Henze's Phaedra - the UK premiere
Having been sidelined by a particularly virulent bug (imagine a percussion section playing fortissimo on your insides...) I've had rather longer than anticipated to consider my thoughts on this concert performance of Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra.
One of my best DVD buys in recent years was Henze's glorious L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe - I must have listened to it at least a dozen times already and still find so much to discover and enjoy. So when I heard that his latest operatic work Phaedra was to receive its UK premiere this weekend at the Barbican, I knew I had to be there.
Phaedra occupies a different sound world to L'Upupa by using a smaller orchestra of 23 players - 14 woodwind and brass alongside a harp, celesta, piano, array of percussion and just 4 strings, brilliantly performed here by the virtuosic instrumentalists of Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern under the expert direction of conductor Michael Boder. With this combination Henze creates a vivid range of orchestral colour, every bar of music seemed distilled down to the bare essentials, much more so than in the frequently lush, exotic sound-world of L'Upupa.
Phaedra doesn't possess a pretty plot. Instead it offers betrayal, rape, incest, murder, suicide, seduction, mutilation and much more. This isn't the journey to enlightenment that we travelled on in L'Upupa, rather an emotion and event driven drama played out by the four main protagonists: Phaedra (Maria Riccarda Westerling, mezzo), Hippolytus ( John Mark Ainsley, tenor), Aphrodite ( Marlis Petersen, soprano), Artemis (Axel Koehler, counter-tenor) as well as the smaller but key role of the Minotaur (sung by Lauri Vasar, baritone).
For me the immediate impression was how polished the orchestra sounded. There was a feeling of total familiarity with the score and its technical and musical demands. It was also very easy to follow the German pronunciation of the singers. Yes, we had a translation in sur-titles above the Barbican stage, but as a German speaker I could hear and understand exactly what was being sung, due to firstly, the exceptionally clear diction of the singers and secondly, the crystal clarity of Henze's orchestration which never obscured the vocal line no matter how intense the music. In hindsight this greatly increased my appreciation of the performance.
Perhaps the most indelible impact of the evening came with the use of electronically generated pre-recorded music - or 'bruitage' - at key dramatic points of the opera. This was particularly powerful at the moment when Hippolyte was taken down into the Underworld as the lights dimmed and this incredibly evocative sound-scape (by Henze's assistant Francesco Antonioni) enveloped the auditorium. Suddenly the audience was transported into another, parallel world, far removed from that of the orchestra and singers we'd previously been listening to; this was something much more intangible, something almost alien to our musical aural concept. It was spine-chilling in the suddenness and searing intensity of its effect.
Whilst the opera consists of 2 acts running without any break and lasts approximately 75 minutes, the time sped by unnoticed due to the tightly structured pacing of the drama. I loved the way in which the singers interacted throughout the performance, especially Maria Riccarda Westerling as Phaedra, flirting relentlessly, hopelessly and fatally with Hippolytus and how well the voices entwined and reacted not only with each other but with the orchestra. In particular it was fascinating to hear the penetrating counter-tenor voice of Axel Koehler (suggestively cast as the female goddess worshipped by Hippolytus) so completely integrated into the general sound. Koehler also had a darkly comic section in the opera, which evoked shocked laughter from the audience, when his character Artemis gruesomely reconstructs Hippolytus's mangled body to bring him back to life, with the gleeful bloodlust of a Sweeney Todd.
Having spent the Total Immersion weekend exploring the close links between Henze's life and his music, it was poignant to read how the second part of Phaedra had been composed after his miraculous recovery from a near fatal illness. One could comprehend the strong parallels between the composer's own experiences of having to adjust to the changed world he returned to and the woes of his lead character Hippolytus on his return from the world of the dead to a self and existence that he cannot recognise. Perhaps not surprisingly the 2nd act of the opera has some of the most intense moments of the score. It would be great to hear this great music again soon. It has been a long time since an operatic work made such a strong emotional impact on me at first hearing.
I was extremely disappointed that this exceptional performance was not recorded for BBC R3; one can only hope that it will appear at some point on DVD or CD. Phaedra would make a wonderful choice for a semi-staged opera at the BBC Proms - maybe to celebrate Henze's 85th birthday in a couple of years from now?
Footnote: Followers of the BBC's 'Young Musician of the Year' competition may be interested to know that 1996 winner, violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne was leader of Ensemble Modern for this concert.
- The painting of Phaedra is by Alexandre Cabanel (1880)