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August ENNA (1859-1939) Kleopatra (1894)
Elsebeth Dreisig (soprano) – Kleopatra, Magnus Vigilius (tenor) – Harmaki, Ruslana Kaval
(soprano) – Charmion, Lars Møller (baritone) – Sepa, Jens Bové
(bass) – Schafra, Kirsten Grønfeldt (soprano) – Iras
Danish National Opera Chorus
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Joachim Gustafsson
rec. Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense Koncerthus, 8-10 April 2019 DACAPO 8.226708-09 [47.17 + 64.16]
The operatic composers who followed in the wake of Wagner very rarely escaped his influence, even when they were reacting against his style or methods; and many of them did not even attempt to do so. The Danish composer August Enna was spellbound from his earlier years by the influence of Bayreuth, and within ten years of Wagner’s death had produced a Teutonic mythological opera entitled The witches which scored some considerable success in Copenhagen and elsewhere. He followed this with a considerably more exotic subject: Kleopatra was based on a novel by of all people Ryder Haggard (whose reputation nowadays derives from the subject matter of such Hollywood blockbuster epics as King’s Solomon’s Mines or She), but it ran into all sorts of unedifying squabbles regarding the libretto and contracts with various publishers (elaborated with some amusement in the booklet essay by Henrik Engelbrecht with this release) before it finally re-emerged in 1897, some ten years before Strauss conclusively cornered the market in eastern exoticism with Salome. After some initial success Kleopatra then totally vanished from the stage and this recording derives from a revival in Copenhagen in March 2019.
Mind you, even the initial success of Kleopatra was a rather fragile affair. One lesson that Enna had failed to learn from Wagner was precisely when and how to lighten his orchestral textures to allow the voices of his singers to penetrate the more strenuously scored passages. His two principal roles seem to have conceived with singers in mind who would normally tackle the major roles in the Ring, and much of their music is written to be delivered in stentorian tones over heavy orchestral accompaniments. Unless the world’s leading Brünnhilde and Siegfried happened to be available, Enna’s music was always going to be an uphill struggle in the theatre; and it is not surprising to learn that his first cast, with a soprano from the world of operetta and a weak lyric tenor, nearly sank the opera completely. He revised the score before attempting a second (and successful) presentation, although from the evidence of this recording he did little to lighten the scoring. He may have cut back on the sheer physical effort involved by curtailing its duration (the opera lasts less than two hours spread over three Acts) but that leaves the plot cut back to its bare essentials and the motivation of the characters reduced to something close to zero.
Those bare essentials may indeed be summarised within just one sentence. A scion of the old house of the pre-Ptolemaic pharaohs seeks to assassinate the foreign interloper Cleopatra, but instead falls in love with her; his jealous co-conspirator betrays the plot, whereupon Cleopatra seizes the knife from his breast, leaving him to commit suicide and his betrayer to sing a lament. And that is really all that is left of Haggard’s original text. Indeed, most of Act One is now devoted to setting up the scenario and characters for the action which takes place during the second half of the opera; and even in Act Three around a quarter of its length is taken up with a protracted ballet scene (CD2, track 5) representing an entertainment staged for Cleopatra and her court. The action moves swiftly from one situation to another, pausing every so often for an extended lyrical interlude; but the dramatic impetus is fatally missing.
This is particularly apparent towards the end. After the long love duet between Cleopatra and her would-be assassin in Act Three (CD2, track 8) the music rises to a full-scale Tristanesque outburst, only to settle on an unexpectedly quiet concluding chord and pause (presumably to allow for applause in stage performances) before Cleopatra abruptly grabs his weapon. That pause is dramatically fatal; it completely dissipates the considerable head of steam that has built up in the preceding duet, and the perfunctory manner in which Cleopatra then reveals her knowledge of the conspiracy and her arrest of the plotters leaves the listener feeling cheated (and mystified as to her motivation for the seduction in the first place). The libretto provided with the recording does not even tell us when the queen leaves the stage after pronouncing her sentence; instead the protagonist leaves the final word to her rival Charmion, who sings a lament (CD2, track 11) which decidedly is no Liebestod and concludes almost apologetically. One strongly suspects that someone – either the composer himself during his revision progress, or an editor preparing the score for this revival – has been over-enthusiastically wielding the scissors in an attempt to inject dramatic pace and urgency into the final pages of the opera. If either is the case – the booklet notes are silent on the matter – the results remain unsatisfactory.
This lack of dramatic cohesion is all the more distressing because Enna’s command of the lyrical moments is so good. It is true that he may fail to bring to life the duet between the would-be pharaoh Harmaki and the jealous Charmion at the end of Act Two (CD2, track 4), where lines like “Now I do not answer for my actions” sound positively apologetic. But the two duets between Harmaki and Kleopatra both bristle with richly scored and surging melodies, as well as moments of relative stillness such as Kleopatra’s lyre-accompanied song in Act Three. Enna’s orchestral writing may be over-luxuriant and strenuously challenging to all but the most heroic voices, but it has a richness of tone and warmth that rise to positively Puccinian heights in places. The ballet music in Act Three may be comparatively conventional (Enna was a great admirer of Delibes) but it has a sparkle and wit which justify its inclusion in the opera. And Joachim Gustafsson rightly gives the Odense Symphony Orchestra their head throughout; any attempt to scale back the sound in order to ‘assist’ the singers is properly resisted, to allow us to hear the glories of Enna’s instrumentation at its best.
The three principal singers are perhaps not ideally cast. The two sopranos taking the rival roles of Kleopatra and Charmion are too much alike in timbre; Enna cast the second role for a mezzo in his revision, but I cannot imagine any mezzo feeling comfortable in the higher reaches of such vital passages as the final lament. And the Ukrainian soprano Ruslana Koval is fully in control of her voice for the more delicate sections of her role, almost the main character in the opera, who both opens and closes the action with extensive solos. The problem arises rather with Elsebeth Dreisig in the title role; this soprano has a good reputation in Puccini roles up to and including Butterfly, but we really need more of a Sieglinde or an Isolde in the part of this ferociously competent queen who can wield sex as a weapon in her pursuit of political power. Wagnerian heroism is provided to a greater extent by Magnus Vigilius who, we are informed, is to make his Bayreuth debut in 2021; he has the right sort of voice, with plenty of penetrative power, but his metallic tone lacks any of the ideal sense of lyrical warmth which might raise our sympathy for this hapless dupe caught in the web of a conspiracy almost entirely contrived by others. Lars Møller, as the high priest who is one of these manipulators but disappears from view almost entirely after the opening scene, has a pleasantly modulated baritone voice in a role which in places seems to be begging for a Wotan to thunder out his denunciations of the usurper of the pharaonic throne.
But then it is perhaps preferable to have singers in the principal roles who deliver the notes accurately and with proper style than forcing their voices in a desperate competition with the orchestra and barking out their declamatory passages without control. It certainly makes for an easier listen, and it also serves the music of Enna well. Thanks to the excellent recording we can hear nearly everything; and the decision was rightly taken to record the opera in sessions after the theatrical revival at Danish Opera the month earlier. The studio recording allows the engineers to produce musical balances and avoids any problems with stage noises, as well as ensuring accuracy in the performance – a very large consideration when you think that we are unlikely to have any rival recording in the near future. We are told that this is the first of a “series of new productions of forgotten Danish late romantic to early modernist operas.” It is a pleasure to find such a series so well produced, and I look forward to future instalments.
Indeed the presentation, in a handsome box with the two discs in cardboard sleeves and a substantial booklet with complete text in Danish and English translation, is excellent in helping the listener to appreciate the merits of an opera which, despite its dramatic deficiencies, well deserves its revival.