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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

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