Thursday, 14 January 2010

Hans Werner Henze - Phaedra Berlin

Hans Werner Henze's opera Phaedra receives its first UK performance this weekend at the Barbican, London. Henze nearly died while writing it, and spent many weeks in a coma. Of course it doesn't follow that tragedy "must" mean tragic music, but the situation did seem to make Henze face the fundamentals of life and death. When I first saw Phaedra, what gripped me was the way Henze faced the idea of death without flinching. Subsequently, I've come to hear Phaedra more as an elegy to love. Love has the power to overcome death, to break the boundaries between life and death.

London will effectively be getting the Berlin premiere because the performers are almost identical: Michael Boden conducting Ensemble Modern, and John Mark Ainsley, leading the same cast. Although this will be a concert performance, it should still be informed as drama by Peter Mussbach's original, even though the amazing sets (Olafur Eliasson) will be missing. That staging was amazingly true to the music. The clip above and the stills in this link HERE give an idea what the production was like: emphasis on glittery, impenetrable surfaces, darkness and light. At one point, a naked figure curls into foetal position, but the image is refracted endlessly in mirrors, like a kind of crazy kaleidoscope. It's an apt image of the music, too, for this is a chamber opera, where all is reduced to essentials. As in Greek tragedy, less is more.

The whole Berlin production revolved around the orchestra, which was placed in the centre of the auditorium, between stalls and galleries. Raised on a platform, the musicians are reflected directly onto a huge mirror surface on stage, so they were "present" dramatically even before a note was played. It was a brilliant concept, because it concentrated so many ideas in this remarkable opera. As Henze has said, it’s a “concert opera”, more than opera or concert music alone. Barriers between musicians and audience are blurred because this is an opera where listeners participate, rather than sit passively uninvolved. It’s a creative challenge that asks, What is reality? What is reflection? How does imagination enhance what we see and hear?

Then the singers appeared, standing in a circle round the conductor, then gradually making their way along a catwalk, where they are literally inches from the audience. There’s no way you can miss being engaged. The concept also opens the music out spatially, reinforcing the sense of ever-expanding horizons. Later, the large mirrors are revealed as a series, refracting visual images like a kaleidoscope, shifting and rearranging “reality” in a constant flux. The lighting moves similarly, creating apparent substance, even though what we see is achieved simply by shadow and illumination.

This is a brilliant example where staging enhances and amplifies concepts central to the music and to the meaning of the opera. Henze uses only 23 orchestral players and 5 singers, yet he builds intricate textures and sub-textures into the richly vibrant score. Part of this comes from individualized groups of instruments operating like inner cells within the whole. The four string players – only four – operate sometimes as a quartet, sometimes as part of the whole. Piano and celeste feature as distinctive individual voices “within the chorus” so to speak, a subtle reference to the Greek origins of the narrative. There’s a fine swathe of cors anglais, bassoons and a contraforte, a newer contrabassoon with an even more resonant lower range.

Henze’s writing for percussion is particularly lively, for he uses a huge range of this too, and works in sounds which are outside the western mainstream, such as Chinese gongs and wooden bells, at once expressing the atavistic nature of the narrative and its universal significance. The textures in this piece manage to be at once floating, sheer and diaphanous, while operating at deeper, far more sonorous levels. With Ensemble Modern, Henze’s ideas can be fully realised because this orchestra is an extended chamber ensemble, attuned to precise virtuoso playing. Henze’s textures are deliberately ambiguous, floating freely between the diaphanous transparency and sonorous darkness brooding with menace. With Boder's musical direction, the ensemble negotiates the shifting textures deftly. This is music that “acts” in the abstract, as it moves, provocatively, through several simultaneous levels.

Like dreams, Greek myths don’t follow any logical rationale, yet have the power to touch the deepest parts of our psyches. Ultimately, this is perhaps what makes Phaedra so emotionally involving. Henze and his librettist Christian Lehnert go straight for the mystery and its unresolved, unresolvable emotional turmoil. This is a drama that can’t be approached literally, so the text itself tantalises, giving clues rather than answers. Ever present, though obliquely hidden in the background, is the image of the Labyrinth in which the Minotaur was imprisoned. Here the Minotaur wears an immaculate dinner jacket, a primal, disturbing symbol yet “civilised” in modern dress. Lauri Vasar’s solid baritone reflected the bassoons and Wagnerian tubas in the orchestration.

By writing Artemis for counter tenor, Henze is at once acknowledging the role of the voice type in opera history and expanding its repertoire for the future. Moreover, he’s exploring the unusual qualities of this voice, revealing its unique beauty. There is something unworldly about counter tenors, which expresses the exotic, surreal realms that Henze’s music so often evokes. His writing flows naturally with the voice, without distortions, so singers can focus on meaning rather than vocal gymnastics. Since Artemis is female, and the object of Hippolyt’s love, using a counter tenor to portray her adds another important element to this opera. I’ve long enjoyed Axel Köhler’s singing, and here his clean, fluting tones worked well with Hippolyt’s tenor and with Marlis Petersen’s high, bright soprano.

The two key roles in the opera however are Phaedra and Hippolyt and the whole work is electrified by the frenzied energy generated by the polarity between the pair. After Magdalena Kozena pulled out of the production, Maria Riccarda Wesseling took on the part which is a stunning role, highly dramatic and intense, a star vehicle if there ever was one. Wesseling rose to the occasion: under all the wild abandon, her Phaedra was imperious, bristling with tension and power. She moves like a tiger, twisting her body seductively, but the controlled dignity in her singing expressed all of Phaedra’s strong personality and her ultimate power to destroy, even if she must destroy herself in the process. Hence the tight “bondage” costume, complete with dehumanising headdress, which must be horrendously uncomfortable to sing in. Wesseling’s Phaedra is savage, but as the music and text demonstrate, she’s as much trapped into the violent ethos of this mythic world as the Minotaur in his labyrinth and Hippolyt in his various caves and cages.

Yet it is Hippolyt who is the pivot of Henze’s opera and around whom the meaning of the work, whatever that might be, may be found. John Mark Ainsley was superlative. He has done much excellent work in the past, but this was a leap into another league artistically and it was superb. His Hippolyt exudes erotic danger, tinged with animal-like primal unconsciousness: no wonder everyone wants a piece of him, or that the rape scene is so disturbing. Yet, there’s more to this Hippolyt, and Ainsley’s characterisation also develops all of the role fully in accord with what Henze seems to be aiming at. The second act, “Evening”, contains some exceptionally good music. The storm scene, for example is truly spectacular, highly atmospheric yet scored in careful detail with counterpoint and cross-currents, easily eclipsing Adès’s storm music in The Tempest. The small orchestra is augmented by some recorded sound which adds a subtle yet quite stunning “supernatural” overlay. It is, after all, a psychic storm, from the Underworld, followed by a cataclysmic earthquake which transforms Hippolyt’s fate.

Hippolyt’s central role in this opera is further emphasised by having a grand piano on stage. Just as the orchestra had earlier been reflected onto the stage by mirrors, now an instrument, and a solid one at that, is in full focus. Mussbach has Ainsley stride on top of it, singing sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes supported by the piano in the “real” orchestra. It’s a Lieder moment, intimate and personal. It’s also the scene of his final violent struggle with Phaedra, trumpets and trombones blaring out alarms. The very last scene has Hippolyt transformed again into the King of the Forest. Vernal flutes and horns evoke feelings of spring and renewal. It is a kind of apotheosis, Ainsley’s voice rising strong and clear : “Ich bin hier in meinem Anfang”. (I'm here again, at my beginning" - mirror concept again!) In the glorious final dance, the singers regroup, and darkness becomes light.

Please also see this link for more comments in the German press.

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