Masks, curfews, underground parties – Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade has perhaps never been more topical. Based on Ludvig Holberg’s 1724 play, it tells of the young lovers Leander and Leonora, who fall in love at a masked ball despite both being engaged to people they’ve never met. Add two angry fathers, a party-starved mother and some crafty servants, and all is happily resolved in the end with champagne. It’s Figaro meets Fledermaus, with its strong undercurrent of class and generational politics. Predating Beaumarchais by over half a century, Holberg’s characters are shockingly contemporary – beyond the fun and frivolity, the text seems to say, the masquerade serves as a democratic leveller where one can escape the suffocating structures of society. The witty profundities of the libretto are an ideal match for Nielsen’s dazzling neoclassical score and given that such a great deal of fun is had by everyone onstage and off, it’s difficult to understand why this opera is so rarely performed.

Maskarade ensemble
© Monika Rittershaus

Director Tobias Kratzer does away with the commedia dell’arte archetypes of the play in his new Oper Frankfurt production, instead setting the story firmly in the present day. Sung in a new German translation by Martin Berger, the text is lightly contemporized while preserving the rhyming couplets of the original. While the grey unit set and monochrome costumes (when the characters are not in various stages of undress) are clichéd, Kratzer handles the intricate plot with admirable clarity. He also manages to coax a disciplined physical humour from his cast, mixing elements of slapstick and surrealism – I’ve rarely seen an audience laugh so hard. The production is cleverly competent rather than enlightening, but it serves as a nice introduction to the opera and should serve well for future revivals.

Monika Buczkowska, Michael McCown, Barbara Zechmeister, Alfred Reiter
© Monika Rittershaus

As Leander, Michael Porter’s tenor, charmingly boyish for the first two acts, showed off a lovely bloom in some of Nielsen’s most rapturously lyrical music in the final act. Porter also displayed a fine stage presence, utterly natural in the demanding physical comedy of the production. Monika Buczkowska’s flinty soprano was a touch aggressive as the ingénue lead, the impact of her high notes mightily impressive but poorly matched with the rest of the cast. This was especially true in scenes with Barbara Zechmeister, nearly inaudible as her maid, Pernille.

Susan Bullock (Magdelone) and Michael McCown (Leonard)
© Monika Rittershaus

The antics of the young lovers earn utmost disapproval from their parents, led by Alfred Reiter’s disapproving Jeronimus – why could things not be as they were, when men were men, women were women, and servants stayed in their place? Despite perfectly incarnating the physicality of ageing conservatism, Reiter’s bass sounded dry and poorly projected. Susan Bullock, previously seen in Frankfurt as Brünnhilde and Isolde, gets a chance to display her comic chops as Magdelone, who resists Jeronimus’ tyrannical rule to go drink and be merry. While Bullock lacks the lower register for what is essentially a character mezzo role, she had such a great time onstage that she absolutely stole the show. She indulged in a bit of outrageous flirtation with Leonard, Jeronimus’ friend and Leonora’s father, sympathetically characterised here by tenor Michael McCown.

Barbara Zechmeister (Pernille) and Liviu Holender (Henrik)
© Monika Rittershaus

But at the end of the day, the evening belongs to the servants, and it’s Leander’s servant Henrik who has the most to sing. In the role, Liviu Holender wielded a beautifully sonorous baritone in a role that requires both a bel canto-style cantilena line and devilishly fast patter. He was also an extremely charismatic stage presence, bounding around and jumping over armchairs with ease. Cast him as Figaro immediately – or indeed as Henrik. He sparred hilariously with Jeronimus’ servant Arv, here luxuriously cast with Samuel Levine’s full lyric tenor. This opera is a gift for any ensemble house, with ample opportunity for young singers to make their mark in a number of smaller roles. Among them, Božidar Smiljanić’s rolling bass-baritone stood out in his dual role as the Nightwatchman and Master of the Masquerade, as did Karolina Makuła’s plush mezzo, which had the audience reaching for their cast sheet the minute she opened her mouth to sing – a name to watch for.

Susan Bullock (Magdelone) and dancers
© Monika Rittershaus

Presiding over the evening was Titus Engel, leading the Oper Frankfurt Orchester in a virtuoso performance of Nielsen’s fiendish score. The concertato finale of the first act rivals any Mozart ensemble in complexity, and Engel brought out the complex orchestral counterpoint while maintaining tight control over his onstage cast. The third act is essentially an hour-long orchestral dance suite, with not one but two ballet sequences containing some of Nielsen’s most sophisticated writing. Here, Engel brought coherence to an act that can seem disjointed by maintaining a lovely rhythmic continuity, building towards the rousing final chorus which garnered cheers and applause from the appreciative audience. Any niggles about the production and cast aside, it’s a great night at the theatre, and I sincerely hope it makes its return sooner rather than later.