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

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.

Götterdämmerung in Palermo

There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

Samuel Barber: Choral Music

This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

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):