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 Henzes most recent opera, receiving its world premiere at the
Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Renowned as musics 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 Mussbachs 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 earand, ironically,
conservatively structured, despite Henzes liberal bent.
Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
Henzes 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 Lehnerts 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
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 Phaedras
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
Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Axel Köhler (Artemis),
Lauri Vasar (Minotauros)
Set design: Olafur
Dramatically, the production was most enjoyable.
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
John Mark Ainsley (Hippolyt), Axel Köhler (Artemis), Marlis
Petersen (Aphrodite), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra)
Set design: Olafur Eliasson
The Ensemble Moderns performance was precise and vocally sympathetic
despite the unorthodox stage setting. John Mark Ainsleys 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 Henzes
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.
Review: Henze: Sechs Gesänge aus dem arabischen; Three Auden Songs
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Your Lighthouse: Works with Light 1991 - 2004
Desserts: Greeks Bearing Gifts
Sculpture of Artemis and the Stag Brings $28.6M at Sotheby's
Book Tip: Greek
Gods, Human Lives - What We Can Learn from Myths
Graecia: Greek Art From South Italy and Sicily
Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from
the Classical Past
Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient
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