‘In this dear land where sunshine comes but once a year…we’d rot away and end up as compost unless we could like frogs in the duckpond come up now and again for air and catch and hold a little passing sunbeam or moonbeam…[by] bathing in the cascading of dance and songs and light and fun that we call masquerading!’
This Act 1 defence of the traditional Copenhagen night-time revels is by Henrik, the sometimes rather Figaro-like servant of Leander, son of the household who – despite apparently being pledged to another by his tyrant father Jeronimus – has fallen in love at the Masquerade with Leonora, daughter of a neighbour. It explains much of the simple joy of Nielsen’s comedy, a joy picked up in every single review of the (to date) three versions of the opera that have appeared on record.
If you’re only familiar with the dark, often tragic Nielsen of his Symphonies Nos 3-5, the greater will be your surprise that this composer could have authored so fluently a kind of operatic musical with an unstoppable flow of tunes and continuous fresh surprises in harmony and rhythm. Rather like another famous pit violinist composer – Beethoven, and his use of many of the effects of the French operas he was performing in his own first two piano concertos – Nielsen determined to rival, and better, the lighter music he was often playing. Clearly he also remembered two other favourite operatic comedies of love and intrigue on midsummer nights in which he’d played: Falstaff and Meistersinger.
The new performance, like all previous rivals, builds on the strength of home casting at the work’s alma mater, the Royal Danish Opera. It’s immediately noticeable that the Danish-conducted performances (that’s to say the Frandsen, the Grøndahl and this one) are quicker, lighter, more like a musical, whereas the Decca Schirmer set, although it has the lightest-voiced cast in many ways (especially the excellent lovers of Gert-Henning Jensen and Henriette Bonde-Hansen), displays something of a German, or at least operetta-ish, touch. But that audible age difference – there’s also the younger Bo Skovhus as a made-to-measure Henrik – does give the Decca a marked advantage in the young lovers’ intrigues of Acts 2 and 3. Here, for all their joie de vivre and commitment, Riis and Reuter, if not their lovers Beck and Andersen, can sound like they’re just acting young.
On the older side of things there’s experienced character work from Stig Fogh Andersen’s Leonard (the neighbour) and Anne Margrethe Dahl (as Mrs Jeronimus), and a suitably towering comic monster performance from Stephen Milling as her husband. Smaller roles are evidently well honed in this work, none more than the experienced Guido Paevatalu’s Master of the Masquerades. It feels absolutely right as well that Schønwandt’s conducting refers to but does not linger over the beauties of scoring in the famous Act 2 Prelude or stress overmuch the weight of more symphonic passages.
The three most recent versions of the opera now available perform the work complete – that is to say that they do not enter the quasi-Brucknerian minefield of the cuts that Nielsen may (or may not) have agreed to in the last two acts. There are, maybe, some problems there after the blistering pace of the opening but they pass quickly enough. What looks like the latest instalment of a re-recording of the opera from its homeland every 15 years or so comes highly recommended – but do try to hear the strong Decca cast as well.