Nielsens decision to create an opera, in co-operation with librettist Vilhelm Andersen, out of Ludvig Holbergs comedy of manners and mistaken identities (akin in these respects to the Restoration comedies of Sheridan) coincided with his resignation from the Royal Theatres orchestra ostensibly over pay and conditions, but surely also because composition was increasingly making prior claims. The success of Maskarade must have reinforced his sense of vocation, making the absence of a production outside Denmark until 1930 (and then only as far as Gothenburg) the more disappointing.
The opera continues the period of Nielsens creativity beginning with the cantata Hymnus Amoris in 1896 and ending with the F major String Quartet a decade later in which themes and their development explore distinct emotional characters. That Maskarade is a comedy, and its musical demeanour of a generally sanguine cast, should not detract from the subtlety with which the main protagonists are depicted and interact. While Andersens libretto here sung in Reginald Spinks English translation, stylishly updated by David Fanning, which conveys much of the originals rhyming sequences and attendant puns articulates the musical evolution ably enough, there is a sense in which the demands of Holbergs drama often conflict with Nielsens own convictions to a marked degree.
Not so Act Two which, taking place between eight and nine in the evening and portraying Arvs half-hearted attempt to prevent Leander (son of Jeronimus) and his servant Henrik from entering the masquerade, is finely constructed and dramatically poised operatic writing. In Act One, however, the scenario whereby Leander admits his love for a woman he encountered at the previous nights masquerade first to the sympathetic Henrik, then to the enraged Jeronimus falls into a series of musical vignettes which fail to cohere as a dramatic whole. Despite their appealing humour, the appearances of Magdelone, Leanders evidently repressed mother, and Leonard father of Leonora, who has been promised to Leander only compound this piecemeal impression, in which musical characterisation often seems reined in by the dictates of stage-action.
Act Three takes place at the masquerade a fitting climax, save that what should be a culmination of character relationships is undermined by the rather rigid sequence of encounters more suited to the medium of spoken drama than music theatre. Nielsens own, recurring doubts about the efficacy of this final act, and his attempts to trim and reorder scenes, are well documented. The edition used here is the critical one with some of the composers approved cuts observed. The denouement in which the various characters unmask themselves (Jeronimus is shamed by his salacious behaviour and Leanders mystery lover turns out to be none other than Leonora) seems a long time in coming and is inadequate in resolving either the dramatic or musical implications of the opera as a whole.
As to the GSMD production itself, Martin Lloyd-Evans has opted for a straightforward period staging that pointed up the opportunities for farce and, thanks to Joanna Parkers designs, presents an alluring spectacle in the masquerade itself. The man-in-the-moon night-watchman in the second act is an especially effective touch.
The cast is generally a strong one led by Christian Sists overbearing but not unsympathetic Jeronimus and William Townends insightful portrayal of the worldly-wise Henrik. (This role is double-cast; Townend appears again on the 10th.) As Leander, Benjamin Hulett combines impetuosity and gaucheness. Gudrun J. Olafsdottir brings out an appropriately impulsive streak in Magdelone, and Geoffrey Heddle a wheedling obsequiousness in Leonard. As Arv, Nicholas Smith is stretched vocally, but entered into the spirit of this put-upon figure with relish. Personable as Samya Wakeds Leonora is, Majka Kaisers coquettish Pernille amply underlines the thinking whereby servants are master to their superiors.
Clive Timmss conducting of the deceptively straightforward-sounding score is lively and idiomatic. The well-known overture is rumbustious rather than sparkling, but the gentle melancholy of the introduction to Act Two is deftly conveyed. The ballet sequences in Act Three the lively Cockerels Dance and the musically-thin divertissement on the myth of Venus and Mars are vividly realised by members of the London Contemporary Dance School.
Above all, the characteristic Nielsen sound came through in full measure, confirming the rightness of the decision to revive Maskarade which, whatever its theatrical failings, has a warmth and generosity of spirit rare in twentieth-century opera, and should have received far more productions outside of Denmark in its near-on 100 years of existence.
- This review is of the first night, 5 June
- Further performances at GSMD on 10 & 11 June at 7 oclock
- Tickets from Barbican Box Office 0845 120 7500