Carl Nielsen: Maskarade (1906)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

Let me start by saying that I have already read the criticism this opera receives. Even Nielsen himself considered the last two acts to be suffering from debilitating structural issues which he fatefully never got around to fixing, but it is also the Danish national opera. General consensus is that the first act is the best, the second is the worst, and the third lacks any sense of dramatic cohesion while being musical brilliant. And now it has befallen me, Phil, the Grand High Mandarin of All Opera, to see how it rates!

SETTING: Copenhagen, the spring of 1723. The basic premise is rather simple: Leander (tenor) and Leonora (soprano) meet at a masquerade ball and swear undying love for each other and exchange rings. The following day, each is told that they have been betrothed to others who just happen to be of the same name as the person they have fallen in love with (I think you can figure out how the situation gets straightened out!).



ACT 1: (50 minutes)

Scene 1: The bedroom of Leander.

0: The overture *** is a brilliant, if short (four and a half minute), symphonic poem which sets up the tone for the opera. it is strikingly classical in structure as it bustles about.

7: Se, hvor bag min vindves Lem Leander wakes up, and then rouses his sleeping valet Henrik (bass-baritone) and the two briefly reminisce on the dancing the previous night. After Henrik goes off, Leander thinks about this girl he met last night in a gentle waltzing aria **. Henrik reminds him that he has to meet with his father, Jeronimus (bass-baritone) that afternoon, and it is already noon! They are going to discuss his upcoming wedding to the daughter of Leonard, apparently another merchant.

13: Monsør Jeronimus! Henrik play acts what he thinks will transpire when Jeronimus learns that Leander is in lover with a mysterious girl he exchanged rings with at a masked ball the previous night **. He then uses a female pupi and falsetto to play the role of Leonora. Get used to the falsetto, Henrik uses it frequently for comedic effect (why, I dunno Jeg ikke taler Dansk!)

17: Lad kun hundred gange A series of two ariettes, one for Leander (slow, no star), the other for Henrik (more lively **) before the arrival of Magdelone (alto or mezzo-soprano) the mother of Leander.

20: En cinquepas en galliard Magdelone gets a dance ariette *** (part of a trio with the two men) in which she pretends to be la follie d′Espagne. They are interrupted by the joyless Mr. Jeronimus, who directs his ire mostly towards his wife. He forces the two men from the room.

Scene 2: The office of Jeronimus.

27: O mon très cher père! Leander reveals that he loves another woman, which Jeronimus takes out on Henrik **.

29: Det satans spind! Alone, Jeronimus goes into a rage aria *** about the state of his domestic affairs and rallying against those immoral mascaraed!

33: Monsieur Jeronimus Mr. Leonard (tenor) is announced by Henrik and embarks on an interview with Jeronimus **.

37: Det er Herr Leonard The two younger men are ordered in and Henrik tries to sell himself to Leonard as as speaker of 24 different languages **.

46: Vi komme i Mascaraed! The act ends with the two younger men refusing to not go to the Mascaraed that evening ***.

ACT 2: A street in Copenhagen, eight in the evening, a masque in progress. (37 minutes)

7: Mellem kunde A quiet prelude, perhaps totally unoriginal, but placid if a little forlorn, starts the act. Eventually the clock chimes and a nightwatchman calls that it is eight. He gets into a conversation about time with Arv, the tenor servant of Jeronimus seen briefly in act 1, who, alone, goes into a hymn-like tune. Arv embarks on a happy little song *. Then ends when he is attacked by a masked stranger who turns out to be Henrik. At this point you are probably wondering what the point of any of this is.

12: Nu er det A chorus of men in masks (going to a mascaraed no doubt) comes on tunefully *, female maskers as well, but not as interestingly (in spite of the castanets). In any case Arv is not going to the party because Marxist class theory is correct. Herr Leonard shows up briefly before going into this bougie party. Leander and Henrik show up (wasn’t Henrik just there?) and Arv contemplates the rise of the proletariat.

17: Se Henrik, se hvor nat Leander sings a pretty song * about love to Henrik (so far he has seemed more in love with either himself or with Henrik than with any woman). When a woman finally does arrive (this has been a bit of a sausage-fest so far hasn’t it?), the arrival of Leonora is perhaps the most uneventful arrival in operatic history. Henrik starts up an obvious servants relationship with her maid Pernille (mezzo-soprano). Gentle duetting ensues (again rather bloodless) and Nielsen appears to make no attempt at creating a passionate mood at this point. They go and the two servants duet about for a few minutes (even less interestingly). Arv is left outside (Marx would have had a field day analyzing this opera!).

31: Porten er åben Jeronimus tries to stop his son from making a fool of himself at the party with the help of Arv but it quickly dies into some very boring shopkeeping as they try to purchase costumes so they will be allowed entry into the masque. Magdelone comes on *, in costume, and gets hit on by Leonard to be his date for the masque. Arv and Jeronimus eventually come out in the costume of Ancient Romans. The shopkeepers dress up as a couple and the nightwatchman returns.

ACT 3: The masque. (57 minutes)

0: Ga fa vajen The chorus opens the act amid crazy debauchery and circle dancing **. Nothing makes any sense: Henrik is taken by a group of women for an orgy it appears, but they end up on stage and the ladies embark on a genteel trio and get other dates.

9: Roser! Roser! A little boy sells a rose (finally, business is bad) to Leander and he and Leonora embark on yet another bloodless duet * which at least offers something when they sing in unison, albeit not much, hence the single star.  Henrik and Pernille engage in another flighty if agreeable exchange.

17: The first ballet *, yes because we just had to make this longer, this one telling the oh so interesting story of three roosters fighting over a single hen (because a farmer would ever allow this?).

27: Man, som, man After this amusing divertissement, Leonard and Magdelone embark on some more flirting. They encounter Jeronimus. Henrik tells Leander and Leonora that his father is spying on everyone costumed as an Ancient Roman. Henrik tries to crash sexy time for a bass tutor * (why?). Arv gets abused by a pack of men (because of his costume?).

34: The second ballet ** appears to tell the story of Hades and Persephone at first but then Bacchus/Mars/Apollo (no sure?) shows up in an attempted seduction. Actually the credits reveal it is Mars, Venus, and Vulcan apparently. This is a bit more lively than the first ballet. This is followed by another drinking song.

45: Lille strik A third ballet starts up, but is interrupted by Jeronimus, who eventually embarks on a drunken little number * which prompts the chorus who torment him.

47: Tramtrara! Tramtrara! Tramtrara! Finale: The host freaks everyone else off with his costume ** and commences some sort of pagan ritual involving a cauldron. But really it is just midnight and everyone has to throw their masks away and the cauldron is a good collection device. All is revealed, Leonora and Leander have fallen in love with the person their parents want for them anyway! The opera ends with two and a half minutes of choral rejoicing and partying led by Henrik as the curtain falls.


I might be a killjoy, but the plot of this opera (which is based on a play by Danish playwright Vilhelm Andersen), is incredibly slight and predictable to say the least. How it even forms a full-length evening seems bizarre. Instead, there is a lot of filler character material which is cute, but does absolutely nothing to forward the actual narrative, of which there is both very little and what there is of it is incredibly boring. Also, for a Danish-language opera, much of the dialogue is actually in French, which relates to the fact that French was used as an aristocratic second-language in most of Northern Europe in the 18th century. The first act is truly very good, but the second is rather bloodless and dull, lacking any of the passion of the other two acts (even the third, which isn’t really all that pulsating either). The dramatic structure is basically non-existant throughout the opera and some of the episodes (like the two appearances of Henrik in the second act, in two different costumes, and much of the third act, which is far too long) make no sense at all. The three female characters are objects that exist only because of their relationships to the male characters, although these are projected well. The love music is the worst offender, having no pulse at all and making me wish that the opera was at least half an hour shorter! The rest of the third act has the charm of a 1930s pre-code sex comedy, with the rich kids and their personal servants in two distinct but amiable relationships, a little parental angst and flirtation, and a lot of side entertainment padding. But none of it makes any sense, it just seems like a series of unrelated entertainments (and why are there THREE ballets?). B+.

One response to “Carl Nielsen: Maskarade (1906)”

  1. I’ve never been convinced by his two operas, I’m not surprised they’ve never caught on. Sorry Nielsen fans(I count myself one of them to)


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