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Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite)
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Ruth Walz



By Ciarán McAuley

BERLIN, 17 SEPTEMBER 2007— 6 September 2007 was a red letter day for the musical world: Pavarotti passing away and Phaedra, Hans Werner Henze’s most recent opera, receiving its world premiere at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Renowned as music’s political activist and as a leading figure in contemporary music theatre, Henze, 81, received a standing ovation from the Berlin audience as he entered the hall, a tribute in appreciation of his oeuvre .

True to form, controversy at the premiere was rife, this time owing to the ongoing debate on the well overdue renovation of the Linden opera. Audience members, general by-passers and opera pundits were greeted outside the venue with CDU (Christian Democrats) leaflets justifying their modest proposal for technical renovation and belittling Staatsoper Director Peter Mussbach’s costly and ambitious proposition.

Musically speaking, the premiere was however anything but risqué: no Marxist ideology, no homophobic critique, no great advances in the approach to concert opera as promised. The opera was a mere dramatic sequence, pleasant though not particularly challenging to the ear—and, ironically, conservatively structured, despite Henze’s liberal bent.

Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Ruth Walz

Henze’s chamber ensemble matched the timbre and projection levels of the singers perfectly. Rhythmically, however, a steady quarter note pulse prevailed throughout; and this, coupled with an excess of antiphony and regular phrasing in what might be described as polymelodic music, essentially dated the work and offered little innovation for the listener.

The second act, however, was musically far superior to the first; instrumental interruptions, the use of electronics and a dash of accelerated minimalism spicing up the musical collage somewhat. Yet even the recorded screams and shakes here fell back into the comfortable zone of the quarter note pulse.

Plausible was the interplay and characterization of the singers by individual orchestral instruments: Hippolyt portrayed by the soft sounding alto saxophone, and the alto trombone depicting the manipulative Aphrodite. The relationship between text and music was also key to the opera's development; from the simplest matters of word setting to the declamatory sprechgesang technique applied to wonderful effect. Unfortunately, Christian Lehnert’s libretto was simply too dense for the length of the opera and one struggled to keep up with the story line as it galloped to the finish.

Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite)
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Ruth Walz

Lehnert's libretto plots the course of the Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, previously mined by playwrights from Euripides and Seneca to Jean Racine. The queen is infatuated with her stepson Hippolyt; Aphrodite, similarly besotted with him. Envious of his devotion to Artemis the Goddess of Hunting, Aphrodite uses Phaedra to take her revenge upon him. When Hippolyt rejects Phaedra’s advances, she writes to her husband Theseus accusing his son of violating her. The Minotauros is summoned, killing Hippolyt; Phaedra hangs herself. Artemis takes the deceased Hippolyt to her grove, resurrects and hides him and Aphrodite and Phaedra attempt to lure him to the underworld. Struggling to comprehend who he has become, Hippolyt arises as God of the Forest.

Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Axel Köhler (Artemis), Lauri Vasar (Minotauros)
Set design: Olafur Eliasson

Photo: Ruth Walz  

Dramatically, the production was most enjoyable. Danish light artist Olafur Eliasson's mirrored stage backdrop effectively doubled the Staatsoper space which in addition to offering room for the fast moving scenes, seemed a somewhat tongue in cheek response to the afore mentioned CDU leaflets, protesting against the venues very expansion. Furthermore, by unconventionally placing the orchestra at the back of the hall and connecting the stage with a cat walk between the halls polar opposites, the soloists were afforded ample space and the action was flung from one side of the hall to the other with great excitement. This coupled with Eliasson's lighting and suspended material through which light was reflected, integrated the audience members fully in the action.

John Mark Ainsley (Hippolyt), Axel Köhler (Artemis),  Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra)
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Ruth Walz

The Ensemble Modern’s performance was precise and vocally sympathetic despite the unorthodox stage setting. John Mark Ainsley’s portrayal of Hippolyt was flawless, showing attention to detail down to the very trills which were matched perfectly by his orchestral counterpart. In fact, but for the over-characterization of Artemis by Axel Köhler in the first act, the vocal display was most impressive throughout.

In short, Phaedra whilst a pleasant musical experience, throws little new spin on the concert opera genre. The concept or intention of separating action from music was fundamentally flawed from the outset owing to the singers dual role. Nonetheless, assessed in these early stages, the work represents a development in Hans Werner Henze’s output: a chamber music bias, which in itself is historically significant.

Phaedra is currently on at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels until 20 September 2007.

Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, Ciarán McAuley is an Irish conductor and music critic based in Berlin. 

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