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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Carl Nielsen: Maskarade – Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera / Michael Schønwandt, conductor; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 19 September, 2005 (ED)


Jeronimus: Brindley Sherratt
Magdelone: Kari Hamnøy
Leander: Michael Schade
Henrik: Kyle Ketelsen
: Adrian Thompson
Leonard: Robin Leggate
Leonora: Emma Bell
Pernille: Gail Pearson
Nightwatchman, Constable, Mask-Seller, Professor, Flower-Seller, Magister, Doctor
Mors, Master of Ceremonies: Martin Winkler


Director: David Pountney
Set Designs: Johan Engels
Costume Designs: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel
Choreography: Renato Zanella


Sung in English (trans. David Pountney) with English surtitles.



How nice, one might think, to go to the opera and not be forced to think too hard. Nielsen’s Maskarade might be taken as defining the boundary between opera and operetta in the early years of the twentieth century. The music is upbeat from the start, and wholly accessible to the most inexperienced of opera-goers.  In fact, on the surface of things the only people likely to be disappointed are those used to the more intense sound world of Nielsen’s symphonies. In Denmark, of course, it is accorded classic status – so maybe it’s about time it reached a wider public.

David Poutney’s production takes its cue from the music and presents an action packed evening that exploits the comic possibilities the scenario affords. The scene opens with Leander and his servant Henrik recalling the delights of the previous evening’s masquerade, and the mysterious girls they met – which brings on their desire to go again that evening in the hope of seeing them again. Comic interludes are given by Magdelone, Leander’s mother – herself something of a masquerade habitué in years past, and the interplay between Leander’s father, Jeronimus, his servant Arv – entrusted with the task of ensuring Leander does not attend that evening’s revelry, and Leonard – the father of Leander’s intended, Leonora.  This much occupies the first two acts, with the third being devoted to the much anticipated masquerade itself.

The main problem with the work is that it owes too much to too many and lacks identifiable originality. The plot carries half-shades of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro about it in the master - servant layering, whilst the music steers a course between Lehar and Offenbach (the latter particularly in the third act, where dance forms dominate). Only in the delicate nocturnal opening of Act II is there anything remotely akin to Nielsen’s orchestral writing – and this was indeed atmospherically played. I left feeling as if I’d just sat through a meal consisting almost entirely of deserts. If only there were other passages to give contrast to the all-pervasive fun, the cumulative sweetness would have been dissipated somewhat.

I can envisage a production almost the exact opposite of Poutney’s being effective, set in a quiet white-walled Danish room, leaving the music to carry the frivolity alone. The musical contrast, left unremarked upon, could thereby heighten the work’s serious underlying message regarding commitment vs. frivolity as forces upon youthful love regardless of social station. But this goes for nothing here, and in choosing the frivolous approach though and through at least Poutney et al let it run unremittingly in a style that is not beyond taking the rise out of itself.


But is it entirely successful? Not really. My reservations are not with the production in terms of its overstated staging, or Marie-Jaenne Lecca’s bold and brash costuming. Rather, they are with certain performances, and specifically with Poutney’s all too predictable rhyming translation. Performance-wise Kyle Ketelsen was most impressive, his insightful baritone finding its way with ease around the text. Likewise, Robin Leggate’s character tenor as Leonard made the most of his allotted part. Emma Bell, in her Royal Opera debut, was the most obviously operatic assumption of the evening – demonstrating that great things are indeed on the cusp of realization for her. She easily outclassed Michael Schade, both in terms of tone and diction – it was clearly not his night, rather unfortunately as this left their duets rather one-sided. Gail Pearson’s Pernille provided a well characterised contrast to Leonora in Act III, and well acted too, which should be said for all concerned. Overall though it must be said no single role is long enough to make a strong mark and allow character development: what you see is what you get.

Michael Schønwandt conducts it all with knowing fluidity and keeps the pace moving, at the start perhaps almost too much so. He clearly delights in the orchestration of the masquerade’s variety of dances, though sometimes cannot hide langeurs in Nielsen’s writing. Throughout there was a natural responsiveness between the orchestra and the stage, that demonstrated perhaps that Nielsen’s dramatic sense might have developed had he written further stage works.  That said, the score proved illustrative in snatches that periodically underlined the stage action.

Enjoy it if you can – just don’t expect a single ounce of profundity. A fundamental change in the writing, and a few production alterations would have proved beneficial for me, but that’s as may be.  And if you’re left wondering as to how the lovers’ plight of impulsive infatuation set against paternal expectations resolves itself… let me say only that it ends well for all concerned.



Evan Dickerson




Royal Opera




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