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

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.

Riveting Maria de San Diego

As part of its continuing, adventurous “Detour” series, San Diego Opera mounted a deliciously moody, proudly pulsating, wholly evocative presentation of Astor Piazzolla’s “nuevo tango” opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.

La Walkyrie in Toulouse

The Nicolas Joel 1999 production of Die Walküre seen just now in Toulouse well upholds the Airbus city’s fame as Bayreuth-su-Garonne (the river that passes through this quite beautiful, rich city).

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at Covent Garden

Carmen is dead. Long live Carmen. In a sense, both Bizet’s opera and his gypsy diva have been ‘done to death’, but in this new production at the ROH (first seen at Frankfurt in 2016) Barrie Kosky attempts to find ways to breathe new life into the show and resurrect, quite literally, the eponymous temptress.

Candide at Arizona Opera

On Friday February 2, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Although all the music was Bernstein’s, the text was written and re-written by numerous authors including Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, as well as the composer.

Satyagraha at English National Opera

The second of Philip Glass’s so-called 'profile' operas, Satyagraha is magnificent in ENO’s acclaimed staging, with a largely new cast and conductor bringing something very special to this seminal work.

Mahler Symphony no 8—Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality. For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem. Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.

Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday—Angelika Kirchschlager

At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series. The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde. Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.

Ilker Arcayürek at Wigmore Hall

The first thing that struck me in this Wigmore Hall recital was the palpable sincerity of Ilker Arcayürek’s artistry. Sincerity is not everything, of course; what we think of as such may even be carefully constructed artifice, although not, I think, here.

Lisette Oropesa sings at Tucson Desert Song Festival

On January 30, 2018, Arizona Opera and the Tucson Desert Song Festival presented a recital by lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa in the University of Arizona’s Holsclaw Hall. Looking like a high fashion model in her silver trimmed midnight-blue gown, the singer and pianist Michael Borowitz began their program with Pablo Luna’s Zarzuela aria, “De España Vengo.” (“I come from Spain”).

Schubert songs, part-songs and fragments: three young singers at the Wigmore Hall

Youth met experience for this penultimate instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s Schubert: The Complete Songs series, and the results were harmonious and happy. British soprano Harriet Burns, German tenor Ferdinand Keller and American baritone Harrison Hintzsche were supportively partnered by lieder ‘old-hand’, Graham Johnson, and we heard some well-known and less familiar songs in this warmly appreciated early-afternoon recital.

Brent Opera: Nabucco

Brent Opera’s Nabucco was a triumph in that it worked as a piece of music theatre against some odds, and was a good evening out.

LPO: Das Rheingold

It is, of course, quite an achievement in itself for a symphony orchestra to perform Das Rheingold or indeed any of the Ring dramas. It does not happen very often, not nearly so often as it should; for given Wagner’s crucial musico-historical position, this is music that should stand at the very centre of their repertoires – just as Beethoven should at the centre of opera orchestras’.

William Tell in Palermo

This was the infamous production that was booed to extinction at Covent Garden. Palermo’s Teatro Massimo now owns the production.

The Bandits in Rome

AKA I masnadieri, rare early Verdi, though not as rare as Alzira. In 1847 London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre  commissioned the newly famous Verdi to write this opera for the London debut of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.

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):