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

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican

Two great operas come from the year 1911 - Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Bela Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Both are masterpieces, but they are very different kinds of operas and experienced quite asymmetric performance histories.

Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House

Now on its ninth revival, Jonathan Kent’s classic Tosca for Covent Garden is a study in art, beauty and passion but also darkness, power and empire. Part of the production’s lasting greatness, and contemporary value, is that it looks inwards towards the malignancy of a great empire (in this case a Napoleonic one), whilst looking outward towards a city-nation in terminal decline (Rome).

ROH Return to the Roundhouse

Opera transcends time and place. An anonymous letter, printed with the libretto of Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia and written two years before his death, assures the reader that Monteverdi’s music will continue to affect and entrance future generations:

London Schools Symphony Orchestra celebrates Bernstein and Holst anniversaries

One recent survey suggested that in 1981, the average age of a classical concertgoer was 36, whereas now it is 60-plus. So, how pleasing it was to see the Barbican Centre foyers, cafes and the Hall itself crowded with young people, as members of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra prepared to perform with soprano Louise Alder and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, in a well-balanced programme that culminated with an ‘anniversary’ performance of Holst’s The Planets.

Salome at the Royal Opera House

In De Profundis, his long epistle to ‘Dear Bosie’, Oscar Wilde speaks literally ‘from the depths’, incarcerated in his prison cell in Reading Gaol. As he challenges the young lover who has betrayed him and excoriates Society for its wrong and unjust laws, Wilde also subjects his own aesthetic ethos to some hard questioning, re-evaluating a life lived in avowal of the amorality of luxury and beauty.

In the Beginning ... Time Unwrapped at Kings Place

Epic, innovative and bold, Haydn’s The Creation epitomises the grandeur and spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its recent production of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled an ideal cast of performers who blend well into an imaginative and colorful production.

New Cinderella SRO in San Jose

Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella is most remarkable for one reason and one reason alone: It was composed by a 12-year old girl.

La Cenerentola in Lyon

Like Stendhal when he first saw Rossini’s Cenerentola in Trieste in 1823, I was left stone cold by Rossini’s Cendrillon last night in Lyon. Stendhal complained that in Trieste nothing had been left to the imagination. As well, in Lyon nothing, absolutely nothing was left to the imagination.

Messiah, who?: The Academy of Ancient Music bring old and new voices together

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Messiah. And, at the Barbican Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music reminded us why … while never letting us settle into complacency.

The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale The Golden Cockerel was this holiday season’s ZaterdagMatinee operatic treat at the Concertgebouw. There was real magic to this concert performance, chiefly thanks to Vasily Petrenko’s dazzling conducting and the enchanting soprano Venera Gimadieva.

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, London - Rattle, O'Neill, Gerhaher

By pairing Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (Simon O'Neill, Christian Gerhaher) with Strauss Metamorphosen, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were making a truly powerful statement. The Barbican performance last night was no ordinary concert. This performance was extraordinary because it carried a message.

David McVicar's Rigoletto returns to the ROH

This was a rather disconcerting performance of David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto. Not only because of the portentous murkiness with which Paule Constable’s lighting shrouds designer Michael Vale’s ramshackle scaffolding; nor, the fact that stage and pit frequently seemed to be tugging in different directions. But also, because some of the cast seemed rather out of sorts.

Verdi Otello, Bergen - Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, Lester Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch and a good cast, with four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still. Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from <em>Elegie für junge Liebende</em> [Photo © Werner Kmetitsch courtesy of Theater an der Wien]
05 Jun 2017

Henze: Elegie für junge Liebende

Hans Werner Henze’s compositions include ten fine symphonies, various large choral and religious works, fourteen ballets (among them one, Undine, that ranks the greatest of modern times), numerous prominent film scores, and hundreds of additional works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instruments or voice. Yet he considered himself, above all, a composer of opera.

Henze: Elegie für junge Liebende

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Scene from Elegie für junge Liebende [Photos © Werner Kmetitsch courtesy of Theater an der Wien]

 

Among the most often performed of Henze’s 14 operas is Elegy for Young Lovers (Elegie für junge Liebende), which premiered in 1961. Its popularity stems in part from the libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, which focuses on the self-absorbed, amoral and sometimes sociopathic behavior of artists. This theme has been an obsessional threat in opera over the past century: from Béla Bartók and Paul Dukas’s Bluebeard operas to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin.

In Elegy, Auden and Kallman dissect in precise and painful detail how an artistic genus to fuels his artistic inspiration by manipulating and ultimately sacrificing his associates, friends and lovers. An imaginary Austrian writer named George Mittenhofer is spending the summer in the mountains with his entourage. In the final act, he sends a young couple, his former lover and her boyfriend (also his doctor’s son), out to die on a mountaintop—all so he can create romantic poetry about their last moments. The plot might seem unremittingly grim, yet at times the treatment borders on farce, combining comic irony and personal tragedy in the spirit of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to whom it was dedicated.

Central to Elegy’s success is also the brilliance of its score. Henze was a rebel. Like Benjamin Brittan, the other preeminent European composer of opera in the quarter century after World War Two, he was a radical critic of traditional politics and society in his home country, embraced an alternative gay lifestyle at a time when few did so openly, spent time in exile—and rejected the prevailing musical establishment. Henze not only threw off the weighty legacy of Wagnerian romanticism, as everyone did in those decades, but rejected the then sleek and politically correct “new orthodoxy” of serialism as well.

Elegie-fuer-junge-Liebende-4.pngMartin Winkler (Dr. Wilhelm Reischmann)

Yet Henze was nonetheless deeply embedded in the German and European canon. No modern opera composer was a more versatile and assured craftsman. He wove sonic tapestries from an eclectic mix of Mozart, Mahler, Brecht, Stravinsky, jazz and much more—even the serialism he abhorred. All this is held together not just by Henze’s extraordinary emotional exuberance, but also by contrapuntal virtuosity, innate lyricism, rhythmic vitality, a keen ear for timbre and other conventional musicianly virtues.

Opera offered particular fertile ground for Henze, perhaps because it disciplined his exuberance. While his massive symphonies sometimes layer clashing rhythms, timbres, tonalities and harmonies into a manic mass of sound, he scored his operas for a lucid chamber orchestra. He is careful to delicate instrumental timbres and renders almost all vocal lines intelligibly singable.

To hear Henze, there is no place like the Theater an der Wien. It is the oldest of Vienna’s three opera houses, founded in 1801 by Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto and sang Papageno in the debut of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Yet today the company bills itself as “Das neue Opernhaus” (the new opera house). It aims explicitly to present more challenging repertory and productions than the celebrated Staatsoper up the road or the Volksoper around the corner. The theater is well-suited to the task: it seats just 1000, with clear sightlines warm and clear acousticsAnd in Vienna people know their opera: the house was filled for the final performance of the run, and to judge from the conversations I overheard, filled with remarkably knowledgeable spectators.

Elegie-fuer-junge-Liebende-19_%28c%29Werner-Kmetitsch.pngAngelika Kirchschlager (Carolina, Gräfin von Kirchstetten), Laura Aikin (Hilda Mack), Johan Reuter (Gregor Mittenhofer)

The world-class orchestra in the pit consisted of 25 players from the Wiener Symphoniker conducted by the German-born director of the Dutch National Opera, Marc Albrecht. (Albrecht comes by it honestly: his father, George Alexander Albrecht, conducted a lot of Henze.) The musicians delivered a smooth and sparking rendition of the score, with drive, virtuosity and Mozartian clarity of line: even the soloist on the musical saw played with astonishing intonation and tonal beauty.

Despite the vocal demands Henze places on them, great singers have enthusiastically embraced his operas. While it is hard to match the casts assembled for early performances of Elegy, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Söderström and Martha Mödl, the Vienna cast was exceptionally strong.

The first voice one heard was that of soprano Laura Aikin in the role of Hilda Mack, the older woman whose hallucinatory ravings about her lost husband Mittenhofer had plagiarized in his poetry. Aiken is an American who has sung in Europe for some years, specializing in modern music, and one cannot imagine a more accomplished delivery of these difficult atonal intervals—surely meant as a parody of “crazy” 12-tone music.

Best-known of the cast members was Salzburg-born mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager as Carolina, the aristocratically stern yet emotionally tormented secretary to the great writer. Kirchschlager sang with warmth, expression and precision, resisting until the last moments a direct emotionality that would have been unsuited to the character.

The Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter portrayed Mittenhofer, around whose whims the rest of the cast organizes their lives. His characterization was appropriately full-voiced, as befits someone who sings German bass-baritone roles at top houses—including Wotan in the much-discussed “Copenhagen Ring,” available on DVD. Yet one missed the absurdly juxtaposed extremes of pomp and menace that define Mittenhofer’s personality.

Innsbruck-born tenor Paul Schweinester, active in Vienna and elsewhere, and Köln-born soprano, Anna Lucia Richter, brought fresh voices to the roles of the young couple Toni and Elisabeth—and they looked the part. No wonder they are rising young singers on the European circuit. Martin Winkler, a Vienna-based singer who has performed much modern opera—I first heard him in the Metropolitan’s recent Lulu—portrayed Mittenhofer’s genially venal doctor Wilhelm Reischmann with clear diction and a firm tone.

The theater also commissioned a new production and staging from the team of Keith Warner and Es Devlin. Striking semi-abstract sets portrayed giant snow-white replicas of objects found on a writer’s desk. The opening tableau illustrates the approach: an empty black set with a white desk lamp towering dozens of feet above a woman with a bowed head and a fancy floral hat. One’s first impression—surely a deliberate analogy—was of an insect under a microscope, but when she lifted her head, she was instantly transformed into a middle-aged woman. Over the course of the evening, more giant white objects were added, with actors clambered between and over a pile of books, a reclining statue of a nude, a human head, and typewriter.

As occurs particularly often in German-speaking opera houses, the stage director and set designer occasionally went over the top. In the penultimate scene, for example, the objects (covered with white sheets) became a stormy mountaintop, over which the two doomed young lovers scrambled. This was a clever conceit, but it clashed with musical-dramatic moment, in which Henze portrays the stillness and emotional innocence of their tender farewell in deliberate juxtaposition to the artificiality and deception that surround them. Henze would surely have criticized such a directorial choice as insufficiently “music-driven”—a virtue he prized.

Similarly inappropriate was insertion of a 10-second sex scene, unsanctioned by the libretto, in which a young female dominatrix flogs Mittenhofer. It was laughably brief and clichéd. Worse, it made no dramatic sense in this context. Yes, artists can be children, but the erotic implications of this brand of self-absorbed and exploitative genius are usually the opposite. Just think Picasso.

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):