Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, 19, 22, 26, 30 September, 5, 8, 13 October 2005
At last, a production of an opera about a masked ball of which the Royal Opera can be proud.
But it's not Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, which received a lamentably old-fashioned new staging in April of this year.
Instead, the company is presenting Carl Nielsen's 1906 comedy Maskarade for the very first time, and the results are - on the whole - delightful.
The opera has a lot to offer, and it was sad to see so many empty seats on the first night. It was the start of the hugely commendable 2005-6 'Travelex £10 Monday' season, which meant that a hundred lucky members of the audience paid next to nothing for the best seats. If the scheme has succeeded in attracting any newcomers to the opera, they will surely return on the basis of this entertainingly irreverent piece of fluff, which sagged only occasionally and not to the overall detriment of the audience's enjoyment.
To the novice, the work offers a Die Fledermaus-type appeal - the charm and poignancy of an operetta, an upbeat and fast-moving story, jaunty choruses and a witty libretto. Mercifully, the Royal Opera elected to sing the work in an English translation by the production's director, David Pountney. Without a doubt this added to the success of the evening, enabling the largely Anglophone audience to access the plot's speedy manoeuvres without confusion.
For the musically informed, the piece has even greater fascinations. Maskarade is practically the Danish national opera, Nielsen's patriotic contribution to his country's cultural heritage. But the inspirations from the composers of the past are also fascinating to spot.
The opening scenes are redolent of Mozart's Figaro, depicting the relationship between servant and master in the Enlightenment period. The farcical confusion of identities is conveyed with a sharp Rossinian irony. Verdi's Falstaff clearly influenced the rapid progression through set pieces, hardly pausing for breath; and even Wagner's Meistersinger plays a part, in the night watchman's book-ending of the second act.
Deriving from this summer's Bregenz Festival, this is one of the company's most successful co-productions. David Pountney has brought a pace to the work that matches the composer's energy, and Johan Engels' sublimely surreal sets, fantastical and lavish in every respect, seem appropriate to the individuality of Holberg's tale in Nielsen's bizarre retelling.
I could have done with fewer dance sequences, even if this is meant to be a ball. Renato Zanella's zany choreography was at first engaging, and the sequence involving the drop-down bed was certainly memorable, but by the end it was all excessive. It also seemed that the chorus was required to rush around too much, leaving them breathless and vocally underpowered. And perhaps it wasn't entirely wise to run the second and third acts without an interval, which made for an indigestible eighty-five minutes.
Yet this performance was far more entertaining than many of the vapid musicals which run night after night in the West End, while emulating something of their punch and sparkle. So it's very much worth the ride.
Music Director at the Royal Danish Theatre Michael Schønwandt made a welcome return to Covent Garden, leading the orchestra in a fine-tuned account of the score. And German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade made his Royal Opera debut in the role of Leander, who wants to marry a girl he met at a masquerade but is already betrothed to another.
Schade's lyrical performance was matched by that of another ROH debutante, Emma Bell, as Leonora (who turns out to be both the girl he loves and the girl to whom he has been promised).
The vocal star, however, was American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, stealing the show as Henrik, Leander's servant. He was imposing in the brief role of the Sprecher in Die Zauberflöte earlier in the year. Here at last was a part large enough for his talents, and he was well-rounded dramatically as well as making sure every word was perfectly articulated.
Indeed the cast was generally satisfying when it came to conveying the English word; our engagement with the text was undoubtedly enhanced by the English surtitles, making one wonder what the fuss at ENO is really about.
Robin Leggate was a brilliant Leonard (Leonora's father); Brindley Sherratt a booming Jeronimus; and Kari Hamnøy gave an amusing turn as Magdelone (Jeronimus' wife).
It's silly, and the plot runs out a little before the end, but this was so light-hearted and entertaining a show that it would have been the perfect Christmas fare had it been shown later in the year. So why not treat yourself to an early present?