La Scena Musicale

Friday, 11 April 2008

Carl Nielsen: Maskarade

Stephen Milling, Susanne Resmark, Niels Jørgen Riis, Johan Reuter, Ole Hedegaard, Poul Elming, Gisella Stille, Hanne Fischer, Sten Byriel, Anders Jabosson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen, Royal Danish Orchestra and Opera Choir/Michael Schønwandt
Stage Directors: Kasper Bech Holten and Morgan Alling
Video Director: Thorlief Hoppe
Dacapo 2110-407 (138 min)
*** $$$

Get to know a Danish male of middle years and he will eventually let down the guard of self-deprecation and false modesty to confide on the subject of the absolute necessity of his country’s regional role: “Denmark exists to provide culture and polite refinement in what would otherwise be a jumble of barren rocky coastlines. The Norwegians are drunk most of the time and the Swedes devoid of any sense of humour. And if the other Scandinavians tend to neglect their women folk, the Danes can fix that too!” Asked for substantiation of these claims, the Dane will invariably reply, “We gave Carl Nielsen and Victor Borge to the world…” This element of subversive cheekiness is integral to Nielsen’s Maskarade in the general sense and very much to this production in particular.

The opera is set in 1723 and based on a simple story of forlorn love winning out in the end. Nielsen’s pre-Lenten frolic is brimful of marvelous music and song best delivered at a high rate of buffa. Stage director Kasper Bech Holten decided to override traditional staging to produce a modern-dress madcap spectacle. In doing so, much of the charm – and menace – of the text is wasted. References to, “Coachmen and horses; arranged marriage and thrashing the servants,” really lose any meaning in the context of a swinging-sixties setting without any vestige of class struggle. But with an enthusiastic cast and motivated audience, Holten gets away with it – up to a point.

The tone is set during the overture. A quartet of tumbling acrobats takes the stage in front of the curtain. Funny stuff, but not quite as amusing when they return in the third act to monopolize the dance numbers. The male leads, Leander (Nils Jørgen Riis), and his manservant, Hendrik (Johan Reuter), are duly propelled through the curtain which, when raised, reveals them to be pinned to the wall. Danes can sing well when vertically suspended (a ruse to present an overhead view of Leander’s sleeping chamber) and they go on to demonstrate equal facility while shaving and showering. The rest of Act I is just as unconventionally brilliant but this level of inspiration is not sustained. Act II is built on a bad idea and the final act is turned inside-out by Holten with too much time spent standing around gaping at acrobats. The director’s premise from the start was to have the characters wear the carnival masks (masks of probity?) all of the time. When they turn up for the pseudo-psychedelic ball in Act III, the masks are solemnly collected and the entire cast assumes the persona that they have dreamed of and are costumed accordingly. This development should permit Leander to identify his true love (as the girl selected by his family) forty minutes earlier than he does. It is by no means a bad performance but the opera is better than what we get here after the first act.

Michael Schønwandt directs a splendid account of the score. The musical performance is no doubt reinforced by the frequency with which video director Thorlief Hoppe drops into the pit for random shots of the players and conductor. The DVD offers worthwhile extra features and Dacapo provides first-class booklet notes.

More Nielsen from Dacapo: Admirers of the music of Carl Nielsen should also check out the economically priced Dacapo 3-DVD box of his symphonies performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Michael Schønwandt (2110403-05). The third disc contains The Light and Darkness: On Carl Nielsen’s Life and Music by Karl Aage Rasmussen. The documentary reveals the surprisingly turbulent life of this lovable composer and the astonishing extent of his works.

-Stephen Habington

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