Masquerade – GSMD

Masquerade (Maskarade) – Comic Opera in three acts [performed in the English translation by Reginald Spink, revised by David Fanning]

Leander – Benjamin Hulett
Henrik – William Townend*
Magdelone – Gudrun J. Olafsdottir
Jeronimus – Christian Sist
Leonard – Geoffrey Heddle
Arv – Nicholas Smith
Night-watchman – Giles Underwood
Leonora – Samya Waked
Pernille – Majka Kaiser
Mask-seller – Tom Oldham

[* In the performances of 7 & 11 June, Freddie Tong takes the role of Henrik]

Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Clive Timms

Martin Lloyd-Evans – director
Joanna Parker – designer
Sarah Fahie – chreographer
Aideen Malone – lighting designer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 June, 2003
Venue: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

As Smetana had done for Czech opera with The Bartered Bride over a generation before, so Nielsen created a national Danish opera with Maskarade – completed early in 1906 and premiered at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen on 11 November that year. Yet, as the British acceptance of Smetana’s opera proves, an unfamiliar language cannot have been the reason for its absence from the UK stage until as recently as 1992. Since then, a superb Danish recording (DECCA 460 227-2) has reinforced the opera’s musical credentials, but doubts over its effectiveness as a stagework remain – even after this enthusiastic and engaging production by the Guildhall School.

Nielsen’s decision to create an opera, in co-operation with librettist Vilhelm Andersen, out of Ludvig Holberg’s comedy of manners and mistaken identities (akin in these respects to the Restoration comedies of Sheridan) coincided with his resignation from the Royal Theatre’s 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 Nielsen’s 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 Andersen’s libretto – here sung in Reginald Spink’s English translation, stylishly updated by David Fanning, which conveys much of the original’s rhyming sequences and attendant puns – articulates the musical evolution ably enough, there is a sense in which the demands of Holberg’s drama often conflict with Nielsen’s own convictions to a marked degree.

Not so Act Two – which, taking place between eight and nine in the evening and portraying Arv’s 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 night’s 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, Leander’s 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. Nielsen’s 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 composer’s approved cuts observed. The denouement – in which the various characters unmask themselves (Jeronimus is shamed by his salacious behaviour and Leander’s 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 Parker’s 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 Sist’s overbearing but not unsympathetic Jeronimus and William Townend’s 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 Waked’s Leonora is, Majka Kaiser’s coquettish Pernille amply underlines the thinking whereby servants are master to their superiors.

Clive Timms’s 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 o’clock
  • Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 0845 120 7500

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