Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Landarzt – Martin Hässler
Aphrodite – Laura Ruhi-VidalPhaedra – Ailsa Mainwaring
Artemis – Meili Li
Hippolytus – Lawrence Thackeray
Minotaur – Rick Zwart
Ashley Dean (director)Cordelia Chisholm (set designs)
Mark Doubleday (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (movement)
Dan Shorter (video)
Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Timothy Redmond (conductor)
Once again, many thanks are owed to the Guildhall School for courageous programming, fully vindicated. A double-bill of Henze operas, neither of them straightforwardly designated as such by the composer, surely offered one of the most enticing offerings in London for quite some time. Henze’s early, short radio opera, Ein Landarzt, presents a number of problems, not least of which might be: how should one, or simply should one, stage a ‘radio opera’ at all? Premiered in 1951, it is, as Henze recounts in his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths, ‘a word-for-word setting of Kafka’s short story of the same title’. Martin Hässler’s performance proved deeply impressive, in attention to words, text, gesture, and their marriage. It doubtless helps to be German, but that is only the beginning. Indeed, as conservatoire presentations go, this must have been one of the most challenging (for the artist) I have heard. Yet there was no gainsaying Hässler’s achievement, in what might consider almost a whimsical (or not) male-voiced Erwartung, with more than the odd backward nod to Schubert.
Whether it really benefits from staging, I am not sure. Henze certainly had no problem with it being presented in that way; one such performance was staged by Madeleine Milhaud. However, the production here did not really seem to me to add up to much beyond the scenery; perhaps concert (or indeed radio) performance remains preferable. There were a few tentative moments from the orchestra – hardly surprising in such a score – but for the most part, the young players offered a committed performance, firmly directed towards its denouement by Timothy Redmond. In any case, Hässler’s marriage of language, musicality, and stage presence offered ample rewards. At the end, we remained properly unsure whether anything had ‘happened’ at all, or whether the doctor’s difficulties were of his own imagining.
The 'concert opera', Phaedra was first heard in London at the Barbican in 2010. It is a measure of this Guildhall performance that, not only did I find it not wanting by comparison with a British premiere from the Ensemble Modern and Michael Boder, I actually found myself considerably more involved. Perhaps that was at least in part a matter of better acquaintance. (I have certainly heard a great deal more Henze since then too, partly on account of my academic work.) But in 2010, I had wondered whether a slightly irritating cleverness in Christian Lehnert’s libretto might actually be offset by full staging. Probably, would be the answer, because now the question never presented itself. Nor did my suspicion of a little note-spinning on Henze’s part. I am, then, more than happy to offer a mea culpa.
Reenactment and ritual proved generative: not quite as in Birtwistle, for the composers are very different, but presenting interesting parallels, for all the title might (misleadingly?) edge us towards Britten or the French Baroque. Ashley Dean seemed very much to have saved his best for this opera. The ruined labyrinth of the first act (‘Morning’) asks more questions than it answers: less, as so often, proves more, even when dealing with complexity. A surprising transformation into a modern operating theatre proves just the thing for the ‘Evening’ of the second act. Hippolytus eventually arises from the efforts of the divine medical team, though no one will ever be quite sure what happened, the drama finally broken down – not unlike the images we have earlier seen on screen – into dance.
Just occasionally, there were a few slips and imprecisions on the orchestra’s part, although this was a fine performance by any – not just youthful – standards. Henze’s love of flickering colours and their transformation – again I thought, whatever he himself might have made of this comparison, of Strauss’s Daphne – shone through, as full of dramatic propulsion as harmony and rhythm. Redmond’s direction again proved sure, indeed more than that: vital. Lawrence Thackeray’s tenor led the way, navigating Henze’s often difficult lines and tessitura with greater ease than one perhaps has any right to expect. Meili Li’s countertenor Artemis brought due strangeness to the endeavour, blurring boundaries as that final dance blurs events and motives. Laura Ruhi-Vidal and Ailsa Mainwaring offered proper contrast, considerable range and differentiation of colour employed to sometimes searing dramatic effect. The sonorous bass of Rick Zwart’s Minotaur signalled that he would also have made a compelling Landarzt. (He and Hässler were alternating roles on different evenings.) My immediate reaction was that I really needed to see everything again, to piece more of the work together. I suspect that that is part of the point: we think we can, yet it remains fragmentary. A performance, however, needs to remain purposeful, compelling: this unquestionably did.