Review by Polly Hope

Royal Opera House Covent Garden. London. Autumn 2005

Summer is over and just the long dark days of winter to wait for… It can be tolerated, and even looked forward to because the new opera season is getting into full swing One can lick one's chops in anticipation of the delights ahead. Especially the thrill, at least for me, of seeing a work I've not encountered before. MASKARADE, Carl Nielsen's baroque comedy composed between 1904 and 1906.

Ah, the excitement of the lights going down on a packed house… Can anything Danish give us the expected thrill? I was warned by a Danish friend 'that our country is flat and our music can often be the same.' Sinking back into the red plush I was ready for anything.

A delicious overture, not boring or flat at all, just a delight. The curtain rises on Johan Engels' elegant set. Ah yes, we are still in the late 1980's, a gold frame at the front of the stage and set at the fashionable angle, askew, like a picture that has slipped out of line in the back room of an unloved museum. Never mind, one can tip one's head to see it level. Inside the frame we see a stunning baroque interior of painted shadows and a row of closed doors. The two main protagonists are waking from a drunken sleep at five in the afternoon wondering if they can get their heads together enough to gat back to the fun in the coming evening. It seems going to an 18th century Danish masquerade was much like going clubbing last Saturday.

Family problems emerge, our hero Leander has fallen for a girl at last night's rout but he is supposed to marry a lass chosen by his father. And so on and so on, similar stories abound in opera. Doors open, snow blows in across the stage, nice touch. Leander's mother appears and wants to join the party, but his dad won't have it.

Everyone sings their heart out brilliantly and the characterisation is excellent. The Leander of Michael Schade, the father Jeronimus of Brindley Sherratt, Leander's servant Henrik, Kyle Ketelsen, the mother Magdelone, Kari Hamney, and the prospective father in law of Robin Leggate, all are terrific. Doors slam shut, windows fly open and Cupid hangs from the chandelier. We love it. We follow the action; well we sort of know the story anyway.

Then, after the interval with Act 2 the problems start. Where are we? It is night and there are wonky lit up windows, looking as though they have escaped from a Hundewasser painting, all over the backdrop. Seems we are in a street. Cupid flies across the stage pushing a handless clock and a night watchman wanders around singing carrying a crescent moon on top of a long stick. All very significant I am sure. Falling over boxes, like public loos, are littering the stage. These boxes move around and Cupid flies back past again still steering his clock. Inside the boxes things happen but the doors crash shut before one can decide what they were doing inside. It was probably rude. Everyone sings, and the music is lovely, gentle and melodious. An atmospheric evocation of a northern country, but pointed and witty. Best sit back and wallow in the sounds, for, despite the sur-titles in English, and the work is sung in English, it is impossible to find out what is going on.

Act 3, the actual Maskarade of the title. Red everywhere and the wonky windows have retreated to the back of the stage. The music gallops along and is always pleasant. Love comes and goes both in the form of Cupid, now attired in snow-white frilly knickers, and the lovers are meeting. Confusion abounds caused by the masks. The plot is unfathomable. But then it is Maskarade and anything goes. There is some dancing, again somewhat muddled, and a weird scene somehow set in the 1950's of lovers in a trendy coffee house, where they end up, couple by couple, throwing themselves onto a giant polka dotted bed. Death shows up and makes everyone take their mask off and throw it into a vast red satin lined coffin. Surprise, surprise as people recognise each other.

I think it all ends happily and I think the opera was supposed to be full of laughs but I couldn't raise a single chortle.

David Pountney's production, originally seen at the Bregenz festival last July, is joyful and extremely colourful. He did the English translation and it is a delight of endlessly very clever rhyming couplets. Immensely clever.

Wolfgang Göbbel's crazy lighting is great, switching as it does through all the colours of the rainbow, yellow on this person, red on this other, with never a dull moment. Marie-Jeanne Lecca's frocks are witty and just right. Especially those white frilly bloomers on a fully- grown man. Yes, and he wears hiking boots as well!

By the final curtain one is breathless. So much action, so many things to watch, the details are continuous fun, but I do wish I knew what it was all about. Was it the new egalitarianism of the Age of Enlightenment? Was it that Death gets us all in the end? Or was it Love reigns supreme? Or perhaps it was a Danish answer to long dark winters. The whole production seems as if it is a hymn to Surrealism and Dada as those styles were perceived in the 1980s. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but balancing two historical periods, late 18th century and early 20th century in a 21st century production is a difficult number to pull off.

A very good try and not at all a boring evening, and fine that a major opera house gives us the chance to see a production of such a little known work. Little known in England that is. My Danish friend tells me that MASKARADE is regularly produced in her home country, though usually in a more restrained and historical mode. I must make an effort to see such a production for I do feel that inside this colourful mayhem there is probably a cunning little opera trying to get out.

Oh yes, the conductor, Michael Schønwandt, a Danish import, who obviously loves the score, got the excellent Covent Garden orchestra to make us believe in the peaceful beauty of his country of bacon and wind farms.

The audience cheered and cheered at the final curtain, they obviously enjoyed the confection. That was very nice for the singers.

Polly Hope. London, September 2005