If you can keep a straight face through the master/servant antics of the club-addicts Leander and Henrik, if you can stay uncharmed by the ageing, repressed Magdelone when she shows she can still cut a caper, if you can stop your foot tapping in the Act 3 Maskarade itself, and if you can remain unmoved by the gentle pathos of the demasking scene, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.
But if you thought you could resist Maskarade on the basis of Opera North’s first British professional production in 1991 (which was far from ideal, but still vastly better than the lethargic affair I saw at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen a couple of years ago), then this new Decca recording could well change your mind.
It is, not surprisingly, thoroughly idiomatic. Since the first production in 1906 Maskarade has been Denmark’s national opera, and all the principals here have the music in their blood. Gert Henning Jensen may be a rather tremulous Leander, but he sounds appropriately youthful, and the love duets with his well-matched Leonora, Henriette Bonde-Hansen, are wonderfully touching (strong echoes of Brahms’s Liebeslieder waltzes here). Bo Skovhus is in superb voice as the Figaro-esque Henrik, though I wouldn’t have minded an even sharper sense of fun in the characterization; Michael Kristensen’s blockhead Arv is also a paler impersonation than his counterpart on the Unicorn-Kanchana set. Aage Haugland is in magnificent voice and almost steals the show in Act 1 as the crusty old Jeronimus; the vulnerable but lovable Magdelone of Susanne Resmark instantly brings a lump to my throat. Ulf Schirmer conducts with excellently judged tempos and an obvious deep affection for the idiom. Above all he has a grasp of the underlying momentum of each act, what Nielsen would have called the ‘current’.
If I felt I was enjoying passages I didn’t remember before, that may be simply because some of them weren’t previously there. The new recording uses a score prepared by the government-sponsored Carl Nielsen Edition, which restores traditionally cut or displaced passages and corrects a host of textual and musical details. The resulting play of contrasts and effective large-scale pacing, especially in the supposedly problematic Second and Third Acts, entirely vindicates this full-length version.
Having said all that, Schirmer does miss a trick or two. The Overture could do with a bit more lilt and swagger (the Danish strings could be more full-bodied here); the end of Act 2, where a preview of the Maskarade is heard as if through half-open doors, is too loud; synchronization is initially dodgy in Act 3, as though the chorus can’t quite believe the swift tempo; and the choral interpolations in the Tutor’s strophic song sound a little contrived. So collectors wedded to the lovable Frandsen set (sadly somewhat dimmed in its CD transfer) will find reasons for returning to it; and the richest comedy of all in Act 1 is to be found in the 1954 Grondahl (whose heavy cuts rule it out as a top recommendation, however).
My balance sheet comes out strongly in favour of the new Decca, even before taking into account the excellent recording quality and high quality of booklet presentation. This is a life-enhancing comic opera, comparable in many ways to Britten’s