Notes and Editorial Reviews
Michael Schønwandt, cond; Bo Skovhus (
); Dénise Beck(
); Michael Weinius (
Count René de la Rochefoucauld
); Andrea Pellegrini (
); Palle Knudsen
(Marshal Saint Lambert);
Jakob Bloch Jespersen (
); Mathias Hedegaard (
); Morten Frank Larsen (
); Gert Henning-Jensen (
King Louis XV
); Danish Nat SO &Ch
DACAPO 6.220637–38 (2 CDs: 122:51
Text and Translation)
Poul Schierbeck (1888–1949) was the son of a prosperous Copenhagen physician whose family loved to perform music and witness its performance. He decided to turn this love into a career, after a false start in law. Among his composition teachers was Carl Nielsen, and the influence of Nielsen’s “progressive tonality” can be felt in what is considered one of Schierbeck’s finest works,
The opera began life as a play by Max Lobedanz, who had requested incidental music for it. Schierbeck was sufficiently delighted with the material he’d received to persuade Lobedanz to turn it instead into a libretto. Begun in 1923,
was only completed four years later, and not mounted for another four—when it only lasted seven performances before being withdrawn. Management suggested some revisions, but despite these being made, the opera wasn’t revived in the composer’s lifetime. In fact,
wasn’t seen at the Royal Danish Theater again until 1960, at which time it proved very popular.
The libretto is a fine example of what might be called Scandinavian Restoration comedy—which is to say that it takes place around the same time as English Restoration comedies, has some of the same wit, but comes down on the side of the social middle class rather than the nobility, and on the side of sincerity, tolerance, and affection rather than duplicity and firmly controlled emotion.
In brief: Count René decides to stage a fake wedding in order to bed a young, middle-class girl, Suzon. The timing is important, since King Louis XV is away for 10 days—and would insist on enjoying her charms first, if he were present. (Louis XV in real life wasn’t as much of a lecher as he’s painted here, but this is comedy. Actual history is almost inevitably tragedy.) Problems arise from an oily if charming blackmailer, Scaramouche, whose position at court is secure since he retails gossip to the King, and from the Marquis d’Argenville, an aged nobleman who is used to get his way and upon meeting Suzon at an evening banquet has decided to get her. René, ready to fight a duel when her rebuffs to d’Argenville are ignored, discovers he truly loves Suzon’s innocence and independent spirit. Just as the duel commences, the King puts in a surprise appearance. Deciding to ignore flagrant evidence that a duel was about to take place in breach of his laws—d’Argenville tells him the pistols were loaded with blanks, leading to a wonderful moment when the King, with complete self-possession, shoots first one and then the other pistol into the ceiling to create rains of plaster—he fastens on the theme of greatest personal interest: a wedding without his
droit du seigneur
. Matters are resolved, however, and René’s honest humility wins Suzon.
The dialogue is natural but witty, with brief nods of musical and literary homage to both
. Characterization and motivation are excellent, and the action maintains interest through to the end of act 3. Musically, the opera is one of continuous melody discreetly separated through individual songs (such as Lauzannes’s pair of songs in act 1, and La Scaramouche’s “Song of Jean Carvel” in act 3) and changes of scene (the tarantella that leads off act 2, the King’s splendidly and ironically noble introductory march in act 3) and personnel (René’s friends leaving him on stage in act 3 to face Suzon’s anger, then acceptance). The level of inspiration throughout is high. Schierbeck revels in opportunities to display both musical humor and sentiment, and to switch out deftly between the two—as when Scaramouche discovers the wedding scam from a drunken servant in act 1, then meets Suzon. (She usually brings on a bout of delicate, French-inflected thematic content.) Schierbeck became professor of instrumentation at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Music, and his ability to evoke specific colors out of his orchestra is a continuous delight.
Judging from the photos in the liner notes, the opera was recorded at a concert performance. The singing is mostly very fine. Dénise Beck is without doubt the best thing in it, sporting a focused, attractive lyric soprano voice and a real gift for utilizing dynamics and phrasing to convey meaning. Her act 3 monologue requires a strong actress as well as a beautiful voice, and Beck delivers. Michael Weinius pushes his pleasant tenor too much at times, but has the dimensions of his character down. Bo Skovhus does a fine turn as the slippery Scaramouche, while Andrea Pellegrini as his flirtatious wife has the right vocal weight but sounds harsh, hardly seductive at all. Gert Henning-Jensen’s dry lyric tenor succeeds through cantabile and fine vocal production. René’s three friends are all excellently sung, but Morten Frank Larsen as the elderly Marquis d’Argenville sounds, well, vocally elderly. There’s no need for that, as it distracts from the music. Michael Schønwandt conducts well and his Danes display all the finesse they are capable of, but I couldn’t help wishing at times for greater dash in the proceedings’ more clever pages. There’s much that’s amusing here, but it’s clear this score could sparkle like a fine champagne if given the chance.
The engineering is excellent, and the libretto reproduced in Danish and English. This is a fine performance, in short, of a seldom-heard work, and strongly recommended. Let’s hope someone at the Royal Danish Opera listens as well, and that we get a chance someday to witness on DVD an intelligent staging of
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal