Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.

Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne

Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.

The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf

Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.

San Diego Opera Presents a Tragic Madama Butterfly

On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.

Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde

New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.

San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride

In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Roméo et Juliette: Dutch National Opera and Ballet seal merger with leaden Berlioz

Choral symphony, oratorio, symphonic poem — Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette does not fit into any mould. It has the potential to work as an opera-ballet, but incoherent storytelling and uninspired conducting undermined this production.

Donizetti : Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House

When Kasper Holten took the precaution of pre-warning ticket-holders that the Royal Opera House’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor featured scene portraying ‘sexual acts’ and ‘violence’, one assumed that he was aiming to avert a re-run of the jeering and hectoring that accompanied last season’s Guillaume Tell. He even went so far as to offer concerned patrons a refund.

Five Reviews of Regina at Maryland Opera Studio

These are five very different reviews by students at the University of Maryland on its Opera Studio production of Regina — an interesting, informative and entertaining read . . .

Three Cheers for the English Touring Opera

‘Remember me, the one who is Pia;/ Siena made me, Maremma undid me.’ The speaker is Pia de’ Tolomei. She appears in a brief episode of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio V, 130-136) which was the source for Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei - by way of Bartolomeo Sestini’s verse-novella of 1825.

Andriessen's De Materie at the Park Avenue Armory

"The large measure of formalism which forms the basis of De Materie does not in itself offer any guarantee that the work will be beautiful," says Dutch composer Louis Andriessen of his four-movement opera.

Falstaff Makes a Big Splash in Phoenix

On April 1, 2016, Arizona Opera presented Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) in Phoenix. Although Boito based most of his libretto on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, he used material from Henry IV as well. Verdi wrote the music when he was close to the age of eighty. He was concerned about his ability at that advanced age, but he was immensely pleased with Boito’s text and decided to compose his second comedy, despite the fact that his first, Un giorno di regno, had not been successful.

Svadba in San Francisco

The brand new SF Opera Lab opened last month with artist William Kentridge’s staged Schubert Winterreise. Its second production just now, Svadba-Wedding — an a cappella opera for six female voices — unabashedly exposes the space in a different, non-theatrical configuration.

Benvenuto Cellini in Rome

One may think of Tosca as the most Roman of all operas, after all it has been performed at the Teatro Costanzi (Rome’s opera house) well over a thousand times since 1900. Though equally, maybe even more Roman is Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini that has had only a dozen or so performances in Rome since 1838.

New from Opera Rara : Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe

Two new recordings from highly acclaimed specialists Opera Rara - Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe.

Handel : Elpidia - Opera Settecento

Roll up! A new opera by Handel is to be performed, L’Elpidia overo li rivali generosi. It is based upon a libretto by Apostolo Zeno with music by Leonardo Vinci - excepting a couple of arias by Giuseppe Orlandini and, additionally, two from Antonio Lotti’s Teofane (which the star bass, Giuseppe Maria Boschi , on bringing with him from the Dresden production of 1719).

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Hans Werner Henze
18 Jan 2010

Phaedra at the Barbican

Most musical of mourners, weep anew!
Not all to that bright station dared to climb
And happier they their happiness who knew
Whose tapers yet burn through that night of time

Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra

Phaedra: Maria Riccarda Wesseling; Aphrodite: Marlis Petersen; Minotaur: Lauri Vasar; Artemis: Axel Köhler; Hippolytus: John Mark Ainsley. Ensemble Modern. Conductor: Michael Boder. Libretto: Christian Lehnert.

 

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He has awakened from the dream of life

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely…

(P.B. Shelley, “Adonais”)

Oh, those androgynously desirable hunter-heroes, shattered to death by their own horses, gored on a Boar’s tusks or eaten by their own hounds… what right could they do, trying to appease horny step-mothers and adoring goddesses all at once? Henze’s latest opera (his fourteenth) feels like a story that just had to be set to music like this, the first part telling the tale of the death of Hippolytus as related by Euripides, and the second based around the Ovidian myth of the god reborn as a part of the Universe.

Those of us who grew up with The Golden Bough are in our element here, the setting of Henze’s work dealing respectively with ancient Greece and the area of Italy around Nemi (close to the composer’s home) associated with the cult of Virbius, the ‘twice man’ who is restored to life at the behest of the goddess Artemis. The merely delightful L’Upupa was going to be Henze’s last opera - ‘I think that (13) is enough’ but in 2005 he was inspired to create a new piece on the subject of the love and death of Phaedra and her stepson Hippolytus, finishing the first act before a near-fatal illness brought about an hiatus during which his partner nursed him back to health, then himself died at only 63. Henze then went on to compose the life-affirming second act, in which Hippolytus is not dead but has ‘awakened from the dream of life.’

You can’t escape the autobiographical element - Henze lost his near-lifetime’s companion soon after almost dying himself (‘The coffin was ordered, the death notices printed’) so a Romantic work concerning the links between desire and love, between art and nature and between the living and the dead, was a natural outcome. For me, hearing Phaedra took me back to the Five Neapolitan Songs and the cantata Whispers from Heavenly Death; - these are much earlier works but they seem to inhabit the same area of the psyche, and deal with similar existential concerns, the setting of ‘Darest thou now, O Soul / Walk out with me toward the unknown region’ from the latter work very much springing to mind during the third part of the second act of Phaedra.

The music is above all spare yet Romantic, minimal in resources (only 23 players) yet often colossal in impact, and makes wonderful use of extraneous sound devices, especially in the scene depicting the earthquake - in fact you could hardly ask for more of that sense which Beethoven describes as uniquely Handelian, ‘of achieving great effects through little means.’ The techniques asked of the singers range from outright speech through Sprechgesang to coloratura, always in the service of the text. Lehnert’s libretto ideally partners the other-worldly sense of the music, and even when the sung voice is absent the orchestra still seems to be singing, as when the flutes and horns announce the naming of Virbius in phrases which seem full of ‘Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth.’

Ainsley_Phaedra--001.gifJohn Mark Ainsley as Hippolytus and Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Phaedra in the original Berlin production.

The performances are, as you would expect, world-class: this is after all the original cast and instrumental ensemble, and under Michael Boder’s direction they give as authoritative an account of the music as one could wish for, and which must have delighted the composer, who was present for the occasion. Maria Riccarda Wesseling was a gripping, sensual, passionate Phaedra, conveying not only her character’s cruelty and self-absorption but also her overwhelming vitality - when she was taunting Hippolytus you could almost feel the energy crackling around her.

The role of Hippolyt was written for John Mark Ainsley, and he inhabits it with absolute mastery, in sovereign voice throughout, his authority in the first act as commanding as his vulnerability in the second is touching. ‘Ich bin hier in meinem Anfang’ sings Hippolyt / Virbius after his rebirth, and the sense of both fragility and awe was superbly conveyed. This was as complete an assumption of an operatic role as you are likely to see on any stage.

Axel Köhler’s Artemis displayed similar commitment, in music written to test the counter-tenor range to its limits - it’s typical of Henze that this character should be set for this voice type, since doing so both confounds expectations and neatly links the music to Henze’s influences in the Baroque. Marlis Peterson was a fluent, statuesque Aphrodite, her avowal of vengeance with Phaedra one of the high points of the evening, and Lauri Vasar’s silky baritone was the ideal vehicle for the Minotaur’s sonorous reflections.

Will Phaedra become a staple of the repertoire? As a ‘Chamber Opera’ it requires fairly minimal forces, but its demands are such that those forces must be of the very best - indeed it is difficult to imagine the work being sung by anyone other than these artists. Its timing makes it problematic to programme, although one could envisage a performance alongside Britten’s cantata on the same subject - however it is staged, it is a beautiful, delicate work whose ambiguities may not have wide appeal. Henze is apparently working on a new piece at the moment, so we can hope that Phaedra may well not be his swan song.

In keeping with the sense of looking forward, this evening was not only the culmination of the Barbican’s Henze weekend, but it also represented the first instalment of the 2010 ‘Present Voices’ series, which showcases contemporary operas. The series continues on March 26th with the UK premiere of Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America (based on the play by Tony Kushner), and ends on May 15th with the UK premiere of After Life by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, a work which, like Henze’s, presents us with characters who are at a point between Earth and Heaven.

Melanie Eskenazi

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):