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

Kaufmann's first Otello: Royal Opera House, London

Out of the blackness, Keith Warner’s new production of Verdi’s Otello explodes into being with a violent gesture of fury. Not the tempest raging in the pit - though Antonio Pappano conjures a terrifying maelstrom from the ROH Orchestra and the enlarged ROH Chorus hurls a blood-curdling battering-ram of sound into the auditorium. Rather, Warner offers a spot-lit emblem of frustrated malice and wrath, as a lone soldier fiercely hurls a Venetian mask to the ground.

Don Carlo in Marseille

First mounted in 2015 at the Opéra National de Bordeaux this splendid Don Carlo production took stage just now at the Opéra de Marseille with a completely different cast and conductor. This Marseille edition achieved an artistic stature rarely found hereabouts, or anywhere.

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

Unconventional to the last, Diamanda Galás tore through her Barbican concert on Monday evening with a torrential force that shattered the inertia and passivity of the modern song recital. This was operatic activism, pure and simple. Dressed in metallic, shimmering black she moved rather stately across the stage to her piano - but there was nothing stately about what unfolded during the next 90 minutes.

Schubert Wanderer Songs - Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two-year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point in the whole traverse. A well-planned programme of much-loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

La Bohème in San Francisco

In 2008 it was the electrifying conducting of Nicola Luisotti and the famed Mimì of Angela Gheorghiu, in 2014 it was the riveting portrayals of Michael Fabbiano’s Rodolfo and Alexey Markov’s Marcelo. Now, in 2017, it is the high Italian style of Erika Grimaldi’s Mimì — and just about everything else!

A heart-rending Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Janáček’s first mature opera, Jenůfa, is a good choice for Grange Park Opera’s first season at its new home, West Horsley Place. Revived by Robin Tebbutt, Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer’s 1930s urban setting emphasises the opera’s lack of sentimentality and subjectivism, and this stark realism is further enhanced by the narrow horseshoe design of architect Wasfi Kani’s ‘Theatre in the Woods’ whose towering walls and narrow width seem to add further to the weight of oppression which constricts the lives of the inhabitants.

Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera

“I am nearer to the greatest secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!” So despairs Golaud, enflamed by jealousy, suspicious of his mysterious wife Mélisande’s love for his half-brother Pelléas. Michael Boyd’s thought-provoking new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera certainly ponders plentiful secrets: of the conscience, of the subconscious, of the soul. But, with his designer Tom Piper, Boyd brings the opera’s dreams and mysteries into landscapes that are lit, symbolically and figuratively, with precision.

Carmen: The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival, artistic director Michael Chance, has opened at Northington Grange giving everyone a chance to see what changes have arisen from this change of festival at the old location. For our first visit we caught the opening night of Annabel Arden's new production of Bizet's Carmen on Sunday 11 June 2017. Conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the cast included Na'ama Goldman as Carmen, Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose, Shelley Jackson as Micaela and Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo. There were also two extra characters, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu as Commere and Compere. Designs were by Joanna Parker (costume co-designer Ilona Karas) with video by Dick Straker, lighting by Peter Mumford. Thankfully, the opera comique version of the opera was used, with dialogue by Meredith Oakes.

Don Giovanni in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera revved up its 2011 production of Don Giovanni with a new directorial team and a new conductor. And a blue-chip cast.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass.

Into the Wood: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Snape Maltings

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where Oxlips and the nodding Violet grows.’ In her new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Netia Jones takes us deep into the canopied groves of Oberon’s forest, luring us into the nocturnal embrace of the wood with a heady ‘physick’ of disorientating visual charms.

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Every once in a while a warhorse redefines itself. This happened last night in San Francisco when Rigoletto propelled itself into the ranks of the great masterpieces of opera as theater — the likes of Falstaff and Tristan and Rossini’s Otello.

My Fair Lady at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In its spring musical production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady Lyric Opera of Chicago has put together an ensemble which does ample justice to the wit and lyrical beauty of the well-known score.

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.

Werther at Manitoba Opera

If opera ultimately is about bel canto, then one need not look any further than Manitoba Opera’s company premiere of Massenet’s Werther, its lushly scored portrait of an artist as a young man that also showcased a particularly strong cast of principal artists. Notably, all were also marking their own role debuts, as well as this production being the first Massenet opera staged by organization in its 44-year history.

Seattle: A seamlessly symphonic L’enfant

Seattle Symphony’s “semi-staged” presentation of L’enfant et les sortilèges was my third encounter with Ravel’s 1925 one-act “opera.” It was incomparably the most theatrical, though the least elaborate by far.

Der Rosenkavalier: Welsh National Opera in Cardiff

Olivia Fuchs' new production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. The production debuted in Magdeburg last year and now Welsh National Opera is presenting the production as part of its Summer season, the company's first Der Rosenkavalier since 1990 (when the cast included Rita Cullis as the Marschallin and Amanda Roocroft making her role debut as Sophie).

Don Giovanni takes to the waves at Investec Opera Holland Park

There’s no reason why Oliver Platt’s imaginative ‘concept’ for this new production of Don Giovanni at Investec Opera Holland Park shouldn’t work very well. Designer Neil Irish has reconstructed a deck of RMS Queen Mary - the Cunard-White Star Line’s flag-ship cruiser during the 1930s, that golden age of trans-Atlantic cruising. Spanning the entire width of the OHP stage, the deck is lined with port-holed cabin doors - perfect hideaways for one of the Don’s hasty romantic dalliances.

"Recreated" Figaro at Garsington delights

After the preceding evening’s presentation of Annilese Miskimmon’s sparkling production of Handel’s Semele - an account of marital infidelity in immortal realms - the second opera of Garsington Opera’s 2017 season brought us down to earth for more mundane disloyalties and deceptions amongst the moneyed aristocracy of the eighteenth-century, as presented by John Cox in his 2005 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Semele: star-dust and sparkle at Garsington Opera

To open the 2017 season at Garsington Opera, director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw offer a visually beautifully new production of Handel's Semele in which comic ribaldry and celestial feuding converge and are transfigured into star-dust.

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):