15 Mar 2009
Henze: Der junge Lord
Hey man, you wanna take a trip? Groovy!
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.
Hey man, you wanna take a trip? Groovy!
Like a hallucinogenic sugar cube, this Medici Arts DVD of Hans Werner Henze’s Der junge Lord, with libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann, will take viewers on a wild ride and really put it to the system. The opera premiered in 1965; this filmed version dates from 1968. Although the story takes place in a bourgeois German town in the 19th century, the cast might as well be in bell bottoms and paisley. Henze and Bachmann take over two hours to tell the story of the mysterious Sir Edgar, who excites a status-crazed German town when he visits. A party designed to present Sir Edgar’s son, the young lord of the title, sets the stage for the supposedly shocking climax. After the hypocritical elites of the town have excused the strange behavior of the young lord, they recoil in shock as the finely dressed young man goes, pardon the expression, ape-excrement crazy, at which point Sir Edgar steps in to reveal that this “son” is actually an ape who has been taught how to “ape” the manners of society. Wow! Crazy, man, far out.
Der junge Lord plays, then, like an over-extended Twilight Zone episode in one of Serling’s rare and not notably funny forays into humor. That isn’t necessarily dismissive criticism, however, and though this DVD can’t elicit a general recommendation from your reviewer, its merits shouldn’t be dismissed either.
Of primary value is Henze’s score, which skips and frolics with macabre glee, not unlike the ape-lord himself at the ball in his honor. Although far from sweet and lyrical, Henze’s music adopts tonality almost to mock the conservative, conventional society of the story. Through sharp, disruptive rhythms and kaleidoscopic orchestration, Henze manages to give the impression of edgier music than he has actually composed. No tunes may lodge in listeners’ memories, but Henze’s energetic imagination holds the attention. With Christoph von Dohnanyi’s expert leadership, the Deutsche Oper Berlin forces play like crazed apes themselves.
Gustav Rudolf Sellner staged and directed the production, and it manages the rare feat of retaining a theatrical perspective while making good use of the camera. The actors/singers perform to a recorded soundtrack, following Sellner’s precise direction, almost choreographic in its flow and ease. Bachmann’s libretto, basically didactic, doesn’t really care to properly characterize any of the roles, but the performers try their best. Somehow both at the center of the story and extraneous to it are a young couple in love, sung by Edith Mathis and Donald Grobe. Mathis in particular manages some very difficult music while maintaining beauty of tone. Sir Edgar is a silent role, with Barry McDaniel as his secretary serving as a properly unctuous spokesperson. In the title role, Loren Driscoll also must cope with some challenging vocal lines, especially in the off-camera scene where the lord/ape is being tortured during his German lesson. Driscoll’s contorted posture and manic dancing do make the final scene almost worth the long wait to reach it.
Almost. In the end, Der junge Lord probably qualifies more as a fascinating artifact of its time than a successful opera. Those who still tune into the occasional Twilight Zone marathon and wonder how many of the shows could have been the basis for an opera should check this curiosity out.