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Hans Werner Henze [Photo by Badische Zeitung]
12 Jun 2015

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Hans Werner Henze [Photo by Badische Zeitung]


It comprised two operas which date from opposite ends of Henze’s career but which share themes such as the decline in religious certainty and the rise in scientific confidence and optimism, and also create similar sound worlds — a dense chromaticism combined with naturally unfolding melodic arcs, and appealing colourings and timbres.

Originally composed for radio, Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor) dates from 1951 and is based upon a short story by Franz Kafka, while Phaedra was written for the Berlin State Opera in 2007, five years before Henze’s death, and relates the tragedy of Phaedra and her step-son Hippolytus as told by Euripedes and others, developing the Classical tale to depict the return of Hippolytus from the dead to a world which he finds strange, disorientating and terrifying.

Henze adapted the radio version of Ein Landarzt into a monodrama for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Baritone Martin Hässler showed great courage in taking on the challenge of the role of the country doctor who, woken in the night by an urgent call to attend a sick patient ten miles away, finds himself in a succession of ever more bizarre predicaments. He becomes indebted to a mysterious groom who arrives with a team of horses and who promptly bites the face of his maid, Rosa; he is transported as if by magic to the house of the sick child, who then implores the doctor to let him die; he is forced by the village elders to lie in bed beside the child and threatened with death if he does not heal the boy; ultimately he finds himself condemned to spend eternity struggling to return home.

I wondered whether it would be possible to ‘act’ this surreal tale — or if it was indeed even necessary — but Hässler’s strong dramatic presence and intensely focused musical delivery immediately banished any doubts. The stage set comprised just a few items of simple furniture — a bed, a desk, a cabinet — but as the baritone moved around them, leaned and stood on them, his posture and body language created a dramatic world. He displayed impressive physical and musical stamina and concentration. The vocal part is a demanding one, through-composed and with extensive use of sprechgesang; but the pitch was convincingly well-centred — and confidently projected against an austere instrumental accompaniment, played with precision and clarity by the Guildhall Orchestra, which faithfully evoked the threat and confusion of the doctor’s nightmare.

Hässler’s German diction was exemplary, and a summarising English translation was projected in large font onto the black back wall — creating a slightly alienating effect, not unlike an epic placard. There is much relation of direct speech in the text of the monodrama, and the baritone skilfully used tone and colour to create rhetorical effects which were dramatic and animating. He used his voice not only to make himself a character in his own narration, but he brought the other characters before us too; the soft head voice which embodied the enervating cry of the child was full of pathos without being overly sentimental.

As the Country Doctor relates his experiences he is conversing with himself — questioning events and the reliability of his own memory of his experiences, much like a Schubert lied — as much as communicating with his audience, and Hässler powerfully conveyed the sense of the doctor’s volatility and disquiet in the face of the grotesque twists which turn an ordinary event into a metaphysical mystery.

Phaedra is a larger scale work — Henze termed it a ‘concert opera’, which in the first act innovatively presents the story of Phaedra’s tragic love for her step-son, Hippolytus, and in the second, sees Hippolytus transported to modern-day Italy and brought back to life — under the name of Virbius, by the goddess Artemis — only to find that his consciousness is fragmented and kaleidoscopic. Hippolytus’ identity becomes ever more abstract until it is subsumed into nature itself.

Director Ashley Dean and his designer, Cordelia Chisholm, adopt an imaginative and engaging approach. The first act recreates the ruins of the labyrinth, the grey circular centre of which evoking the sacred horse-shoe arenas of Classical tragedy. The transformation from the ‘Morning’ of Act 1 to Act 2’s ‘Evening’, and from the stark, grey, antique past to the present-day, is effected by the injection of a lurid yellow-green glow which infuses the circular operating theatre (lighting design, Mark Doubleday). Classical gods and goddesses are translated into modern day ‘miracle workers’ — nurses, surgeons — and Hippolytus is revived, given new limbs, a new identity. Dean avoids ‘Rocky Horror Show’ grotesquery, and Hippolytus’ ‘resurrection’ is disturbing but not ludicrous.

In subsequent scenes Hippolytus, struggles to recognise and know his ‘self’, and Dan Shorten’s video designs were very effective in creating an ambience of alienation; tele-screens rose and fell projecting a fragmented sequence of images. The moment when Hippolytus becomes the King of the Woods was startlingly theatrical, as the disorientating static fuzz morphed into vibrant, clean-cut flowers plucked from a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Henze’s lean melodic lines were satisfyingly communicated by the cast of five singers. Tenor Lawrence Thackeray exhibited considerable musico-dramatic awareness, even if he didn’t quite have the vocal shine to convey Hippolytus’ heroism. But, his singing unwaveringly balanced lyricism and vigour; this was a fine performance. In Act 1, Phaedra finds Hippolytus asleep in a thicket and sings of her passion for her step-son; Ailsa Mainwaring used the full range of her soprano — from its dusky depths to its gleaming top — to convey the intensity of her sensual desires. Mainwaring was also able to communicate Phaedra’s unpredictability, as she and Laura Ruhl-Vidal’s strongly assertive Aphrodite swore jealous revenge against the one they love. The countertenor role of Artemis was sung by Meili Li, who captured the strange beauty of the goddess’s voice.

The opera’s end is both transcendental and inconclusive. The Minotaur sings, ‘We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance’, and bass Rick Zwart’s hymn was rich and life-affirming. It was a shame that the spell had been broken by the descent of the curtain at end of previous scene.

The instrumental playing was again impressive. Henze’s instrumental voices are quite soloistic, and the transparency and depth of the woodwind and brass textures was dramatic — they were capable of powerfully creating the mythic earthquake, but also of spinning sinuous threads of sound. Conductor Timothy Redmond paced things well: the urgency of the first act gave way to more mystical meanderings in the second — there’s a lot of symbolism and metaphor but not much action in Christian Lehnert’s libretto — but Redmond sustained the dramatic moment by foregrounding the textural variety of the score, as groups of instruments formed sub-sets of colour.

The GSMD made two operas that are ‘not quite operas’ seem entirely at home on the stage.

Claire Seymour

Casts and production information:

Ein Landzart : Landarzt, Martin Hässler.

Phaedra : Aphrodite, Laura Ruhi-Vidal; Phaedra, Aisla Mainwaring; Artemis, Meili Li; Hippolytus, Lawrence Thackeray; Minotaur, Rich Zwart.

Timothy Redmond, conductor; Ashley Dean, director; Cordelia Chisholm, designer; Mark Doubleday, lighting designer; Victoria Newlyn, movement director; Dan Shorten, video designer. Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Silk Street Theatre, Barbican, London, Monday 8th June 2015.

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