Despite celebrations of Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday, 2015 has failed to do for Maskarade, Denmark’s national opera, what Danish TV detective Sarah Lund did for the Icelandic jumper. The opera’s rarity outside Denmark is not a reflection of its quality. Nielsen’s orchestral tapestry is rich and sophisticated, with constantly changing colours and rhythms. Wittily scored dialogue links a parade of musical forms, including satirical love duets, chorales and exuberant dances. The hurdle is probably the libretto, written in operetta-like verse, which requires either singers fluent in Danish or a vernacular translation that can decode a Pernille that rhymes with “persille” (parsley). (One translation proffers “vanilla”.) At this concert performance the mostly first-rate singing, by Danes and two Swedes with Danish careers, was enhanced by their relaxed flair with the idiom.

Markus Stenz © MolinaVisuals
Markus Stenz
© MolinaVisuals

Maskarade refers to a form of entertainment introduced in 18th-century Copenhagen – masked balls at which people from all social classes danced together, drank coffee and gambled at cards. The Lutheran establishment closed them down in 1724, prompting Ludvig Holberg, the Dano-Norwegian Molière, to write a comedy in their defence. “Our whole life is a constant masquerade,” he wrote in an essay decades later, “because convention, fashion and the authorities make us wear masks… so that we are only masked when we are not wearing masks.” Promoting personal freedom and democratic mingling, masquerades appealed to Holberg, an advocate of Enlightenment values.

Vilhelm Andersen’s adaption of Holberg’s play for Carl Nielsen duly celebrates egalitarianism and self-expression. The diverse characters move along a simple plot line. Leander, an aristocrat, and Leonora, moneyed middle-class, are engaged, but they have never met. At a masked ball they both fall in love with other people. Parental ire looms. Fortunately, Leander’s sharp-witted servant, Henrik, helps him foil his sanctimonious, autocratic father, Jeronimus. Everyone ends up at a lavish masquerade, which takes up all of Act III. It turns out that the masked dancers the lovers fell for were none other than themselves. Tragedy is averted, but for some the end of the masquerade means the end of freedom – Leander’s mother, for example, for whom unmasking means that her killjoy husband can continue to quash her joie de vivre.

Joie de vivre gushed from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic’s every note, as Markus Stenz spurred them on in an exhilaratingly bubbly performance. They played marvellously, the only caveat being that they sometimes covered the singers. Orchestral passages, such as the springy Dance of the Cockerels, spun with a heady dynamism that comes from meticulous preparation. The Netherlands Radio Choir was similarly well-rehearsed, and lucidly brought the soldiers and sundry folk to life. Chorus members capably took the smaller solo parts, with mezzo-soprano Elsbeth Gerristen a creamy-voiced stand-out as the Third Girl.

The soloists all had a ball with the words. Susanne Resmark’s plush dramatic mezzo is ideal for the mature, sensual Magdelone. Her Act I Dancing Aria was a vocal highlight. At the ball she flirted for Denmark with her son’s future father-in-law, sung by Stig Fogh Andersen with a hollow tenor but loads of gusto. His daughter, Leonora, was Dénise Beck, whose appealing, gold-flecked soprano sometimes got lost in the orchestra. It did not help that Niels Jørgen Riis, her Leander, has a bigger voice that opens up rather thrillingly at forte. At a lower volume, his sweet timbre mixed nicely with hers. In between Ms Resmark’s dramatic luxuriousness and Ms Beck’s shiny soubrette came Elizabeth Jansson’s darkly glittering mezzo. As the maid Pernille, she naturally got very saucy with the manservant, Henrik. Bengt-Ola Morgny lent his powdery tenor and character actor experience to Arv, Henrik’s dim, skirt-chasing colleague.

The other roles glide from baritone down to bass. After last Saturday I can only conclude that either Denmark has an endless supply of velvety, low male voices or that they decided to send a crate of their special reserve vintage to Amsterdam. Taking on double roles, both Jakob Zethner (Watchman/Corporal Mors) and Simon Duus (Mask Seller/Tutor) sang with beautiful, rolling tone. Bass Stephen Milling is an oak of a man with a voice that parts forests. In Act III his thundering Jeronimus, rendered silly by drink, slid off the stage to croon his chat-up aria to a lady in the first row, revealing a comic gift that remains hidden in his more habitual Wagnerian roles. Likewise, it was delightful to see Johan Reuter in brilliant buffo mode as Henrik. On top of his trademark burnished sound, he brought slickness and devilish glee to the role. In “Først kommer fæl og fus” (“First enter furious”), in which Henrik acts out a hypothetical doom scenario for his master, Mr Reuter zipped through send-ups of a character tenor, a sobbing soprano in falsetto and a spittle-spraying judge at patter speed – all with head-spinning bravura.

****1