21 August 2015
John QuinnMaskarade was Nielsen’s second opera. He composed it between 1904 and 1906 so it comes between his Second Symphony (1901-02) and the Sinfonia Espansiva (1910-11). According to Knud Ketting’s helpful notes, however, he had pondered since the early 1890s using Ludvig Holberg’s comedy Mascaraden (1724) as the basis for an opera. But first came Saul and David, premiered in 1902. Sometime thereafter he approached Wilhelm Andersen (1864-1953) who agreed to write him a libretto based on Holberg’s play. Nielsen made a start on the music at the turn of 1904/05. The opera was eventually finished in time for a successful first performance at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen at the end of November 1906. Since then Maskarade has been, in Michael Schønwandt’s words “Denmark’s national opera.” In a short booklet essay Schønwandt also expresses the view that Nielsen drew inspiration from Falstaff and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. I wouldn’t disagree but I also detect the influence of Mozart’s da Ponte operas, not least in the Leporello-like role of Henrik. The helter-skelter trio for Leander, Henrik and Jeronimus at the end of Act I, here taken at a real lick, is almost Rossini-like.
The action takes place in the Copenhagen of the early eighteenth century. The start of Act I is very much ‘the morning after the night before’. Leander has been to a masked ball the previous evening and has met and fallen for a young girl; like him, she concealed her identity behind a mask. They exchanged rings. When the curtain rises Leander and his valet, Henrik gradually come to terms with the new day following their night on the tiles. Leander tells Henrik about meeting the girl but Henrik brings his young master back to earth by reminding him that his parents have betrothed him in marriage to Leonard's daughter. Jeronimus, Leander’s father, is a bombastic chap, clearly all too used to getting his own way. He’s contemptuous of the masked balls but we subsequently meet Leander’s mother, Magdelone who confides to her son that she’d quite like to attend such an event.
Then Leonard arrives and plucks up the courage to tell Jeronimus that his daughter, Leonora, has fallen for a young man who she met at the masquerade the previous night. The furious Jeronimus tells Leander that he and Henrik are ‘gated’ to prevent them from attending any more of these dangerously frivolous masked entertainments. Much of Act II is concerned with the skilful conniving of Henrik. Jeronimus has ordered his servant, Arv to mount guard to prevent Leander and Henrik from breaking their curfew. However, Henrik dupes the servant into admitting some misdeeds – and in particular one involving the kitchen maid – and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t look the other way while he and his master make good their escape to the masked ball.
Act III takes place at the ball, a very lively affair. The identities of all the attendees are concealed behind masks. Leander meets Leonora again in an ardent encounter. (Curiously, they learn each other’s names but the penny fails to drop; that’s opera buffa for you.) Meanwhile Henrik is getting along famously with Pernille, Leonora’s maid. At the same time Magdelone has arrived and she enjoys a masked flirtation with Leonard. Jeronimus has discovered that his son has escaped from the house and arrives, reluctantly costumed as Bacchus. Henrik engages the Dancing Tutor, aided and abetted by a crowd of students, to get Jeronimus tipsy whereupon he makes a fool of himself trying to flirt with young girls. When everyone takes off their masks all is revealed but Jeronimus’s anger and embarrassment is calmed when he realises that the girl for whom his son has fallen is, in fact, the very girl for whom he was intended all along. Cue rejoicing and, one presumes, everyone living happily ever after.
The plot is not be quite as bafflingly complex as some operas but it has ample room for twists and turns as well as misunderstandings. It’s a thoroughly engaging affair but it’s thanks to Nielsen’s music that everything is brought so vividly to life.
It may seem odd to mention the orchestra before discussing the singers but the orchestra has a crucial role in Maskarade.
Nielsen’s orchestration is a delight from start to finish and the imaginative and colourful way in which he uses it to comment on the action and to underline what is going on, packing the score with engaging illustrative details, is the work of a master. We know from his symphonic works how skilled Nielsen was in writing for the orchestra. This opera is a vivid reminder of the significant experience that he gained as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra and as sometime Deputy Conductor at the Royal Theatre. This recording starts off with a sparkling account of the spirited overture and it never looks back. Inspired by Michael Schønwandt’s terrific conducting, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra produces a fantastic performance of this score.
The singing is superb; there isn’t a weak link in the cast. I’ll discuss the principals in a moment but all the subsidiary roles are expertly and characterfully taken. Special mention should be made of baritone Simon Drus who brings the role of the Dancing Tutor to life in Act III. Also treble Johan Uhrskov-Bendixsen gives a winning cameo as the Flower-Boy earlier in that act. The chorus isn’t significantly involved before Act III – they have a small part in the action of Act II – but they are important participants in the last act. The choral singing is splendid and full of life.
All the principals do very well indeed. I liked Christian Damsgaard’s portrayal of Arv, the put-upon servant. Anne Margarethe Dahl and Stig Fogh Andersen offer convincing portrayals of Magdelone and Leonard respectively. Stephen Milling is excellent as the blustering, domineering Jeronimus who richly deserves his comeuppance. I was very taken with Dénise Beck’s Leonora. She has a lovely bright soprano voice which is well suited to the often rapturous music that Nielsen gives her to sing with Leander.
The key roles are those of Leander and Henrik. Niels Jørgen Riis has a clear, ringing tenor and the top of his register is produced easily and excitingly. He is completely convincing as the ardent young man, lovesick for his masked lady. When he sings passionately to Leonora you can understand why she would fall for him even though she can’t see his face. An impulsive young man such as this needs a worldly-wise servant to keep him on the straight and narrow, one who can be as wily as necessary to extricate his master – and himself – from scrapes. Fortunately for Leander Henrik is such a servant and Johan Reuter is just the man for the job. I enjoyed his performance greatly, especially his ability to be funny without going over the top.
I’ve already referred to Michael Schønwandt’s conducting. It seems to me that he paces the score expertly. He keeps the music moving forward purposefully, though he gives the amorous writing for Leander and Leonora its full rein. His handling of the teeming third act is particularly impressive. Here the performance is packed full of vitality yet the music is never rushed nor is detail obscured. He says in his introductory essay that Maskarade ”has in fact followed me all my life”; this fizzing, thoroughly entertaining performance offers ample proof of that.
Production values are as high as the quality of the performance. The SACD sound is first rate. The booklet is similarly good. It contains excellent notes and a detailed synopsis as well as the full libretto in Danish and English which I found easy to follow. The second act is split across the discs: the majority of it is on disc one with just under ten minutes on disc two. Given that the playing time of disc 1 is 68:08 I’m mildly surprised that a further 9:53 of music could not have been squeezed onto that disc, avoiding a break. I presume there’s a good reason for that but it’s a pity. But that’s the one and only criticism that I would wish to level at this release.
Dacapo has done signal service to Maskarade, of which this is their third recording. They issued a complete recording on CD made, I think, in 2005 and conducted by John Frandsen. There’s also a DVD of a 2006 live performance, conducted by Michael Schønwandt (review). Some of the principals are common to that performance and this new studio audio recording, namely Johan Reuter, Stephen Milling and Niels Jörgen Riis, all of whom take the same roles in both recordings.
This is a wonderful set, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Offhand it’s hard to imagine a happier celebration of Nielsen’s 150th anniversary.