Poul Schierbeck: Fête galante
01 October 2013
Poul Schierbeck was one of Carl Nielsen’s most gifted students and in turn lived to teach several well-known representatives of the generation before Nørgård and Ruders. Dacapo has recorded his engaging 1921 Symphony as well as selections of his songs, cantatas and orchestral music. The bubbly overture to Fête galante – as blithe a rip-off of Nielsen’s Maskarade as the Symphony is of the Espansiva – has clung on to a place in the repertoire but the complete opera lapsed into obscurity following its first performances in 1931 and again after its revival in the early Sixties.
The lyric-comic storyline, adapted by Max Lobedanz from his play of the same name, is of a noble libertine who tricks a young girl into marriage but then falls in love with her and has to work around various ensuing complications and intrigues before winning her forgiveness. Shades of Figaro and Rosenkavalier, then, as well as Maskarade, and for the first half-hour or so, the promise of a real operatic discovery is quite strong. Inventive energy abounds, along with a smiling lyricism that shows more than skin-deep affinity with Nielsen. Reminders of Puccini and Strauss occasionally surface but not so strongly as to provoke accusations of epigonism. Above all, the orchestration is a constant delight, and it was this aspect that early critics singled out, despite their finding the piece over-long. In their responsiveness to the colourful score, Schønwandt and his forces deserve far more than the traditional nod of respect.
In fact length is not really the problem with this opera. Schierbeck carried out extensive truncations before his death in 1949 and the revised version is the one here recorded. It’s rather that the story itself lacks tension. Count René’s conversion and Suzon’s forgiveness arrive, or at least are flagged, far too early to put the outcome in doubt, and the comic antics surrounding them never quite hit the bullseye in the way Nielsen’s sub-plots do. It’s true that Maskarade, too, makes do without any really malevolent characters. But, like any opera with core repertoire status, it has dimensions in addition to the surface plot, and that’s something that’s hard to claim for Schierbeck’s frothy, beautifully crafted but ultimately ephemeral creation.
Still, Dacapo’s cast is without conspicuous weakness; and, with beautiful recording quality and excellent documentation in addition to first-rate performance, the collectability of this issue for Scandophiles is not in doubt.