Put these in a sonnet, ducky

From the TLS, 21 May 2010

Hans Werner Henze
Young Vic

Thomas Adès
Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Every myth eventually produces its opposite. The story of Pygmalion – according to which the artist’s love breathes life into his work – had to wait until 1842 for its dark side to emerge in the shape of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Oval Portrait”. Here, the perfection of the image is articulated not by coming to life, but by taking life away from a represented beloved.

Gregor Mittenhoffer, the anti-hero of Henze’s rarely performed chamber opera Elegy for Young Lovers, to a libretto by W H Auden and Chester Kallman, sides with Poe on this matter. Mittenhoffer is a poet, somewhat like Chekhov’s Trigorin, who exploits his surroundings and companions for the sake of his verse. He goes so far as to engineer the death of two young lovers, whose affair he has sponsored despite his own romantic involvement with one of them, in order to perfect the “elegy” of the title. Mittenhoffer was apparently modelled by Auden on W. B. Yeats, though the results are in a quite different vein from Auden’s famous tribute of 1939 (“Earth, receive an honoured guest”). He is not a loveable character.

Nor are any of the others, who veer from slavish and shallow to selfish and shallow. The young lovers Toni and Elisabeth expire in paroxysms of self-parody, their union starved of real meaning in the absence of their sponsor. Even the silent roles – the housekeeper and servants of Der Schwarze Adler, the inn where the action takes place – exude pent-up malice. The partial exception is the widow Hilda Mack, whose mystical visions – on which Mittenhoffer has come to the hotel to feast – dry up when her husband’s body is found in tact, after forty years, frozen in a glacier. She blossoms along the profane lines of Graham Green’s Ida (to Mittenhoffer: “put that in a sonnet, ducky”) into an immensely likeable character, and uniquely beyond the poet’s power. This scenario is what Auden and Kallman came up with when asked for a libretto that would allow for “tender, beautiful noises”.

And indeed, despite the absence of genuine tenderness in the libretto, Henze littered the score with beautiful noises, though, as usual with Henze, the style of noise varies enormously, from crystalline twelve-tone passages to lyrical numbers that would not be out of place on Broadway. Beautifully realised by members of the English National Opera orchestra, under the direction of Stefan Blunier, the musical setting also seems to rejoice in its artifice. Traditional distinctions between aria, recitative and spoken dialogue are reinforced, and charm is made more important than passion. The resulting drama, which sets morality and aesthetics tantalisingly far apart, is an engaging curiosity.

In only her second operatic staging, the director Fiona Shaw shows how to put the medium’s high tolerance for symbolism to good use. The set, designed by Tom Pye, is built around a marble square – in which a crack widens as the action progresses – and an icy grandfather clock, which Mittenhoffer smashes in his rage. This act of real and psychic violence ruins the next day’s forecasted fine weather, and conjures a blizzard in which the young lovers eventually freeze to death. Shaw draws fine performances from the soloists, notably Lucy Schaufer as Carolina (Mittenhoffer’s secretary) and Steven Page as the contemptuous poet himself.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. “I prefer my opera sublime”, said one acquaintance afterwards, clearly preferring the ancient model of individual sympathies transported to a higher realm. But operas which combine elements of the sublime with the loveless have their own tradition, and Richard Strauss’s Salome is only the most famous example. Another, Powder Her Face, by Thomas Adès and Philip Hensher, a pitiless depiction of the fall of the Duchess of Argyll, could claim to be one of the most successful operas of recent decades. Returning to the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio in the first revival of Carlos Wagner’s production since its sell-out run in 2008, it is easy to see why. It captures, skewers, and then serves on a lavishly garnished musical plate the prurience at the heart of contemporary celebrity culture. At the same time – and this is reinforced beautifully in Wagner’s and designer Conor Murphy’s semi- Surrealist staging – it reminds us that today’s obsessions are nothing new.

The chamber score, completed when Adès was just twenty-four years old, is more voluptuous than Henze’s – with lively pastiches of Ástor Piazzolla and Cole Porter swirling round a core of Berg and Ligeti – but no less skilfully woven together. The restless sexiness of the textures is mirrored in the production, which seduces the audience with casual but irresistible force similar to that with which the opera’s ill-fated Duchess (a compelling Joan Rodgers) removes a waiter’s trousers. The moment of fellatio is appropriately awkward, but also contains the production’s one glimpse of real beauty: the pair disengage for a dream-like moment and a naked male form spirals up between them. It is a brilliant touch, a carefully measured reminder that our originary thirst for beauty is still linked, by however worn a thread, to the seemingly unanchored web of lust, greed and schadenfreude which the rest of the work takes as its subject.

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