The combination of Henze's chamber opera, Fiona Shaw's staging and the venue itself make for a riveting theatrical event in this latest joint venture between the English National Opera and the Young Vic.
The stage is not the usual conventional opera stage in one end of the theatre, usually separated from the auditorium by curtains. Here the stage is open in every direction, it expands upwards – for instance, in the shape of a rope bridge high above the stage – and it is in central position. The 400 capacity auditorium surrounding the stage on several levels creates such intimacy that it is easy to forget that one is sitting in the theatre rather than witnessing some real happening.
For this production the orchestra sits higher than the stage and the players are placed on several levels. The resulting sound is unusually transparent, at times positively heavenly. Rarely have I heard such clarity from flute, guitar, harp and viola – just to mention a few examples – as in this seating arrangement.
The action takes place in Der Schwarze Adler, that is in an inn at the foot of the Hammerhorn in the Austrian Alps. Throughout the whole performance, attractive and permanently changing video images represent what we might see through windows of an inn in the Alps. The rope bridge above the stage further strengthens the Alpine feel. The tasteful video images also serve to indicate the dream and vision sequences in the story.
The libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman centres on the selfish, arrogant poet Gregor Mittenhofer, who is intent on exploiting people to sustain his art. He takes inspiration from the grief and visions of Hilda Mack, who has been waiting for the return of her husband for forty years. When Hilda's husband is found as a frozen corpse in the Hammerhorn glacier, Mittenhofer looses interest in her. He exploits his faithful patroness/secretary, Countess Carolina while he also insists on devotion from his young mistress Elisabeth.
Auden and Kallman detail an entirely credible monster of an artist and they also show the anxieties of the trapped and mesmerised victims with great sensitivity. As in their opera The Rake's Progress – their collaboration with Stravinsky about a decade earlier – the quality of the text is far above that of usual opera librettos. Although Henze's music is exciting, compelling and beautifully lyrical in turn, the words of the libretto would stand up as an independent play. However, inevitably, many of these words get lost during performance – for instance, vocally Hilda's arias are particularly complicated – therefore I for one would have greatly appreciated surtitles. Perhaps the large screen, which functions as a large window and accommodates the constant video images, could have also displayed the words. Having said this, I must add that I found it difficult to comprehend the non-singing character of Josef Mauer, the Alpine guide (played by seasoned actor Stephen Kennedy). Indeed, I could hardly understand his words when – running around the stage with convincing great anxiety – he announced that the frozen body of Hilda's husband was retrieved from the Hammerhorn glacier.
Unless familiar with the score, nobody is likely to leave the theatre by humming the tunes. But, at the same time, nobody is likely to be unaffected – even if not spellbound – by Henze's powerful music which seems to be a mixture of nineteenth-century musical conventions and twentieth-century musical language. Some of the music, such as the duet by Elisabeth and Hilda towards the end of Act One, is immediate and astonishingly beautiful. The final duet of the dying young couple Elisabeth and Toni – singing about their long married life which they never had – is forever haunting. The influence of Richard Strauss never seems too far, which is wholly appropriate for an opera which was dedicated 'to the memory of Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Austrian, European and Master librettist…..by its three makers Wynstan H. Auden, Chester Kallman, Hans Werner Henze.'
Henze' music is demanding but the delivery by conductor Stefan Blunier, singers and orchestra alike was stunning. Steven Page gave a virtuoso performance in the role of Gregor Mittenhofer. Vocally rock solid and with admirable diction, he portrayed the selfish artist – apparently based on the poet Yeats but befitting far too many representatives of the arts – with a wide palette of tonal shades and detailed body language (the latter of which might have had significant input from director Fiona Shaw). Page is ideally cast as Mittenhofer who is described by the librettists as 'a tall, well-built man, of almost sixty...his high forehead impressive'. All singers – that is, baritone William Robert Allenby (dr Reischmann), tenor Robert Murray (Toni Reischmann), soprano Kate Valentine ((Elisabeth), mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer (Carolina) and soprano Jennifer Rhys-Davies (Hilda Mack) – perform admirable and it is to be hoped that they will have further opportunities to sing their roles in this rarely performed opera.
This rare event is not to be missed.
By Agnes Kory
Photo Credits: Sarah Lee