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The first studio recording of August Enna’s Kleopatra has brought a once-popular and highly atmospheric Danish opera back into the spotlight

Once-powerful Denmark suffered a string of humiliations in the 19th century, among them national bankruptcy, the bombardment of Copenhagen and the loss of huge swathes of its southern territories to Germany. Early on in this catalogue of setbacks, a Danish poet named Hans Peter Holst had suggested that ‘hvad udad tabes, skal indad vindes’ – most eloquently translated as ‘what is lost on the outside shall be found on the inside.’

A huge flowering of creativity took root in the country, and would deliver such esteemed painters, poets and playwrights as Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, B S Ingemann and Adam Oehlenschläger. Music, always more subject to international currents and often a little slower to shiftdirection, duly followed. For a period at the end of the 19th century, Danish operas were the toast of Amsterdam and Berlin. The chances are, you won’t have heard of any of their composers.

Until now, that is. The musical forces of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation will soon start recording CFE Horneman’s opera Aladdin (more on this in a future issue of Opera Now). More immediately, Denmark’s state record label Dacapo has released a new recording of August Enna’s Kleopatra. In the last decade of the 19th century, Kleopatra was staged in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Breslau, Riga, Zurich, Antwerp, Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam.

August Enna (1859-1939) was raised on a Danish island by a shoemaker – a striking parallel with Hans Christian Andersen were Enna’s father not a Sicilian immigrant. He soon made his way to Copenhagen where, according to Denmark’s preeminent operatic historian Henrik Engelbrecht, Enna attended every Wagner performance he possibly could while also idolising Léo Delibes. The man who held the reigns of musical power in the capital, Niels Gade, arranged for the young composer to study at Mendelssohn’s conservatory in Leipzig like so many Scandinavian composers had before him. Enna graduated, and wrote his first opera for the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen: Heksen (‘The Witch’). It was a hit.

Initially, Enna’s next opera Kleopatra didn’t fare so well. Not only did the composer fall out with his librettist and publisher while the piece was being prepared for the stage, its first performances at the Royal Theatre in February 1894 were miscast and poorly conducted. Kleopatra was a washout. Or so it seemed. A year later, revised and delivered by the singers it was originally intended for, the opera went down a treat. It travelled around Europe fast and even attracted the nickname, ‘The Danish Turandot.’

It wasn’t for another 124 years that the opera would be seen at the address in Copenhagen where it had been born. Last season, Kleopatra entered the repertoire of Denmark’s second opera company, Den Jyske Opera (Danish National Opera), as part of its ‘Danish Series’ examining homegrown works. As part of a national tour, Kleopatra duly arrived at the Royal Danish Theatre’s Old Stage on 12 March 2019. The following month, one of two casts assembled by DJO joined the Odense Symphony Orchestra to record the opera.

So what’s the opera like? On the evidence of its outing in 2019 – in a sleek production by Ben Baur – it’s not as kitsch as Turandot, nor is it as fluent, dramatically bold or musically groundbreaking. But it is frequently thrilling and consistently atmospheric, referencing its Egyptian setting with subtlety. Enna’s style at this time was resolutely late Romantic (he wouldn’t alter it, which is the principal reason he fell from fashion and was forgotten).

Kleopatra churns through its Wagnerian arioso style with theatrical richness, boasts an attractive ‘big tune’ that could have come from Korngold’s pen and is orchestrated with consistent imagination. Enna does a nice line in operatic rapture and clearly learned a thing or two about the scenic ‘full-stop’ from early Wagner: the influence of Tannhäuser is clear.

One problem is the libretto, a verbose and archaic ramble by Einar Christiansen (he did a far better job for Nielsen’s Saul and David) that needlessly inflates the first act. That’s not so problematic on an audio recording that doesn’t demand dramatic contortions on stage. Besides, the plot affords plenty of opportunity for dramatic flashpoints. It tells of a scheme dreamed up at the court of Cleopatra in Alexandria, according to which the prince Harmaki will gain the confidence of the Queen and kill her. Instead, he falls in love with her and his plan is exposed by a jealous accomplice. The three central roles are the heroic prince (tenor), the accomplice Charmion who harbours a love for him (an altitudinous, pinpoint soprano) and Cleopatra herself, a dramatic soprano who nevertheless has moments of intense intimacy. The best of them comes when she first appears – a seductive entry accompanied by harp – and there’s another in which her voice floats over muted strings.

In 2019 as in 1894, the problem in the opera house was balance. The old opera house in Copenhagen is less kind to voices than orchestras. A review after the first run in Enna’s day, from the newspaper Berlingske Tidende, concluded that the show descended into ‘howling and roaring.’ There was some clean singing in 2019 even if too much of it was lost under the orchestral melee.

The recording has put that right – mostly. Whereas I heard a German-Finnish cast on 12 March 2019, the recording uses the predominantly Danish cast that sang the night after. Elsebeth Dreisig (aunt of Elsa) sings the title role with more focus than dramatic power and has Denmark’s fast- rising tenor Magnus Vigilius for company as Prince Harmaki. He can disappear under the weight of the orchestra (and does so at the highpoint of the big duet with Dreisig) but has the necessary presence.

Ruslana Koval shows great potential as the wronged Charmion, always telling a story, particularly in her moving epilogue, even if she is restricted by obviously learned Danish.

Everyone benefits from the operatically sensitive Odense Symphony Orchestra, fresh from ten years of Alexander Vedernikov’s guidance and three full Ring Cycles, securely marshalled by Joachim Gustafsson. The piece may not have the impact on record that it had in the theatre. But its first recording, in studio conditions, fills a blank space in operatic history during a vital period of transition. On that count alone, it must be heard.

Andrew Mellor Read the full review on Agora Classica


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