Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra at the Linbury Theatre

Phaedra – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Christian Lehnert [sung in German, with English surtitles]

Phaedra – Hongni Wu
Hippolyt / Virbius – Filipe Manu
Aphrodite – Jacqueline Stucker
Artemis – Patrick Terry
Minotaurus – Michael Mofidian

Southbank Sinfonia
Edmund Whitehead

Noa Naamat – Director
takis – Designer
Lee Curran – Lighting
Mandy Demetriou – Movement

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 15 May, 2019
Venue: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra at the Linbury TheatrePhotograph: Bill CooperThe music of Hans Werner Henze’s final true opera Phaedra, premiered in 2007, is a remarkable achievement with a score full of amazing sonorities. The music of the first Act is heavily reliant on woodwinds, notably duetting clarinets and flute and piccolo combinations, with the strings providing an occasional undercurrent that creates significant tension mapping the unfolding events. The piano and percussion interventions also provide episodes of eerie, transient stillness. In the second Act, composed after Henze had awoken from a period in a coma there is a decided shift of emphasis with strings becoming the more prominent feature, and there are pre-recorded soundscapes broadcast into the auditorium that are fully integrated into the musical action. The Southbank Sinfonia and Edmund Whitehead give a virtuoso and thrillingly immediate account of the score.

Vocally it’s a demanding piece as well, and the singers drawn from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme meet the challenges head on. If Jacqueline Stucker and Hongni Wu take the vocal honours it is probably because their music is the most arresting. Stucker’s jealous and manipulative Aphrodite is voiced with blazing and fiery assurance across a wide soprano range and Wu’s voice is notable for its warm yet penetrative middle register, allied to a powerful top and she catches Phaedra’s sudden changes of passion remarkably well. These two voices blend astonishingly well, as demonstrated in the middle of the first Act when their characters form a somewhat unholy alliance. Filipe Manu, soon to join the Jette Parker scheme, is a lyric/heroic Hippolyt with fluid and attractive tone and brings out all his character’s headstrong qualities with skill, and when resurrected as Virbius. Mercifully Patrick Terry doesn’t overplay Henze’s rather odd realisation of the goddess Artemis. Michael Mofidian’s resonant tones aid his baleful omnipresent Minotaur significantly.

Stage designs are simple yet effective, enclosed within staircases, enhancing the cyclic themes of the tale, and with clever use of rising and falling lighting gantries. Likewise the costuming: deep blues dominate the Morning of Act One and deep reds the Evening of Act Two, Whether one responds positively to Christian Lehnert’s rather symbolism-laden text is another matter, although his theme of emotional memory through the cycles of life and death is potent.

  • Further performances on 16, 18 & 20

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