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19 May 2019

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Phaedra: Jette Parker Young Artists perform Henze’s opera in the ROH’s Linbury Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Phaedra: Linbury Theatre

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

The story of Phaedra’s tragic incestuous desire for her stepson, Hippolytus, as told by Euripides (Hippolytus), Seneca ( Phaedra) and Racine's (Phèdre), has attracted composers as diverse as Rameau and Britten, Paisiello and Massenet, Schubert and Honegger. It was the myth that the then 81-year-old Hans Werner Henze’s turned to for his fourteenth opera, Phaedra, in 2007, five years before the composer’s death.

The freedom with which Henze and his librettist, Christian Lehnert engaged with the Greek myth might be thought to resemble Stravinsky’s and Cocteau’s ‘re-composition’ of Sophocles in Oedipus rex. But, instead of the neoclassical distancing of Stravinsky’s ‘opera-oratorio after Sophocles’, with its Latin libretto (translated from Cocteau’s French by Abbé Jean Daniélou) and cool static quality - the narrator, in contemporary dress, stands apart from the soloists who barely seem to interact with one another - Henze’s and Lehnert’s ‘concert opera’ presents a visceral variation on Euripides et al which embraces both violence and surrealism. And, this terror and strangeness is embraced with engrossing intensity by director Noa Naamat in this production, performed by five Jette Parker Young Artists, in the ROH’s Linbury Theatre.

Phaedra production image.jpg Hongni Wu (Phaedra), Filipe Manu (Hippolyt), Jacquelyn Stucker (Aphrodite). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Part One of the opera follows the classical tale - more or less- in which Phaedra, rejected by Hippolytus and driven by all-consuming lust and self-loathing, lies to her husband, telling him that Hippolytus has raped her. Theseus curses his son, and Hippolytus is dragged to his death under a chariot when his horses are frightened by the Minotaur which as been resurrected by the sea-god Poseidon. Phaedra hangs herself.

Hongni Wu as Phaedra.jpgHongni Wu as Phaedra. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Part Two takes off into disorientating realms. Drawing on Euripides, and incorporating symbolic allusions to the composer’s own life, Henze and Lehnert make Phaedra and Hippolytus victims in a battle between Aphrodite and Artemis. The latter, to whom Hippolytus has sworn chaste devotion ( rejecting the cult of Aphrodite), resurrects the young man, renames him Virbius and brings him to Nemi in Italy. Phaedra and Aphrodite attempt to drag Virbius back to the Underworld, imprisoning him in a cage. Artemis rescues him and hides him in a cave, but Hippolytus’ identity and consciousness become ever more fragmented and kaleidoscopic, until he is subsumed into nature itself.

Lehnert’s abstractions and poetic elaborations render the strange stranger still, and can be alienating. But, Naamat tells the story with startling directness. The set (by takis) is simple, the characterisation strongly defined and powerfully sustained. A double staircase rises boldly centre-stage, carving slicing curves as it ascends to a platform from which the Minotaur - resurrected in the opening moments with jolts of electric light, horned and armoured like a walking armadillo, skulking with Dionysian dynamism - looks down upon Hippolytus’s suffering. A ribbon-curtain drapes from floor to ceiling, merging with the walls of the Linbury, glistening, twitching, swishing, as the characters appear and retreat. Part One’s bold aquamarine gives way to passionate orange after Hippolytus’s rebirth. Lee Curran’s lighting isolates the characters with starkness; a circular lighting-rig descends chillingly, like a giant iron manacle, to imprison Hippolytus in a cage.

Michael Mofidian as Minotaur.jpgMichael Mofidian as Minotaur. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Henze does make use of some Greek oratorical devices, and at times his characters address the audience directly, but Naamat emphasises their interaction with each other, and the cast did battle with fierce, terrifying intensity. Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu’s Phaedra prowled with seductive menace, her voice darkening and searching for ever more opulent colours as her decline deepened. Wu and Jacquelyn Stucker, as Aphrodite, excelled in the episodes of climactic Bergian lyricism. Stucker’s stage presence was thrillingly intense, emphasising the palpable danger posed by the angry, vengeful goddess.

Terry as Artemis.jpgPatrick Terry as Artemis. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The first countertenor to participate in the JPYA scheme, Patrick Terry relished the demands of the role of Artemis, which forced his voice high and low, down to a speaking baritone. His confident performance skilfully captured Artemis’s complexity. As Hippolytus, tenor Filipe Manu, who joins the JPYA scheme in September this year, displayed both nobility and vulnerability, his lyrical outbursts ringing with emotion. Michael Mofidian, silent until the closing moments, sang with a warmth which drew some sympathy for the Minotaur.

The timbral inventiveness of Henze’s orchestral score surprises and scintillates, and the Southbank Sinfonia (supplemented by pre-recorded sounds), conducted by Edmund Whitehead, relished its lyricism and discordances equally. The percussive energy and distortions of the score were tempered by moments of unexpected, haunting beauty, luring one into the misty, dreamlike narrative. For all its storms, earthquakes and destructive dialectics, this Phaedra throbbed with a strange, almost hypnotising energy and life.

Claire Seymour

Henze: Phaedra

Phaedra - Hongni Wu, Aphrodite - Jacquelyn Stucker, Artemis - Patrick Terry, Hippolyt - Filipe Manu, Minotaur - Michael Mofidian; Director - Noa Naamat, Conductor - Edmund Whitehead, Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Lee Curran, Movement Director - Mandy Demetriou, Southbank Sinfonia.

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Thursday 16th May 2019.

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