We're not out of the woods, yet

Review of Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra and the Henze 'Total Immersion' Day at the Barbican, 16-17 January. From the TLS.

The myths of ancient Greece still command our artistic attention. Part of the attraction comes from their archetypal status; they offer us proximity to the sacred sphere, yet are free of the kitsch that clings to modern religious art. That at least seems to be the view of the eighty-three-year-old composer Hans Werne Henze, who shares his long-standing interest in Greek myth with everyone else who has tried composing and writing opera. The genre was, after all, born in an attempt to restore what was believed to be the lost power of Athenian tragedy. One senses in Henze, however, a concern less with the perfected union of music and poetry than with the fluidity of borders between the mortal and immortal realms. Greek myths represent man as buffeted by the desires of shallow and self-serving deities, but they also show mortals partaking in divinity, with the capacity to change the world and to recalibrate its relationship with the heavens.

This interest is particularly evident in Henze’s latest opera. Phaedra, the tormented and venal wife of Theseus, has been the subject of surprisingly few operatic treatments, although Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie of 1733 (adapted from Racine rather than from Euripides) is one notable forebear. But Henze’s version, which concerns itself with the story’s philosophical implications, is quite unlike anyone else’s. Its strange events and transformations are about the nature of human identity itself: specifically, the spark of spirit that turns flesh into person, matter into mind.

The first act is orthodox enough, though sparing as far as the action is concerned: Hippolytus spurns Phaedra’s advances in disgust, and Phaedra then lies to Theseus (supposedly resident in Hades), telling him that his son has tried to rape her; the result is the son’s death and the mother’s suicide, a kind of inverted liebestod to which Aphrodite provides a Freudian preface: “Nicht allein die Liebe führt Fleisch und Fleisch zusammmen: Habt Geduld mit dem Tod (Not only love may unite flesh with flesh: have patience with death)”. In the second act, set on the shores of Lake Nemi (where Henze has lived since 1966), it emerges that Hippolytus’ body has been rescued by Artemis, stitched back together and placed in a cage. Phaedra, now a shade in the form of a bird, mocks him as she might a pet but still tries to lure him into underworldly communion: “Dein Körper und mein Schatten suchen sich (Your body and my shade seek each other)”. Finally, after an earthquake, Hippolytus is resurrected a second time, this time in bliss as the King of the Forest. Henze’s enquiry into the mutable nature of identity concentrates on Hippolytus – but Phaedra’s is still the title role, because she is the psychological catalyst for her stepson’s metamorphoses.

Henze fell ill while working on the opera in 2005, falling into a coma that lasted nearly two months. Friends and colleagues assumed he would die, but one day he got up and, almost without delay, went back to work, completing the opera in time for its premiere in Berlin in 2007. Was this, in some way, Henze’s own field-trip to the underworld? Certainly the circumstances of the composer’s illness and the various stages of reincarcation and apotheosis undergone by the opera’s main character appear to be entwined. Musically, though, Henze is his usual mercurial self, sweeping through various twentieth-century musical idioms as if contemporary musical history were a kind of theatrical clothes rack or effects box. The opening is a representation of the labyrinth from the point of view of Hippolytus, Phaedra, Aphrodite and Artemis (the huntress’s role here given to the countertenor Axel Köhler); together they sing of the mystery that binds them together. A nagging rhythm from the timpani and subtly devised electro-acoustic track rise gradually to form a snaking melody, charming the rest of the orchestra. Phaedra, sung by the Swiss mezzo Maria Riccarda Wesseling, who created the role in Berlin, has the stature of a Straussian heroine, her taut lyricism at once a sign of her psychological power over others and her deep self-loathing. It’s a vocal style that rather swamps the Stravinskian profile of the other major characters, but creates a truly tantalising tension with Hippolytus, sung with measured intensity by John Mark Ainsley (also in Berlin). The orchestral score, distributed among a mere twenty-three players from Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, guided clearly and unfussily by Michael Boder, is busy, colourful, always precise in its intended musical and dramatic effect. Driven by clear but fluid rhythmic structures, every so often erupting in an Expressionist frenzy, the music has moments of great tenderness, and moments of orchestral ecstasy, such as the Mahlerian whirl that launches Hippolytus on the sylvan chapter of his career. The prerecorded track, put together by Henze’s assistant Francesco Antonioni, adds an extra dimension to the transition scenes. The earthquake is no simple metallic rumbling, but a complex, dynamic episode which envelops the listener with seductive force.

The communicative fluency that has won Henze many friends in opera houses around the world has often been viewed with suspicion in other circles. Although one of the first composers in Germany to embrace serialism after the war, Henze soon found himself out of step with the militant Modernism of the Darmstadt summer schools, which he attended from 1946. Schoenberg, it should be remembered, saw his twelve-tone method not as a purge, but as a means of preserving some kind of authentic continuity with musical history; likewise, Henze never shared Stockhausen’s, or Boulez’s, view of “total” serialism as a clean and necessary break with a contaminated past. Henze’s position may have had something to do with his intense dislike of being told what to think (a souvenir, perhaps, of his father’s Nazi proselytizing); it is at any rate striking that his first successful twelve-tone piece – Apollo et Hyazinthus, for harpsichord and eight instruments – followed an entirely extra-musical schema. Darmstadt never forgave him. Even today, there are many who view Henze as a kind of traitor, someone who turned down the chance to effect a deep cultural cleansing in music in favour of more immediate political and allegorical gains. But one of the advantages to listening in the twenty-first, as opposed to the twentieth, century is that these old antagonisms have largely dispersed. Our ears are less self-consciously attuned to the exaggerated demands of history; we are free simply to listen to music that rewards attention.

Themes of revolution and renewal in fact run through most of Henze’s works, from The Raft of the Medusa (1968), dedicated to the memory of Che Guevara, to Phaedra, in which the harmony between mind and body is restablished by violence. His most overtly political piece, Voices (1973), was given a superbly committed performance by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble (conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth) as part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s “Total Immersion” day of concerts. It’s a ninety-minute setting of poems chosen by the composer to reflect the spirit of post-Vietnam dissent, in which popular genres co-exist with a restrained classicism, and Heine’s teenage soldier shares the stage with Brecht’s showgirl, offloading her mundane inner thoughts (“It’s nearly 12. I’m going to miss my bus”) to a rather caustic cabaret. The overt sarcasm of Voices has little in common with the more generalized irony of leftist sensibilities today, which may be why the Barbican audience found it somewhat difficult to take seriously.

Henze’s recent essays in musical politics are more digestible. Fraternité, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur as one of their “messages for the millenium”, and subtitled “aria per orchestra”, is less a song than an attempt to forge the musical conditions in which a song of hope might be sung. From the glittering harp oscillations of the opening, the piece unfolds as a kind of breathless relay of melodic fragments which appear to point collectively towards some blissful cadence without ever quite reaching it. A blistering performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was one of the highlights of the evening concert superbly conducted by Oliver Knussen. We heard, too, an interesting selection of solo piano works – including the humorous Mozartian fantasy Cherubino (1980–81), played by Huw Watkins – as well as the fourth symphony, an interesting choice for the way it foreshadows, though with vastly different orchestral forces, the music of Phaedra. The concert was also the occasion for the UK premiere of Elogium musicum, Henze’s requiem for his lover of forty years, Fausto Moroni, who died unexpectedly in 2007.The text is a quartet of newly commissioned poems in Latin by Franco Serpa. The result, for choir and orchestra but without soloists, is a restrained work in which extremes of emotion are avoided. The choral setting is reminiscent of the sacred cantata style, allowing the audience – which included the composer – to conjure their own private images of loss. In the final Adagio, the ritual of mourning is absorbed with unforced grace by the benevolent movements of the earth.

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