Elegy for Young Lovers – Opera in three acts to a libretto by W. H. Auden & Chester Kallman
Gregor Mittenhofer – Steven Page
Dr Wilhelm Reischmann – William Robert Allenby
Toni Reischmann – Robert Murray
Elisabeth Zimmer – Kate Valentine
Carolina, Gräfin von Kirchstetten – Lucy Schaufer
Hilda Mack – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Josef Mauer – Stephen Kennedy
Members of the Orchestra of English National Opera
Fiona Shaw – Director
Tom Pye – Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting design
Lynette Wallworth – Video artist
Matt Jakob – Video engineer
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 24 April, 2010
Venue: The Young Vic, London
English National Opera’s joint venture with the Young Vic, now in its third year, has delivered a compact and powerful staging of Hans Werner Henze’s complex yet accessible score for “Elegy for Young Lovers”. Back as director, though currently appearing in a wonderful production of Boucicault’s “London Assurance” round the corner at the National Theatre, is Fiona Shaw – once again demonstrating a flair for getting to the heart of a ‘difficult’ operatic work and presenting it with a sure theatrical touch whilst understanding that ‘opera time’ has a pace all of its own. And the passage of time is very much one of the themes of the work. One would have expected the confined and intimate layout of the Young Vic to really help in enhancing the highly charged and claustrophobic atmosphere of Gregor Mittenhofer’s Alpine retreat, but the opera has its external scenes and these had all the necessary spaciousness thanks to the imaginative designs of Tom Pye, combined with subtle use of video and projection techniques and brilliant lighting.
Dominating the internal scenes inside Mittenhofer’s house for the first two acts was a grandfather clock made of ice, slowly melting and dripping in the heat of the auditorium. At its centre was its pendulum – motionless – symbolic that time for some of the characters stands still. Hilda Mack’s has been emotionally static in the period of 40 years when her husband disappeared on the Hammerhorn. The emergence of his body from a melting glacier triggers the expression of emotion between the young lovers, Elisabeth and Toni, who eventually meet their deaths in similar fashion on the same mountain. It also tellingly mirrors the heart of ice within the monstrously egotistical poet Gregor Mittenhofer. At the rear wall is a screen onto which ever-changing images of water, frost and ice are projected – but through which characters, past and present, are occasionally visible and onto which a film of the young lovers are displayed. The fragile foundations on which all the characters’ lives are built and the various fractious and later fractured relationships are also powerfully reflected by the stage floor which throughout the action gradually fractures, splinters and disintegrates, and upon which rippling water effects are often visible around specific characters. Above the set hovers a mountain rope and wood walkway which creates the illusion of the environmental height of the setting.
Of course, Henze’s music is just as vital in depicting the myriad changes of scene as well as emotions. Commentaries on the score usually mention words like translucent, crystalline or clean and these are certainly qualities that register in the performance here. The members of the ENO Orchestra are placed on a ledge above the stage area – but the sound remains bright and atmospheric and the textures have all the requisite clarity. Some of the playing was absolutely first rate – and whilst it seems invidious to pick out certain instrumentalists the pairing of Manon Morris’s harp with Karen Jones’s flute was particularly memorable, and the guitar and mandolin players (respectively Forbes Henderson and Nigel Woodhouse) also made their mark. The orchestra made a thrilling contribution – especially at moments like the storm interlude of the final act, and in the accompaniment to the opening sextet scene of that act. Stefan Blunier’s conducting had pace and variety and a theatrical pulse as well as a musical one.
Musically the protagonists are also well defined – for Henze links each of them with a specific instrument or combination of instruments. The manipulative and bullying Mittenhofer is closely allied to the brass; Hilda Mack to flute and harp; Carolina to the cor anglais and the lovers to intertwining high strings. Their vocal lines are often quite angular and exercise them through many intervals. At times, moments of extreme harmonic and thematic beauty emerge such as the duet between Elisabeth and Hilda as the former gently tells the latter that her husband’s body has finally been found, and also the trio in which Mittenhofer sings with Toni and Elisabeth about the plans for them to stay one more day – though that has a palpable sense of unease about it as well.
Fiona Shaw gets some fine dramatic performances out of her singers. Steven Page’s poet manages to be utterly repellent and yet exudes charisma and arrogance, and the sense of his calculated playing on the emotions of those around him is brought over strongly. The image of the poet enjoying a steam bath whilst the lovers he has deliberately left defenceless in the blizzard was a potent one, as was the moment at the start of the third act where he was visualised sitting amongst the orchestral instruments working feverishly away – obviously that was the feverishly creative hub of the set! Page sang well in his incisive bass-baritone, effectively contrasting the character’s apparent calmness against the bullish emotions lurking beneath the surface. As with all the cast his diction was exemplary.
As the slightly dotty Hilda Mack, Jennifer Rhys-Davies was by turns comic and tragic. This character has some fiendishly technical music to sing – very much along the lines of a stock romantic ‘mad scene’ with flute and harp accompaniment when having her visions. She was suitably attired as something of a diva character as well, with fur stole and feathered cap. She did not descend to caricature and this made her portrayal genuinely touching.
As the young lovers Robert Murray and Kate Valentine really came into their own in their death scene. Here Murray’s pliant and clear tenor was a distinct asset and his portrayal developed some real depth. Earlier on he had perhaps been a little anodyne – but perhaps that is the part. Kate Valentine as Elisabeth revealed a warm and vibrant soprano and was affecting in her acting. Interesting that this part was sung by none other than Elisabeth Söderström in the UK premiere at Glyndebourne in 1961 (a production conducted initially by John Pritchard). Henze recorded ‘Elegy’ in 1963 and revised the opera in the mid-1980s.
William Robert Allenby’s Doctor was a solid interpretation and Lucy Schaufer caught the desperate, helpless, jealous and self-destructive infatuation of the aristocratic Carolina for Mittenhofer effectively. Her complicity in leaving the lovers to their mountainside fate was deftly portrayed. Stephen Kennedy made the most of his brief spoken lines.
In sum this is a very theatrical presentation with musical felicities aplenty – and one wonders why this opera isn’t presented more often: full marks to ENO and the Young Vic for giving us the chance to see it.
- Further performances at the Young Vic on 26 & 28 April and 1, 4, 6 & 8 May, all beginning at 7 o’clock
- Elegy for Young Lovers