not one of them speaks in his favour. Only his mother, who has also died in the meantime, demands he be given a chance to look for someone who knows his good side and is waiting for him. In the end, Peer succeeds in returning to Solveig. She welcomes him with love and affection, thus putting paid to all the trolls' schemes and releasing him from his persecution from the underworld.