Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Carl Nielsen Maskarade Kasper Holten Copenhagen

Denmark has produced many composers, from Nils Gade to  Per Nørgård, and more, but Carl Nielsen is perhaps the best known. This year, the 150th anniversary of his birth, his music is being honoured all over the world. In the UK alone, we've had two major cycles of his symphonies (Oramo and Storgårds).  The First Night of the BBC Proms this year features the famous Overture to Nielsen's opera, Maskarade.  In Denmark, Nielsen has iconic status. The Royal Danish Opera (Det Kongelige Teater) revived the celebrated Kasper Holten production from 2006. It's available on DVD but you can hear this year's performance recorded live this April for free, HERE on BBC Radio 3

If anything, the 2015 performance is even livelier and more spirited, which suits the opera very well.   Unlike Nielsen's Saul og David (which I wrote about here),  Maskarade is bright and fluffy, with deliberate references to Mozart, in the music as well as in the plot.  A mask disguises identity, and a masked ball is an opportunity for adventure and intrigue. Masters and servants mix as equals. Rich men and thieves (sometimes one and the same) mingle undetected. Fantasy reigns and social order can be overturned.

Kasper Holten's Maskarade was created when he was Director of the Copenhagen Opera. It has some of the character of his acclaimed Wagner Ring, although the down to earth domesticity works even better in Maskarade.  Leander (Niels Jørgen Riis) wakes after an all-night party. His bedroom's askew, his bed upright. Henrik (Johan Reuter) helps him sober up. Henrik is Leander's minder, though Leander's family isn't as rich as they were. Henrik has aspirations, he's more couth than Leporello. He bursts into Latin from time to time. But he's a valet, for all that. Leander's fallen in love with a mystery girl he met at a masked ball, so he rebels when his father Jeronimus (Stephen Milling) wants him to marry a girl who can restore the family fortunes.  As Jeronimus, head of the formerly wealthy household, sings: "Once we knew our proper station, husband, wife, daughter, son, high born, low born, all the nation"....youth would never need it's all masquerading. Now it's all equality!" 

As it turns out the intended bride Leonora (Anne Margrethe Dahl) fancies Leander too, but the pair don't realize that their parents' plot might unintentionally work out right. But meanwhile, good natured wit, in the music with its witty refrains and in the visuals. Pretentious folk wear coloured eye masks , while earthy folks like Henrik walk around in a T-shirt (though he, too wears a mask when he sings a parody of Jeronimus's s "masquerading" aria). Masks off when Leander and Leonora sing their magical love duet. At the ball, masks aren't needed either - everyone's dressed up as someone they'd like to be. Acrobats sail down from the rafters. A jolly time is had by all.  An even funnier scene where Leander and Leonore celebrate suburban domestic bliss with a barbecue and plastic furniture. Henrik, dressed as Elvis, seduces Leonore's maid ! This, I think perfectly captures the spirit of Carl Nielsen.  Maskarade is Die Fledermaus without the cynical undercurrent of viciousness. It's not grandiose or maudlin, but quirky, tolerant kindness. The booing lynch mob at Covent Garden will never understand.

Please also see my piece on Carl Nielsen's Saul og David "Not a butter cookie"  HERE

This Saul og David is also available on BBC Radio 3

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