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NIELSEN: Maskarade

CD Button Beck, Dahl, D. Andersen; Riis, S. Andersen, Reuter, Milling; Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir, Schønwandt. Libretto and translation. Dacapo 6.220641-42 (2)

Recordings Maskarade Cover 216
Critics Choice Button 1015 

DANISH COMPOSER  Carl Nielsen,born 150 years ago, penned two operas—the sober, imposing Biblical drama Saul and David (1902) and the frothy comedy Maskarade (1906). It’s often read about the latter, a quite delightful work, that its deft, ever-commenting orchestration bespeaks the work of a man who knew his Meistersinger and his Falstaff. Any first-time listener will hear the similarities; the fact that Nielsen had for years both played (as violinist) and conducted these works at his homeland’s national opera shouldn’t surprise us. I might add that moments in Maskarade suggest a familiarity with the comic portions of Gounod and Massenet’s operas. The score is engaging and pleasant—its overture and ballet sequence have often been heard in concert—but Nielsen’s style here is melodic without being memorably so. Still, the work—frequently seen in its homeland—has received only a few small-company stagings in the U.S. (Bronx Opera did it three decades ago.) Maskarade’s literal Danishness and local contextual specificity may be a problem. But the rhyming libretto sounds easily convertible into English prosody (Dacapo’s booklet’s translation is inventive but rather steeped in Britishisms), and Maskarade seems ripe for a festival or high-level conservatory production.

The libretto is an adaptation of a comedy by Ludvig Holberg, Denmark’s answer to Molière, involving a generational family conflict over the choice of marriage partners. Leander and Leonora, the amorous couple who met at one of Copenhagen’s “scandalous” masked balls, do not realize they’re in fact already engaged, sight unseen, thanks to their stern fathers, Jeronimus and Leonard. Each lover has a servant (Henrik and Pernille, respectively) who is central to the plot. Leander’s mother, Magdelone, is a plum comic role—an older lady who stills revels in dancing and sneaks off to the masked balls to do so. The roles and idiom demand theatrical skill—in fact, the creators of Jeronimus (Karl Mantzius) and Leonard (Peter Jerndorff) were primarily theater actors. Mantzius’s other main opera role was Beckmesser, and Jerndorff played Dr. Rank in the world premiere of Ibsen’s Doll’s House.

The veteran Michael Schønwandt presides over a lively taping involving many excellent Danish singers. Three have been heard at the Met in the Wagner–Strauss fach. Stephen Milling’s rich bass wobbles some, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the outmoded, disapproving patriarch Jeronimus. Stig Fogh Andersen’s Leonard, drawn with skill, now commands a timbre more appropriate for Mime than the heroic tenor with which he sang Siegfried internationally. For the nimble, clever Henrik, the fine bass-baritone Johan Reuter musters a fine sound, a tad muscle-bound for the youthful part. As Leander, Niels Jørgen Riis phrases his music beautifully yet sounds more like an aging David or Valzacchi than a leading romantic tenor. Anne Margrethe Dahl, one of Copenhagen’s veteran leading sopranos, takes on Magdelone with spirit. In the younger roles, Dénise Beck (Leonora) and Ditte Højgaard Andersen (Pernille) give fresh, musical, invested performances. A pleasant discovery awaits many listeners.  —David Shengold 

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