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

Poliuto, Glyndebourne

Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Pacific Opera Project Presents Ariadne auf Naxos

Pacific Opera Project, a small Los Angeles company, presented a production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Ebell Club with an excellent group of young singers at the beginning of what should be good careers.

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

The Singers Sparkle in New York Opera Exchange’s Carmen

New York Opera Exchange’s production of Carmen from May 8th to 10th highlighted that which opera devotees have been saying for years: Opera, far from being dead, is vibrant and evolving.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

Manitoba Opera: Turandot

There’s little doubt that Puccini’s Turandot is a flawed, illogical fairytale. Yet it continues to resonate today with its undying “love shall conquer all” ethos, where even the most heinous crimes may be forgiven by that which makes the world go ‘round.

Mariachi Opera El Pasado Nunca se Termina Comes to San Diego

On April 25, 2015, San Diego Opera presented it’s second Mariachi opera: El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, Leonard Foglia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House Orchestral Concerts

Ambition achieved! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right.

Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek’s annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continued with Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor.

Orlando Explores Art Without Boundaries

R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel’s Orlando asks the enigmatic question: Where do the boundaries of performance art begin, and where do they end?

The Virtues of Things

A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores.

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera Celebrates 50 Years of Great Singing

San Diego Opera, the company that General Manager Ian Campbell had scheduled for demolition, proved that it is alive and singing as beautifully as ever. Its 2015 season was cut back slightly and management has become a bit leaner, but the company celebrated its fiftieth season in fine style with a concert that included many of the greatest arias ever written.

Hercules vs Vampires: Film Becomes Opera!

In the early sixties, Italian film director Mario Bava was making pictures with male body builders whose well oiled physiques appeared spectacular on the screen.

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)

An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.

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):