I was very interested to hear this opera, as I have for a long time been a fan of Nielsen’s orchestral music (which includes my all-time favourite flute concerto). I mentioned that I was going to it in an opera discussion forum, to which the two responses from people who had seen it were ” I can promise you that you will enjoy it… lovely dance routines, enjoyable music” and “It’s crap and I hope I never have to suffer through it again”. It also appears to be quite an obscure work (at least, outside of Denmark) – so, deservedly forgotten, or an overlooked gem?
As my recent operatic diet has been predominantly Wagner, with a little Don Carlos and Werther for light relief, it was quite a shock to the system to see something so unashamedly frivolous, upbeat, and generally fluffy. However, that’s not to say that the change wasn’t a good thing, and probably a little overdue. In a very brief summary, the plot revolves around party-loving young Danish chap Leander (Michael Schade), his even more hedonistic manservant Henrik (Kyle Ketelsen), Leander’s strict and dour father Jeronimus (Brindley Sherratt) and miserable and frustrated mother Magdelone (Kari Hamnoy). Jeronimus has set up an arranged marriage for Leander and is distinctly unimpressed by Leander’s professions of love for some trollop he met while out on the lash at some dodgy club – sorry, the Maskarade. Suffice it to say that in the grand comic opera tradition, all the characters end up – in masks, naturally – at the Maskarade, where much drinking, dancing and debauchery ensues. Jeronimus gets pissed and enjoys himself thoroughly, which rather weakens his case when it comes to patriarchal laying-down of the law. The ending is happy, and nobody dies.
I don’t remember coming across any of the singers before, but thought they generally did a good job of it. Brindley Sherratt created an excellent characterisation of Jeronimus, transforming from a stern and no-nonsense pillar of the community to, well, a lecherous drunk twat. I found Michael Schade’s Leander a little stuffy and unconvincing, though, both as party-boy and ardent lover. Not so Kyle Ketelsen, who was clearly enjoying himself immensely in the role of Henrik (a character owing more than a little to Figaro and perhaps Leporello), swaggering around the set and making the most of his many comedy moments. I personally like Ketelsen’s voice very much; a warm, rich bass-baritone with strength in the lower register and clarity of tone in the upper (well, perhaps apart from the soprano-mocking falsetto bit). Both Sherratt, as mentioned before, and Emma Bell (as Leonora, Leander’s beloved) were also in fine voice. On the other hand, I have to say that I found Martin Winkler’s voice (in a variety of small roles) to be really quite unpleasant, but that’s of course my personal taste.
Much of Nielsen’s music manages at once to be highly melodic yet not really have any tunes one leaves the theatre humming, and Maskarade is of this ilk. There was plenty of the slippy-slidy modality between the major and minor that is a trademark of Nielsen’s compositional style, and some delicate woodwind squiggles as decoration. One thing which I like about his writing is the way the harmony tends to veer off into unexpected modulations which tend to be modal rather than chromatic, which can feel quite subversive; however, I am also aware that many listeners find this same tendency actively annoying. Having listed the positive points, in my opinion this was very far from Nielsen at his best. It lacked depth (I suppose understandably, given the subject material) and had little of interest rhythmically. There were a few lovely woodwind moments, including a great flute solo, which were reminiscent of his chamber music and the calmer bits of the concertos, but they were too few and far between. There was a game effort by the company to make the dances of the third act more interesting, but their amusing costumes didn’t quite do the trick, and some trimming wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Overall, I am definitely glad I went to see this performance, but I would be careful who I recommended it to. To a fan of light comic opera, it should be an enjoyable evening, although it’s certainly not Mozart. Those who have a knowledge and admiration for Nielsen’s symphonies will probably be disappointed by the quality of the music. I found the set very visually pleasing and quite witty; the costumes less so.