Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra

Phaedra [UK premiere]

Phaedra – Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Aphrodite – Marlis Petersen
Hippolytus – John Mark Ainsley
Artemis – Axel Köhler
Minotaur – Lauri Vasar

Ensemble Modern
Michael Boder

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 17 January, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For the second day running, doyen of contemporary German composers, Hans Werner Henze (born 1926) was in the Barbican Hall. He took his bow, spot-lit in the audience and to a roaring reception, at the end of the UK premiere of his latest-completed opera, setting a libretto by Christian Lehnert: “Phaedra”.

First seen in Berlin in September 2007 in a stylised Peter Mussbach production, designed by Olafur Eliasson (the creator of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall “Weather Project”), this London performance reunited many of the original cast – Maria Riccarda Wesseling in the title role, John Mark Ainsley as the object of her desire, Hippolytus, and, as the meddling gods in Lehnert’s adaptation, Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite) and Axel Köhler (Artemis), with Germany’s crack contemporary music group, Ensemble Modern conducted by Michael Boder. Joining the 23 players, conductor and other singers was Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar making a late entrance as Minotaur.

Intriguingly there was another operatic Minotaur at the end of the same season that “Phaedra” was premièred, at The Royal Opera House, courtesy Sir Harrison Birtwistle. His “The Minotaur” concentrates on the man-bull itself and earlier events in Theseus’s life. The comparison is instructive, particularly in the focus of the respective librettos, as David Harsent’s for Birtwistle maintains the drama of the original Greek myth, while Lehnert’s separate acts seem to inhabit different worlds.

Indeed, it can be argued, so does Henze’s music, given that the composer fell into a two-month coma between composing the two acts in 2005; a coma from which many did not expect him to recover. Extraordinarily, since then he has rekindled his compositional zeal with already this year has been Rome’s world première (from Antonio Pappano and with both Ian Bostridge and John Tomlinson) of “Der Opfergang” (Immolazione or The Sacrifice) to a 1919 poem by Franz Werfel; and his forthcoming opera for the RuhrTriennale festival in September, “Gisela”.

What is perhaps most remarkable is how true to himself Henze is. Much of the score of “Phaedra” sounds as if he could have composed it at any time over the last fifty years; although he admits himself that there is an austerity and clarity now, with no excess of notes. There is an electronic tape (produced by Francesco Antonioni), which makes its presence most felt at the beginning of the second act, not to particularly great affect, as it grates with the beauty of Henze’s score (and, I dare say, could be dispensed with altogether). Here the traditional story of Phaedra’s revenge on her stepson is already over (the non-appearing Theseus commanding Poseidon to wreak havoc on his son; the god conjuring up the minotaur out of the waves to kill Hippolytus), and the god Artemis (countertenor Axel Köhler), Mime-like, tinkers with technology and, in this case, reconstructs Hippolytus on the banks of Roman Lake Nemi, nearby to where – coincidentally or not – Henze has lived for the last 40 years.

This additional Hippolytus tradition dates back to Ovid, and once put back together, he doesn’t realise what his past has been, and eventually becomes King of the Forest. On one hearing, the sense of Lehnert’s libretto was not as clear as I would have liked, but Henze’s soundworld was constantly beguiling. Both the opening quartet and the closing dance, cast as a quintet, brought immediately to mind Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Waltzes”, which is certainly not what I had expected.

Certainly worth re-hearing (I look forward to the opportunity), it only remains to be said that Henze has described the work as a concert-opera, and it worked well as such in the Barbican Hall. The singers all sang from memory, and their assumptions of their roles, were as assured as they were exemplary.

A fine start to the “Present Voices” mini-series at the Barbican Centre, which continues with the UK premiere of Peter Eötvös’s “Angels in America” (26 March) and Michel van der Aa’s “After Life” (15 May).

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