There must be something about not very good comedies that make for good operas: Verdi’s Falstaff, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, is surely among his greatest works, even though the source material is not exactly brilliant. The same can be said for Carl Nielsen’s adaptation of Ludvig Holberg’s 1724 comedy Maskarade (“Masquerade”), a rather trite, only occasionally funny play that still served as the basis for an opera bursting with irresistible melodies, wit and colourful, inventive orchestration.

Maskarade takes place in Copenhagen in the spring of 1723. The curtain rises to show our hero, Leander, waking up from a particularly nasty hangover... at five o’clock in the afternoon. Not long after, his servant Henrik, something of a Figaro type with a pronounced Socialist streak, also wakes up, and the two start recounting the happenings of last night’s masquerade: Leander met a girl, Leonora, and, as seems to be customary in this kind of operation, they got engaged. The trouble is, Leander is already engaged to the daughter of Leonard, a merchant from the country. Leander’s father, Jeronimus, fuming with rage, tries unsuccessfully to make Leander honour his promise to Leonard’s daughter, but he refuses.

Despite being under house arrest, Leander and Henrik make their way to the masquerade to meet Leonora again. Not far behind is Leonard, wanting to experience this near-magical place. Also sneaking out to enjoy some masquerading is Leander’s mother Magdelone, also under house arrest; trapped in an unhappy marriage, she only wants to go out and have some fun. Jeronimus soon discovers what has happened and drags along his servant Arv and heads to the masquerade, absolutely furious.

The party is well under way, and all the characters get swept up in the whirlwind of lights, dancing and romancing: Leander sings sweet nothings to Leonora; Henrik is busy wooing Leonora’s maid, Pernille, and is at the same time accosted by old flames; Magdelone and Leonard start flirting with each other, unaware of each other’s identities; and Jeronimus gets outrageously drunk. As everyone’s identity is revealed at the end of the party, Leonard recognises his daughter, Leonora. All is forgiven, as Leander and Leonora were engaged all along, and a rousing chorus extolling the virtues of the masquerade finishes off the opera.

Ludvig Holberg was an 18th century Danish playwright, famous for his commedia dell’arte-inspired comedies, often with a satirical undercurrent. Carl Nielsen had long been toying with the idea of writing a comic opera. Ever since the 1890s, he had wanted to write one based on one of Holberg’s comedies. Finding a librettist proved a difficult task, as most of the writers he asked would not dare adapt Holberg, but Nielsen finally found someone up for the task: Vilhelm Andersen, the first professor of Danish literature at the Copenhagen University. It was not, however, Andersen’s academic credentials that made him Nielsen’s pick for Maskarade librettist: Nielsen had seen Andersen perform in a student revue and was immediately attracted by his sheer charisma.

In Holberg’s Maskarade, the titular masked ball is never explicitly shown, save a short pantomime at the end of Act I, showing the engagement of Leander and Leonora. The masquerade is only talked about. In his operatic adaptation, Andersen condensed the action of Holberg’s three-act play, condensing most of the original action, and adding a final act, showing the more or less drunken revelries of the masquerade in all its glory. The new act does little in terms of developing the plot itself; it is more a collage of what happens at the masquerade, from a moralising madrigal to a ballet entertainment, mistaken identities and finally the unmasking, the guests finally showing their true identities, leading to the conclusion of the opera.

Nielsen long struggled with composing the opera. His wife, Anne-Marie, a celebrated sculptor in her own right, was working abroad and had been so for quite some time. Due to being busy with work, she had neglected her correspondence with her husband, which frustrated him greatly, to the point that he in 1905 asked for a divorce. This divorce was never finalised, and Nielsen suddenly got a jolt of inspiration finishing the opera in highly productive bursts of creativity. He wrote to Anne-Marie telling her of his progress, saying that it was almost as if he was being possessed by the ghost of Holberg, acting as his medium.

Maskarade was written around the same time as Nielsen was writing his famous essay on Mozart, and while Mozart is not exactly present as a stylistic quotation, there is an undeniable Mozartian grace and lightness permeating the entire score. Despite Nielsen’s disenchantment with Wagner, the Act II prelude and song of the nightwatchman could almost have been cut and pasted from the latter’s Meistersinger.

While Maskarade is not performed a great deal (we only list a single production in this anniversary year – in Copenhagen) except in its native Denmark where it has become the national opera – there are two instrumental excerpts that often find their way on to orchestral concert programmes: the wonderfully ebullient Overture, with Nielsen’s characteristic melodies taking unexpected twists and turns at every opportunity, and the striking Hanedans, or “Dance of the Cockerels” from Act III.

Dance of the Cockerels: 

Maskarade is filled with ear-catching melodies, all wrapped in Nielsen’s highly individual style of orchestration; from the students, officers and young girls gleefully tormenting Arv in the second act to Magdelone’s cheerful folie d’Espagne in Act I. A personal favourite is Henrik’s Act I aria “Først kommer fæl og fus” (“First enter furious”) in which he sarcastically outlines the three-act drama that will unfurl when Jeronimus finds out about Leander’s engagement, complete with wailing maiden in falsetto.

While the general pace of Maskarade is high, with jokes seemingly around every turn, the almost frantic tempo slows down from time to time, allowing for some heart-meltingly gorgeous love duets, like this between Leander and Leonora in the third act:

While there aren’t very many recordings of Maskarade, the few that do exist still serve the piece very well. In terms of audio recordings, I personally recommend the 1999 Decca recording with Ulf Schirmer conducting the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra with nary a weak link in the cast. Bo Skovhus is a gruff, but exceedingly charming Henrik, providing an excellent foil for Gert Henning Jensen’s wonderfully ardent Leander. Aage Haugland proves a wonderfully stentorian Jeronimus. There is also an earlier recording of a 1979 performance conducted by John Frandsen, featuring the wonderfully smarmy Henrik of the legendary Danish baritone Ib Hansen. On video, there is a recording of Kasper Holten’s 2006 production, revived this spring in Copenhagen, updating the story to modern times.

Maskarade is a surprisingly funny opera about youthful rebellion, about a new, hopefully more equal world, about an older generation relinquishing their grip on power. Clad in delightful melodies and sonorities, it is certainly deserving of more than the occasional outing.