Saturday, 11 June 2011

Henze's Phaedra in Philadelphia

Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra makes it to the US, where he was banned in the 60's for his left wing ideas. As far as Henze was concerned, he didn't care. In 1968 he was so traumatized by an event still shrouded in mystery today, that he was unable to compose for a long time. Henze's intergrity has been vindicated.  After his break, his music returned with new vigour. Phaedra, coming decades later, after another period of trauma, is a declaration of what henze stands for and believes in most deeply.

Here is a link to a review of Henze's Phaedra in a new production by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. It "may well be the most important and ambitious new work presented by any American company this season". Here's the review from the Wall Street Journal.  Most perceptive of all, though is David Patrick Steanes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Too often, reviewers assume it's the work, not themselves, that fails if they don't get all of it at once. Steanes knows that Phaedra isn't an opera that can easily be fully taken in on one hearing, and without background.

Henze is a very prolific composer, but even among his many excellent works, Phaedra is a masterpiece.  It's intensely powerful and passsionate - a protest against dishonesty, domesticity and death. Indeed, it's hard to take in completely on a single hearing, especially as Henze's embedded many references to other works, his own and those of composers he's admired, like Benjamin Britten. Please see my article on the similarities between Britten's Phaedra and Henze's Phaedra and the critical, very deliberate differences. Phaedra is like a statement of Henze's entire life philosophy. Integrity, restated with passion at a critical time in his life. It's an amazing work, that I think grows with time and experience.

The Philadelphia production seems quite straightforward, which is fine. The Berlin production, which I attended, was astounding, staging and music working together perfectly. Incredibly perceptive and imaginative, like the opera itself. If I hadn't seen the Berlin staging with its magical refracted mirrors reflecting the orchestra and the singers so the lines between reality and image kept switching – reflection, refraction,  illusion, just like the ideas in the music – I don't think I'd have got into the opera so quickly. It was the premiere after all, no-one had any idea what to expect. It was one of the great experiences of my life. With all respect to Philadelphia, it's unlikely that it was as white-hot as the Berlin cast and orchestra. Again, not a problem, as iut's a start. "You ain't seen nothing yet" as the song goes.

Read about the Berlin premiere  HERE. How lucky I was to catch the same cast and orchestra in the concert performance at the Barbican a while later. Read HERE. Second time round, the impact was even more profound. Henze's Phaedra is so deep that the more you get into it, the more wonders it reveals. So here is a really useful link to Chester Novello, the publishers, from whom you can get the score. Good synopsis.

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