Even with rough edges, Nielsen’s “Maskarade” is a delight in belated Chicago premiere

Fri Jan 24, 2014 at 11:33 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas Pulikowski and Katy Compton as Leander and Leonora in Vox 3 Collective's presentation of Carl Nielsen's "Maskarade."
Nicholas Pulikowski and Katy Compton as Leander and Leonora in Vox 3 Collective’s production of Carl Nielsen’s “Maskarade.”

In the final chorus of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade, the assembled revelers sing that they hope the evening’s entertainment has helped the audience to forget the frost and cold outside and that they have provided a ray of summer.

Nothing could be more welcome these days in Chicago.

On another frigid subzero night, the Vox 3 Collective served up much warmth and humor Thursday with their lively performance of Nielsen’s romantic opera buffa. The production at the Vittum Theater on the near northwest side runs through Saturday, as part of the group’s Festival of Danish Art & Culture.

It’s astounding—and rather depressing—that Chicago has had to wait over a century to hear Nielsen’s Maskarade, a work that has become the national opera of Denmark. The slight story concerns the young lovers Leander and Leonora who meet at a masquerade and fall instantly in love. Leander’s pompous father, Jeronimus, is outraged at this romance, which upsets his plans to marry off Leander to the daughter of the wealthy Leonard, a woman the young man has never met. Through various vicissitudes, and mixed-up couplings at the masquerade, all is resolved happily when it turns out that Leonora is in fact Leonard’s daughter.

Unlike many 20th-century comedies Maskarade is often genuinely funny with librettist Vilhelm Andersen’s pointed jibes at the pretensions of the upper classes. Beyond, the surface frivolities, Maskarade, like Le nozze di Figaro, makes a broader commentary, with the masquerade serving as a democratic leveler where all can mix, flirt and couple freely without concerns of rank or social status.

Despite its success, Nielsen was dissatisfied with Maskarade and planned to revise it, but never did. There are problems with the opera—notably the undeveloped female characters and the extended party scene of the final act that goes on rather too long.

Yet what makes Maskarade such an irresistible work, is Nielsen’s magnificent music. The opera is chock-a-block with luscious melodies, with soaring arias and duets for Leander and Leonora, delicious character arias for the many secondary roles, a rousing Act 1 quintet and terrific choruses. Nielsen’s orchestra is a full participant in the comic business, the winds often commenting on the action in a witty and ingenious way. It’s hard to account for the neglect of Maskarade, which stands with his best symphonies as one of Nielsen’s finest achievements.

One had to make allowances for some aspects of the Vox 3 Collective production. While the staging made much out of limited resources and the young cast was largely capable, the weak link was the scrappy playing of the Lakeview Orchestra. In a reversal of the usual situation with lesser ensembles, the woodwinds and brass were solid enough but much of the string playing ranged from raw to abysmal with intonation left somewhere outside in a snowbank for most of the evening.

Even with that, conductor Gregory Hughes clearly has a feel for Nielsen’s distinctive style and his vital direction deftly brought out the humor and clever scoring throughout the evening. The young conductor is a musician to watch.

The rough-hewn orchestra playing apart, for a small group like Vox 3 Collective to present a three-act opera with a large cast—in the original Danish, no less (with supertitles)—and pull it off as well as they did was a considerable feat.

Some members of the young cast are right out of university and the performance had the feel of a conservatory staging at times, with a game youthful energy making up for a lack of polish and seasoning.

Leading the large cast was Zachary Elmassian as Jeronimus. The young baritone provided the best singing of the evening with his warm, robust vocalism and was quite hilarious in his blustery characterization of the uptight prig. Jeronimus’s Act 1 aria inveighing against the decadence (and equality) of the masquerades was a high point, with Elmassian also bringing a melancholy nostalgia to the middle section that rounded out the character nicely.

As his son Leander, Nicholas Pulikowski was rather dry-toned and if his light tenor didn’t quite take flight as Nielsen intended, he brought a worthy ardent expression to his solo moments. Katy Compton displayed a clear and attractive soprano as Leonora.

The audience enjoyed Kathryn Wills’ Terpsichorean moves as Magdelone, Jeronimus’s wife who wants to attend the masquerade. Michael Orlinsky as Henrik, Leander’s servant and masquerade partner-in-crime, was a solid presence. Of the many supporting roles, Jennifer Thompson was amusing and sang well as the bibulous Mask Vendor. Chungers Kim displayed an attractive baritone in his elegant rendering of the Watchman’s aria.

The stage direction by Sally Eames and Brandon Hayes was consistently inspired, knocking down the fourth wall effectively with characters entering from the back of the third-floor theater. Stage directors at some larger opera houses could learn something about blocking by their effective handling of Act 3 with its stage full of varied characters and activities.

Even with the rough edges, all credit to the enterprising Vox 3 Collective for having the audacity and ambition to mount this large three-act opera, and bring Nielsen’s Maskarade to Chicago audiences. There are two more performances and local aficionados open to repertorial byways should make a trip to the Vittum Theater to catch this enjoyable work.

Maskarade will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble. Note: Street parking is limited but free parking for these performances is available in the lot of the Polish Roman Catholic Union around the corner. Take the first left after turning on Augusta from Milwaukee Ave. vox3.org.

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