Once upon a time, August Enna (1859-1939) was the best-known Danish composer outside of Denmark with a string of operatic successes to his credit. The sleeve notes to this enterprising recording of his Kleopatra of 1894 would have us believe it was his hyper-Romantic Straussian excesses that would cause him to fall out of favour in the 20th century – that and the fact he seems to have been a bit of a bastard. However, a listen to this rather long-winded opera on an unattractively sexist tale by L. Rider Haggard suggests other reasons may have contributed to his decline, factors like lack of consistent inspiration and inability to spot that less might equal more being chief among them.
It’s not all bad, however. Indeed, some moments show real promise, and there’s no doubting Enna’s technical facility. It’s well recorded too with excellent orchestral playing and the score is nicely shaped and shaded by conductor Joachim Gustafsson. But there’s too much going against it to imagine that anyone – with the exception of Philipp Kochheim who mounted it at the Danish National Opera in 2019 – is likely to stage it anytime soon.
Let’s take the negatives first, starting with the storyline. Acclaimed by a secret male-only society as the true king of Egypt, Prince Harmaki is smuggled into Kleopatra’s palace by Charmion, a fanatically inclined maid with a jealous disposition, in order to murder her mistress. When he sees the queen, however, Harmaki is overcome by her beauty and kills himself instead. Stretched over two hours the plot is wafer thin, the characters two-dimensional, and the behaviour of the men smacks of misogyny.
Enna responds to the wordy libretto by dragging it all out no end, his orchestrations accomplished, but cursed with a certain heaviness. On paper, much should be overwhelming. In practice, there is too little that sets the pulse racing. And although the sleeve notes promise Richard Strauss, Enna sounds more Stanford or Parry. There are lyrical pleasures along the way, and the vocal lines are eminently singable (despite some poor word setting), but despite the exotic location there’s a lack of colour in much of the score. When the obligatory ballet music is the opera’s highlight you know you are in trouble.
As the ‘hero’ Harmaki, Magnus Vigilius’s reedy tenor is lacking in beauty, its thinness lending the lyrical line a monochrome quality. He does have all the notes, however, and his Act Two monologue is a score highlight. Elsebeth Dreisig’s spindly soprano is insufficiently earthy for the sensual Kleopatra, though she comes of well in the lovely Act III ‘lyre song’ and her diction is admirable.
As the spiteful Charmion, Ruslana Koval gets some of the sweetest music, her bright soprano one of the recording’s pleasures. Lars Møller, on the other hand, makes heavy weather of the high priest Sepa. It’s an uninviting role, and his unvaried baritone sounds pushed towards the top.
The choral writing is one of Enna’s finer points and the Danish National Opera Chorus are a bonus here, singing with commendable power. The Odense Symphony Orchestra are fine as well, the ample recording giving the work it’s best chance to shine. That it flickers rather than blazes is a shame. Kleopatra is maybe worth a stream, but hardly an essential purchase.
Composer: August Enna
Performers: Lars Møller bar, Magnus Vigilius t, Elsebeth Dreisig s, Odense Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Opera Chorus/Joachim Gustafsson
Label: Da Capo 8.226708-09 (2CD)