Heise’s “Drot og Marsk” Recorded

cover 6200006

HEISE: Drot og Marsk [King and Marshal] / Sofie Elkjær Jensen, sop (Aase); Gert Henning-Jensen, ten (Rane Johnsen); Peter Lodahl, ten (King Erik, aka Klipping); Johan Reuter, bs-bar (Field Marshal Stig Andersen); Sine Bundgaard, sop (Lady Ingeborg); Morten Staugaard, bs (Count Jakob); Simon Duus, bs-bar (Archdeacon Jens Grand); Mathias Monrad Møller, ten (Arved Bengtsen); Teit Kanstrup, bar (Herald); Royal Danish Opera Chorus & Orch.; Michael Schønwandt, cond / Dacapo 6200006 (live: Copenhagen, April 12, May 22 & 25, 2019)

As far as I can tell, the only other commercial recording of this 1878 opera by Danish composer Peter Heise is the one on Chandos, also conducted by Michael Schonwandt. According to what I’ve read online, Heise was an important Danish composer of the 19th century but is considered to be fairly conservative in style.

The opera’s plot concerns the real murder of Danish king Eric Clipping (or Klipping) in 1286. Apparently, Clipping was a real womanizer on the level of Don Juan, and when he seduced Ingeborg, the wife of Field Marshal Stig, the marshal hires paid assassins to kill him. Afterwards, however, the plot is revealed, Stig is banished and Ingeborg commits suicide.

Of course, there is much more to the action than that. According to the synopsis in the CD booklet, both the King and his servant Rane are pretty randy guys who just can’t stop trying to seduce women regardless of their class. In the opening scene, both take turns hitting up on Aase, the charcoal burner’s daughter. Naturally, Eric is able to succeed over Rane because he can promise her jewels and other splendor, so off she goes to the Castle o’ Love. It is while Eric and Aase are partying hard in the castle that Marshal Stig, off to fight those nasty Swedes in battle, entrusts his wife Ingeborg to the King’s care. Which is kind of like asking Jeffrey Epstein to keep an eye on your pretty young wife to see that no one molests her. The minute Stig is gone Eric asks Ingeborg to dance with him and the seduction is on.

By Act II, Ingeborg is weaving some fabric and already lamenting her fate, having given in to the King’s advances and knowing that sooner or later the axe will fall on her. In order to somewhat blunt her husband’s anger, Ingeborg herself tells him what happened when he returns and deeply regrets her actions. Moved by this, Stig decides not to kill her but to kill the King. When he and his army are presented to Eric as victors in war, the Marshal says he will have his revenge even though Eric claims that she gave herself to him willingly.

Rane (remember Rane? the servant?) is supposed to lead the King into Marshal Stig’s ambush, but he doesn’t show up because both he and Eric are lost in the woods. (Some smart king and servant ya got there, huh?) Suddenly, we’re back at Aase’s hut in the woods (remember Aase’s hut?). She spots the cowl-clad conspirators and suspects trouble (duh, you think?). She warns Eric and Rane about the cowl-clad men and they go off, but dimbulb forgets his sword…so Aase runs after him to bring it to him. But of course, too late, the conspirators run him through and he’s done for.

So that’s your plot. Heise was considered to be a fairly conservative composer in his day, but truthfully, what I hear is very creative music in a style modeled after early Wagner or mid-period Verdi—which in 1878 was not considered modern, but is interesting nonetheless. Of course, much of the music’s impact is dependent upon the conductor, and even in the overture I was impressed by Schonwandt’s approach, which is to maximize the darkness and drama of the score with a powerful impact. Interestingly, Heise shifts gears from ominous to light-hearted quickly and easily when one reaches the first scene and Aase’s aria. Soprano Sofie Elkjær Jensen has an excellent, bright voice, firm and solid up top, with crystal-clear diction. The aria itself is nice but nothing to write home about, but this is fairly typical of mid-19th-century opera. Gert Henning-Jensen, our Rane, has a pleasant but somewhat unsteady tenor voice and, in his first scene at least, sounds just a bit strained up top, but he gets by. Peter Lodahl, our King Erik, has an even looser vibrato in his first scene with Aase. Well, hey, he’s rich and he’s the King, so I guess he doesn’t have to sing all that well. I made a quick comparison between this performance and Schønwandt’s English-language version on Chandos. King Erik is sung there by Poul Elming, who has a finer voice than Lodahl, but the Aase, Inga Nielsen, sounds wan and slightly strangulated, and Schønwandt’s conducting isn’t half as dynamic as on this live performance in Danish.

One thing I liked about the opera was the way Heise kept the music flowing. As it moves from scene to scene, it sounds far less episodic than, say, Il Trovatore or even La Traviata. Sine Bundgaard, who sings Ingeborg, has a noticeable vibrato but not an uneven or overly annoying one, and she characterizes her role well. But when you consider that he’s the star of the show, I just couldn’t put up with the wobbly, strangulated singing of Lodahl. If this is what the Danes consider a star tenor nowadays, they’re in some serious trouble. This is a shame as the music of Drot og Marsk is clearly quite interesting and the opera deserves wider exposure.

Ah,  but there is an alternative to both Schønwandt recordings, and that is the live 1993 performance that some kind soul has uploaded on YouTube. Here, the Aase is sung by Inger Dam Jensen, who is nearly as good as Sofie Elkjær Jensen, and King Erik is sung by Ruders, in even finer voice than on the Chandos recording. Soprano Antje Jansen is Ingeborg, and she, too is better than her counterpart on this recording. and conductor Tamas Vetö does almost as fine a job with the music as Schønwandt. Of the principals, only Anders Jacobssen as Marshal Stig has a covered, somewhat strained voice, and he gets by due to his excellent acting. I switched over to this performance from the Dacapo recording at the point of Ingeborg’s second-act aria and just kept on listening; the performance is splendid, though the sound is a little boxy. Some treble boost is recommended if you record it as streaming audio or download it.

The one plus for getting this recording is the booklet, which includes the full libretto in both Danish and English, although a complete Danish-only libretto is available online HERE.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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