Treason, desire and murder - served on a silver platter of glorious Romantic music from 1894 in this world premiere recording of a stirring opera about the murderous plot against Kleopatra, fabled Queen of the Nile. Beautiful melodies, alluring harmonies and tense leitmotifs, all expertly put to use by probably the most celebrated Danish opera composer of his time, August Enna.
One of Danish operatic history’s few international successes
by Henrik Engelbrecht (translated by Susanne Lange)
Today the composer August Enna is known almost exclusively for two things: Danish crossword enthusiasts recognize his name as the answer to the question ‘Danish composer in four letters?’ – and many concert-goers, especially of the older generation, remember the title of one of Enna’s operas: The Little Match Girl from 1897, after the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. That opera has not been performed at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen for more than 80 years, even though the overture remained part of the concert repertoire in Denmark for some time.
At the turn of the last century, things looked quite different for Enna. Without comparison, he was the best-known Danish composer outside Denmark, praised for his operas, his flair for drama and his instrumentation skills. But Enna wrote in a hyper-romantic style that you would have to be Richard Strauss to get away with in the 20th century. When Enna died in 1939, his music was forgotten, both at home and abroad.
Enna is born in 1859 as the son of a shoemaker and practically learns the music trade by playing and listening; he plays the violin in humble places and circumstances and later becomes a conductor for a touring theatre company. Whenever The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen plays Wagner, he is in the audience, and he borrows scores at The Royal Danish Library to study the music of his German idol. The French composer Léo Delibes is also a huge inspiration – so much so that Enna names two sons after him. The first son dies at the age of ten in 1897; when Enna and his wife have another son nine years later, he too is named Leo.
Enna writes his first – unperformed – opera, Agleia, in 1884. Two years later, the young man’s talent is brought to the attention of none other than Niels W. Gade. At this time, Gade is the most influential man in Danish musical life and succeeds in getting Enna an important grant. The money allows Enna to study in Leipzig, where he finds inspiration and peace to work on his breakthrough score, the opera Heksen (The Witch) which is a huge success at its first performance at The Royal Theatre in January 1892.
After this success, the search for a plot for Enna’s next opera begins. In collaboration with the author and playwright Einar Christiansen – who will later become director of The Royal Theatre – Enna chooses a story taking place in Egypt, where Christiansen has been as a tourist. The British author Henry Rider Haggard has had his big breakthrough in 1885 with the novel King Solomon’s Mines and continues to write stories full of adventures from the African continent. Cleopatra from 1888 provides the setting for the next Enna opera, and it is probably no coincidence that the Egyptian milieu – and the central theme of the eternal triangle – can also be found in Verdi’s Aida, which by this time had been in the repertoire of The Royal Theatre for almost ten years.
We do not know much about the work on the text and music, apart from the fact that it lasts about a year before 4 February 1893, when the daily paper Dannebrog reveals that the piano score of Kleopatra has gone into printing; on 18 May the press announces that the opera has been accepted at The Royal Theatre. But behind the scenes, conflict is growing between the composer and his music publisher, Henrik Hennings, who runs a music shop in Copenhagen. Hennings has succeeded in making Enna sign a contract, giving him sole and exclusive rights to publish and negotiate performances of Enna’s operas – including any future ones – all over the world without any time limit. In April, however, Enna receives a generous offer from Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig concerning the publication of Kleopatra. This offer must have made Enna consider the chances of a big international career in collaboration with one of the world’s leading music publishers.
Enna now claims that Hennings has conned him into signing a contract in German, which he did not understand properly. Enna backs out in a very abrupt manner, although Hennings, until now, had taken care of all of his financial interests. In an official document via notary public, Enna deprives his publisher of all rights to publish or negotiate the performance of any of his operas. He does not waste time with idle threats but posts the complete orchestral score of Kleopatra to Breitkopf & Härtel – a clear escalation of the situation.
Of course, the conflict reaches the newspapers. The librettist Christiansen is among those who are dumbfounded by Enna’s behaviour and writes to the composer: ‘In my opinion, your behaviour towards Mr Hennings is of such a nature that I regret ever having embarked on any collaboration with you, and had I any legal possibility, I would demand that you return my text to Kleopatra at once.’
The letter from Einar Christiansen is published, and the conflict gets to a point where lawyers and a lawsuit seem to be the solution. The press revel in the conflict; Copenhagen becomes such a stressful place for Enna that he flees to Germany to get away from it all. Hennings’s next move is to publish the piano score of Kleopatra in the version he had received from Enna some months before, announcing that this is the ‘composer’s original, complete and finalized work, entrusted to me.’
Enna sues Hennings for unlawful publication, and lambasts Hennings’s edition as ‘worthless, as it is altogether incorrect’. A German court order prevents Breitkopf & Härtel from publishing Kleopatra after a complaint from Hennings’s lawyers. Enna’s answer to Hennings’s edition is a piano score with Danish and German text, printed by one of Hennings’s competitors, the music publisher Wilhelm Hansen. But Enna has not obtained permission from Christiansen, so even this edition is followed by legal actions – this time from the librettist.
In the end, the disputes are settled out of court, and the first performance of Kleopatra at The Royal Theatre is scheduled for 7 February 1894. The expectations for yet another opera like Heksen (The Witch) are enormous, and the tickets for the first night sell out quickly, despite the prices being higher than usual. Pietro Krohn, an extremely versatile talent (originally a painter, he served as a lieutenant in the war in 1864, and is now both chief financial officer and stage director at The Royal Theatre) directs a production full of Egyptian atmosphere. The theatre’s music director, the Norwegian composer and conductor Johan Svendsen, is clearly in his element with the score by his friend and protégé Enna and its echoes of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Verdi’s Aida and Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. Svendsen has even been active in accepting the opera to be performed at The Royal Theatre.
Nevertheless, the Copenhagen papers report on a relatively subdued atmosphere at the premiere, when the enthusiasm shown by the audience at the beginning of the evening clearly diminishes as it proceeds. The press complains about the very loud orchestra that forces the singers to strain their voices. They also note that Svendsen and the Royal Danish Orchestra completely dominate the performance. The disappointing cast of singers is evidently a reason why Kleopatra leaves the impression that the composer has no consideration for the singers on the stage but lets his orchestra sound as noisily as possible.
The casting of the main roles at the first performance is clearly a compromise, which is one reason for the subdued enthusiasm. The Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson is supposed to have sung the title role. She possesses precisely the big, dramatic voice needed for the part; three years earlier she has sung Brünnhilde in the first Danish performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Gulbranson is engaged to sing the role of Kleopatra but ‘is not used’ as the paper Social-Demokraten reports. Her guest contract expires before the start of rehearsals, and The Royal Theatre declines an offer from the Swedish operetta singer and film actress Anna Norrie who is married to a Dane and is more than willing to step in.
In the end, the role is given to the Danish soprano Augusta Lütken, who eight years earlier has ended her career at the theatre because of leg problems, only 30 years old. She is very popular with the audience, and due to a lack of local sopranos with appropriate vocal and dramatic skills, the theatre engages her as a guest in 1890. Lütken’s slender voice and limited acting abilities are quite unsuitable for Kleopatra’s dramatic part. The paper Social-Demokraten comments that Mrs Lütken cannot have taken on the part with ‘any special delight: her sedate matronly appearance does not come near the image of the passionate queen’. The critic continues by stating that her voice ‘is more suited to soubrette roles than to the heroic’. The voices of both Lütken and the tenor Frederik Brun, who is singing Harmaki at the first performance, are preserved on cylinders (Lütken as early as in 1890). Listening today it is easy to imagine that Lütken’s voice in particular must have failed in the part of Kleopatra when it comes to volume, and how Frederik Brun’s goat-like vibrato must have been painful to listen to during the long performance. It all ends – as the paper, Berlingske Tidende writes – in ‘howling and roaring’.
So, Kleopatra does not prove the success that is expected, and the opera is performed only seven times in the spring of 1894. August Enna has by this time returned to Copenhagen to be present at the premiere, and he seems to agree with some of the critics; he rewrites parts of the score, and he also appears to be reconciled with Christiansen. When the opera is revived on 3 April 1895 at The Royal Theatre, it is with a new overture and a new scene in Act III which helps the audience better understand the conspiracy of the plot. Even Pietro Krohn revises his staging with new ideas – and, sensibly enough, new singers are engaged for two of the main roles. With a five-week guest contract, Gulbranson is finally able to sing the role originally intended for her. The mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Dons replaces the soprano Sofie Keller in the vital role of Charmion, Kleopatra’s maid, also something she was supposed to have done originally.
This time the success is huge, not least because of the performances from Gulbranson and Dons. Enna’s talent for writing dramatic music that makes eminent use of the orchestra’s possibilities is now emphasized in several newspapers. Up until 1897, the opera runs for 20 performances at The Royal Theatre and is met with huge success in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Breslau, Riga, Zürich, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and The Hague; in 1897 alone, the opera reaches 50 performances at the opera house in Amsterdam.
Enna is, without doubt, the most famous Danish opera composer on the international scene in the 1890s, and until 1932 he writes a total of 13 operas. Until this recording of Kleopatra, only The Little Match Girl and Heisse Liebe were available on CD.
Like the rest of Danish music life, The Royal Theatre loses interest in Enna’s music in the wake of the veritable Carl Nielsen adoration, which basically excludes late romantic composers. Internationally the world now listens to the music of Igor Stravinsky and Alban Berg, and Enna dies in 1939 at the age of 80 – a forgotten, poor and bitter man. Kleopatra and the rest of Enna’s oeuvre lie forgotten on the shelves of music archives and libraries for decades.
It took a German artistic director of a Danish opera company to blow the dust off one of Danish opera history’s very few international successes. Not until Philipp Kochheim put Kleopatra on the repertoire of the Danish National Opera in 2019 as a part of the Danish Series of forgotten operas was it again possible to hear the opera in the composer’s native country – for the first time in 122 years.