ENO Young Vic. In German-speaking countries it's almost part of the standard repertoire because it's brilliant, one of Henze's greatest operas. It's rarely performed in England, which is ironic because it was written in English, to a libretto by W H Auden and Chester Kallman. What's more, Benjamin Britten haunts the opera as an unseen presence. Elegy For Young Lovers could in many ways be the greatest British opera Britten didn't write.
Elegy for Young Lovers is about a poet, Gregor Mittenhofer, who can't write. He's an emotional vampire, stealing his ideas from other people, whom he ruthlessly discards when they're no longer useful. He's enormously successful, courted by the powerful, cosseted by a band of sycophants who pander to his whims. He's ruthless, prepared to send his lover to her death when she's no longer useful to him. W H Auden never had much respect for Britten, so Britten's success must have been galling. Along comes Henze, already making huge waves in the opera world. Mittenhofer is Auden's attack on Britten, where it hurts. Henze, though, stands up for Britten by embedding references to Britten's non-Auden music into his own.
In any case, as Henze knew full well, the world is full of crooks who get ahead by manipulating others. Hitler, for example, who could fit the Mittenhofer bill many times better than Britten might. The mountain inn, with its viewing terrace, is as remote from reality as Berchtesgaden. Or Valhalla. Or Blair and Mandelson. Or any talentless nonentity surrounded by an adoring coterie.
So Elegy for Young Lovers may have been written by Henze, a German, but it's about Britten and Britain and deserves far more British interest than it gets. For one thing, orchestrally, it's extremely sophisticated. The surface lyricism is eroded by twisted melodies, angularities that erode sentimentality before it has a chance to take root. It's like Mittenhofer himself, who seems so smooth and urbane, but is poison. Henze writes stirring crescendos, but is most telling in quiet moments. When Mittenhofer speaks, horns wail sour notes : "This man is the Devil"
Stefan Blunier conducts. He's unknown in Britain, but his pedigree is very good - see his website. He currently conducts at the Komische Oper, Berlin, specializing in interesting repertoire. The orchestra was tucked away in a loft above the stage at the Young Vic, Luckily for me, I was sitting where I could watch Blunier close-up.He's expressive without being ostentatious. He clearly has personality, getting such good rapport with the ENO Orchestra that they play Henze's quirky idiom like it comes naturally. The "blizzard music" in Act 3 was extremely well realized, though, unfortunately, the staging detracted.
Having learned Elegy for Young Lovers from the famous recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it was more difficult to adjust to Steven Page's Mittenhofer. DFD doesn't do slithering, slimy and sibilant too well, but his voice is just so much richer and deeper that Page doesn't stand a chance in comparison. Nonetheless, he looks the part . Had the staging been more in keeping with the opera, Page would have had more scope to show what he can do.
Jennifer Rhys-Davies was superb as Hilde Mack, the woman who sees visions which Mittenhofer turns into poetry. This is a wonderful part, with some of Henze's wittiest writing. At first, Hilde's deluded, so the part is parody "mad scene". Later when she rejects Mittenhofer's scams, Hilde becomes Brünnhilde. But Henze (who at this stage in his life mocked Wagner) emphasizes the transformation by giving her manicly exaggerated coloratura, which Rhys-Davies executes with feisty humour. .
Kate Valentine sings Elizabeth Zimmer, Mittenhofer's young lover. She's statuesque, an advantage in this production where she's not called upon to develop the role much past ingénue. Together with Robert Murray's Toni Reischmann, however, she comes into her own., because Murray defines his own part so well. This Toni is an honest, solid soul, the complete opposite of Mittenhofer. Murray may not have movie-star glamour (nor Mittenhofer's wealth) but you can see why a girl in that position would be charmed. In the final duet, Murray's voice warms, sparking Valentine into similar lyricism. They're freezing to death, but their music cocoons them in their final illusion.
Mittenhofers can't survive without flunkies, so Lucy Schaufer, as Lina, Mittenhofer's gofer, has almost a bigger part than he has. Without her, and those like her, men like him would never survive. Again, Schaufer's full potential wasn't served by this staging. The character is an aristocrat, yet she humiliates herself and becomes an accomplice to murder. In Germany, where the Hitler aspects of Mittenhofer would be more obvious, Lina's role could be expanded in a very pointed way. Crawlers crawl bec uasee they can share in the Nutcase's reflected glory./ It's in their interest to keep the tyrant going. Here though, Schaufer wasn't called upon to give her best. Similarly, William Robert Allenby as Dr Reischmann (Toni's Dad) and Stephen Kennedy as Josef Mauer, the general factotum, are capable of more.
Wonderful opera, superlative orchestral playing, good singing: all add up to an excellent evening, which should not be missed. Where the experience fell short was the direction, by Fiona Shaw. There were a great many good moments in this staging, but the problem was that there were too many moments, one after another, without any real focus. So many details compete for attention that the overall impact is overload. Some details are of primary importance, some secondary, some tertiary, but when they'll all piled up they wipe each other out.
The ever-widening crack in the floor, for example, would be powerfully dramatic, but it's lost among the debris of bear suits, projections on tables, flickering lights, period what-nots and busywork. Some serve a purpose, some confuse. So Mittenhofer plays with teddy bears? Sure, Lina nannies him, but he's manipulating a weakness in her. He lets her infantilize him, but it doesn't follow that he's infantile, far from it. Similarly, why the holy water stoup? Of course there's something unholy in this place but it's not developed enough to make it worth pursuing. Similarly, the video projections were good, but with so many different things happening at the time time they didn't get their due.
Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers deserves to be a big hit because it's a fantastic opera and as such will always succeed. There is a great deal more to this opera than this diffuse, superficial staging suggests. It's certainly more than gimmicky camp. But for the time being, paring it down might be more effective. Perhaps when this production is revived, as it should be, it shpul;d be extensively revised so the focus can be sharpened. and made more acute. One thing will have to be faced. Auden may have said the plot was about Yeats, but that it is about Yeats. Britten was alive and powerful. Auden was being arch, because he was not stupid. A bit of background knowledge, about the opera, the composer, the background and the music would have gone a long way in this case.. Luckily, most ijn the aiudience do not know Henze or his music, so director opera in this situation isn't an issue. It's not a good idea to base a production around Yeats and the "Irish" connection because it's a red herring. Basing a production around Yeats and the "Irish" factor delimits the opera, it's not a good idea.
Speaking of tightening focus, I'll be revising this too. New Improved version to come in next few days Please seee other posts on Henze on this site (lots!, including Henze's Phaedra and Britten's Phaedra)