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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

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