Poul Schierbeck: Fête galante
01 July 2013
David's Review Corner
I guess that, like me, you will have never heard of Poul Schierbeck’s Fete Galante, but if you make just one operatic discovery during this year, make sure it’s this one. Born into a music-loving Danish family in 1888, he went to university to study law, but music reclaimed him, and his future composition mentors included Nielsen. From there he enjoyed a varied career, his place in Danish music cemented with marriage to a leading opera singer, Sylvia Larsen.
The idea of writing Fete Galante came through the rather bizarre route of being asked to compose incidental music to Max Lobedanz’s play of that name, but on reading it, he asked Lobedanz if he could fashion it into an opera libretto. And so in 1923 he began writing the score, though it was four years later before it was complete. Though the plot becomes quite complex, it basically relates that, in the absence of the King at court, Count Rene tricks Suzon into a fake marriage, the witnesses being his friends who are willingly accessories. She is blissfully unaware that the King insists on sampling in bed the pleasures of new brides when his noblemen marry. Scaramouche, theatre director and supplier of women to the wealthy, finds out about the scam and offers to get proper legal signatures on the marriage certificate she has for a large fee from Suzon. And so the plot thickens, Scaramouche eventually being double-crossed by the conspirators, when they persuade the King, on his unexpectedly early return, that Scaramouche’s wife is the new bride, and she is more than happy to spend a couple of hours in his bedroom.
Written in a style not far removed from Richard Strauss’s comedies, the score is full of highly attractive melodies, Schierbeck’s pedigree as a symphonic composer creating gorgeous intermezzos that linger long in the memory. I suppose we go through life wedded to the first recorded performance that we own, but this one must come close to being definitive. Denise Beck, as Suzon, perfectly weighs an innocence with a seductive allure, the quality of her voice being a constant delight, while the Rene of Michael Weinus is a creamy smooth tenor. At the heart of the story, and with the major share of the score, Bo Skovhus, is an exceptional baritone that vocally has everything the scheming Scaramouche requires. There is not one weak link in the long list of subordinate character singers, and the orchestra, with Michael Schondwandt conducting, is absolutely superb. The booklet does not make clear whether the recording came from concert performances, though there are photographs in the booklet that suggest that possibility. If it was, the audience were silent, and the engineering quality outstanding. My major problem is to stop playing it. Absolutely superb.