Thanks go to Robert R. Reilly, music critic for CRISIS and author of the delectable Surprised by Beauty, who went to London, saw Nielsen's Maskarade, and came back angry. "Angry writes best" says ionarts - and we are delighted to share his impressions from the Royal Opera House.
The Royal Opera House presented Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade, coproduced with the Bregenz Festival, on September 22. It plays through October 13. The results reminded me of an opera director’s recent excuse for a modern dress version of an early 17th-century work set in Lombardy. The historical period, he said, “we found too abstruse and out of reach for us today to deal with.” And so it seems is the case with director David Pountney’s presentation of the early 17th-century Copenhagen setting of Nielsen’s 1906 opera. While Pountney does use some period elements in the design, it is the spirit of his production that illustrates Gregory Dart’s observation in his essay in the program booklet: “It is difficult for us, from our historical vantage-point, to imagine the masked ball as anything other than an opportunity for sexual assignations.” Alas, this is the very difficulty from which Pountney seems to suffer in his Las Vegas interpretation of Nielsen’s masterwork.
The singing was generally exemplary, and the orchestra, under famed Nielsen interpreter Michael Schonwandt, performed well. American soprano Katie Van Kooten handled her last-minute substitution in the role of Leonora with complete assurance. Of the principals, only Michael Schade, as Leander, seemed marginally engaged in his role. Whether his lack of commitment was the product of ironic detachment or limited acting abilities is hard to tell.
Martin Kettle, 24-hour party people (The Guardian, September 30)
Anna Picard, Maskarade, Royal Opera House, London (The Independent, September 25)
Edward Seckerson, A giddy whirl in the game of love (The Independent, September 21)
Tom Service, Maskarade (The Guardian Unlimited, September 21)
Masks and masked balls are familiar theatrical conceits. The anonymity of masks allows unconventional or otherwise forbidden behavior in the “role” one assumes. Freed of conventions, one can act “naturally.” It is, of course, ironic that it takes a form of artifice to unleash the forces of nature, which may make one wonder how natural nature is. In Maskarade, the contest between convention and nature takes place in and is made possible by a highly artificial setting of the masked ball. The contest is between romantic love and contractual marriage, between old and new, and between generations. This is played out by various couples: the father and mother, the son and daughter, the servant and girlfriend, etc., each of whom illustrates an aspect of the problem of nature and convention as it relates to the heart. There are foibles aplenty. At the end, the tension between the two is resolved when the couple resisting an arranged marriage discovers that the prospective partner is, in fact, the secret lover from the masked ball. Of course, this is all too neat in dramatic terms, but this is, after all, a comedy.
It should have been fun, but Pountney’s forced fun became a strain. His reluctance to let the material speak for itself resulted in his condescending to it and to his audience. As the crowd gathers before the ball scene, was it necessary to show servant Henrik simulating oral sex with a woman? The audience tittered in embarrassment. The Mars and Venus ballet in the third act was transposed to a 1950s scene in which a series of bored housewives in polka dot panties cheat on their husbands. Here the sex was more conventional, with simulated copulation. During the dance announced by the master of the Maskarade, we were treated to a gyrating Elvis impersonator, 1920s flapper figures doing the Charleston, the “chicken” dance my children do in grade school, and other solecisms that were intended, no doubt, to universalize the message for the dolts in the audience, some of whom obligingly laughed at this lameness.
Why do this to an opera, especially a soufflé like Maskarade? The only answer I can think of is that the director did not trust the material and therefore felt he had to vulgarize it.
At the very end of Pountney’s Maskarade, a naked woman covered in gold glitter pops out of the coffin into which the masks had been put at the end of the ball. Ha, ha, Eros triumphs! Several years ago in Paris, I saw something similar at the end of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne. It did not make a lot of dramatic sense, but this was, after all, France. This, however, was England. Or was it Las Vegas?