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 Performances

Das Rheingold, Opera North

Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas - which is saying something.

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Tamara Mumford as Phaedra [Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia]
06 Jun 2011

Phaedra in Philadelphia

The U.S. premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra at the Opera Company of Philadelphia may well be the most important and ambitious new work presented by any American company this season.

Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra

Click here for cast and production information

Above: Tamara Mumford as Phaedra

All photos by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia

 

Henze started composing when Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss were still alive; he is the last living link to a continuous tradition of German opera reaching back for centuries. Yet his Phaedra, composed in 2007 when the composer was in his early 80s, is as vital and moving as any of his dozen previous operas. Presented by a brilliant and committed young cast, it marks a special occasion for any serious music-lover.

Phaedra retells the Greek myth of a step-mother’s fatally incestuous love for her son—a theme that has fascinated playrights from Euripides to O’Neill and composers from Rameau to Britten. Act One in Henze’s libretto follows Euripides. When Hippolytus rejects Phaedra’s love, it turns to hate. She plots his murder, then commits suicide out of shame. In the background, goddesses make sport of men, with Aphrodite goading on Phaedra and Artemis backing Hippolytus. In Henze’s Act Two, drawn loosely on Ovid, Hippolytus is resurrected by Artemis, loses his memory, is imprisoned in a cage and a cave, but in the end regains both freedom and identity.

fullres_2011_06_01_KM1016.gifWilliam Burden as Hippolytus

The work contains autobiographical resonances. Henze, in the classic mode of German Romantics, moved in later life to Italy—by chance, close to the spot where these mythical events are said to have occurred. He had finished Act One when he suddenly fell into a coma for several months. He was expected to die, but suddenly recovered. Seemingly revitalized, he wrote Act Two, with its theme of reincarnation.

All this is reflected in Henze’s luminous, precisely constructed score. Those familiar with his most famous operas, written in the 1960s when he was engaged in broader social and intellectual causes, will note that the mode of expression here is more private. One encounters neither the intricate and dramatic interactions among the characters in Elegy for Young Lovers, nor the symphonic sweep and struggle with implacable fate before a Greek chorus of Die Bassariden. The characters in Phaedra barely take notice of one another or the society around them. The dramatic focus lies instead on their interior monologues.

Consistent with its private, existential emphasis, Phaedra is delicately scored for five singers and an orchestra of 23 players. Yet it is miraculously varied, evocative and often sensuous writing of a mature master. The style is influenced, as always with Henze, by the second Viennese school—one key reference being Alban Berg’s Lulu—with clearly audible elements of Schönberg’s serialism, Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, Britten’s sound-world, and Weill.

fullres_2011_06_01_KM0155.gifElizabeth Reiter (standing) as Aphrodite with mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (kneeling) as Phaedra

Henze makes this all distinctively his own, creating unforgettable moments. Phaedra and Hippolytus’s early dawn wanderings in the forest are introduced by a sinuous duet for alto saxophone and English horn. The apex of the opera, when Hippolytus questions his identity, is followed by the most magically subtle suggestion of an orchestral storm: a brooding cello, swirling woodwinds, and a light, almost Japanese, rainstorm of solo percussion. The final scene, expressing the moral that we should dance our way through life rather than hunting (or being hunted) in the labyrinth, wittily echoes the finales of classic Baroque or Mozart opera.

Such writing imposes enormous technical and interpretive demands. Complex, largely atonal passages, subtle shifts in dynamics and meter, and a wide range of refined timbres must be performed in a limpid and fluid manner.

In Philadelphia, four outstanding young American singers take the leads. Phaedra is movingly sung by young mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. Her uncommonly expressive voice has increased in size since her successful Lucretia in Philadelphia two years ago—almost to the limits of the role—yet retains its plangent edge. Her elegant physical beauty perfectly suits aristocratic women in uncomfortable circumstances, such as Lucretia and Phaedra.

fullres_2011_06_01_KM0568.gifAnthony Roth Costanzo as Artemis

Anthony Roth Costanzo, the leading American countertenor of his generation, assumes the role of Artemis with clarity, precision and occasionally seductive charm. His voice has also grown in recent years, perhaps—as with Mumford—the result of singing at the Met.

William Burden, another returnee from the 2009 Lucretia, sings Hippolytus with passion, musicality, and dramatic impact. To be sure, some might object that the role of Hippolytus calls for less virility and a cooler and more focused tone production—John Mark Ainsley sang the European premiere to perfection—but Burden slims down to a ravishing “mixed voice” when it matters most, as in the Act II scene starting “Bin ich ein Vogel…”

Henze’s meandering, atonal phrases are murderously difficult to sing precisely on pitch. Only Elizabeth Reiter, who sings Aphrodite, is fully up to the task (though Costanzo comes close). Singing spot on pitch, she brings the music suddenly into focus, revealing its Mozartian naturalness and grace. It is hard to believe Reiter is a still a graduate student at Curtis—albeit one already boasting Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall, and European credits. Jeremy Milner is vocally and physically imposing in the cameo role of the Minotaur.

For all the vocal splendor—reinforced by the small confines of the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater—the musical preparation is not uniformly idiomatic. Both singers and orchestral players might take fuller advantage of extensive dynamic markings in the score. And only Costanzo consistently communicates of the eclectic pedigree of this music: where, for example, are the Cabaret influences in Phaedra’s Weill-inspired Act II seduction scene? German diction, though uniformly intelligible, remains uneven. Vocal trills go missing. Some questionable orchestral intonation mars Act II, and orchestral detail under Music Director Corrado Rovaris is lost. Yet such issues may resolve themselves out during the 5-performance run of what is an extremely difficult work.

fullres_2011_06_01_KM0066.gifTamara Mumford as Phaedra with tenor William Burden as Hippolytus

A more serious problem is that the visual treatment falls well short of the high musical standard. The basic concept of the production is promising: abstract, geometrical panels on which projections appear and in front of which a large cage descends in Act Two to entrap Hippolytus. Yet the costumes, make-up and stage direction fail to capture the mysterious essence of this opera. In part this is because much of the production does not engage Henze’s explicit instructions. One would never know that in the finale of Act One, Henze’s score brutally confronts the audience with Phaedra’s death: “The bang of a trap door. Phaedra hangs from a rope.” In the final scene of Act Two, the stage directions read: “In the background, the Minotaur dances,” evoking the archaic strangeness of the libretto, as well as its aspiration to reconceive two millennia of the Western tradition.

Such instructions need not be followed to the letter, but the lowest-common-denominator realism of the Philadelphia staging—characters in realistic costumes, little make-up and no masks, with pictures of birds and trees behind them—seems banal and earthbound in a way fundamentally at odds with the opera’s spirit. Expressionism or abstraction might better convey that Henze’s characters are not, in the end, real people, but archetypes engaged with central issues of Western culture.

Ultimately, however, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has rightly chosen to emphasize first and foremost the music. Phaedra is a miraculous musical achievement that combines the freshness of youth with the wisdom and skill of old age. An opportunity to hear voices of this quality in a work of this significance should not be missed.

Andrew Moravcsik

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):