Maskarade [Comic opera in three acts after Ludvig Holberg’s “Mascarade”; Vilhelm Andersen’s libretto sung in an English translation by David Pountney]
Jeronimus – Brindley Sherratt
Leander – Michael Schade
Henrik – Kyle Ketelsen
Magdelone – Kari Hamnøy
Leonard – Robin Leggate
Leonora – Emma Bell
Pernille – Gail Pearson
Arv – Adrian Thompson
Corporal Mors, et al – Martin Winkler
Flower seller – John Hewitt-Jones
Cupid – Richard Gauntlett
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
David Pountney – director
Johan Engels – sets
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – costumes
Wolfgang Göbbel – lighting
Renato Zanella – choreography
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 19 September, 2005
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
As Smetana did for Czech opera with “The Bartered Bride” a generation before, so Nielsen created national Danish opera with “Maskarade” in 1906. Yet, as the acceptance of Smetana’s opera proves, an unfamiliar language alone cannot have been the reason for its absence from the British stage until Opera North’s production of 1992. Since then an unwieldy production at the Guildhall School has reinforced that the opera contains some of Nielsen’s best music, but doubts over its effectiveness as a stage-work remain and are in many respects exacerbated by the Royal Opera’s new production.
That “Maskarade” is a comedy should not detract from the subtlety with which the main protagonists are, during the first two acts at least, depicted. While Vilhelm Andersen’s libretto – sung here in David Pountney’s self-consciously racy translation, which nonetheless conveys much of the Danish original’s rhyming sequences (frequently denied to those who were relying on surtitles for their understanding of the text!) and attendant puns – articulates the music’s evolution ably enough, there is often a sense in which Holberg’s stagecraft conflicts with Nielsen’s own dramatic convictions to a marked degree.
Not so in Act Two – as dramatically poised a span of opera as any of its era. Act One, however, falls into a series of musical vignettes which, for all their Mozartian deftness, fail to cohere as a dramatic whole. Act Three takes place at the masquerade – a fitting climax, save that what should be the culmination of character relationships is undermined by a rigid sequence of encounters more suited to the medium of spoken drama than that of music theatre, leading to a denouement which not only seems a long time in coming, but is also too perfunctory to resolve the dramatic and musical implications of the opera as a whole. It hardly helped in this instance that the conclusion was treated here as a full-blown ‘send up’, the main characters taking their bow before the music had concluded – the final bars of which were thus rendered nearly inaudible against the wholly unsubtle and engineered applause.
One might have hoped, having largely been absent from British opera houses for over a decade now, that Pountney would have acquired a new range of stage procedures to revitalise what had become a manifestly tired approach by the end of his tenure with English National Opera. Although the skewed picture-frame in which the stage action is set is hardly an original idea, it does seem apposite to the frequently off-kilter activities taking place within. And, throughout the first act and intermittently during the second, his handling of stage-action – allied to Johan Engels’s stylishly period sets and Maria-Jeanne Lecca’s colourful and not unduly over-the-top costumes – conveyed the humour of the opera without descending to cheap parody.
Which, unfortunately, is just what happens in Act Three – the masquerade used as a vehicle for a succession of stunts which, however farcical in intent or camp in appearance, were cringing and completely unfunny. Add to this the old Pountney trick of cluttering the stage with as much superfluous action as possible, so avoiding any need to more meaningfully render the drama in visual terms, and it becomes clear that the director who took the UK stage by storm with his probing and provocative productions a quarter-century ago is all but coasting on the basis of his reputation.
As to the singers, Brindley Sherratt’s overbearing but not unsympathetic Jeronimus (his burnished tone ideally suited to his reflective Act One aria) and Kyle Ketelsen’s capricious portrayal of the worldly-wise Henrik were the undoubted stars. As Leander, Michael Schade tellingly combined impetuosity and gaucheness, despite his occasionally pallid delivery, while Kari Hamnøy brought out the impulsive (or should that be desperate?) streak in Magdelone. Robin Leggate was on vintage form as the obsequious Leonard, and Adrian Thompson portrayed the put-upon Arv with relish. Eloquent and alluring as was Emma Bell’s Leonora (her Act Two duet with Leander the highpoint it needs to be), it was Gail Pearson’s raunchy Pernille that amply underlined the way that servants can master their superiors. Martin Winkler took on his cameos with baleful authority, but Richard Gauntlett’s physical acrobatics as Cupid provided a visual ‘leitmotiv’ that grew tiresome as the opera proceeded.
There can be few conductors better able to capture the essence of this deceptively sanguine score than Michael Schønwandt, and so it proved – with a sparking account of the well-known overture (its halting segue into the opera worthy of Mozart), and with the gentle melancholy of the introduction to Act Two and ballet sequences in Act Three well realised by an in-form Royal Opera House Orchestra. Throughout the evening, the characteristic ‘Nielsen sound’ came through in full measure – confirming that “Maskarade”, whatever its theatrical failings, is an opera well worthy of revival. A pity, then, that not more of its warmth and generosity of spirit – qualities at a premium in twentieth-century opera – was encouraged to come through in this often-entertaining but too frequently superficial production.