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Hakon BØRRESEN (1876 – 1954)
Den kongelige Gæst (The Royal Guest) - Comedy to music in one act (1919)
Stig Fogh Andersen (tenor) – Arnold Høyer;
Tina Kiberg (soprano) – Emmy, his wife;
Guido Paevatalu (baritone) – the guest;
Edith Guillaume (mezzo-soprano) – Ane, the Høyers’ maid;
Lise-Lotte Nielsen (soprano) – the servant girl;
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Tamás Vetö
Recorded Odense Concert Hall, 10–13, 16–17 June 2003. DDD
DACAPO 8.226020 [79:20]



Hakon Børresen was one of the last romantic Danish composers. He was eleven years Carl Nielsen’s junior but was much more conservative. He became even more stubborn the older he got and refused to accept any of the new musical ideas that influenced his contemporaries during the first decades of the 20th century. He learnt his trade from Johan Svendsen and, besides his teacher and mentor, Gade, Grieg and Wagner served as his models. He didn’t compose much: his Symphony No. 3 from 1927 carries opus number 21 and after that very little came from his pen. He wasn’t much of a melodist but a brilliant orchestrator. Indeed some of his orchestral compositions are well worth hearing for their inventiveness, especially the aforementioned symphony and its nearest predecessor, “The Sea”, written in 1904. These two works are to be found on a Dacapo disc (in Sweden on Naxos) with the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. There is a companion disc with the charming music for the ballet “ Uranienborg” about the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. This is colourful music, partly drawing on folk tunes from Denmark, Sweden and Scotland. The disc also contains the prelude to “The Royal Guest”, which is often played, even today, as a concert piece. And it is riveting music, presenting some themes that are to appear later on in the opera proper.

The opera is labelled “opera comedy” and it fits the bill, but is more than that. The action takes place in the home of Doctor Høyer and his wife who have been married for some years and now lead a calm life with few guests. What passion there has been has withered. Suddenly in the evening, sleigh bells are heard – very realistically painted in the orchestra – and an unknown man appears. He doesn’t want to reveal his identity. “Call me Prince Carnival”, he says. He is invited and turns out to be very sociable, very musical and arranges a nice party for the three of them. He decorates the house with flowers and during the dinner Emmy becomes more and more drawn to the enigmatic stranger who finally crowns her with roses in her hair. This makes Arnold feel that the Guest “has crossed the line”. So Prince Carnival leaves the house but tells them to let joy and magic into their life. And after a slight row they decide they have learned something from their guest and walk arm in arm into the bedroom. A comedy it is but with a serious message.

“The Royal Guest” is often referred to as a conversation opera. Most of it is sung in a recitative like parlando. Now and then there are arioso passages but no arias and it isn’t wrong to say that the main protagonist is the orchestra. It lives its own life illustrating, underlining, commenting. There are some “themes” that recur, so even if there is nothing like the Wagnerian Leitmotif-technique, Børresen at least gives a nod to the Bayreuth master. Just as in the other orchestral music the instrumentation is dazzling. At the premiere at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen in November 1919 the opera was a great success and continued to be so for 45 years until Paul Wiedemann, who also sang at the premiere, decided to retire. He had then sung the role of Arnold 134 times; it still counts as the most played Danish opera ever.

Den kongelige Gæst needs good singing actors with a feel for verbal nuance. For this recording Dacapo have gathered some of the most experienced members of the Royal Opera: Tina Kiberg, Stig Fogh Andersen and Guido Paevatalu; singers who also have significant international careers. But singing heavy roles in big houses has left their mark and both Kiberg and Andersen are here afflicted with a heavy beat in their voices and a loss of resonance. Hearing them both in Stockholm just a few years ago in Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder, they were both in much better shape. Paevatalu, who has concentrated on lighter roles, especially Mozart, has fared much better. However when it comes to the interpretation all of them are well inside their characters, finding the right expressions and after the Royal Guest has left, both husband and wife take on a warmer, more rounded tone, indicating that the change they have experienced may remain. Hungarian-born Tamás Vetö, who started his career with the Royal Danish Opera in 1958, knows how to keep things moving and it is to a large extent thanks to him that this comedy works so well even on disc. Comparing the Prelude with Arwel Hughes’ version it is interesting to notice that Vetö is almost two minutes faster, mainly because Arwel Hughes lingers more over the slow string-dominated – and very beautiful – moments near the end of the piece. Vetö is more rhythmically alert elsewhere. Both are valid interpretations.

The booklet provides splendid documentation in three languages (Danish, English and German). From this source I have gleaned much of the information in this review. Of course there is a synopsis and a full libretto with line-by-line translation. Exemplary!

The singing could at times have been more easy on the ear, but anyone who wants to go on an excursion along some lesser known operatic paths can still safely choose this one.


Göran Forsling



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