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Christian Frederik Emil HORNEMAN (1840-1906)
Aladdin (1888, revised 1902)
Aladdin – Bror Magnus Tødenes, tenor
Gulnare – Dénise Beck, soprano
Noureddin – Johan Reuter, bass-baritone
Sultan – Stephen Milling, bass
Vizier – Henning von Schulman, bass
Morgiane – Hanne Fischer, mezzo-soprano
Genie of the Lamp – Steffan Bruun, bass
Genie of the Ring – Elisabeth Jansson, mezzo-soprano
Handmaidens – Frederikke Kampmann, soprano, Sidsel Aja Eriksen, mezzo-soprano
Elves – Klaudio Kidon, soprano, Rikke Lender, mezzo-soprano
Messenger – Jakob Soelberg, bass-baritone
Danish National Concert Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. 2020, Danish Radio Concert Hall
DA CAPO 6.200007 SACD [3 discs: 179]

Although it does not advertise itself as such, this set clearly is intended to form part of an ongoing Da Capo series of studio recordings of obscure Danish operas of the late romantic period in co-operation with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. It has the same handsome presentation as that of Enna’s Kleopatra from a couple of years ago which I welcomed in a review on this site back in January of last year.

Like Kleopatra, Horneman’s Aladdin had one previous staging of merit; but it was a long time ago. The opera was originally given a premiere in 1888 as part of the celebrations for the silver jubilee of King Christian IX, and like many such prestigious occasions (one thinks of Britten’s Gloriana) it fell flat on its face, apparently as the result of inadequate preparation and rehearsal. Horneman revised the work, which was published in 1895 and finally revived with success for eighteen performances in 1902-03 – after which it seems to have effectively vanished from sight, despite the fact that the run was sold out, until this recording over a century later. The history of the work as summarised here is fully laid out in a fascinating booklet essay by Inger Sørensen, and we are further informed by Niels Bo Foltmann that for this recording the score has been newly edited to include amendments made by Horneman during the course of the 1902-03 performances; so that effectively we can now hear the opera for the first time in the form that the composer finally intended.

It appears that the opera came in for some criticism in its earlier years, not so much for its supposedly Wagnerian overtones as for its allegedly clumsy libretto. In fact this does not seem to be so much of a liability here – we are given the basic bones of the Arabian Nights story, with some additional elements familiar from British pantomime. In the first Act, Aladdin finds the magic lamp; in the second and third, he uses the power of the genie to establish himself as a suitor for the hand of the Sultan’s daughter; and in the fourth, he overcomes the evil enchantments of the magician Noureddin to recover her from captivity. Other pantomime accretions, such as Widow Twankey, vanish and are replaced by Aladdin’s mother Morgiane who dies during the interval between Acts Three and Four. The Sultan also having died during this period, the opera ends with the coronation of Aladdin and his beloved Gulnare. Any Chinese elements in the story similarly disappear, to be replaced somewhat bizarrely by Scandinavian elements such as references to trolls which sit rather uneasily in their context. But the scenario provides plenty of elements for exciting and dramatic music, which are eagerly seized upon by Horneman as a part of his more grandiose treatment of the court scenes. These tend to reflect the world of Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba or Massenet’s Esclarmonde rather more than the more stately realm of Wagner as portrayed in Lohengrin; and the distinct division of the score into individual numbers tends to lay emphasis on the spectacle rather than the dramatic development of the characters, already rather hazy. The real musical climax of the opera comes at the opening of Act Four, where the lament of Aladdin for the grief-stricken death of his mother rises to genuine emotional heights with a beautifully fragile lullaby [disc3, track 14]. This makes a real contrast to the more bombastic music associated with the Sultan’s court. There are similarly beautiful moments of relaxation with Gulnare and her handmaidens before her wedding [disc3, track 3] where the blending of the female voices anticipates Richard Strauss as well as echoing Massenet (this time, Thaïs).

It is clear from this recording that Aladdin is a work of real weight, which well deserves revival and performance. The orchestra, which to judge from the number of players listed in the booklet, exceeds Wagnerian requirements in the strings, plays powerfully and superbly throughout under the direction of Michael Schønwandt, who displays all the energetic involvement and sense of panache required. The chorus too provide plenty of weight in their solid contributions. Sometimes in these types of praiseworthy revival, concerns arise over the role of the principal singers; and initially I was slightly concerned lest their slightly backward (although realistic) placement in the recorded balance might lead to suspicions that some of the more heroic roles could have been cast with heavier voices. But such concerns soon evaporated, and some of the delicate singing of Bror Magnus Tødenes (notably in the lullaby mentioned earlier) is absolutely beautiful in both placement and tone. Johan Reuter is also notable for the strength of his contribution as the villainous Noureddin, and the two principal female roles are admirably filled by the vibrant Dénise Beck and the warmly maternal Hanne Fischer. Stephen Milling is noble-toned as the Sultan (although one can imagine the role delivered with deeper gravity) and Henning von Schulmann is lighter-toned as the Vizier. The one small criticism might lie with the treatment of the two genies: Seffen Bruun in control of the Lamp, and Elisabeth Janssen of the Ring. Both have steady and clear delivery, but they are less than ideally imposing in an acoustic which makes little or no attempt to provide any sort of supernatural halo around their voices. Now it may well true that Horneman makes no request for this (no demands for a Wagnerian Sprachrohr as in the latter’s score for the Ring) but some sort of distinction of the elemental nature of the genies themselves is surely needed to substitute for the stage appearance of these spirits. Where is John Culshaw when you need him?

But this is really a very minor complaint, and the total number of bars affected is very small in the context of such a large-scale score. The Acts are carefully distributed between the three discs, although the length of the third disc (82.20) may cause problems on some machines; could not a suitable break have been made in Act Three at one of the suitable pauses? Nonetheless, as I have already observed, the presentation of the set in its dark (possibly too dark for clarity) and imposingly handsome box, three discs in cardboard sleeves and 152-page booklet in Danish and English with complete libretto and translation, is absolutely excellent – just what is required if an altogether unknown opera such as this is to receive proper appreciation. One looks forward eagerly to further such revelations.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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